n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges had this to say on having never written a full-length novel: “The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary.” Anyone who has experienced “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” or “The Lottery in Babylon” can attest to the power of his approach, as can anyone who knows deep down that ghost stories are scarier than monster movies, that the true horror is not in being shown but in being told. I have never watched the BBC special Ghostwatch, but reading the bare outlines of it has been enough to terrify myself and those I've passed it on to. The most powerful accounts of things are often fragmentary, second-hand, not only leaving our imaginations free to craft special, individual terrors but also allowing our minds to teeter on the precipice that if we knew more it might be worse.
Music can work the same way, although usually the intent is not to invoke dread. The explicit idea behind the On First Listen column is to expose us not just to bands we haven't heard but ones we should have—and as a result we have some idea of what we're getting into, cobbled from half-remembered blurbs and Recommended If You Likes and friends mentioning them. For better or worse the actual band can never live up to the conceptions, more powerful than reality, that we stitch together. My primary experience of Pere Ubu before this article was twofold: Julian Cope's Head-On and Simon Reynolds' post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Again.
This is particularly perilous; the Reynolds was a copy I'd borrowed, so not only was I left with only a (laudatory) description, I actually only had fragmentary, exaggerated memories of that description; meanwhile, Cope's ramshackle memoir describes them as “the new American art-fuck sound” and makes them sound like the best thing that could happen to a teenager. The combination of these sources was enough to make me excited about actually hearing Pere Ubu, and enough to make the experience at first seem crushingly disappointing.
I mean it seems silly now, but at first I was so let down that Pere Ubu just play rock and roll. I had been expecting something beastly and howling, something more than “just” music, to wrench me out of my ordinary listening posture and slam me back against the chair I was in. My first miscalculation was putting on The Modern Dance to start with. I'd heard so much about how weird David Thomas' voice was, but it was just a voice, equally redolent of David Byrne and Mercury Rev's David Baker. This was just a rock band. There were some interesting textures and once we hit “Street Waves” and “Chinese Radiation” my interest began to perk up, but I was still trying to wrap my head around the mundane fact of the band's existence.
Terminal Tower, the collection of Pere Ubu's pre-debut tracks, went down much better. “Heart of Darkness,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” and “Final Solution” indeed made as bracing a beginning as you could hope for. Having listened to both discs (and The Modern Dance's successor Dub Housing) a few more times I can tell that it actually is the early material that I like the most, but it's those epochal opening moments that opened the other Pere Ubu records for me, that got me over what I thought I wanted and let me start appreciating what was actually there.
Pere Ubu, you see, had existed for me not as a music, but as an excess, a certain fuck-the-world and fuck-the-scene existence, that may or may not have borne any relation at all to their actual existence. Very one-dimensional, in other words. I quickly found they were quirky, slyly clever, capable of near-lethal levels of abstraction but also able to be punishingly direct. Dub Housing seems likely to grow into my favorite, “Navvy” to “Codex,” spangled with Allen Ravenstine's unearthly synths; Terminal Tower a bit more of a mixed bag, although I could profitably listen to “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” for days on end; The Modern Dance seems kind of pale to me in comparison with the other two although “Laughing” may be my favourite Pere Ubu song now.
Do I know them now? Not even close. But how crazy, how weird, to have this name go from myth to flesh-and-amplifier in under two hours; the ramshackle, human, learning mess of Pere Ubu's music isn't as impressive as I'd imagined but it's traded that for an odd kind of lovableness. There's a palpably shaggy sense of growth and discovery even on the band's first three major releases, of a group refusing to stick with what they do just because no-one else was doing it. The gap between “The Book Is on the Table” and “Life Stinks” and “Caligari's Mirror” should have been insurmountable, but it's the same band (if not all the same people), the same identity behind it.
All I'd ever heard about Pere Ubu were their art rock credentials, the incredible jolt in the arm they gave to people like Cope; they felt rarefied, something for the cognoscenti. What I hadn't picked up, reading and hearing about them is that they were/are basically the greatest, most fearless, daring, smartest garage rock band to ever decide that they could go slow and weird as well as fast and loose and never lose the scuzz. The story I had in my head was thrilling; slowly, I'm discovering that the real stuff is just as exciting once you dig in.