Geoff Nicholson’s book The Lost Art of Walking covers all aspects of perambulation, including the many musical references to using our feet. Among others, Nicholson name-checks Johnny Cash (I Walk The Line) Patsy Cline (Walkin’ After Midnight) Nancy & Lee (Boots) Aerosmith (Walk This Way) and even Yoko Ono (Walking on Thin Ice) all of which I love, yet he makes no mention of Pere Ubu, who dedicated an entire album to The Art of Walking.
I probably came across Pere Ubu around the age of 15, via a couple of friends (Rod and Phil Saunders) and the EP Datapanik in the Year Zero, which brings together all of their early, and legendary, Hearthan singles: Cloud 149, The Modern Dance, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and my personal favourite, the cannibals-on-Mogadon drumbeat of Heart of Darkness, so good it gave me the title of my one and only Super-8 movie (it was to be some years more before I read Conrad, or even saw Apocalypse Now).
From Datapanik, it was a short step up Bristol’s Gloucester Rd to a nameless record shop opposite my aunt’s whole food emporium. Here I acquired my prized copy of their first (and probably best) album, The Modern Dance, which contains a different, less polished version of the title track, as well as the bona fide pre-punk classics Non Alignment Pact & Life Stinks.
But the story of Pere Ubu begins long before this, in the Cleveland of the early 1970s, where a bunch of bored long-hairs (among them singer David Thomas and the soon-to-be-dead Peter Laughner) listened to the Stooges, MC5 and Captain Beefheart, took a shitload of drugs and formed a garage band called Rockets from the Tomb, who wrote and recorded primitive versions of Life Stinks, 30 Seconds and the Ubu lodestone Final Solution.
From the ashes of this band, and the tragic death of Laughner, rose Pere Ubu Mark I – Thomas, guitarist Tom Herman (who boasted a moustache) the suave Tony Maimone on bass, the rock-solid Scott Krauss on drums and, overlaying everything with a blanket fog of bleeping, belching synth noises, Allen Ravenstine. It is the interplay between Ravenstine’s otherworldly (or, at any rate, otherly) electronica and David Thomas’ high-pitched, slightly put-upon shrieking that really marks out Pere Ubu for me. Around 1982, I saw them live at The Locarno in Bristol and they were astounding. Who imagined a man so large could emit such a little, cartoon-like voice, could squeeze into such a tight suit, sweat so much or have so much energy?
My college buddy Tim Eagle lent me a cassette of their second album Dub Housing, and I soon added New Picnic Time and The Art of Walking to my collection as well. Dub Housing is every bit as good as The Modern Dance, although being on a major label (Charisma, same as late 70s Hawkwind) the sound has been smoothed-out slightly, and there’s nothing quite as deranged as Life Stinks on it, although On the Surface comes close. By New Picnic Time Thomas had become a Jehovah’s Witness, which was a strange move for the front man of a “rock” band, but this is Pere Ubu we’re talking about, and pretty much anything goes. Then Tom Herman quit and Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola joined for the afore-mentioned Art Of Walking. Truth be told, this marked a further move away from the urgency and attitude (like punk, without the gobbing) of the early singles, to a more relaxed (one might say indulgent) experimentation. Songs were increasingly marginalised in favour of meandering sound collages. One “song” was even entitled Lost in Art, as if acknowledging the musical cul-de-sac Ubu had driven themselves into. The next LP, The Song of the Bailing Man, saw a return to more traditional “songs” but even fewer new ideas. It was whimsical and childlike, instead of annoyed and inspired.
Half a decade passed. David Thomas was by now living in Battersea, selling The Watchtower door to door, and playing small gigs as David Thomas & the Pedestrians with an accordion player. I saw him play just such a gig in King’s Cross. There was more talk than music, long rambling anecdotes, but funnier than any stand-up comic precisely because of the lack of punchlines. Come to think of it, he might have been playing the accordion himself. Then suddenly, rebirth: in 1987 Pere Ubu returned with the original line-up, give or take a guitarist, Mayo Thompson having now been replaced by Electric Eel Jim Jones, while Scott Krauss was joined on drums by Chris Cutler, formerly of Henry Cow. Two drummers as good as Krauss and Cutler playing together – that was something to behold. And the accompanying album, The Tenement Year, was the equal of anything they’d done – less experimental perhaps, but melodic and muscular. I saw them play at the ICA, with my friends Furious Pig supporting, and then again at the former Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, the sort of venue you would hardly expect Pere Ubu to fill, but they did, and they played a blinder, one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, enhanced rather than diminished by David Thomas’ hissy fit when, during the encore, a plastic glass hit him and he flounced off, followed (reluctantly) by the rest of the band.
That tour was as good as it ever got for Ubu. Subsequent albums (such as Cloudland) were pale palimpsests of The Tenement Year. Allen Ravenstine got out of music altogether and became an airline pilot. Jim Jones died of a heart attack. David Thomas is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, as far as I know, but continues to plough a singular furrow as the last original member of Pere Ubu. The 21st century stuff, of which I possess one example (Lady from Shanghai) sounds like a bunch of eager punk puppies trying to SOUND like Ubu, only with an ageing and, it seems, increasingly grouchy Thomas on vocals. It resembles nothing so much as Mark E Smith and the latter-day incarnations of the Fall. He (Thomas) will have to call it a day soon. But listen to those early recordings, and wonder what it was like to be there, to see Pere Ubu in their pomp, when dinosaurs ruled the world.
P is also for:
Robert Palmer, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley (before the videos, the supermodels and the misogyny, back when Robert was good and had the Meters backing him).
Parliament, Osmium (their first and possibly best album has black hippies at play, mixing country, soul, swamp rock and bagpipes. Albums don’t come much stranger).
The Alan Parsons Project, I Robot (Pink Flyod engineer makes technically stunning, slightly soul-less album, albeit with I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You, which is a pretty cool single).
Gram Parsons, GP/Grievous Angel (a great twofer on one CD. Call it country rock, call it Cosmic American music, it’s all amazing. Emmylou Harris provides the cherry on the icing).
Pavlov’s Dog, Pampered Menial/At The Sound of the Bell (the sort of records that give prog rock a good name: top tunes, top violin playing, a singer with a voice even higher than David Thomas’)
Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Great Conspiracy (Pop/psych album from the “Summer of Love”. Sergeant Pepper it ain’t, but anything 1967 is okay by me)
Pearl Jam, Ten (I think this is my only “grunge” album. Yes, we have no Nirvana, but never mind, this is almost as good. Quality heavy rock, and what’s better than that, except perhaps Stevie Wonder?)
The Peddlers, Suite London (1960s easy listening group make concept-album-with-music-concrete shock! AND it’s good!)
Greg Perry, One For The Road (brother of Jeff “Jeffree” Perry, who I mentioned in my Judas Priest post under J is also for…. It’s hard to say whose album is better really, Greg’s or Jeff’s, but this is certainly a lusher and more heavily orchestrated affair, a bit like a slimmed-down Barry White)
Pink Flyod, Piper At The Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (thanks to my schoolfriend Trevor Lifeley, who couldn’t spell, they will forever BE Pink Flyod, and these albums will forever BE awesome, unlike most punk rock, so there!)
Pointer Sisters, Pointer Sisters/That’s A Plenty/Energy (starting out a bit TOO jazzy for my tastes, they nonetheless throw in oddball country stuff and, by the time of Energy, top-notch disco tunes like Happiness, so I’m happy to call myself a fan, though not of I’m So Excited or all that later stuff)
Iggy Pop, Lust for Life/The Idiot (no comment! Essential!)
Will Powers, Dancing For Environmental Health (with Adventures In Success, although the dub version – which isn’t on this album- is the one to go for)
The Pretty Things, SF Sorrow (often cited as the first concept album, ahead of Tommy and WAY ahead of Ziggy Stardust, it’s also as good as both of them).
Dory Previn, In Search of Mythical Kings (watch this space: a Dory Previn post is coming soon!)
Prince Charles & The City Beat Band, Stone Killers (back in the 80s, Prince Charles was briefly massive with dancefloor bombs like Cash Money. Then he married that ditsy sloane Di Spencer and the music went to shit. There was talk of him doing something with Queen but she wouldn’t abdicate and it all fizzled out. Meanwhile, Di had a smash hit in France with the driving song Dodi Fayed…)
Procol Harum, A Whiter Shade of Pale/Salty Dog (another great twofer, this time on vinyl. Remember those great vinyl twofers? Two Mothers albums for the price of one! Two Amboy Dukes albums! Two Procol Harum albums! There’s more to them than A Whiter Shade of Pale you know….)