Bubbling up from the murky waters of Lake Erie and spilling over into the basements, alleyways and abandoned factories of the industrial wasteland that was Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s, there emerged a monster. Clad in scales of iron oxide and lead, breathing in toxic smokestack emissions and pulsing with spikes of electricity, each of its tentacles formed a band that didn’t just exist in the midst of this stark landscape, but thrived in and celebrated its surroundings. Some of these bands, like Electric Eels and Rocket from the Tombs, were primal and fierce, inspired by the similarly primitive sounds of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, and the racket they made would, in retrospect, be dubbed punk. One band, however, was another creature altogether. Avant-garage was how Pere Ubu described their own sound, and while rock music indeed may have formed the initial foundation for what they did, a heavy dose of experimentation raced through their veins, and a name culled from French absurdist literature spoke volumes about their character.
Some of Pere Ubu’s initial releases – their first album, The Modern Dance, and even earlier material collected on the Terminal Tower anthology come to mind – capture the band at its most accessible and best. Garagey guitars, spaced-out synthesizers, jolting time signatures and ear-damaging dissonance all carry singer Dave Thomas as he shifts from monologues and mumbling to pleading, sobbing and straight-up caterwauling. Some of the songs rest on familiar structures, such as “Nonalignment Pact” with its Chuck Berry-like riffing, while wildly welding Cold War-era themes to everyday problems in personal relationships. And one line in particular, from “Final Solution,” (one of the best songs you never heard while you were too busy swaying to Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” back in ’76, and quite obviously an update of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” for the spikey-haired, safety-pinned kids of Richard Hell’s blank generation) could easily stand as Ubu’s enduring manifesto:
“Ma threw me out till I get some pants that fit/she just won’t approve of my strange kind of wit”
It’s safe to say that up until that moment, nothing like this had crystallized before in recorded music. As you listen to these songs, you can almost feel the band taking existing forms of rock, boldly twisting them, and using the results as building blocks to create something entirely different. One wonders, in fact, if punk and new wave would have been the same without these towering Ubu-constructed edifices for other bands to navigate in a brave new world of sound.
With all that said, though, Pere Ubu has not faded gently into that good night. They are still very much kicking, still putting out albums, and, as Dave Thomas himself has stated, “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.” Which brings us to their 2013 release, Lady from Shanghai.
Lady from Shanghai is the type of album that, when first listened to, makes a reviewer break out in a cold sweat. The first impression is this music is so out there, so indescribable and so seemingly impenetrable, that one is at a loss for words. “Is it good? Is it bad? And most importantly, just what exactly is it??” The best advice in situations like this is to take a deep breath, listen once more, and then listen again. As with anything unfamiliar, run your hands along the edges and adjectives will inevitably appear, comparisons will spring forth, and description becomes possible. And take cues from the artist, too. Ubu themselves have described this as an album of “dance music, fixed.” Some may scoff at the notion of dance music being broken at all, but there’s no denying the soulful groove and danceable beats that move these songs along.
Those beats, however, belie the unease that runs throughout Lady. Voices float in and out of these tracks – nagging, disturbing voices – and the whole undertaking comes off as surreal as a Dali painting or a half-remembered dream. Those same voices also serve as a beacon; driving along the back streets with speakers on full, nailing down the exact address of this album is no easy task, but placing it in a neighborhood is certainly possible.
Right out of the gate, the first song, “Thanks,” offers a muddled, turned-on-its-head and downright acidic take on Anita Ward’s 1979 chart-topper “Ring My Bell,” with the singer telling the listener, or some other object of disdain, just where they can go. Another song from the past, the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” receives similar treatment on Lady, as does Thomas Edison’s historic recording of “Mary had a Little Lamb.” The technique is very reminiscent of methods used by that shadowy group the Residents, with their penchant for grinding up popular music and regurgitating it in new, interesting, and often vitriolic ways.
“Mandy,” with its sinister synth, thundering bass and sparsely little else, echoes fellow travelers Public Image Ltd. so closely the song could easily be an outtake from Metal Box. And is it any wonder that the voices of Messrs. Thomas and Lydon carry a similar pitch or employ such kindred vocal theatrics?
Ironically, the most lucid song of this set, “414 Seconds,” deals with the theme of dreaming, waking up in a dream, and trying to come to terms with what is happening in the dream. There’s a long-running tradition of odes to sleep, trance, and dream states in rock, the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” and Alex Chilton’s “Holocaust” being but two that come to mind. The one that “414 Seconds” most closely resembles, though, is the nightmarish dreamscape of Captain Beefheart’s “Sue Egypt,” so much so that one almost expects Don Van Vliet to pop out of a hat at any moment while cackling, “Bring me my scissors!”
And, of course, it can be no accident that Lady from Shanghai shares its title with a 1947 film noir featuring a climactic and surrealistic shootout in a hall of mirrors, where what is real and what is a reflection simply cannot be discerned.
If this is an album of dance music, I would love to see the dance.