The Pere Ubu project was supposed to be an end, not a beginning. Assembled in August 1975 to be the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of the Cleveland music underground, the plan was to record one, maybe two singles and exist no more. Within months, however, those first self-produced records were being snapped up in London, Paris, Manchester, New York and Minneapolis. Pere Ubu was changing the face of rock music. Over the next 34 years they defined the art of cult; refined the voice of the outsider; and inspired the likes of Joy Division, Pixies, Husker Du, Henry Rollins, REM, Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Dolby, Bauhaus, Julian Cope and countless others.
Singer David Thomas named the band after the protagonist of Ubu Roi, a play by Frenchman Alfred Jarry. The single, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” b/w “Heart of Darkness,” released in 1975, was the first of four independent releases on Hearpen Records and, along with Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” signaled the beginning of the New Wave. In the early to mid-70s the musicians who were to form Pere Ubu were part of a fertile rock scene that also produced 15-60-75, The Mirrors, The Electric Eels, Rocket From The Tombs, Tin Huey, and Devo.
The group’s first album, The Modern Dance (1978) was a startling work that influenced an entire generation of bands. Its follow-up, Dub Housing (1978), was the masterpiece, “an incomparable work of American genius.” Pere Ubu toured Europe extensively in 1978, supported by the likes of The Pop Group, Nico, Human League, The Soft Boys and Red Crayola. Late in 1979 Tom Herman left and was replaced by Mayo Thompson, the guitarist from 60s Texas psychedelic-rock legends The Red Krayola. The Art Of Walking (1980) followed, a challenging stew of inside-out song structures. Anton Fier (The Feelies, Peter Laughner’s Friction, The Golden Palominos) replaced Scott Krauss in the middle of 1981 and recorded Song Of The Bailing Man (1982). At the end of an American tour in December 1981, and after months of growing friction between two members of the group, the band ceased to exist as a functioning unit.
In 1981, Thomas recorded the first of two albums with British folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson. Three more solo albums featured members of the dormant Ubu. The last of these, 1987’s Ubu-like Blame The Messenger (by David Thomas and the Wooden Birds), led to the reanimation of the Pere Ubu projex. The line-up had been Thomas, Allen Ravenstine, Tony Maimone, Chris Cutler and Jim Jones. Jones was a stalwart on the Cleveland scene and a member of nearly every good band to come from it, at one time or another. Cutler, drummer in English prog-rock outfits Henry Cow and Art Bears, was an early advocate of Ubu and subsequently became a friend of the band. At a Wooden Birds appearance in Cleveland, Krauss sat in with the band. The two drummers line-up sounded good. Later, at the beginning of a European tour, in the lobby of a hotel in Ijmuiden, Holland, Pere Ubu was reactivated. Krauss was asked to join as a second drummer. The clattering Tenement Year, recorded for a British label (Fontana) headed by Ubu fanatic Dave Bates, followed in March 1988.
Teamed with another Ubu fan, producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, etc.), Ubu shifted gears for 1989’s Cloudland, an epic journey across the landscape of America. Tired of touring and the grind of it all, Ravenstine retired to take up a career as an airline pilot for Northwest Airlines. He was replaced by Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger) who appeared on Stereo Review’s Record of The Year, Worlds In Collision (1991), produced by Gil Norton (The Pixies). Cutler, unable to juggle all the demands of his many musical projects, had to leave. The Pixies invited Ubu to support them on an extensive tour of America in 1991. Feldman, subsequently, joined The Pixies as a sideman and worked on Frank Black’s solo projects. When Feldman was unable to record with Ubu because of these commitments the band decided to record what would be the last Fontana album, Story Of My Life (1993), as a four-piece.
Garo Yellin, playing an electrified cello, and veteran of The Ordinaires and several of Thomas’ solo projects, was recruited to fill the “synthesizer” slot. They Might Be Giants invited Ubu to support them on a tour of America in 1993. Subsequently, Maimone left to work in the They Might Be Giants band. He was replaced by Michele Temple who had previously replaced him in the Jones/Krauss 80s side project, Home & Garden.
In January 1994, again without a major label, the band recorded demos for a projected album, Songs From The Lost LP, intended to be a tribute to Smile. Krauss left… again. Yellin, busy with his quartet in NYC, was replaced by Robert Wheeler, organic farmer, Ravenstine-protegé, and president of the Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace Foundation. Thomas announced that he was now ready to become the producer for Pere Ubu and that was what he was going to do. Raygun Suitcase (1995), awarded CD Review’s Editors’ Choice Award, was recorded to a click track in the hope that Krauss would change his mind. When he didn’t, Scott Benedict, the drummer in Temple’s group, The Vivians, came in over a weekend, the last weekend of production, and recorded all the drum parts in one of the most magnificent displays of studio-craft the band had ever experienced. The next week he retired to take up landscape gardening. Steve Mehlman, Benedict’s replacement in The Vivians, replaced him in Ubu.
In August 1995 Jones retired from the road for health reasons. Herman rejoined the group for the Raygun Suitcase tours, and together with Jim Jones recorded Pennsylvania (1998), a highly acclaimed album nominated by one of America’s preeminent rock critics, Greil Marcus, as the best of 1998. In 1999 the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame promoted a special event, “55 Years of Pain,” honoring Pere Ubu and the grand-daddies of the Cleveland scene, 15-60-75. The event was repeated at the Royal Festival Hall in London later in the year, and at the “Fall of The Magnetic Empire Festival,” curated by Thomas and staged at New York City’s Knitting Factory, and during which Wayne Kramer of the MC5 joined the group as guitarist for one show.
The release of St Arkansas (2006) was celebrated by The Mighty Road Tour. A “splinter” group within the band, referred to as The Pere Ubu Film Group, premiered a live underscore to a rare 3-D screening of Ray Bradbury’s “It Came From Outer Space” at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in October 2002. A highly successful 6-date tour of the underscore in the United Kingdom followed in November 2004. The group premiered its underscore to Roger Corman’s “X, the Man With X-Ray Eyes” at ‘Celebrate Brooklyn’ (New York City) in 2004.
After a decade of perfecting a “hyper-naturalistic” recording method (junk-o-phonics), Thomas produced Why I Hate Women (2006). It was recorded, for the most part, without the use of ‘professional’ microphones. Instead an array of ‘junk-o-phones’ designed by long-time engineer Paul Hamann were used. These included an array of speakers salvaged from broken devices, wooden boxes, metal horns, panes of glass, even doors, wired into specialized electronics.
The band’s most ambitious project, which would culminate in the release of “Long Live Père Ubu!” (2009), began in July 2007. It was an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, recorded, again, using junk-o-phonics in such a way that the acoustic quality of the sound itself becomes a narrative voice. A theatrical production, Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi, and a radio play of the theatrical production became part of the project. British singer Sarah Jane Morris joined the group for the project. Cult filmmakers, The Brothers Quay, created animations for the theatrical production. On April 24 and 25, 2008, “Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi” premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and was subsequently staged in its full theatrical state at the Animator Festival in Poznan, Poland, July 11 2009, and at the Festival Scènes d’Europe in Reims, France, on Dec. 16 2009. A concert version called “Long Live Père” toured in Europe and the USA.
Lady From Shanghai (2013) marked the fulfillment of a twenty year project working out the Chinese Whispers methodology. A book of the same name, written by David Thomas, accompanied the release. (It was his second book; the first was called The Book of Hieroglyphs.) In July of 2013, an underscore to the 60s cult film ‘Carnival of Souls’ was premiered at the East End Film Festival in London. Songs and musical pieces written for the underscore were developed over the course of a tour of the United Kingdom, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, in November 2013, undertaken by a ‘shock troops’ version of the band. Each night ideas were improvised from scratch. The album Carnival of Souls (release date September 8 2014) resulted. Clarinetist Darryl Boon had contributed to a couple songs on ‘Lady From Shanghai.’ Over the course of the making of ‘Carnival of Souls’ he was fully integrated into the group.
In 2014, Pere Ubu renounced its ‘US citizenship’ and applied for creative asylum in Leeds, England, after a cabal of the American Federation of Musicians and a clique of government clerks in a small town in Vermont determined that Pere Ubu was unworthy of being granted permission to perform in America.
“By 1978 they had achieved what no other group would even attempt, before or since, they had become the world’s only expressionist Rock‘n’Roll band, harnessing a range of rock and musique concrete elements together in a sound which drew its power from, and worked on, levels of consciousness previously untouched by popular music. The music Ubu made in 1978 was heart and soul, body and mind, in one.”Andy Gill - NME