Monday, 8 December 2014

Swiftly Moving On - Pere Ubu

I have previously said that however much I liked the ground zero affect punk had, the feeling of a return to basics of The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces and The Beatles, I didn't regard Punk as being much more than a nostalgic whist drive. Yes it had drive, energy and a desire to return music to its everyman roots but it still sounded like old R 'n B sped up to 100mph. Not to be rude or dismissive of a movement that galvanised many it simply wasn't my cup of tea. At least not all of it. Many of the bands that came at around, a little before in some cases, Punk , Doctor Feelgood, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Eddie and the Hotrods, and those that arrived during that crash and burn era, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads etc, were far more the sort of contemporary music I liked.
As soon as you cast any criticism Punk's way the tribesmen of music spring up accusing you of all manner of things including being into Prog Rock. I didn't much like that either, at least not the grandiosity Of Emerson Lake and Palmer, the wacky and tiresomely long bits recorded by Genesis or the Topographic apologists, Yes. That said, and with regard to Yes, I liked very much their earlier output - 'The Yes Album,' and 'Fragile.' I think the ability of Chris Squire, Steve Howe and the effervescent Rick Wakeman along with the peerless Bill Bruford are beyond question. I just think they all became far too enamoured with propelling Rock down Classical music paths that were in fact cul-de-sacs.
You see, being born in the era I was, playing infant witness as Rock and Roll soared about me, bucking trends, being outrageous fun and bringing black music, black folk music, to white people, amazing in itself, before moving like a music meteor from the plain and simple to the more challenging psychedelic sounds which shortly morphed into the underground, was amazing enough. Observing those unbelievably fast changes was, and still is, an incredible experience. It was there, in the so called underground, where the true experimentalists flourished, the likes of The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd and Family and all the rest gave rise, following King Crimson's explosive, ground breaking first album, to the media created notion of Prog Rock.
Both Zappa and Beefheart were streets ahead of anything Prog produced. In many ways Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were Prog before the term was invented.
Prog, just like Brit Pop, was an after thought, one that turned into a lumbering monster, one that sucked under its banner bands and acts that had been part of the counter culture underground long before the Brit Mags invented the term 'Prog Rock.' Prog was a beast, or turned into one, ashamed of the working class earthiness of Rock desiring to elevate it by emulating classical music and jazz. Van Der Graaf Generator were claimed by Prog but were originally underground.  Another band from the underground were Can. So were Soft Machine. All them got roped in and shoved beneath that Prog Rock banner. It was all case of being seen to be clever rather than creative.
This desire to present  absolute virtuosity above and beyond all else went against the grain of the music that nurtured it. Folk, or Rock if you'd prefer (Rock is electric Folk of the 20th and on century) is a concise medium that captures, encapsulates, in  minimalist form the beauty of song. Yes, it allows for virtuosic performance, Louis Armstrong on 'Summer Time,' Jimi Hendrix on 'All Along the Watchtower,' but never at the compromise of the song or piece. Prog's blatant embarrassment at its mother's expense led to some woeful displays and recordings that were aimed less at an audience and more self ego.
In 1969, when the then nascent strains of what was to be called Prog were sounding, through the next year and into 1971, a great deal of inventive music was made by bands and acts under the Prog banner. By 1974, as Robert Fripp rightly stated, Prog had passed its sell by date. It was indeed the sound of dinosaurs.
It was after the eviscerating affect of Punk that unleashed anew a desire to experiment within the bounds of song structure, where Prog (and Heavy Rock) was ripped apart then tossed aside like so much pretentious twaddle that true experimentation, true experimental Rock could resurface. And it did in the shape of the aforementioned Talking Heads, Public Image Limited, The Fall, Wire and of course, Pere Ubu.

Pere Ubu, what a name for a band, were formed in 1975. This was the self same year Punk exploded on the scene. The band may have formed just as Punk was booting down the doors of one sort of establishment but they were not of that movement in any shape or form. Oh, they had a similar 'garage band' feel to their output but then again so did the Stooges and The Velvets. Pere Ubu were grounded, raw, ambitious and hugely creative but Punk? No.
 "Lighting should be theatrical rather than rockist. We are interested in atmosphere, mood, drama, energy, subtlety,  imagination - not rock cliché."

There was never, and still isn't, anything clichéd about them or their leader, David Thomas. With a sound that throbs rather than explodes, a propulsion rather than emulsion, they strike instantly as being connected to a time before either Prog or Punk whilst emphasising the experimental over flashy displays of virtuosity even if all the players are capable musicians. 

Its all too easy to bring comparison of The Fall to bear when speaking of Pere Ubu. After all, both bands have one driving force. In the case of The Fall it is Mark E. Smith, with Pere Ubu it is David Thomas.

Born in 1953 in Miami, Florida with a singularly and instantly recognisable voice that stretches notes as a cactus shredded through a violin, David brings not only a distinctive voice but an incomparable vision to his work.

The band forever challenges. Not only on the musical front but themselves. Odd, thin, membranous, melodies drawn taut over an incessant rhythm, a pulsing swerved thrust, with David's voice tweaked tight above.  Although high pitched the vocal is dry. It contains a sonic semaphore  or some form of code as it is often impenetrable on first listening's and yet still manages to convey a depth of emotion in much the same way a moody Whale might if contemplating man's arrival on the oceans - a desperate sadness is conveyed. 

I find I can listen to the band with or without tuning in to the words. The vocal somehow acts as an audial mirage floating around the beat that combined generates a hypnotic, concussive drive.

Tape loops litter their songs along with a buzzy boxed synth grumbling and grinding in and about a sawing guitar with yelps and whoops accompanying an overall slipped disc discordant throb.

It is their/his insistence on reinvention that gives the band its longevity. Never sounding the same as the last recording yet paradoxically forever sounding the same. The connection to those early sixties bands may appear spurious. There is nothing remotely like the Fab Fours harmonies, or The Kinks urbane wit but still there is that simple approach. If I had to select influences then perhaps Can and The Velvet Underground, along with may other disparate groups and composers would be up there.

At the end though, when group members have come and gone and the music is still pounding out the only single factor that remains, two in fact, is Pere Ubu's ever seeking for new ways to express themselves and secondly the vision of David Thomas who holds the steering wheel firmly in his large fists. You see with experimental music you don't necessarily need virtuosity you just need soul and David Thomas and his band, Pere Ubu have plenty of that.


Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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