Short Bits 3: Pere Ubu, Dub Housing

Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (1978)
For a long time, I always thought the world at large would catch up with Pere Ubu, and the band would at last take its rightful place among the most interesting, intelligent, and innovative bands of the late 20th century. When “Waiting For Mary” (from Cloudland)managed some scant airplay and the video turned up in light rotation on MTV in 1989 I thought the time might have arrived for this criminally neglected band.

Nearly three decades have passed since the release of Dub Housing in 1978, which is certainly the most accessible album from their classic period, and arguably the best. The brief commercial flirtation of 1989 never did translate into sales or long-term notoriety, and it seems unlikely they’ll ever turn up at a Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction, although if the Hall were really about rock, that’s precisely where they ought to be. They’re from the same hometown, after all.

No, like so many other good bands with brilliant albums, Pere Ubu and Dub Housing are likely to continue receding into history, known only to record/CD/mp3 junkies, students of the punk/new wave era, and aging clubgoers. And sometime, say in another 50 years or so, they’ll be as lost and forgotten as A-ha.

Which is a crying shame; during their peak, which ran roughly from 1976-1982, there was absolutely nobody working the same side of the street as them; their sophomore album, Dub Housing, remains an excellent avenue by which to discover them.

Dub Housing often gets lumped in with the punk albums of the era, but it definitely isn’t punk, which suggests abrasive two chord songs and hardcore politics. It has also been called “new wave” which is also wrong, conjuring up the synth-pop of the Cars or something. It probably could be called art-rock, although that gives the wrong impression too; there’s nothing here that remotely sounds like Yes or King Crimson.

What Dub Housing is is the sound of decline and decay, represented musically as only a band from the heart of the rustbelt (1970’s Cleveland) could hear it. But no, it isn’t industrial music either; it’s something eternally different.

Pere Ubu

The album opens with “Navvy”, which is built on taut, spare guitar, bass, and drums instumentation while lead singer David Thomas wails “I’ve got these arms and legs that flip flop flip flop” which is repeated until it is finally answered with “That sounds swell!” and the song detours into a sax dominated lull; in some ways the entire Pere Ubu philosophy can be summed up in this track. Unlike punk and industrial bands, Pere Ubu’s music retained an oddly touching humanism. While they certainly played up the ironies and ridiculous contradictions of the human experience, they also retained an odd bemusement about their own existence.

If you’re willing to let Thomas’ yelps and shrieks work they way they’re supposed to, and listen closely to the remarkable instrumental play, “Navvy” ought to grab you; from there, there isn’t a wasted cut.

So songs like “Caligari’s Mirror” and “Drinking Wine Spodyody” follow their own strange internal logic; the former is a woozy, drunken, delirious track with a joyous chorus dedicated to boozing sailors; the latter is strung on a tight bass and weird asymmetrical guitar, with almost random sounding keyboard chords and one of Thomas’ best ever-vocals; it seems to be a song of romantic rejection taken into the realm of psychodrama; as music it is propulsive despite all the loose limbs jutting out at all angles. Thomas’ vocal, which almost crosses the line into sobbing while still retaining its dignity, is remarkable. “Thriller!” suggests the industrial backdrop that is ever present with this band; heavy echo, distorted guitar, ghostly sound effects of moans, screams, wails, PA announcements, a bent rhythm. “On The Surface” built around an almost Farfisa-sounding keyboard riff is almost danceable. “I Will Wait” is the closest to a conventional rocker, featuring angular guitar, but even there they stack the deck with bizarre tempo shifts and outre lyrics. Codex, the closer, is a creepy song of longing embedded into another industrial soundscape; “I think about you all the time” never sounded creepier.
David Thomas
Equal to Thomas’ vocals are the band, which on this album included Tom Herman on guitar and Allen Ravenstine on keyboards; the albums on which the three appear together are Ubu’s best. Bassist Tim Wright and drummer Scott Krauss make one of rock’s more peculiar rhythm sections; at no time do they merely keep the beat; seldom did a Pere Ubu song end on the same beat it came in on.

I discovered this album several years late myself, at about 2AM on a particularly lonely night, and was completely mesmerized by it, touching off a frantic month of catching up with the rest of the band’s output. I’d hazard to say that the right newcomers will be spellbound even today; not only did nobody do what Ubu did in their heyday, nobody has attempted it ever since.

Pere Ubu followed up Dub Housing with New Picnic Time in 1979, but personnel changes began to erode the band and its vision, and by 1982 the band seemed adrift and broke up. They reformed in 1988 with most of the classic lineup aboard, and since then have released a dozen albums. None of their later albums approach their first three in vision or consistency, but all but the most perfunctory offer enough thrills to keep them interesting.

If you never got around to Dub Housing, give it a spin. The mountain of Pere Ubu albums makes an initial exploration seem daunting, but once you let Dub Housing express its vision, everything else starts to make a lot more sense.

Listen to Pere Ubu: Drinking Wine Spodyody (1978)


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