Monday, August 10, 2015

Elitism For The People: My Look At The Essential New Pere Ubu Box Set

In about 10 days a box set is gonna come out that will change your life. It's easy to fall into that trap of over-praising music but, honestly, some of the tracks on this one are mind-bending and consciousness-expanding. Elitism For The People 1975-1978 collects the first two albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, both 1978), a bunch of singles (The Hearpen Singles), and a live set (Manhattan) that make the case collectively for Pere Ubu being heirs to the throne of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. That they had that throne ages ago doesn't diminish my point.

More than punk rock, these early recordings are like music from another planet at times. Tribal, funky, jazzy, austere, pretentious, invigorating, life-affirming -- the music here can't help but change your perspective. For every cut that roars, there's one that sounds like madness. Bridging free jazz and art rock, David Thomas' Pere Ubu blazed a trail that others would have been insane to follow. Nothing if not shockingly bracing, these tracks distill the 40-year career of these cats down to its bright, burning core.

Things begin with the debut. The Modern Dance, from 1978, oozes with naive rage. It's primal and exhilirating in spots, riding a wave of Fifties nonsense that crashes like Zappa destroying the Cochran song-book. "Street Waves" takes what could have been a blues riff and bludgeons it. The song pulses and surges forward and remains lodged in the brain for hours after you hear it. The title cut and "Non-Alignment Pact" remain essential singles for any listener. The cheeky faux Chuck Berry-isms of the latter give chills up the spine as Thomas wails and something like a drill is played in the background. Simple chords and a driving beat anchor this and the world changes every time you play it.

Dub Housing, also from 1978, is more expansive. Lacking the obvious fire of the first record, this one takes more risks and remains more experimental ("Blow Daddy-o" and the title cut). Still, for all the weird spaces explored on Dub Housing, there's the relatively normal "Navvy" which seems to have single-handedly laid the template for the early Pixies in some weird way. "On The Surface" approaches the edges of what was new wave at the time in 1978 but remains far too dense to have ever reached the levels of Devo-like mainstream acceptance...and Mothersbaugh and his crew were never that mainstream so you get my point.

This is ground zero, folks. The Hearpen Singles is a version of a box set that collected early Pere Ubu singles in one collection. This version has an "Untitled" track that is added to the other 8 tracks that were out before. However you slice it, this set is worth the price of Elitism For The People 1975-1978 alone. What we have here are 9 cuts every bit as vital as anything The Clash ever put out. "Final Solution" still astounds -- complex, beautiful, and chaotic. I probably first picked up a Pere Ubu album when I was younger thanks to Husker Du name-checking the band as an influence in interviews and Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy covering this track on his first solo LP. His version is not bad but it's The Monkees compared to The Beatles when you hold it up alongside the original cut. "Heart of Darkness" uncoils with more fury than most American bands could muster in 1977 or so. It remains another touchstone for how to make music and why Pere Ubu remain so important.

Elitism For The People 1975-1978 closes with the 6-song Manhattan live set which isn't nearly as chaotic as some of this music would have you believe. Rage on the records is turned into nearly jazz-like excursions in a live setting. "Over My Head" opens up and sounds like a vast desert of despair while "Life Stinks" rattles like Nuggets-era nobodies who had a few free minutes in a recording studio. It is gloriously unhinged and insanely catchy.

At their core, Pere Ubu were experimentalists who weren't averse to riding a hook. Somehow, in the course of making a clangorous racket, they made music that was perversely tuneful in spots. It's almost as if the songs are hook-y in spite of themselves. Seemingly intent on destroying music as they make it, Thomas and the Ubu crew in this era are without genre as they burn down multiple ones behind them.

Elitism For The People 1975-1978 by Pere Ubu is the most important compilation you can buy this month, and maybe this year. Confounding no matter how many times you play these songs, this is large, messy music. More obtuse than Beefheart, more serious than Zappa, more subtly dangerous than Iggy, David Thomas and Pere Ubu were outsiders whose music makes the rawest Joy Division demo sound positively polished. And, like those cats from the other side of the ocean, Pere Ubu pushed the envelope into the void and pulled out a bunch of notes and banged them into something resembling songs.

Out next week on Fire Records, Elitism For The People 1975-1978 by Pere Ubu is an essential purchase for fans new and old.

[Photo: Marcus Portee]