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Last updated 01/18/2017
The Buyer's Guide to Pere Ubu
Deciding where to start with Pere Ubu, if you're a newbie, or where to go if you've dropped out for awhile, can be daunting. Few bands have made so many different kinds of records over such a long time. Each album page includes some review quotes. (See the list in the gray column to the right.) These may help - but of course we only use favorable quotes! You might also want to check The Bug Report when considering which version of a release you want to buy.Consider this comment from a newbie:
Before I listened, really listened, Pere Ubu would have been the last thing in the world I would have liked. It goes like this: the first ten minutes you hate it, the next ten minutes you think to yourself "Oh, this isn't so bad" - then you realize that this is possibly the most incredible band you've ever heard.
The best currently available audio of the Historical Era albums is on Fire Records, which now has most of the Pere Ubu catalog, as well as the Rocket From The Tombs catalog, the band that was the precursor to Pere Ubu, featuring David Thomas (then known as Crocus Behemoth). For the Fire releases David Thomas and Paul Hamann at Suma Studio have taken the original analog mix tapes and transferred them to digital at the highest resolution currently available, 192khz / 24 bit. The vinyl is cut directly from these transfers on the best cutting lathe manufactured by Neumann. Compact Disc audio is produced from those transfers using state-of-the-art software. David Thomas prepares all the download audio. Fire's policy is that with the purchase of vinyl or cd the buyer is given free download codes for song files in the MP3 (VBR), MP3 (320 kbps), FLAC, ALAC, AAC, and/or Ogg Vorbis formats.
If it's a single album you want to start with, consider Dub Housing (1978), reissued by Fire in 2015. In a fan's poll of Ubu's Greatest Hits, seven of the album's ten songs could be found in the top 35. Critics generally agree that this, Ubu's second release, is the masterpiece from the Historical Era. Ubu's first album release, The Modern Dance (1978), also reissued by Fire in 2015, appears more often on lists of the Greatest Albums Of All Time, for good reason, but this may have to do with its shocking impact. Can't go wrong starting with it instead.
If you're prepared to go whole hog then the Elitism For The People vinyl box set should be considered. It includes all the recordings by Pere Ubu from 1975 to 1978: The Hearpen Singles, 'The Modern Dance,' 'Dub Housing' and a live album from 1977 called 'Manhattan.' 'The Hearpen Singles' disk is a collection of all the non-LP singles released 1975 - 1977. Most of these songs appear in the Greatest Hits fan poll. The impact that the Hearpen singles had on the emerging music of 1975 - 1978 cannot be understated.
The box sets emphasize that the progression from 'The Hearpen Singles' to 'New Picnic Time' is a straight line.
The singles, one after the other, open doors and step inside rooms that are individual spacetimes, each suggesting an alternative future for the band. This process culminates with the 'Manhattan' disk. 'The Modern Dance' is a collection of individual songs. With 'Dub Housing' the individual songs begin to coalesce into an overarching story. 'New Picnic Time' completes that process. Every subsequent Pere Ubu album reflects that paradigm. The technique used to tell a Pere Ubu story is pointillist. Each song is a collection of pinprick-like dabs of paint. Only by stepping back can you see that the collection of dabs makes for an image and that the assembly of songs makes for a story. The listener must cooperate with a Pere Ubu song and a Pere Ubu album and that involves a degree of submission.
Where to go from here is a bit of a crap-shoot. Three more albums comprise the Historical Era - in order, they are the dense jungle of New Picnic Time (1979), the testing The Art of Walking (1980), and the tightly crafted Song of the Bailing Man (1982). One way or another these are all considered to be 'difficult' albums, albeit each passionately endorsed by different factions of Ubu Fandom. As a newbie you will find this a recurring theme - there are fans who will claim that any one of these is Ubu's greatest work, and as many who will claim any one of these to be the weakest.
Four albums comprise the Fontana Years. Unavailable for years they were reissued by Mercury in April 2007. Again, opinions are strongly held. The Tenement Year (1988) was designed to be a clattery heap, Cloudland (1989), an epic journey (and the band's original intentions are clarified on the revised 2007 reissue), Worlds In Collision (1991), an examination of pop music through the Ubu prism (with references and tips of the hat scattered and hidden throughout), and Story Of My Life (1993), an oddly-defined roots document. All were critically praised at the time of release though many in Ubu Fandom were shocked at the production of some of them. Either 'Cloudland' for its ambition or 'Worlds In Collision' for the quality of the songwriting are good places to start. If you like your Ubu messy then go for 'The Tenement Year.' And Rolling Stone magazine enthused over 'Story Of My Life,' "The most stirring new music I've heard this year."
For a taste of the Fontana Years you might try Apocalypse Now (1999), a live album recorded at a small Chicago club in the middle of a long tour supporting The Pixies in 1991. It is a spirited and impromptu semi-acoustic performance with Eric Drew Feldman playing a honky-tonk upright piano with dubious tuning instead of synthesizer. It's also interesting to hear Pere Ubu stripped of electronics playing as a 'normal' rock band. Very revealing. Brief glimpses of the band playing 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' and Hawkwind's 'Master of the Universe.' And, until recently, the only source for two b-side recordings, 'Invisible Man and 'Wine Dark Sparks' (a tribute to Van Dyke Parks). Live recordings from various times can be found on the Ubutique page, the Ubu Projex online shop.
Next comes the Modern Era. First go to The Director's Cut releases of either of Raygun Suitcase (1995) or Pennsylvania (1998). Each was highly praised but if you have to start with one choose 'Raygun Suitcase' simply because it sets you up for the 'Pennsylvania' experience, an album Greil Marcus voted as the best of 1998. The 'Modern Era' is rounded off by 2002's St. Arkansas, 2006's Why I Hate Women, and 2009's "Long Live Père Ubu!", a musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi,' which was also accompanied by a theatrical production called Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi.
30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Beach Boys, Birdies, Breath, Bus Called Happiness, Busman's Honeymoon, Caligari's Mirror, Chinese Radiation, Codex, Come Home, Dark, Dub Housing, Fabulous Sequel, Final Solution, Folly Of Youth, George Had A Hat, Go, Goodbye, Heart of Darkness, Heaven, Humor Me, I Will Wait, Laughing, Misery Goats, Modern Dance, My Dark Ages, Navvy, Nonalignment Pact, Oh Catherine, On The Surface, SAD.TXT, Slow Walking Daddy, Small Was Fast, Street Waves, Ubu Dance Party, Waiting for Mary, Wasted, We Have The Technology, Woolie Bullie, and Worlds In Collision.
The Shape Of Things captures the band in Cleveland in early 1976 and though the recording is true bootleg style it is a must-have - someone complained on a retail website somewhere that it was the worst sounding record he'd ever heard. Maybe he missed the HUGE text on the front cover noting that it was recorded on a cassette machine in 1976. What do you expect? Sting?
hearpen.com is a good source for bootleg-style live recordings of various Ubu performances as well as other rarities and studio releases. We use the best quality compression for these downloads which means the file sizes are relatively large - that is the price of quality - but broadband access is now common and it shouldn't matter. If you're in the market for a download of an Ubu Projex product check here first. The audio quality will be better than you can find anywhere else.
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Buyer's Guide to Pere Ubu
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Pere Ubu Studio Albums
David Thomas Albums
Rocket From The Tombs