Pere Ubu's 'The Modern Dance' is not technically a debut LP, coming on the back of several singles collected on both 'Datapanik in the Year Zero' & 'Terminal Tower' and following an album's worth of material released as Rocket from the Tombs (much bootlegged these have since been released). It came from Cleveland and was headed by David Thomas, a sometime music journalist with a fixation on Captain Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica' & Frank Zappa's 'Uncle Meat' - suggesting Beefheart should be cited when discussing TMD (Beefheart's track 'Clear Spot' set the angular tone for Television & Wire; while 'I Love You Big Dummy' most definitely predicts Ubu! The reviewer who objected to Beefheart comparisons for Ubu was just wrong. Does he not hear the demented sax on 'Laughing' and wonder if there's a connection between Don Van Vliet & David Thomas?).
Rocket from the Tombs were punk-before-punk and had Sid Vicious-before Sid Vicious with Peter Laughner - who would be booted out of Ubu shortly after those early singles '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' & 'Final Solution.' The rest of the Tombs became The Dead Boys, while the other more intellectual, more Beefheartian half named themselves after Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays. Laughner's presence is only found here on the manic 'Life Stinks' where Thomas hollers lines like "Life stinks/I need a drink/I love The Kinks..." which is the closest to the RFTT era. Recorded in 1976/77 and eventually released in February 1978, 'The Modern Dance' showed a band already at their peak - the Thomas-Allen Ravenstine-Tony Maimone-Scott Krauss-&-Tom Herman line-up would deliver the equally great 'Dub Housing' soon after (before stepping sideways with 'New Picnic Time').
The manic amphetamine-fuelled garage rock of the Tombs itself influenced by Lenny Kaye's 'Nuggets' and the kind of fandom apparent in Lester Bangs' adoration of the MC5, The Count Five, The Stooges & The 13th Floor Elevators is apparent from the off with the wild 'Non Alignment Pact' (which would later be covered by fan Julian Cope). Thomas sounds wild and desperate as he sings a love song to a girl while using the kind of political/militarist language that would surface in the work of post punk peers like Swell Maps & Gang of Four (the Maps' 'Jane from Occupied Europe' is a definite relative). The title track sounds like The Doors in a vortex, reworking the 'Untitled' track from the 'Datapanik in the Year Zero'e.p., in turn giving way to 'Laughing' which sounds like someone is assaulting the sax amid the angular dirge (definitely recalling Beefheart, Zappa & The Shaggs).
The album shifts back into coherence with 'Street Waves' which fuses garage rock with 'Eraserhead' noises pre-'Unknown Pleasures' (its b-side 'My Dark Ages' is worth tracking down too). 'Chinese Radiation' offers more wild electronic noises that advance on the alien sounds found in early 13th Floor Elevators (see 'You're Gonna Miss Me' or 'Thru' the Rhythm')- a crowd cheers and something angular and intense develops as Thomas raps and whines...
Following the punk-ass meltdown of 'Life Stinks', the bizarre drone-rock of 'Real World' develops, as post White Noise/Silver Apples hail appears before a locked groove & a chant develop "Out in the real world in real terms..." - at least I think that's what they said. This sounds like a bastardised Modern Lovers, this angular alien chant making perfect sense alongside tracks on albums such as 'Cut', 'Pink Flag', 'Live at the Witch Trials', 'Last Trip to Marineville', 'Colossal Youth', early Scritti Politti and a cult joy like The Red Krayola.
'The Modern Dance' sounds like a band in flux, towards the end the band are moving away from the sci-fi garage thing with the gorgeous harmony/meltdown of 'Over My Head', the art-directions of 'Sentimental Journey' (predicting the climes of 'New Picnic Time') & the closing 'Humor Me' which sets a jangly blend of They Might Be Giants & Scritti Politti (...before either..) against xeno-noises and claps that sound like Sieg Heils from the German 1930s.
'The Modern Dance' is a fantastic album, taking formative influences like garage rock, Beefheart & psychedelia and placing them somewhere new. It's influence is huge and I'm sure that Martin Hannett's production of Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' nodded to it (...the strange elevator noises, the industrial drones...). Things got even better with the superior 'Dub Housing' - the early work of Pere Ubu was truly pioneering and sounds more than relevant today. One of the classic debut albums...
on 21 February 2009
I heard this, and the second album 'Dub Housing', when they came out. And I bought them on vinyl. But this is a review of 'The Modern Dance'.
Yes's 'Close to the Edge' was released in 1972, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's first album came out in 1970, as did King Crimson's 'In the Court of the Crimson King'. And from this background of increasingly self-referential and self-regarding 'prog rock' came two classic albums - Patti Smith's 'Horses' (1975) and this - 'The Modern Dance' (1978).
What a huge breath of fresh air! I still vividly remember the first time I heard this album. I was working in a second-hand record shop in Hull and I put it on the shop system to have a listen. It almost cleared the place.
The first track - 'Nonalignment Pact' - starts with what sounds like feedback. Definitely a sign of things to come. The vocals kick in ('kick' probably is the best word) and we're off on a musical 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' - sort of early Roxy Music on bad acid. Agonised synth squeals but still a really good beat, and a tune. Yes, you can nearly hum it.
'Laughing' had the people in the shop glancing nervously over their shoulders, as a wailing sax and chang-chang guitars gave way to a rousing chorus and then back to sad sax dribblings.
The intro to 'Over My Head' sounds remarkably like the Mexican band in 'From Dusk Till Dawn' but with synth drones, going into a hard/bright (telecaster?) guitar sound. This is a really gritty, above all urban, sound - from Cleveland, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. Just up the road from Akron. No New York 'sophistication', no west coast glitz.
The track that really cleared the shop, and sent shivers down my spine (still does), was 'Sentimental Journey'. The sound of smashing bottles, incomprehensible, aggressive drunken vocals, hideous synth sounds, quacking sax, that hard-bright guitar again. A dark, dark alley, late at night, self-disgust, nihilism. 'Pere Ubu' is a good name for this - from The Ubu Plays and the Theatre of the Absurd.
So then to 'Humor Me' - with a sense of relief! 'It's Just a Joke, Man!' Well, thanks guys.
This album is as much a rock classic as 'Horses'. It woke me up from a prog rock coma and still makes me want to start the Revolution. There's a Modern Dance.
Added 22/04/09. Following the tip mentioned in the Comments below, you might want to consider this edition: The Modern Dance
on 11 April 2000
I first heard this album in 1977-78 after buying it completely on impulse. Never heard of the group but thought the cover looked great. Have never regreted the purchase - a classic album full of a great songs.
My abiding memory of Pere Ubu will always be seeing them take to the stage at London's Roundhouse in 1978 (as support to Graham Parker and The Rumour) looking more like a hotchpotch of New York (I guess that should be Cleveland, Ohio) winos than a 'rock' band, and then to be even more astonished as Allen Ravenstine proceeded to set up his 'instruments' (what appeared to be a collection of prehistoric synthesisers) on something resembling a school desk! Of course, at that time I, like 95% (or so) of the crowd, were none the wiser to the exhortations of the select few who were encouraging the band to play the song (and probably their ultimate creative masterpiece) Final Solution (which they never did).
Listening now, 35 years on (and having only just got round to replacing my vinyl version of The Modern Dance with the CD version), I'm equally amazed at how fresh, inspiring and, yes, unique the 'record' still sounds. How can it (or maybe why need it) be categorised (avant-garde punk, maybe) and where did it come from? Whatever, it is clear to me that this band sowed their seeds of influence widely (knowingly or otherwise) - Joy Division and The Pixies immediately spring to mind. Song-wise, the album is made up of a mix of proto-punk (but more sophisticated than one chord) wonders, some sublime (ethereal even) ballads and just some downright weird songs, all peppered with David Thomas' idiosyncratically poetic, witty and broadly romantic lyrics. Each of Nonalignment Pact, Street Waves and Life Stinks are pretty much straight-ahead punk gems (with Tony Maimone's bass and Scott Krauss' drums to the fore), Modern Dance, Chinese Radiation and Over My Head are ballads (albeit uniquely Pere Ubu-style ballads) featuring some characteristically tender vocals by David Thomas, whilst Laughing, Real World and Sentimental Journey defy any conventional musical style or genre. On the other hand, the album's closer (and my favourite track) Humor Me mixes all of the aforementioned styles, and is simply a sub-three minute classic.
But what pervades the entire album (and sets it apart from almost any other), of course, is the band's unique approach to rhythm and noise accompaniment. Not only are the band's conventional instruments used to set up some brilliantly vibrant and infectious (at times, reggae and/or jazz-like) rhythms, but Ravenstine's synthesisers and tapes are used to create sounds as diverse as steam whistles, screeching cats, wind tunnels, smashing bottles and various beeps and blips, thereby creating a unique percussive soundscape. On first hearing The Modern Dance it would be quite easy to be put off by the album's level of dissonance - however, repeated listens reveal the work's hidden depths of rhythm, dynamics and melody.
I would go as far as to describe The Modern Dance as a seminal album of its era, and one that is essential to any music collection.
It's often said of certain records 'that without this, **** couldn't have happened', fill in the gap with whichever bunch of bands you like to add in.
In the case of Pere Ubu, you'd certainly be in the right area to use this as a cornerstone of reference for a whole bunch of bands from half of Brit pop to countless more experimental art rock bands, including Maximo Park and others.
Essentially what we have here is a son of The Velvet Underground crossed with perhaps Suicide, Can and others with a brilliant lyricist at the helm in the shape of David Thomas. He crafts a couple of relatively accessible tracks early on in the shape of Non Alignment Pact and The Modern Dance before heading off into more dense song structures and weird out tracks which leads me to comparisons with the mighty PIL's Metal Box.
All in all, it's an album that you'll need to spend some quality time with to appreciate it's depths, rather like wading into a forest of thorn strewn bushes knowing that at it's centre lies musical eden. A very tough journey, but once you're there, you'll forget the blistering you may have gone through on the way.
By the way, if you're after easy listening, you'll probably best not bother with this, but for serious muso's, press, purchase and wait for musical joy to arrive.
on 25 August 2013
think manics holy bible, smiths meat is murder, pixies trompe le monde.
each in their way each band playing without compromise.
every album mentioned is each band at its best.
this is a fantastic album , iloved it when it was released , ilove it now.
as good as marquee moon by television . a classic , top ten in rock albums ever released.
as important as any rock album ever released.
One of the great opening shots in delivering a different vista composed entirely of taking rocks linear beaten to death structure, then taking a club hammer, smashing it into fragments and then leaving it to become brick dust, as they build something else composed entirely within the head, rather than emerging from any corporate diktat.
At the time, the late seventies, they were seen as akin to Devo, Fall, Residents, Tuxedomoon, where they still stand in the odd corner. The sound veers along to a punk snarl but has little in common with Sham and its moorlock style descendants. Far out of kilter the music is founded upon a bass and drums holding a structure in some of the compositions, allowing the rest of the ensemble to feed off each other - as David Thomas reaches into his netherworld to bring out his inner voice.
Streams of consciousness are then shaped into paeans of a fragmented vision that veers from sadness to ecstasy in bipolar celebration of hilarity. So to deconstruct the formal world, this album is part of trying to find the other world which lies beyond the one blandly constructed. It is not punk rock and it is not art, because it howls its tunes into a celebration of the odd, rather than try to become it.
on 25 April 2000
I first heard this album in 1988 and it instantly became a favourite. David Thomas has a haunting sweet voice which sounds like noise to those who wont appreciate it. I have listened to all the follow up albums and nothing is as compact as this collection. The closest any band has come to being as orginal as this is the Pixies Surfer Rosa. Pere Ubu's Modern dance stands alone.
on 27 August 2010
Pere Ubu singer David Thomas's stage persona and alter ego corresponded to the Jarry creation after who the band that he led were named. With their debut LP, Thomas metaphorically wears the mask of a tormented and melancholic individual whose inner psyche is troubled by paranoid complexes and schizophrenic urges. The channel through which Thomas seeks redemption from his inner phantoms and disorders is his prodigous voice.
However, these inner phantoms and disorders are indicative of a problem that lies elsewhere. The source of the problem is not the inner pysche but rather the external world - an industrialized urban capitalism from which emerges the alienated atomized individual. The deranged system of capitalism provides the catalyst for the creation of the post-modern industrial landscape out of which emerges the deranged paranoid individual.
Thomas's vocal range is far-reaching. He is capable of everything from Sinatra-style crooning to Marvin Gaye's falsetto and the roar of Howling Wolf. His voice acts as the mediating expression between the perceived malfunctioning human mind on the one hand, and the chaos of the industrial city on the other. In this respect, Thomas would have almost certainly agreed with Robert Anton Wilson's suggestion that the madness inherent to capitalism is not a problem of human consciousness which is deemed as somehow malfunctioning and in need of adjustment, but reality itself.
So the guiding theme of Modern Dance (1978) is that of alienation and anxiety within industrial society. Pere Ubu take the fear of the modern world and transplant it into a different scenario, in which death is not physical but spiritual, not due to bombardment but to economic and social mechanisms.
Their sound starts out from the spirit of old-style garage-rock, but the sound is distorted in a rhythmically groteque way. 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 - the same kind of emotions that seized the young of the post-war era, when the atomic threat held everybody in suspense.
However, the fear now is justifiably more real because capitalism is increasingly reaping its own kind of holocaust - from the dramatic negative effects of climate change, to the grotesque levels of global socio-economic insecurity and inequality.
The message conveyed in the album appears to be the following: As long as such problems are one's that human beings are individually deemed to be pathologically pre-disposed to (as opposed to one's that are rooted in the economic and social system), the human race are inevitably doomed to destruction because of our lack of effectively confronting the challenges we face.
In other words, Pere Ubu invoke the necessity of the human race to grapple with the problems it faces in an objective way, if it is to avoid becoming the complicit author of its own holocaust.
'Modern Dance' is composed of free-form phases (woodwinds, cacophony of the keyboards, rattling guitars, psychotic thrills) alternating with sudden powerful rhythmic flarings and veritable flashes of hallucinatory violence in the calm of the urban neurosis, in which Thomas gives vent to his raging vehemence. The singing is schizophrenic as is the overall sound.
The work opens with 'Non Alignment Pact', which plunges into a furious, deafening bacchanal of cryptic slogans, ungainly vocals, discordant strumming, electronic distortions and primordial pulsations.
The title track has a kind of primordial organic funk sound which evokes the smoke of factory chimneys and the ordered structure of the production line, while the singing evokes desperation. The piece is a dramatic invocation of the tyrannical condition of human labour against a backdrop of impending disaster. The use of 'sound collage' ('concrete' sequences and electronic sounds), emphazizes the climate of tragedy.
The eclectic 'Laughing' begins with an ominous screeching sax and clipped guitar overlayed by a funk beat and manic vocals.
'Street Waves' is swept by an ominous wind (which evokes the miasmic gust after an atomic explosion) and driven at supersonic speed by a stop-start rhythm. What the song invokes is a prophetic vision of the apocalypse.
Wandering guitar chords punctuate 'Chinese Radiation' which is propelled along its path by Thomas's chaotic and unrestrained vocals.
Both 'Life Stinks' and the closing 'Humor Me' are representations of Thomas's incoherent cries amid bubbling synths with a general atmosphere of uproar.
Syncopated rhythm, buzzing interference and metallic, discordant guitar, frequent 'Over My Head' which has a foreboding slow 'spirit-dance' feel to it that is pregnant with agonised suspense.
'Sentimental Journey' is a random mass of dissonance of breaking crockery, disconnected phrases of synth and a somnambulant lament. The song is in the proudest experimental tradition of 'musique concrete' psychedelia, but it is also a manifesto of agit-prop Dadaist music. The piece is a product of industrial civilisation, its perversions and its anxieties. Thomas, alone and raving amid the fragments of crockery, represents the living embodiment of a decaying world.
The track symbolizes the synthesis of the anarchic and the rational and gives a voice to the expressionist howl which simultaneously embodies something cultured, refined but also primitive. Pere Ubu, like the capitalism which they critique, are propelled forward by contradiction that climaxes in a terrifying end.
The sound of 'The Modern Dance' is innovative: the singing of Thomas - despite the claims of a previous reviewer - is most definetely in the 'Beefheartesque' tradition, the rhythm section grinds out a paradoxical rhythm, a rough and elemental danceability, to the twisted accompaniment of a primitive, strange and hypnotic guitar sounds.
Electronics and effects are used in a way that has influenced a successive generation of musicians. The earthy and disarticulated way they have been used acts as an ironic counterpoint to the maniacal anxiety of the band.
Thus unbalanced, the music is ambitious enough to function as the soundtrack of industrial landscapes and, by extrapolation, as that of the holocaust.
Pere Ubu's aesthetics is one of auto-destruction and of the absurd and grotesque - themes which can be referenced to Jarry. Within 'The Modern Dance' is a prophetic apocalyptic vision of catastrophe and despair, of lonelinless and isolation, of madness and violence. Above all, 'Modern Dance' is a 37 minute pagan representation of the world's impending end.
Until recently I had never heard any Pere Ubu music, though I remember reading an NME interview with the lead singer, thirty years ago, and thinking he sounded like an interesting chap. So critically lauded, alternative, and post punk, they languished on my radar.
As someone who lived through the musical wasteland that was the seventies, punk has earned my eternal respect and gratitude. Lately I have been tracking down some of those bands that I am more familiar with through NME articles than through their music.
This album, Modern Dance, is a brisk and functional piece of post punk. If you are open to aggressively mid tempo music with plentiful yelps and insane shouting then you will love this. It is a sort of reggae version of Can. Although the tracks all hang together, there is enough variety to keep it engaging.
Writing about music is like using modern dance to interpret architecture, frequently pointless. Enough to say, I never heard this first time around, but it still sounds fresh and engaging now. Just listen to the sample from Non-Alignment Pact, like that, love the album. Finally I am glad that the world includes the track Sentimental Journey, but I never want to hear it again, it reaches a whole new plane of hard to listen to! It is not even clear how it relates to the Lawrence Sterne story it takes its name from.