The Infinite Jukebox: Pere Ubu’s ‘Final Solution’

I’ve said before that sometimes you can come to a piece of music, or a band, at the wrong time, when you are not ready for what they have to offer, and it’s only years later, if you’re lucky enough to get the chance, to hear them again and this time understand what they’re doing. This was very much the case with Pere Ubu, Cleveland’s finest export, and the world’s foremost and possibly only proponents of the avant-garage.
I started listening to John Peel’s evening show in January 1978, the best part of a year after I could have discovered it when I was growing enthused by the rawness and directness of punk and new wave.
Peely, of course, was the first one to spot Pere Ubu, who’d been making waves in 1977 with their 12″ five-track EP, Datapanik in the Year Zero (lots of American bands then and later, R.E.M. included, started their career with a 12″ five-track EP, all for the same reason: they couldn’t afford the studio time for a full album). I heard tracks from it and thought it incomprehensible. The same went for the first album, later that year, The Modern Dance. As for its follow-up, Dub-Housing, that didn’t even sound like anything I’d heard from them before and after that I shut my ears.
Jump forward to 1985. I work in Manchester City Centre, with easy access to things like the Virgin Megastore at lunch. One midweek morning, I decide that I fancy buying an album. But which one? After some thought, I come down to an either/or between The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album, or Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance. I haven’t gone on for much longer before realising that, at the age of not-quite thirty, I was making a life-changing decision.
The real choice wasn’t between two records, but between the past and the future. Ever since I started listening to pop and ever since, my natural attraction was to the new: what’s next? Always what’s next. The JAMC was what’s next. Pere Ubu was what I’d jumped past. They were an unexperienced corner, a gap in the story. If I chose The Modern Dance, I was really signalling that I was not prepared any longer to go in search of what was next, that I was set to now fill in the story, paint out the holes.
What did I buy? Well, it turned out to be The Cocteau Twins. The JAMC album wasn’t released until the next week, the Ubu was long since deleted. But I had decided, and it would have been Pere Ubu.
Why, you may be meaning to ask, was I even thinking of Pere Ubu in 1985? The band didn’t even exist any longer, having split after five albums and multiple line-up changes. They were of no relevance to 1985 whatsoever.
The answer was the song we’re listening to here. Someone, and it might not necessarily have been Peely, it may have been our then-Stockport based pirate radio station, KFM, had played “Final Solution”. In fact, I’m sure it was KFM because the reception wasn’t all that wonderful. I had got to the radio cassette recorder before half the long intro had run, and I wanted to know more. Like the Age of Chance’s ‘Kiss’, my ears were being blown apart and remade in a new form. Pere Ubu were post-punk before there was even punk to be post.
This song dates from 1976. Let me say that again. 1976. Can you seriously believe that? It begins with a bass guitar, playing a solid, unvarying note in a tempo that the entire song will use. It’s joined by the drums and a lead guitar, played by Peter Laughner, who would die within a year of recording this, playing a complex, growling filigree, and by Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer, not playing music of a kind that differed only in sound and texture from an organ or an electric piano but rather sound, pure abstract sound shimmering, hammering: industrial.
The solo ends. Bass and drums lockstep and move forward implacably. David Thomas, Ubu’s lead singer and the only member to be there from start to finish, enters. His voice is raucous, growly, squeaky. He is like no-one you’ve heard before. He sings/intones/chants lines of apocalyptic teenage angst, deliberately OTT. The girls won’t touch me, he protests, but Thomas’s enunciation is so intentionally vague that you can’t be certain if it’s because he’s got a misdirection or a missed erection. Either way, he also complains that living at night isn’t helping his complexion. Social infection and insurrection are the other rhymes in this first verse.
And the bass and the drums drive onwards. Thomas’s Mom has thrown him out until he gets some pants that fit, and she just don’t approve of his strange kind of wit. Just who is this we’re locked in here with? Do we really want to be here with him? Guitar and synthesizer surround everything, enclosing Thomas in a cage as his voice rises to a howl, they’ll make him take a cure, but he don’t need a cure, and the band come in like a gang backing up one of their own who’s threatened, don’t need a cure, don’t need a cure, don’t need a cure I need a Final Solution.
Here we’re wavering on the edge of something extreme. Final Solution has a connotation, maybe it has only a single meaning and it’s one you toy with referring to at your peril, but this sound is an unforgiving advance and the kid’s in a world of his own where perspective is all to hell, and in his own head it’s all so extreme.
And it’s that bass and the drums, and Laughner showers a stunning, chiming solo before Thomas expands his universe of solipsistic anguish, with guitars that sound like a nuclear destruction (at which the sound stops, for an unheard beat, before we escalate yet more), the kid crying that he’s a victim of natural selection (it’s not my fault) and talking obliquely of suicide, Thomas drawing all the energy into his personal maelstrom and the gang shout you down again don’t need a cure don’t need a cure…
Then the bass takes over as a lead instrument, heavy-handed and threatening, until Thomas starts to repeat just the word Solution, in growing desperation, against a background of sweet, harmonious ‘ooohs’ from the gang, until Laughner starts one last, extended, astonishing solo, the guitar creeping up the scale, the sound growing almost edgier until you’re almost screaming for the tension to come to an end, and Laughner chops things down and Thomas screams ‘Solution!’ into the heart of the song and you wonder how anything’s going to end a thing that’s gained so much momentum, until the drums abruptly quit and bass and guitar wind down to a stop in a few shirt but satisfying notes. Oh my God.
This is a song that unmakes and remakes its listeners. The world you leave to hear this song is not the world to which you return when its five minutes(only five minutes?) ends. It is both destroyer and creator, yet it can be returned to again and again, and listened to mesmerically, as Laughner’s guitar works through those three solos, as Ravenstine’s synths create an unwordly yet concrete world, as Thomas’s voice grows in both power and anguish…
Eventually, I got The Modern Dance when it first became available on CD, in a limited issue edition. I never did buy The Jesus and Mary Chain. As far as I’m concerned, I came out ahead.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Pere Ubu’s ‘Final Solution’

  1. Loved them from the get go. I bought their early Hearthan Records singles when they came out and played the hell out of them. For convenience, now I most often listen to their Datapanik in Year Zero box. I saw them around the time of Cloudland, during a period when Henry Cow’s great Chris Cutler joined Scott Krauss for double drumming. John Cale solo opened.

    1. Saw them twice at the Hacienda, once touring ‘The Tenement Year’ when they seemed off the pace, and then on the same ‘Cloudland’ tour as you, when they were astonishingly good. Never since I’m sorry to say.

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