- by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1978-01-01 Label: Blank Records
January 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Pere Ubu’s debut album, The Modern Dance. Sole constant and leader, David Thomas, would likely dismiss a milestone such as that as not accounting for much in the scheme of things. Perhaps it doesn’t, but taking a hard left from the New York punk scene of the day, Cleveland based Pere Ubu have made a career of “letting their freak flag fly” and not following the trend of the day if they were ever even aware of what the trend may have been.
Formed from the breakup of Rocket from the Tombs with original members Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner the band persists to this day releasing their strongest album in decades, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, just last year (presumably their first 20 years were spent outside the silo). Unfortunately, the band had to halt its current tour due to concerns over Thomas’ health just a few days after fellow aging iconoclast Mark E. Smith of The Fall was forced to do the same (sadly during the drafting of this review, Smith passed away after a long illness). The fact that both of these bands, with only their leaders being a constant, persisted in some form over many decades speaks to the validity of the strategy of “kicking against the pricks” as it were, never going where they were told. Not political and certainly not topical Thomas’ Pere Ubu exists, as The Fall did for Smith, to put out whatever his current art may be and it’s likely to be challenging.
The Modern Dance was recorded after Laughner had already died at age 24 due to drug and alcohol induced organ failure. So, never really a band with a traditional core, Thomas assembled their classic line-up that appeared on the album. Most notably Tom Herman on guitar and Allen Ravenstine on synthesizers/effects have their stamp all over this album, while Tony Maimone on bass and Scott Krauss on drums paved the foundation. Full of glitchy quirks, at its heart the album has the base of a fuzzed out garage/surf core, albeit a bit more industrialized Lake Erie style surf rock.
The first side of the album is more “traditional” in the sense of verses and choruses and use of guitars, but it’s hardly typical. The opening set of songs are even love songs in a sense, though one sided in that the protagonists are more in search of a girlfriend vs having one in hand. The cleverly titled ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ starts with synth pings and a bass run before a monstrous guitar line breaks from the left channel and we are on our way. The song is a rush of power that in places devolves into Thomas’ bird whistles and gibberish in a sense that lyrics are interchangeable with sounds or howled emotions. The plaintive lyric “I wanna make a deal with you girl, and get it signed by the heads of state” shows Thomas’ wit right from the start as if he will get his girl pinned down by binding agreement. He goes on to warble and coo a long list of girl’s names from Peggy to Barbara Ann as if any of them will fit the bill just fine. But mostly the strength of the song is in its raw energy the band bravely marching forward regardless of all of Thomas’ asides. The title track that follows starts as a bouncy shuffle but is unsettled by metal on glass or metal on metal percussion that disintegrates to tortured guitar solos, static bursts, atonal sax and again Thomas’ bleats, whinnies and warbles but all to a crazed beat that works. Here Thomas is more observer of the hapless romantic of the song who is described as “our poor boy” who “believes in chance” and will “never get the modern dance” - a little hard truth coming through. In addition to the aforementioned, a chant of “Merdre, merdre!” persists in the song - French for shit, it only serves as reference to the play for which the band was named. More nuttiness for nuttinesses sake! ‘Laughing’ turns song structure inside out with verses that consist of modulating synths, tuneless sax, and bass with vocals only breaking out in the choruses where Thomas chants “My baby says!!!” as if he finally got his girl. ‘Street Waves’ rocks hard and sounds like a bridge between the opening tracks while ‘Chinese Radiation’ closes the side on a more somber note - a tale of boy meets girl in Maoist China.
If the first side was breaking new ground in the rock format, the second side is where things get much more experimental and completely out of the framework. The first song, and the only one written by Laughner, ‘Life Stinks’ is a skronky little piece of negativity where Thomas and Ravenstine become unhinged. With Thomas screaming “I need a drink, I can’t think, I like the Kinks” and Ravenstine throwing all sorts of cacophony in the mix. It’s a brief but cautionary blast that had to have been recorded just on the heels of Laughner’s passing. ‘Real World’ has a staticky vibe with Thomas again out in la la land singing and wailing whatever comes to mind and making up the word “technoramic” as some blend of Technicolor and panoramic and declaring all his musings “girl talk”. Ravenstine and Maimone anchor this one with the bass making circles trying to box the song into something more structured to little avail. The high and lonesome ‘Over My Head’ with its great meandering solo (foretelling mid-period Tom Waits with Marc Ribot) gives way to the most challenging track, ‘Sentimental Journey’. The song is anything but sentimental, starting with creepy breathing that gives way to more out of tune sax playing and haywire synths, all to be outdone by dozens of broken bottles along the way. The broken bottle rhythms well ahead of Joy Division’s ‘I Remember Nothing’ on Unknown Pleasures, but whether they would have heard Modern Dance I don’t know. If you can make it through ‘Sentimental Journey’ the album does close on the perky and tongue in cheek ‘Humor Me’. With handclaps and a tossed off Jamaican accent on the phrase “It’s the ballastics, mon” its one of the more tuneful songs and also contains a good summation of the approach you need to take to Pere Ubu. Thomas exclaims “What a big world, but a world to be drowned in. It’s a joke man!” You can get lost in the album if you let yourself, but don’t think too much about it - Thomas just lets himself go as should the listener. It’s just a joke after all.
The band has released more than 20 albums in the past four decades and that’s with an extended hiatus in the 80s. The band never has stuck with one direction too long and in their earliest iteration things got more challenging rather quickly. Coming back later in the 80s with The Tenement Year and Cloudland which were much more approachable - with the latter even spawning a charting single in ‘Waiting for Mary’. I regrettably lost track for a while after Ray Gun Suitcase, but was admittedly impressed with last year’s 20 Years where Thomas sounds as fresh as 1975 and his assembled band just as solid as their beginnings, theremin and all. The new album also served as a reminder of Thomas’ brilliance and the depth of the untrained art he created from the very beginning. The Modern Dance holds up remarkably well for its age and precisely because of its quirks, spurts, fizzles, and bursts - it never gets dull and the surf/garage underpinnings create a familiarity to go with the strangeness. I hope there is more to come from Thomas and company to add to his singular legacy and in the meantime wish him good health.