Tackling a four-disc box set of a band like Pere Ubu is always going to be a bit of a chaotic affair. Gathering up three studio albums from 79-82, David Thomas and co spin a triptych of ‘avant garage’ over an album (almost) a year - 79’s New Picnic Time, 80’s The Art Of Walking, and 1982’s Song of the Bailing Man, plus an extra disc of rare tracks and assorted live stuff.
Now, when you enter the world of Pere Ubu, you’ve to be warned. It’s not the most accessible thing in the world, and that’s probably what led New Picnic Time to be described as 'the scariest album ever recorded' by Sounds magazine. An unfurling mess of new wave guitar, bluesy swagger and incredibly harsh atonal noise, Pere Ubu don’t exactly fit any kind of genre - a band as much preoccupied with glittering telecaster riffs as they are musique concrete. Take the opening five tracks on NPT - ‘The Fabulous Sequel (Have Shoes Will Walk)’s demented new wave stomp punctured with David Thomas’ trademark yelp (“it’s me again!” he howls at the start), almost sounds like Huey Lewis and the News mid nervous breakdown, swiftly followed by ’49 Guitars And One Girl’, which descends even further down the rabbit hole thanks to slowly detuning synths drunkenly flopping over an otherwise stable alt-rock backing. ‘A Small Dark Cloud’ is literally six minutes and three seconds of out of key whistling and synth noise, before ‘Small Was Fast’ brings back the demented bluesy college rock sound - imagine REM on mushrooms, and you’re halfway there. Bear in mind, we’re only four songs deep here. ‘All The Dogs Are Barking’ then introduces a kind of half-way house between a glistening guitar riff and more harsh noise - always with the harsh noise.
It’s interesting to take bands from a similar era (both in terms of time and sound), and place them up against Pere Ubu: Talking Heads, Devo, even Blondie all had the same ingredients, but whereas David Byrne channeled the more intellectual side of things into alt-pop, Devo went full throttle into danceable synth pop, and Blondie were just… pop, Pere Ubu gloriously missed that memo, and sacrificed the same mainstream success to explore the outer fringes of music’s possibilities. Which you have to say, fair enough.
It’s hard to imagine something like Pere Ubu being around at all in 2016, so cherishing this amalgam of the bizarre is absolutely worth your time. Even if there are large chunks of this boxset which border on the unlistenable, it’s a testament to their uncompromising nature - you have to respect their vision, even when it’s a challenge to get through.
It’s fun to chart just how influential the Pere Ubu sound was too - one cursory glance at an old TV appearance from the late Eighties and you can see where Future Islands’ Sam Herring’s dad-dance comes from.
Anyway, back to the box set… if New Picnic Time was an unhinged listen, The Art of Walking takes that template and runs with it even further into the bleak, deranged sonic world that they occupy so well, before album number three, Song of the Bailing Man eases up on the more ‘challenging’ aspects of their sound and settles into a more rounded record: one which, whisper it, has something approaching a pop sensibility. Well, as pop as Ubu get, anyway: ‘Petrified’ and ’The Long Walk Home’ both zip along with abandon, before the extraordinary ‘A Day Such As This’ looms into view, all seven-odd minutes of racing kraut percussion and idiosyncratic vocals. It’s easily one of the best things here, and sounds almost like Can, if they made records on college campuses during the early Eighties.
The live stuff and rarities are, I assume, a goldmine for the hardcore (as these things usually are), and you get a neat little treasure trove of stuff: alt mixes, lost tracks and some live stuff to boot. It’s as you’d expect, another chaotic affair, and ranges wildly from ‘Humor Me’ and ‘The Book Is On The Table’s propulsive indie jangle, to ‘Not Happy’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboy Dave’s batshit insane sonic messes.
I’m reminded of that episode of the Mighty Boosh, where Howard and Vince are discussing the differences between free jazz and electro pop - 'you fear jazz', the fusty old jazz man intones to the young, hip, Human League fan. Somehow, and I’ve no idea how, Pere Ubu are somewhere in-between that - impenetrable musique concrete sound collages mixed with upbeat, breezy pop. A strange, strange world to inhabit, but one that’s ultimately as rewarding as it is frustrating. In a good way. Somehow.
7Gavin Miller's Score