Pere Ubu is an experimental rock music group formed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1975. Despite many long-term band members, singer David Thomas is the only constant. The group is named after Père Ubu ("father Ubu"), the protagonist of Ubu Roi ("Ubu, the King"), a play by French writer Alfred Jarry.
While Pere Ubu have never been widely popular--usually categorized as "underground rock"--they have a devoted following and are an influential and critically acclaimed band. Pere Ubu have compiled a list of guidelines for touring, live performances and the like: "Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist. We are interested in atmosphere, mood, drama, energy, subtlety, imagination--not rock cliché." The Danish Broadcasting Corporation is one of the few organizations they trust to record live performances, "solely on the basis of the King of Denmark's defense of the Jews in WWII".
To define their music, Pere Ubu coined the term avant-garage to reflect interest in both experimental avant-garde music (especially musique concrète) and raw, direct blues-influenced garage rock. Thomas has stated the term is "a joke invented to have something to give journalists when they yelp for a neat sound bite or pigeonhole".
Rocket from the Tombs was a Cleveland-based group that eventually fragmented: some members formed The Dead Boys, and others The Saucers, while David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner joined with guitarist Tom Herman, bass guitarist Tim Wright, drummer Scott Krauss and synthesist Allen Ravenstine to form Pere Ubu in 1975. At the time the band formed, Herman, Krauss, and Ravenstine lived in a house owned by Ravenstine.
Pere Ubu's debut single (their first four records were singles on their own "Hearthan" label) was "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" (inspired by the "Doolittle Raid" and named after a film depicting the raid), backed with "Heart of Darkness"; followed by "Final Solution" in 1976. One review noted that "30 Seconds" "was clearly the work of a garage band, yet its arty dissonance and weird experimentalism were startlingly unique."
Of their second single, "Final Solution" (backed with "Cloud 149"), one scribe writes that Ubu's "call for a 'final solution' was the cry of teen angst run down in the decaying rust belt of America, and unlike the British punks who were looking around England the same year, seeing no future, and hating what they saw, Ubu reveled in it."
The teenage-wasteland theme of the song has nothing to do with the Nazi use of "final solution": Indeed, Pere Ubu has consistently denounced Nazism and neo-Nazi movements, and praised resistance to Nazism and rescues of Jews in WWII. Pere Ubu stopped playing "Final Solution" for many years to avoid association with Nazism.
From these first recordings, Pere Ubu sounded like little else. Their propulsive rhythmic pulse was similar to Krautrock, but Thomas's yelping, howling, desperate singing was and still is peculiar when compared to most other rock and roll singers.
In their songs, Pere Ubu imagined 1950s and 1960s garage rock and surf music archetypes as seen in a distorting funhouse mirror, emphasising the music's angst, loneliness and lyrical paranoia. Sometimes sounding like a demented nursery rhyme sing-along, this already bizarre blend was overlaid with Ravenstine's ominous EML synthesizer effects and tape looped sounds of mundane conversation, ringing telephones or steam whistles.
Other recordings of the 1970s:
"Street Waves" b/w "My Dark Ages (I Don't Get Around)" was their third single, and after their fourth single, "The Modern Dance" b/w 'Heaven" (which was pressed in very small quantities and contained a completely different mix of "Dance"), Pere Ubu signed to Blank Records, a short-lived imprint of Mercury Records.
Laughner left the group after their first two singles, and died soon afterwards of Acute Pancreatic Failure. Tony Maimone signed on as bassist after Tim Wright left to join DNA.
Their debut album, The Modern Dance (1978), contained a remix of "The Modern Dance" and the original mix of "Street Waves", sold poorly, but has proven influential. Musicians of many types, including progressive rock, punk rock, post punk and new wave, were influenced by the dark, abstract record. With the song "Sentimental Journey," the debut also introduced the practice of re-appropriating titles from well-known popular songs: Pere Ubu's "Sentimental Journey" has no obvious relation to the Doris Day hit song of the same name; "Drinking Wine Spodyody" has no apparent connection to the Sticks McGhee song (later revived by Jerry Lee Lewis). This practice has continued through 2006's Why I Hate Women, which has a song called "Blue Velvet" (again, no relation to the 1963 hit song by Bobby Vinton).
Special note should be made of Ravenstine's contributions to Pere Ubu. While most synthesizer players tended to play the instrument as they would a piano or organ, Ravenstine generally opted instead to make sounds that were reminiscent of spooky sound effects from 1950s science fiction films, or perhaps electronic music and musique concrète. One critic writes that Ravenstine "may be one of the all-time great synth players" and his playing has been called "utterly original".
Pere Ubu's second and third albums, Dub Housing and New Picnic Time, followed with much the same reaction.
The group briefly disbanded in 1979, but reformed soon afterwards with Herman replaced by Mayo Thompson (of Red Krayola).
The Art of Walking (1980) featured Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson on guitar. For the next original album, Song of the Bailing Man (1982), Krauss was replaced by Anton Fier.
The group disbanded again soon afterwards; Krauss and Maimone formed Home and Garden, while Thomas worked on a solo career, notably with Richard Thompson and with members of Henry Cow.
By the late 1980s, one of Thomas's solo projects eventually featured much of Pere Ubu. The band was reformed again in 1987, with Jim Jones and Chris Cutler joining for the release of The Tenement Year (1988), a far more pop-oriented album than ever before. The following year, "Waiting for Mary" (off Cloudland) appeared on MTV briefly. After the recording of Cloudland, Ravenstine left the group (although he made a guest appearance on Worlds in Collision) and later became an airline pilot. Eric Drew Feldman joined the band in time for the Cloudland tour and the recording of Worlds in Collision but left afterwards, joining Frank Black.
1990s and beyond:
Story of My Life (1993) was released on Imago Records; Maimone left (once again) to join They Might Be Giants, and Michele Temple and Garo Yellin joined the band for the Story of My Life tour and feature on Ubu's 1995 album, Ray Gun Suitcase. Robert Wheeler has played synthesizer and theremin with Pere Ubu since 1994. Krauss left the band during the Ray Gun Suitcase sessions. For the Ray Gun Suitcase tour, guitarist Jim Jones departed as a touring member (although he continued to contribute to recordings), founding guitarist Tom Herman replaced him for the tour.
Concurrent with the 1996 release of the Datapanik in Year Zero box set, Jim Jones retired due to health problems. Tom Herman returned to the band after a twenty-year absence to tour with the band in 1995, and went on to record Pennsylvania (1998) and St. Arkansas in 2002. Jim Jones contributed guitar tracks to each album as well, and guitarist Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame joined the band for their 1998 summer tour. Herman left again in 2005, being replaced by Keith Moliné, of David Thomas's "solo" group Two Pale Boys. The new lineup completed an album entitled Why I Hate Women, which was released on 19 September 2006.
On 18 February 2008, Jim Jones died at his Cleveland residence.
On 24 April 2008 the Ether festival at the South Bank Centre (London, England) hosted the world premiere of Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi. This adaptation by David Thomas of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi was accompanied by animations by the Brothers Quay. The production featured David Thomas as Pere Ubu and Sarah Jane Morris as Mere Ubu.
In 2010 Pere Ubu played a series of theatrical shows in the UK including a set at the Classic Grand in Glasgow's Jamaica Street.
"Pere Ubu is not now nor has it ever been a viable commercial venture. We won't sleep on floors, we won't tour endlessly and we're embarrassed by self-promotion. Add to that a laissez-faire attitude to the mechanics of career advancement and a demanding artistic agenda and you've got a recipe for real failure. That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock 'n' roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio." - David Thomas,
"Rock music is mostly about moving big black boxes from one side of town to the other in the back of your car." ClearartFanartBanner