Pere Ubu - Terminal Tower: An Archival Collection, Non-LP Singles and B-Sides, 1975-1980
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"Sure, she said, as Picasso once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when others make it.” -– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
So it could be argued (though, really, what can’t?) that this is ugly music, that this is bleak music, that this is some of the first American punk music. At least the latter is true: Pere Ubu’s first two singles, which even some of the most bitterly jaded rock critics (that is, the ones who not only hesitated to go apeshit over, say, The Avalanches or Sigur Ros, but who also hold firmly entrenched non-canonical convictions, i.e. that the MC5 sucked after, and possibly even during, “Kick Out The Jams,” and that the Suburban Lawns’ LP was the best record released in the rich year 1979) don’t hesitate to call epochal were self-released on its own Hearthen label. There are appropriately tiny reproductions of these singles’ low-budget sleeves in the Terminal Tower CD booklet, which finally set to rest the “Hearthen”/“Hearpen” dispute: the label changed its name after the first 45 (though the liner notes actually transpose the two names). Its artwork budget, however, did not increase: the first is a gloomy, vaguely R.-Crumb-ish drawing of a grinning Kilroy-like ghoul in what one can infer is a sort of sylvan graveyard, the second a more isolated, enigmatic, aesthetically forward-thinking image of what seems to be a smoking chalice.
The black-and-white sleeeves of these singles, the most startling, boundary-shattering items on this collection, radiate a weird, home-brew aspect. They remind me of the private-press records I used to stumble across in the extreme-discount bins of Delaware record stores, my two favorites being an album by a singer-songwriter who used to headline at a local seafood restaurant and a home-organ demo album (this one I had to buy; this one deserves a review of its own) performed by a vested, puffy-sleeved, five-ring-wearing man who my mother once taught school with, who had been kicked off of American Bandstand for a nasty tendency towards excessive drinking. (He was replaced by Dick Clark.) As anti-traditionalist, anti-glossy-band-rockin’-out-shot as they seem – these records weren’t designed to shift units, unless they were catering to budding outsider-art afficionados or perverse academicians (cf. the Alfred-Jarry-derived band name; we’ll get to the song titles and themes in a minute) – they can hardly compare to the music within. Not only is it quirky, not only is it weird: it’s incredibly strong stuff.
“Heart of Darkness” b/w “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” Pere Ubu’s first vinyl statement to the world – or, at least, Cleveland – was initially sent back by its pressing plant, who reported an excess of bizarre white-noise that, for some reason, seemed to mar both of the record’s sides. (Do I even need to note that it was intentional?) It is best described as an aesthetic hybrid of messy Seeds-style garage rock, grim Sabbath-like industrial drone, and avant-garde something-else-entirely-core, crudely fashioned by the oddball human detritus left in the wake of abrasive, confrontational, member-swapping, dissolve-on-impact bands the Mirrors, Electric Eels, and Rocket From The Tombs (which included Peter Laughner and a warbling giant who called himself Crocus Behemoth), as well as the bizarre performance-art/synth band Hy Maya (which lent the band Alan Ravenstine, its astonishingly aggressive keyboardist). “Heart of Darkness” begins with a driving, more or less straightforward drums-and-bass intro, backed by steely guitar; David Thomas (the former Crocus Behemoth) makes his entrance in a double-tracked near-whisper, and we suddenly realize that fans of more mainstream musical fare would instantly describe something going on here as, well, wrong. Thomas sounds like he’s given up hope – “I don’t see anything that I want” – and yet, in abandoning it, has gained a strange confidence. With that, the music briefly explodes into a wall of effects-laden guitar. Then things return to the troubled groove, which keeps building slightly towards fuzz-laced rave-up, then dropping again to the wavery minimalism of a suddenly high-pitched vocal (this time one track of Thomas sings in a much higher register than another) against the driving rhythm. There is a climax here, but it’s momentarily denied us. Fade-out.
Then comes the B-side: it begins in cascading, grimy psychedelia of guitars on a slow, relentless march. Thomas is weary here – he’s given up the act we heard on the first side; sides A and B could just as easily have been labeled “manic” and “depressive” – and narrating what we can only infer to be a personal apocalypse. The music corresponds, offering dive-bombing sound effects and a freeform, double-time bridge that combines the spasmic, haphazard rhythmic nihilism of the Monks with Can at their most frenetic and squalling. Ravenstine’s synthesizer, as on the later album The Modern Dance, is the star of the show here, offering up some truly unexpected spiky textures. When things cool down a bit, Thomas returns, again over the track’s opening section. “Time seems like it’ll never begin,” his muffled voice announces. This existential dilemma plays out over his not-quite-calm repetition of the track’s Doolittle-Raid-derived title, until the synth blows its nose and obliterates everything in mid-sentence.
Pere Ubu’s next single, “Final Solution” b/w “Cloud 149,” took things in a less artsy direction; one could, after all, have accused the group of lacking a sense of humor, or at least anything aside from a severely dark (and therefore limited) one. This time, though, the band begins on a tongue-in-cheek ode to teen angst and the pleasures received from grisly, melodramatic rock music; I’ve always thought of “Final Solution” as a song sung by the listener of the first album who, like so many rock protagonists afflicted by the hormonal surge with whom some of us – the ones who were meant to in the first place – identify with well into our twenties, even thirties, simply wants some measure of peace to himself and probably has suicidal urges daily, even if he can’t fully comprehend what they mean. He’s got monstrous acne! Girls hate him! His mom threw him out until he gets some pants that fit! Again, it’s the strafing synth runs which waver through this song, oscillating then exploding at all the right times, that provide it with its moments of extreme aural genius; by the time the surging, truly incredible final chorus begins to rise, after some damaged Beach Boys harmonizing and windswept-slums atmospherics, I’m convinced this is one of the greatest rock songs I’ve heard to date, mercilessly honest, massive, epic. “Cloud 149” serves as a somewhat underwhelming but cathartic counterpoint, a flight into a strange, trash-rock idyll.
Of course, there are seven other songs on this album. Some, like “My Dark Ages,” are perfect encapsulations of Ubu’s later, more polished (read: pianos instead of synthesizers, melodies brought into gleaming focus amidst all the smoldering wreckage) work; others, like the befuddling “The Book Is On The Table” (a french-instructional record over a hateful, arrythmic backing; think the mutant offspring of De La Soul’s “Transmitting Live From Mars”) are pure throwaways. In short, there’s some work of ugly beauty on here for almost everyone to hate themselves a bit for falling in enraptured love with. This is, you know, a band like no other.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01