It was a nothing Tuesday at work, a morning without distinction, and I took it into my head to walk over to the Virgin Megastore on Market Street at lunchtime and buy a CD. It was a time when whims like that could be indulged, if I didn’t get them too often. It was 1985, and I was still 29.
Having decided to buy a CD, as you do, the next step was to decide which particular CD I would light upon. I was still getting the NME every week, as I had done since 1972, and listening to John Peel’s still-extant evening show, as I had since 1978 when I was first consumed by most things punk, so I was aware of the gathering enthusiasm about this Scottish band called The Jesus and Mary Chain, and had heard a couple of interesting sounding tracks. Their debut album was out that week, or so I thought. That would make an interesting choice.
On the other hand, I had not long since taped Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution” off Peely, and was in the habit of playing it several times over, as loud as I could bear through my comfortably padded headphones, and generally having a good time to it. I was enthusiastic about hearing some more.
Of course, Peely had played Pere Ubu extensively, back in 1978, when he was on five nights a week, and I was living in Nottingham, but I’d never been able to get my head around their ‘fractured’ music, not then. Now I was taken by the thought of picking up their classic debut album, The Modern Dance.
Which to choose? I was still turning the options over in the back of my mind, whilst I got on with my work, trying to decide which I was most interested in. And then it hit me. This was more than a choice between two CDs, but instead a symbolic moment: a life-changing decision.
That sounds ridiculously self-important, not to mention delusional, but my moment of insight was completely true. The Jesus and Mary Chain were the future: if I chose them, I was signalling to myself that, like John Peel and like the audience that I had taken myself to be part of, the key to music was what was new. I would be reaffirming that I was still eager for new experiences, new sounds, new bands who did not sound like those who had gone before.
To choose Pere Ubu was to look backwards, to say that I was no longer driven by the impulse to hear what came next, but that I was ready to broaden and deepen my tastes, to look back at what I had missed in passing. To stop chasing what might happen, but to choose my own interest in delving amongst those things that were already there.
It was a monumental choice to make.
And which CD did I buy? In fact, it was The Cocteau Twins’ Treasure: the Mary Chain CD hadn’t been released yet and the Ubu was deleted. I never did buy the Mary Chain CD, though I taped it once and played it a couple of times. I did get The Modern Dance, when it was reissued in a Limited Edition of 1,000 copies, and I have it still, along with virtually all Ubu’s recorded career.
And that was how I chose in the end: frustrated by unavailability, but deciding that now was the time I wanted to get off the bandwagon and listen around, instead of only ahead.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that my ‘backwards’ movement was to listen to one of the most determinedly original and experimental bands to have existed for nearly forty years. I might have been bent on a look back eight years in time, but in many respects, The Modern Dance is still out there, ahead of the game, all these many years later.
The album starts with a high-pitched synthesizer whine, overlaid with an electronic pinging, over which, after a couple of ambient notes, a guitar riff leads into the explosive noise of “Non-Alignment Pact”. It’s a fairly straight song in itself, underpinned by a solid melody and a choral chant of the title, built on the punky sound of guitars and a busy, solid drum-line, but from the outset it establishes three things that are going to mark out Ubu from everybody else around them.
The first is Allen Ravenstine’s synths. Remember that this album was recorded in 1978, when synthesizers were no more than a decade old, and had been primarily the province of progressive groups and novelty pop bands – Chicory Tip, anyone? Electronic music was simply that: orthodox music performed on electronic equipment.
Ravenstine didn’t play that way. He and Ubu were into the synthesizer as sound, as possibility, as industrial noise and urban landscape, and “Non-Alignment Pact” gives full reign to that. The band play it relatively straight as a platform for Ravenstine to exploit the pure sound, dissonant, unexpected, siren-like in part, of the synthesizer, working to disturb and create an unexpected atmosphere.
The second is David Thomas’s voice. Ubu members have come and gone but the massive Thomas is the only ever-present, the defining sound of Pere Ubu. He gives notice that he’s not going to sing melodies, not going to follow tunes. He sings high, he sings low, he is gruff and hoarse, he is the steel and brick of the city made flesh, cacophony in voice, always aware, never controlled.
And as the band’s lyricist, he is a point of view, a way of seeing that does not and will not look at things from outside, and see them as they seem. “Non-Alignment Pact” is a love song, little though it sounds in the hands of the rampaging Ubu. Thomas wants to make a deal with his girl, ‘get it signed by the heads of state’, ‘be recognised around the world’, but it’s not any ‘I love you’, it’s a ‘non-alignment pact’, co-operation, co-habitation, but not conjoining.
As the song develops into its second verse, we learn that it’s not necessarily a real girl Thomas is demanding terms from. The girl doesn’t have one name, she has thousands: ‘Peggy Carrie Ann and Betty Jean/Jill Joan Jan and Sue/Alice Cindy Barbara Ann’. The stars are on fire, the world’s in flames, the girl is rock’n’roll music and Thomas is declaring Pere Ubu in: but on their own terms. Not to be part of, but not to be hostile. The game is afoot.
It’s followed by the album’s title track, a re-make of the track “Untitled” from the earlier Datapanik in the Year Zero EP. Ravenstine provides a more conventional backing this time, electric piano under a shuffling beat, Thomas sings about a boy: not himself, someone who’s out to keep up but unable to do so. ‘Our poor boy’ is heading into town but the girl at the show leaves early. ‘He’ll never get/The Modern Dance’.
And the song drops into near silence, a sullen humming, a city soundscape crossed only by a single guitar, occasionally strumming.
Back with the drums, the poor boy is trying harder, ‘Watch real close/Look real fast/He’s in touch/It’ll never last’. Thomas sings: a counterpart vocal caps each line with a chant of ‘Madra, Madra’. The crowd scene comes up but this time Ravenstine follows it with his sonic synth, amplifying and distorting the crowd, as the band start to heave and rock beneath him, bursting out in one final denial. The Modern Dance is something too big to be understood. Only Ubu knows the secret.
“Laughing” begins with a slow, bass-ridden, almost chugging beat, downtone. Ravenstine and guitarist Scott Krauss play over it and the song runs for two whole minutes before Thomas explodes into action, howling the song into life. ‘We can live in the empty spaces of this life’, he declares. ‘If the Devil comes/we’ll shoot him with a gun!’. Then it slows against, hollow and empty, like the life that Thomas and his girl are denying, youth in its ignorant optimism. A snarl and another verse of defiance, but that’s the modern dance for you. In the face of oblivion.
Unlikely as it all seems, this album is about love, love in the city, love in the darkness against the machines that can roll over and tear everything apart at any moment. “Streetwaves” is all attack from its opening moment, Thomas riding ‘a street wave by her side’ but it’s only a moment before he’s chanting ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’.
We lapse against into quiescence, the synthesizer wind howling down empty streets, until the band attempt to reincarnate the world, but the electricity sparks and starks and again it’s ‘gone gone gone gone gone gone by her heart’ and the ending is sudden.
And suddenly we get the original side closer, side 1, track 5, the biggest, booming, most uplifting song, a real emotional uplift. And it’s called “Chinese Radiation”. It starts real quiet and slow, a guitar picking out an extended riff, Ravenstine doodling in sound. Even Thomas is subdued when he begins to sing. We’ve somehow found ourselves in China, Red China. ‘He’ll be the red guard/she’ll be the new world/he’ll wear his grey cap/she’ll wave her red book’.
Then it stops, and it explodes into the biggest sound on the album. The crowds cheer, the roof is raised, Thomas sings excitedly, finding love and belief even in such unpropitious circumstances, but he and Ubu struggle to make themselves heard under the ecstacy of the crowd that roars and soars. The rally is a hit. Until the slow, dignified end, as Ravenstine pays piano chords, Thomas repeats his early, establishing mantra, and we wonder if there really is anything to love in such times.
What used to be side 2 begins with one of Ubu’s unserious songs, “Life Stinks”. It’s a bunch of rhymes on the sound ‘ink’, howled out gleefully as the band hit fast forward, but there are still those fractures in which everything, rhythm and melody drops away and Ravenstine holds things together.
He’s all over the long intro to “Real World”, but by now we know that any world that is Real to Ubu is nothing we in our sheltered minds will recognise. But this is less a song that another, medium pace, easy-loping Ubu soundscape, built on a prominent bass riff, as Thomas hollers things that he sees, emblematic ideas ‘Out in the Real World/In Real Time’. In the end it’s all ‘Techniramic (sic) heartaches’.
None of which prepares us for the overt beauty that is “Over My Head”. As close as the album comes to a ballad, this slow, gentle, touching song is nearer to being spoken than sung by Thomas, with the band a long way away, guitar and synthesizer playing games of sweetness, with momentary surges that last a couple of seconds, sound tides reaching the beach. Thomas sings of the woman tucking him in at dawn, and how he prays not to sin again. Who she is, and what she sees is a mystery that is over his head and cannot be detected. Sim bayou.
But speaking of unprepared, the album takes a quantum leap to accommodate its penultimate track, “Sentimental Journey”. This is barely a song, more of a playlet, with words murmured not sang by Thomas. It’s a walk, around a house, an abandoned, empty house. At times the band are non-existant, at others they threaten to overwhelm with a collage of sounds that bear little relationship to one another. It’s another track to incorporate sound effects, but this is not the sound of crowds, but of small disturbances, bottles, close to the ear, being kicked, skittering, breaking at odd, unanticipated intervals. The bamd crescendos again, and again, seemingly oblivious to Thomas, drowning him out as he wanders from point to point.
It’s an extraordinary experience in breaking down what can be conceived as as music, and it’s best heard on headphones. At night. In the dark.
It’s such a devastating experience that the final track, conventional as it is in Ubu terms, comes almost as a disappointment. It’s a reassertion of normality, and just as the opening track was a metatextual claim to parity with music, “Humor Me” is an open plea for tolerance, and act of seeking forgiveness for what has come before. ‘It’s just a joke, Man!’ Thomas pleads: Humour me. But one eye is closed in something suspiciously like a wink, and behind that broad and spreading back you can tell that the fingers are crossed.
Of course it’s all a joke. But Pere Ubu aren’t letting on who the joke’s on.
An extraordinary album. Thirty seven years old and we’ve still not caught up.