This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Pere Ubu – “The Modern Dance” (Radar Records, 1978)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued is similar to April’s Classics Critiqued choice “Y” by The Pop Group. Like “Y”, “The Modern Dance” is an album that regularly receives critical praise (it has been featured in 24 different critics’ charts) but it and Pere Ubu still seem in the shadow of their more accessible peers. “The Modern Dance” was the début album by Pere Ubu who had formed out the ruminants of Cleveland, Ohio garage rock band Rocket from the Tombs in 1975. Ubu founders David Thomas (vocals) and Peter Laugher (guitar) (replaced by Tom Herman when he died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977) were joined by Tim Wright (guitar/bass) (replaced by Tony Maimone (bass/piano) in 1977 after he left to form no-wavers DNA), Allen Ravenstine (synths) and Scott Krauss (drums) in the band’s original line-up. Together they “combined art and garage rock – synth whines, cut-up tape loops, atonal howling and chronic distortion”. They released their first three singles on Thomas’ Hearthen label between 1975 – 1977.

These quickly established the band as one that was difficult to pigeonhole. They were instantly “recruited to ‘punk’ then gathering momentum as journalists continued to talk up the CBGB scene while monitoring the early stirrings of insurrection in London.” All this despite the prog rock like structure of “30 Seconds Over Toyko” and Thomas’ assertion that “our ambitions were considerably different from the Sex Pistols”, he saw punk as puerile and destructive, “Pere Ubu didn’t want to piss on rock music; they wanted to contribute to it, help it mature as an art form”. By 1978 and the release of “The Modern Dance” the band were primed to show the world they weren’t part of the reductive punk movement but closely related to their early ’70s inspirations such as Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Neu!, The Stooges, Brian Eno and The Soft Machine as well as their current peers The Residents, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio, Scritti Politti, The Pop Group and Public Image Ltd.

An important thing to remember when listening to Pere Ubu is that they formed in Cleveland, Ohio, which was in the ’70s a shadow of its former glory as a giant in the iron industry. This permeates the music with a strong sense of solid concrete and a metallic feel. The band described their music as “industrial folk” and like their peers in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool their music spoke of the landscape in which they lived without actually referring to it lyrically. The harshness of Ravestine’s synths, the razor-sharp, mechanical riffs of new guitarist Tom Herman and the motorik rhythm section all added to this feeling of industrial buildings and decay as a back drop to their music. The band “waxed lyrical about the area in their first interviews: ore-loaded barge floating down the Cuyahoya; steel foundries pounding flat-out night and day; the glare from the blast furnaces bruising the night in hues of green and purple; belching chimneys and lattices of piping silhouetted against the sky.” “We thought it was magnificent … like going to an art museum or something” recollected singer David Thomas 20 years later.

The band saw music as multi dimensional and used Ravenstine’s synth and tape loops to invoke images in the mind’s eye. “I’ve always been into music more on a visual than aural level.” David Thomas said of Ravenstine in a NME interview in 1978, “He’s at the core of Ubu, I suppose. He’s a very unusual synthesizer player. He’s very purist with it, and he doesn’t even have a keyboard – instead he has a touch tone dial. He doesn’t want to combine anything musical with the synthesizer, because he feels – and rightly so, I think – that it’s a new instrument and should be treated as such.” Drummer Krauss agreed “He’d make a noise like a five-pound can with a whole bunch of bumble bees inside” said “Krauss then he’d change the wave form and it’d sound like a beach with a load of people on it. Ten seconds later, it’s flip to a freight car noise. The imagination-activating level was absolutely amazing.”

However, the music wasn’t all doom and industrial gloom. The Cleveland sense of humour came into play in the band’s lyrics. “Thomas is more of an ‘actor’ than a musician for whom surreal lyrics and student humour attenuate the dramatic force of the performance. Within the sound there is also a feeling of resigned fatalism, collective madness and rational fear.” Thomas’ vocals aren’t that a typical rock front man he “wails, yelps, gargles” and exploits the full gamut of human vocal sounds to enhance and underline the emotion he’s expressing. “Thomas never got “the modern dance”. The emotions were real, but everything else was a joke, just like the music which has a good laugh as well with, skipping along amid the destruction and anxiety as the singer asks to be humoured – “it was just a joke mon.”

All this combined to make an album that from the opener ‘Non Alignment Pact’’s “furious, deafening bacchanal of cryptic slogans, ungainly vocals, discordant strumming, electronic distortions and primordial pulsations”, through the title track’s sound “of primordial organic funk…which evokes the smoke of factory chimneys and the ordered structure of the production line”, the sweeping menacing winds of ‘Street Waves’ evoking the miasmic gust after a nuclear explosion, propelled at supersonic speed by a stop-start rhythm and invoking a prophetic vision of the apocalypse. Finally finishing with ‘Humor Me’’s jangly jesting undercut by the lyrics and atmosphere of despair.

For such a complex album that combined the world’s art and garage rock or as the band punningly put it “avant-garage”, it has gone on to be a direct or indirect influence on many bands and artists since. The most obvious of these would be the Pixies. Their sound, surreal lyrics and the appearance of singer Black Francis all echo Pere Ubu. It’s unlikely that the earliest works of TV on the Radio would have been the same without a trail having been blazed for them and modern underground rock bands like Liars and Oneida plough a similar furrow to that explored on “The Modern Dance”. Cult rocker Julian Cope also covered ‘Non Alignment Pact’, which seems to be an acknowledgement of the band’s importance by one of their post-punk peers. Like “Y” by The Pop Group mentioned at the start of this column, “The Modern Dance” tests the very boundaries of what music, particularly rock music, is capable of before it becomes a tuneless mess. It won’t be the easiest listen ever but “The Modern Dance” will reward those who stick with it and consume all of its intricacies.

You can listen to “The Modern Dance” here.

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