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.

Dog Day

With a music collection as extensive as mine, there are times when I decide to do a systematic run-through based on a chosen theme. R.E.M. are just too extensive for anything less than a weekend, but every now and then, when I know I’ve the time for it, without interruption, I’ll give myself up to my favourite band of all time, start to finish, Murmur to Collapse into Now.

Back in the latter days of last year, I decided to play myself through my entire CD collection, my shop-bought CDs that is, discounting the hundreds of compilation discs I’ve burned myself. That’s Amaral to The Zombies.

Which made today a Dog day, as in Pavlov’s Dog. That’s nine CDs, many of them extended, with a break to play a downloaded hour-long live gig for 1975, just for the hell of it.

It’s early enough yet for me to go on to the next on the alphabetical list once the final track of Echo and Boo- and other assorted tails fades away, but I’m a respecter of purity so I’ll switch off the CD player after this and soak myself in a hot bath, and save the first Pere Ubu album for tomorrow, after Sounds of the Sixties. Musically, I’ve traveled from 1973 to 2010 today, without ever leaving my flat.

Everyone should have a Dog Day every now and then in their life.

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

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.

What will they start with?

I’ve never been one for nostalgia concerts: singers and bands whose day has come and gone, but who go out on the road to play their old hits, usually in versions no way comparable to the recordings you love.
The first band I ever saw live who had split up and reformed was Pere Ubu, and they’re a different case entirely, because they were re-starting their career with new material (and everything post Modern Dance was off the menu anyway).
But the first time Madness got back together in the mid-Nineties, touring before Christmas, I was quick to buy myself a ticket. Indeed, I saw them twice on these annual Christmas tours, and had a whale of time on both outings.
I’d been a Madness fan almost from the beginning, from The Prince and I’d seen them on stage three times, touring each of the last three albums in their turn, so I had experience of the Nutty Boys, even if it was when they were shading towards the more serious.
The gig was taking place on the Sunday evening before Christmas, in G-Mex, the Greater Manchester Exhibition Hall, that had been created by conversion from the former Manchester Central Railway Station (a single platform used to run from London Road station – now Piccadilly – to Central that was reputedly the longest platform in Europe). As a concert hall, it was a massive venue, with temporary seats along both sides and at the back, but masses of floorspace, room for thousands to stand, mill about, dance and have fun.
I warmed up for the gig by driving to the far side of Nottingham for the day.
I’d lived and worked in Nottingham for two years and made quite a few friends there, but fifteen years later, the only one with whom I was still in contact was Julia, who, with suitable irony, was the one friend I’d known for the least time. For years, I’d drive down to where she lived, with her husband and two kids, on the east of Nottingham, for lunch and an afternoon’s chatter and catch-up. This year, it turned out the only time they were free was the day of my Madness gig.
So, 150 miles of driving and straight into the City Centre to park, and debating what to do about clothing. I mean, this was the Sunday before Christmas, which meant that it was bloody cold out there in the streets, but inside G-Mex, with thousands of us on the floor, it was going to be bloody hot. I debated with myself and made the wrong decision, to leave my pullover etc. in the car and walk through with my coat – which I then had to cling to throughout the entire gig.
And I was supposed to be meeting a mate from work who, despite his being a good fifteen years younger than me, was equally a Madness enthusiast. We were supposed to meet beforehand at an Irish pub, and go on together, with his other mates, but the pub was shut, so that was that.
So I took myself into the hall, where the crush was greatest the nearer you got to the front. I wasn’t too keen on getting crushed, or getting into anything remotely resembling a mosh pit, so I manoeuvred around until I was about halfway back from the stage, over to the (audience) right, with enough room to move whenever I wanted to, and with nobody especially tall in my immediate eye-line towards the stage.
The support band had just begun their set, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, starring that duo Jim-Bob and Fruitbat (how can you not respect a musician who calls himself Fruitbat?).
Their music was high energy and pounding, with a high speed bassline that vibrated the soles of my feet every time I lifted one or other up from the ground. They were a decent support, fun enough to enjoy whilst waiting for the real thing, but unlikely to draw you into buying a CD of their stuff (this concert was taking place in the pre-Download days, where sampling was a more serious commitment).
And whilst they played, I wondered: it was well over a decade since I had last heard Madness in concert. I was looking forward to all the old favourites being pounded out with verve and enthusiasm. But what song would they open with?
I mean, what a question, even if I never spoke it out loud. I kept going over the hits in my head, trying to decide what would be the most suitable one to kick things off with. Which Madness song would be exactly right? It felt like an important question.
And at long last they came bounding out on stage, all seven of them, like they used to, Kix dressed up in something outlandish, Suggs as little changed as it was possible for a human being to be (don’t look in his attic). We cheered and howled and roared and revelled in their presence and Chas Smash came up to the mike in readiness and bellowed, “Hey you, don’t watch that…” and the crowd erupted, even the one on the right hugging a bulky overcoat and thinking furiously to himself, “What the hell else would they possibly have started with?”
I was a fool. But I was there. And it was bloody good fun.