Pere Ubu:
A Buyer's Guide For Newbies



How to pronounce 'Pere Ubu'?

Pere as in pear, Ubu as in oo-boo (rhymes with boo-boo). It's French, pronounced by Midwesterners. Père Ubu is a character in a series of plays by absurdist Alfred Jarry (1873 - 1907).
"I dropped the accent grave after about a week. The name was pretentious enough for a rock band with an ambition of maybe some day getting a gig at The Viking Saloon. But, to be homest, I dropped it because getting a typewriter to do accents was a pain."
Pere Ubu founder David Thomas

What is Pere Ubu?

Pere Ubu is a rock band from Cleveland, Ohio, formed from the debris of Rocket From The Tombs and, along with bands such as David Thomas and the pedestrians, the wooden birds and the two pale boys, can be found at the home of The Avant Garage, Ubu Projex.

Pere Ubu was the dominant force in the now mythical Cle Scene of the 70s. It is widely accepted that the band's self-produced singles and the first album changed music. Some even claim that Pere Ubu marked the end of rock.

Pere Ubu tore up the rules. Unlike many revolutionary groups who mellow over time and settle into a pattern, Pere Ubu, driven by singer and founder David Thomas, never stopped moving.
"Most bands follow Cult Of Personality rules. That's what fans accept as a norm but Pere Ubu is an idea, not people. Each album starts with the Idea anchored in a new setting. The exception is The Modern Dance which was like a newborn settling into its own. Maybe for that reason it anticipates all that will happen in pop for the next forty years."
David Thomas

What are Pere Ubu songs about?

The short and sweet answer is that many, maybe most, maybe all, Pere Ubu songs are about places that don't exist and stories of the people who live there, which are written in the global language of hieroglyphic sensation. The narratives are not linear. It's not boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, boy retrieves or misses or searches for girl. With Pere Ubu, it may be boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, but then it occurs to boy that the grocery store is closing in five minutes.

places
Places that don't exist and the people who live there
Design by Johnny Dromette
For example, the album The Tenement Year might be described as about Leaving Home. Nowhere is that made plain. The songs, instead, are about Leaving Home physically or spiritually or metaphysically. They may be about places to be left or poignant memories of events in those places. It may be about the nature of a Leaving. On and on.

The the hieroglyphics sensation of Leaving Home is universally shared. The narrative of boy meets girl is not. It may be boy meets boy, or girl remembers friends, or, etc. The facts or rituals or social conditioning, are not shared. The understanding is.

Where to go with 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 column to the right.) These may help - but of course we only use favorable quotes!

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."

Pere Ubu Recomendations

The best currently available audio of the Historical Era albums (1978 - 1982) 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 took 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. Pere Ubu Dub Housing cover art

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.

pere-ubu-by-order-of-mayor-pawlicki

As a Newbie it could be that the best purchase would be the 2020 release of By Order Of Mayor Pawlicki, a recording of a Coed Jail concert in Poland. It has received startling reviews and includes a selection of songs from 1975 to 1982, i.e. the span of the Historical Era. In a way it is a Greatest Hits of that period. As one fan notes, "You haven't heard Pere Ubu until you've heard Pere Ubu live."

The Hearpen Singles 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. They are also available on the compilation, Terminal Tower.

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.

If the notion of beating a strictly linear path through the rest of the releases is daunting, there's no harm in taking a jump straight to 2019's The Long Goodbye. It is a moment, after 40+ years of pushing forward, when Pere Ubu take a short breath. It's one long, time-bending tracking shot, that's a catch-up to the story so far and a hint of things to come.

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.

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Four albums comprise the Fontana Years. Unavailable for years they were reissued by Mercury in April 2007. Fire Records released a box Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés 1987-1991 in 2018. Again, opinions are strongly held. The Tenement Year (1988) was a farewell to hometown. It is a much-loved album by Route 6 fans.1 Many of them say it is their favorite. Cloudland (1989) was next, 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), followed. Story Of My Life (1993) came last, 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."2

Pere Ubu ANOW cover art

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).

Pere Ubu RGS cover art

For the Modern Era, go to 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 and 2006's Why I Hate Women, an album of love songs in the Ubu voice.

"Long Live Père Ubu!" (2009), a musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi,' inaugurates the Orange Period of album projex based on films and theater. It was accompanied by a theatrical production called Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi.

Next in the Orange Period, is the startling Lady From Shanghai (2013) and Carnival Of Souls (2014), which was accompanied by live underscores of the movie.

Finally comes The Dark Room Period, starting with 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo (2017), praised as a return to rock form. Then there is The Long Goodbye (2019) written after the second time Mr Thomas died in two years. American cultural critic Greil Marcus noted, "A great circle of a band's story, which might have made its best album."

Pere Ubu Greatest Hits

On the other hand if you want to cherry-pick via the iPod route here is the Best of Pere Ubu as voted by fans in the late 90s. In alphabetical order:
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.

Pere Ubu Live Albums

When it comes to live releases Pere Ubu prefers bootleg-style to multi-track recordings. (By Order Of Mayor Pawlicki being an exception.) The first of these was 1981's 390° Of Simulated Stereo which is currently out of print. Three of the songs were released as part of The Shape Of Things. Then came One Man Drives While The Other Man Screams which features six tracks recorded at the legendary performance at the Electric Ballroom, London, November 1978. 'Apocalypse Now' is noted above.

pere-ubu-shape-of-things 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?

The Download Audio page on this site is a good source for bootleg-style live recordings of various Ubu performances as well as other rarities and studio releases. (Ubutique is our online shop.) The best quality compression is used 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 there first. The audio quality will be better than you can find anywhere else.

Footnotes

  1. Route 6 is the bus line from Public Square all the way out Euclid Avenue to the Far East Side. To ride its entirety was truly a Journey. For a time, Mr. Thomas shared an apartment in East Cleveland with the owner of The Viking Saloon, Dick Korn, and worked the door as a bouncer. He rode The 6 alot. Go Back
  2. Some critic somewhere has called every release either the best of the year or the best of Ubu's history, often describing it as a "return to form." Go Back