Sunday, January 30, 2005

Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance

Rough Trade, 1981
Originally pressed on Blank, 1978

A surreal blanket of noise masquerading as a progression of rock songs, The Modern Dance is one of those near perfect debut albums marred only by a slightly shoddy engineering job (drums and bass sound muffled at times) and a frontman who can sometimes wear "tin on da nervesss" (as an old dearly departed co-worker used to say about my music). It's the NOISE that does it for me more than the catchy songs (the almost-reggae "Humor Me") or even the punk (Peter Laughner's one contribution to the album "Life Stinks").

Peru Ubu's early work is a precursor just as much to The Pixies & Mission of Burma as to Einsturzende Neubauten and Cop Shoot Cop, about the only thing not to like is David Thomas's sometimes too frantic vocal "stylings" such as in "Real World". Much rests on Allen Silverstine's innovative use of the synthesizer and saxophone, doing things that really hadn't been done before or were being done nearly simultaneously by Marty Rev (Suicide) although I don't think they (Suicide) went as much for the atmospherics or had a guitar player like Tom Herman to play off. And where Suicide (and later The Fall) relied much on repetition to hammer a song home, Ubu has no problem turning a song on a dime and then again until they've completely wrung it out. I even like "Sentimental Journey," a modern jazz ambient piece that showcases Silverstine's skronky saxophone and Scott Krauss's improv jazz drumming, but I like it only up to a point (that point where David Thomas starts making fart noises). I do find myself grinning when "Non-Alignment Pact" comes up in the mix . While I did like "Humor Me" the best years ago (Tom Herman's mid-song guitar solo still stands as one of my favorites), it's pieces like "Over My Head" and "Chinese Radiation" that I find the most interesting. The only off note is how much David Thomas sounds like David Byrne. Given that the latter has so much more visibility in the mainstream, one can't help but think of The Talking Heads even though (I would argue) the bands are quite different especially in this album.

My pretentious twaddle trying to unravel the mystery behind this album: Like a theater piece or novel, the album is best listened to in the original order, where it seems to trace the inner dialogue of an un-named protaganist journeying through a surreal industrial landscape. He goes through his fears, alienation, and nearly strikes a hopeful note ("Street Waves") before the politics of the day ("Chinese Radiation") put a damper on it. The second side is a complete mental breakdown starting with the Peter Laughner punk-Dada rocker "Life Stinks" and then degenerates from paranoid (the new waver "Real World") into sinister - drunken? drugged? - disorientation ("Over My Head") and finally full-on, heavy-breathing crockery smashing mental collapse ("Sentimental Journey"). The final cut of the album cynically challenges the listener as the protaganist is seemingly being fitted for a strait-jacket that it's not "just a joke, mon", that if that's what you think:
It's a joke
It's a JOKE
That's a joke?
humor me
That final lyrics are plaintive not snarling; they are the cry of the mad man who has tried the modern dance and found it fatal.

"Chinese Radiation"
"Over My Head"

Buy Ubu Online:
  • The Modern Dance remains in print. Buy the album
  • A box set of early releases including this album was put out on Geffen Records in 1996. Its hard to find online but DVD Empire has it here.
  • iTunes has Terminal Tower available - if you're like me and only had the singles on tape, here's one way to augment your collection. Here's the link to that album.

  • Band website:

    Find out more about Pere Ubu via:
    Their Official Website - Ubuprojex
    Their older now defunct website: The Avant Garage Online
    From Ubuprojex, read about Their Early Work including The Modern Dance

    Free MP3s on the Web:
    In their now-discontinued website, Pere Ubu answer a FAQ regarding MP3s and why they don't offer them on their website:
    We won't degrade our work. We won't compress the sound or downsample it. We don't spend all those tedious hours making it sound the way we want just to turn around and reduce it to a dog's dinner. If you want to know what we sound like call up your local college radio station. That's what they're for, to serve your needs. Adventures In Good Listening. That sort of thing. Or go down to your mom & pop record store, we know there are some left and they need your support. Ask them to play a copy. Soon enough we'll all be living in a world where art is nothing but software and no objects have value and no ideas have value. What's the rush? This was written about 2000, I think. And unfortunately, live college radio and a good "mom and pop" record store are not an option for many in 2004. And if you've ever tried to go and ask alot of store clerks, they'll look at you funny since a lot of them think they are DJs. Additionally, many college radio shows use MP3s extensively and FM radio (not to mention AM) by its nature changes the original sound, so what's the point?

    There are some MP3s of the recent variety (rarities, side projects) up at a site that seems sanctioned by the band. Here's the link. The Tripod Jimmy (Tom Herman's band) and Home and Garden (drummer Strauss's band) cuts are worth exploring as is their music in general.

    Scatrecords has MP3s of the Electric Eels, supposedly an influential band (although that's been debated) on Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu.

    Further Reading:

    There are many parallel between this album and T. S. Eliot's 1922 The Wasteland. Eliot's protaganist walks at times through an "unreal city" in a journey of madness and references "fear in a handful of dust" that echoes the underlying fear of nuclear destruction prevalent in 1978. Michael Baker, in a multi-part essayabout three Cleveland Bands (The Strawbs, Pere Ubu and Human Switchboard) points this out convincingly - this appeared Perfect Sound Forever. He summarizes Pere Ubu:
    The second band, carved out of the incendiary, smoldering white light/white heat of the mercurial Rocket From the Tombs, was formed in 1975, and soon recorded a batch of rough songs that single-handedly created the American underground, a hell where radio play and album sales went to die, but a purgatory that spawned the Do It Yourself ethic, the avant-garde leanings of noise bands like DNA and Sonic Youth, various subsections of Industrial music; with a pre-punk vitality, a love of the fearless and sublime and the grotesque, or the meatier aspect of the grunge movement, Pere Ubu, on their first three albums, rejected Romanticism in favor of Modernism, a earthquake-y and haughty aesthetic built on the premise that reason and faith and the recent past are finite and limited and untrustworthy. Pere Ubu used gushing scales and mountain peaks of dissonance to convulse the listener; the organizational structure of these early songs suggests that ambiguity and uncertainty are the content of life. Maybe, but one thing is certain: on their initial trilogy of LPs recorded between 1978 and 1979, Pere Ubu transformed rock and roll.
    Read the entire article

    I envy Scaruffi's review of this album (translated by Norman Riding) from his essential History of Rock and Roll - he has nailed it much better than I ever could:
    The guiding theme of Modern Dance (Blank, 1978) is that of alienation and anxiety in the industrial society. Mutatis mutandis, Pere Ubu take the fear of the nuclear holocaust and transplant it into a different scenario, in which death is not physical but spiritual, not due to bombardment but to economic and social mechanisms.

    Their sound starts out from the spirit of old-style garage-rock,but distorts it with harmonic and rhythmic grotesquery. The surreal lyrics and the student humour attenuate the dramatic force of the performance, but at the same time increase the feeling of collective madness, of resigned fatalism, of ineluctable slavery. It is, mutatis mutandis, the same rational fear that seized the young of the post-war era, when the atomic threat held everybody in suspense: now, however, the situation is more real, because industrialisation has already reaped its holocaust, and more grotesquely, because it has been able to do it with the complicity of its own victims.

    Tiny Mix Tapes does a review as if the album came out this year.

    Although it was apparently never finished, Charlotte Pressler, wife of Peter Laughner and accomplished journalist in her own right, writes about the early '70s in Cleveland and the origin of the rage that so often characterized the music:

    I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It wasn't, precisely, class-hatred; it certainly wasn't political; it went too deep to be accepting of the possibility of change. The Eels, perhaps, came closest to embodying it fully; but it was there in everyone else. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. It should be remembered that we had all grown up with Civil Defense drills and air-raid shelters and dreams of the Bomb at night; we had been promised the end of the world as children, and we weren't getting it. But there must have been more to it than that.

    Finally, here are some humorous Pere Ubu stories from Cle Punk.

    Today's disclaimer courtesy An Idiot's Guide to Dreaming:

    This is not for you. If anything offends, intimidates, causes you injury (including spinal damage), maks you sneeze, spazzes you out, causes bleeding (gums, knees etc..), turns you on, turns you off or in any other way causes you to fill legal coffers then I apologise wholeheartedly and will immediately remove any posting, link or file on receipt of a polite e-mail. Those able to conjugate will be given priority. Note for cargo Cultists: I am NOT a God and never have been ....

    sorry - you may have noticed that I'm having some trouble with blogger's html here... rather than try to rewrite the whole post, I'll just have to live with this until now - maybe when I'm less bleary I'll try to track down the problem.


Jakob said...

"We don't spend all those tedious hours making it sound the way we want just to turn around and reduce it to a dog's dinner. If you want to know what we sound like call up your local college radio station."

What a crock of shit. Even college radio broadcasts sourced from records/CDs sound pretty awful/compressed. MP3s, ironically, sound far superior.

Jim H said...

Jakob, considering that this:

Both Rocket From the Tombs cds are now available as MP3 downloads from iTunes, as are Pere Ubu's St Arkansas and Terminal Tower. The 2pbs' first album, Erewhon, is available from eMusic.
is on their current website, I suppose they (or more likely David Thomas) have adjusted his notions regarding MP3s. Alot of bands, particularily ones who have a measure of success, don't seem to post alot of MP3s - you gotta get 'em while they're up and coming.

Still, in the intervening years from their initial success and the scads of praise heaped on their early work, I suppose time has blessed Mr. Thomas with an ego as big as his coat size. The other website I included has some recent MP3s so you can judge for yourself whether their newer work ranks with their earlier work (or vice a versa if you don't like their earlier work).

Eric said...

I'd been yoying with the idea of doing a post on The Modern Dance, but I kept pulling back mostly because this is an album that demands some explanation, deep thought, what have you. Frankly, I don't have the smarts to decipher and explain. Luckily, you do. Great Job.

Phil said...

a couple of points:

thomas' voice - i think the lower register he uses on this album and the preceeding singles and eps fits in perfectly with the dark sound of the band. if the vocals were in a more standard rock style i think they'd be less than what they are - just listen to any of the non thomas solo releases which can be fairly dire. but then, i've always liked unusual voices. however, as the subsequent pere ubu albums were released, he used higher, squeakier, more grating tones until "the art of walking" which i can't really stand.

sound quality - i can't hear a difference between 192bps mp3s and most cds but i know that some people can. plus - he wrote the comments on mp3s in 1998, i think, so some lee-way should be allowed for changing opinions. and it'd be stupid business not to have these available on i-tunes and DT has always had business on his mind. almost all of the datapanik box set sounds quite different to the vinyl, btw.

finally it's Allen Ravenstine not Silverstine

glad to see this on someone's radar - it's still too off the map for most folk. one of my continuing favourite releases.

Shawn @ Entroporium said...

What the heck was going on in Cleveland in the 70s? There was this, the Pretenders, the Dead Boys... but the album that this really connects to for me is Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, though I'll be damned if I can explain why.

The other thing this period of Pere Ubu reminds me of is Eraserhead. I guess for the sense of foreboding and dehumanization -- that trash-heaped empty urban landscape. But I can't quite place the connection there either. It was filmed in Cleveland, right?

Jim H said...

Thanks Phil for keeping me honest and correcting my errors. I actually wrote Ravenstine in my notes (done with a Sharpie pen on yellow construction paper) but for some reason my fingers typed "Silverstine" even though I don't know anyone named Silverstine.

I almost wrote that Cleveland was to NYC what Manchester was to London, where viruses and music are bred not in a vast melting pot but the toxic industrial wasteland of The Flats. But does that make Akron Sheffield? Simon?

brendan said...

Some great thoughts on a classic release. I made AACs out of my favourite tracks from the Datapanik box set not too long ago and they sound fine. A couple of years ago I tearfully parted with an old vinyl copy of TMD; not too tearfully mind, because I still have two...

michael baker said...

thanks for kind words re my PU stuff in PSF

Anonymous said...

The 3rd Cleveland band in Michael's essay from PSF was not the Strawbs (who were British), but the Raspberries.