“I am in a lot of ways a grotesque character, and the band has a grotesque character,” said Pere Ubu’s protagonist David Thomas and documented in Simon Reynolds’ set-text Rip It Up and Start Again. “What we are is not pretty”.
It is 35 years since Pere Ubu’s ‘avant-garage’ debut masterpiece The Modern Dance was released. For the first 34 seconds of album opener Non-Alignment Pact, the listener has to withstand ear-piercing, high-pitched feedback with brief sharp interludes of bass and guitar: it’s unpleasant and certainly not pretty.
But then, the feedback disappears and out comes one of the most danceable post-punk tracks ever written; Tony Maimone’s bass roars and oozes a funk-rock-like groove, Tom Herman’s Sonic Youth-esque guitar provides a gritty, irresistible edge and Thomas’ shrieking is unlike any vocal you’ll ever hear: defiant, as high-pitched as the feedback preceding it, mostly indecipherable yet utterly captivating – it was (indeed, still is) modern pop music the intelligentsia could (can) be seen dancing to. Thomas summed it up perfectly: “We were on the edge of being popular but we were fundamentally incapable of being popular”.
This is why Lady From Shanghai, produced by Thomas and the band’s first on Fire Records, home to Guided By Voices and Mission Of Burma, is an intriguing album, with Thomas still determined to provoke listeners, except now he wants to “smash the hegemony of dance” and get us to stand still.
Album opener Thanks achieves a trippy, psychedelic air, with Thomas’ drawling, atonal vocal drowned by analog-sounding synthesiser arrangements, creating a degree of lingering intimidation; unlike Non-Alignment Pact, there is nothing here to coerce us into dancing: as if we should be prepare for this so-called hegemony smashing.
This intent becomes clearer in the five-minute long Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing, with the intense repetitive beats and bass line and ‘found’ samples instantly bringing Autechre and Warp Records to mind: it is the antithesis to The Modern Dance and sounds precise and mechanical – the frenetic post-punk energy is absent, leaving you feeling somewhat restrained. The track itself is by no means original or strikingly modern, yet Thomas’ grander ambition of using music to fulfill his theoretical argument builds steadily.
And Then Nothing Happened is a much rawer, less polished and has a more ‘traditional’ Pere Ubu sound. Nevertheless, Thomas’ vocal achieves a haunting presence, contrasting previous albums; drowned by guitar and bassist Michele Temple’s bells, Thomas’ vocal is reduced to a something insubstantial, with the strange pleasure usually gained from his quivering yelping and considerable presence absent.
Thomas’ vocal becomes more cheerless in the Musicians Are Scum, with lyrics delivered in a forceful, spoken word style: “Musicians are scum – I thought I made that clear from day one.” However, Thomas’ presence now dominates; the dance-inducing jagged bass lines and high-tempo drumming by Steve Mehlman fail to overcome Thomas’ presence: his noticeable refusal to sing pins you down, ensuring you don’t succumb to the hegemony of dance and rhythm. All the while, Thomas attempts to distance Pere Ubu from being perceived as musicians – in his opinion, they are so much more than that.
Lady From Shanghai is not an enjoyable record – it’s not meant to be – nor is it by far Pere Ubu’s finest or most original musically. Yet it deserves applause for what it attempts to achieve, which is largely successful. It won’t garner a new generation of fans, yet 35 years on from their debut album, Thomas et al are still determined to challenge listeners and, importantly, themselves as artists – they’ve gone from being on the edge of popular with The Modern Dance, to producing a study in the art of deconstructing pop. Quite a journey.