Pere Ubu's name was taken from the central character in a series of absurdist plays by 19th century French playwright Alfred Jarry.
Since this month marks the 30th anniversary of Pere Ubu recording its 30 Seconds Over Tokyo debut single, I've revisited the band's catalogue this week -- minus 1991's Worlds In Collision, 1996's Folly of Youth, 1998's Pennsylvania and some live albums, none of which I've heard all of.
The Cleveland-based avant-rock band rose from the ashes of Rocket From The Tombs, which also helped spawn the Stiv Bators-fronted Dead Boys. Although original member Peter Laughner had long since died, Rocket From The Tombs reformed for a 2003 tour with a lineup that was still fronted by David Thomas but included Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome. I saw the band at Lee's Palace and it was almost like walking into a previously unopened vault and becoming mesmerized. That lineup released Rocket Redux, the band's only official release, as only demos and bootlegs were circulated from back in the day.
Terminal Drive, the fifth and final CD on the Datapanik in the Year Zero box set that inexplicably came out on Geffen in 1996, collects rare Pere Ubu-related recordings from the mid-'70s Cleveland scene. It includes the Rocket From The Tombs version of 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and a live version of Amphetamine recorded at the original band's very last show. The disc ends with Pere Ubu covering The Seeds' Pushin' Too Hard. But there are many other acts on the album that most people who weren't part of the Cleveland scene would have never heard of, and I'm particularly impressed with Foreign Bodies' The Incredible Truth, Carney and Thomas' Sunset in the Antipodes, Neptune's Car's Baking Bread, Tripod Jimmie's Autumn Leaves, Friction's Dear Richard, Pressler-Morgan's You're Gonna Watch Me, Mirrors' She Smiled Wild, Electric Eels' Jaguar Ride (featuring Cramps drummer Nick Knox), Tom Herman's Steve Canyon Blues and Thomas with a solo work called Atom Mind that's partly adapted from Lee Dorsey's Working In A Coalmine. The material ranges from avant-jazz-rock to happy pop-rock to Velvet Underground-influenced work. All Pere Ubu fans should pick up the box set just for that CD alone.
I find that Pere Ubu's earliest recordings, from the 1975-1977 era, hold up better than what they released later that decade and through 1982, when the band went on hiatus until reforming again in 1987.
Even though I didn't discover the band until the early '80s, it was the earlier recordings that I became familiar with first, and that's perhaps why they still hold a special place. Pere Ubu sounded like nothing else at the time and, 30 years later, still doesn't. Though I fully admit that David Thomas' strangled falsetto voice isn't to many people's tastes, and the music can sometimes be jarring, it possesses an originality and free-flowing eccentricity that inspires, especially on tracks like Final Solution, Cloud 149, Heaven, Nonalignment Pact, The Modern Dance, Street Waves, Over My Head and Humor Me.
While not as consistent, the late '70s lineup still came up with such winners as Navvy, Ubu Dance Party, The Fabulous Sequel and Lonesome Cowboy Dave.
The same can also be said of the early '80s version that produced Go, Birdies, Horses, West Side Story and Not Happy.
Pere Ubu returned from the wilderness for 1988's The Tenement Year. The oddball lyrics were still there, but there was a move to a somewhat more mainstream sound that was still out there enough to satisfy fans of the earlier stuff. Highlights include Busman's Honeymoon, Say Goodbye, Miss You and, especially, We Have The Technology.
Cloudland came a year later and stands as Pere Ubu's most overtly pop-driven album through production help from Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys). While not as angular as past recordings, it's not without its charming idiosyncracies. Your best bets are Breath, Race The Sun, Waiting For Mary, Bus Called Happiness, Nevada!, Love, Love, Love and Monday Night.
The sound and the band lineup was leaner for 1993's Story of My Life, which perhaps has been a tad overlooked, since it may be my favourite Pere Ubu album when listened to from start to finish. Songs like Wasted, Louisiana Train Wreck, Fedora Satellite II, Kathleen, Honey Moon, Sleep Walk, Story Of My Life and Last Will and Testament all slyly weave their way into your head.
Ray Gun Suitcase saw Pere Ubu return somewhat to its earlier, darker sounds and away from the sheen that some people had criticized it for. Listen for a cover of the Beach Boys' Surfer Girl as well as Beach Boys, Turquoise Fins and Down By The River II.
Pere Ubu's most recent album, St. Arkansas, was released in 2002. Again, it follows a twisted, spiralling path down through such songs as The Fevered Dream of Hernando DeSoto, 333 and Phone Home Jonah until, fittingly, it ends with the nine-minute Dark.
The first time I saw Pere Ubu live was at a club that I believe was in the basement of a strip mall in St. Catharines, Ont. in 1990. The show was great, but the real highlight for me was after the show. I talked to Thomas, who had a football autographed by Bernie Kosar, quarterback of the Cleveland Browns -- my favourite NFL team at the time. While the band's equipment was being taken down, the two of us stood at opposite ends of the club and played catch with the Kosar football for 10 minutes. I offered Thomas $50 for the ball. He wisely declined.
I saw Pere Ubu again when it played a free street show as part of North By Northeast at least five years ago. While it was another excellent show, no stories came out of that one. I'm hoping that the band comes back soon.
Finally, here's a scientifically accurate list of my 10 favourite Pere Ubu songs of all time: 1. Final Solution 2. Nonalignment Pact 3. We Have The Technology 4. Lonesome Cowboy Dave 5. Heaven 6. Breath 7. Street Waves (live version) 8. Sleep Walk 9. Not Happy 10. Humor Me