Pere Ubu (the name came from a cruel and crude character in the absurdist 1890s stage play, Uhu Roi, by Alfred Jarry) formed in Cleveland in 1975 and went through record labels at an astonishing rate, taking in Radar, Chrysalis, and Mercury en route to their liaison with Rough Trade.
And their albums – Dub Housing, New Picnic Time and The Art of Walking – saw them move further and further away from the parameters of rock or pop.
Vocalist David Thomas was a former rock critic, who once called himself Crocus Behemoth. He dropped the name and formed Pere Ubu for the sole purpose of recording a song he had written called 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. The single was released in December 1975.
The group – which at that stage included Creem writer Peter Laughner – went on to record three more singles on its own Hearthan label. Most of that material eventually ended up on their 1978 debut album, The Modern Dance.
Synth-player Allen Ravenstine used trust fund money to buy an entire apartment building called the Plaza in downtown Cleveland and rented out its 36 rooms cheaply to artistically-minded friends, including every member of Ubu.
Cliff Burnstein, Mid-Western A&R man for Mercury/Phonogram, read about the band in a fanzine and was intrigued enough to track down their singles then the band itself. As a result, he formed a Phonogram subsidiary called Blank Records – which he envisaged as an American equivalent to England’s Stiff Records – and signed Ubu as the first band on the new label.
Ubu’s second single – and their last with Peter Laughner – Final Solution (1976), was a blunt and sarcastic examination of teen outsider angst hitched to a sinuous bass line, spooky synthesizer noises and a threatening, juddering climax that spoke of serious intent.
The Modern Dance, their first album, arrived to critical acclaim in 1978 and provided a blueprint for post-punk and coming triumphs by PiL, Talking Heads and fellow Ohio oddballs Devo. The album left listeners baffled but amazed – it still does.
Disjointed synthesizers, slashing guitars, distortion, howls and the occasional sound of smashing glass – Pere Ubu worked fearlessly on a planet all of their own – and provided proof positive that the really weird American music comes from the nowhere bit between the two coasts.
Having defined their own proto-punk style, Pere Ubu had a goldmine they could have tapped for a few more years at least. Instead, in a brilliantly contrary move, they created a whole new sound that, while distinctively Ubu, showed them to be miles ahead of most of their peers.
The album Dub Housing (1978) came cheaply, quickly, and with a lot of spontaneity, but lack of company support led to Blank’s dissolution in 1978, and despite all the critical acclaim, Pere Ubu had a hard time getting another contract.
Anyone with suicidal tendencies would have been well-advised to steer clear of their output. Their music was primarily about despair and the black feeling that says life is just one big bucket of shit.