“I live in a dub house!” warbles Dave Thomas on a live recording from 1979 of “Sentimental Journey” off of Pere Ubu’s debut The Modern Dance, over a thorny bramble of breaking glass, sparking bass, and shredding guitar. It’s a reference to 3206 Prospect Avenue, near downtown Cleveland, pictured on the cover of Dub Housing, Pere Ubu’s second LP of 1979 and second in their vast mountain of a back catalog. “Sentimental Journey”‘s talk of dead air, jilted romance, and (sub)urban aimlessness, combined with the arthouse-noise-punk meets fireskronk jazz and just a hint of funk and a dash of The Magic Band are a microcosm of the glory, fury, and terror of Dub Housing.
Pere Ubu draw the dread out of post-punk’s Natty Dread riddims and claustrophobic echo chambers. On one hand, Dub Housing encapsulates the evil banality of living in a closed loop. Nothing ever changes; there’s no hope of redemption. Food, drink, smoke, laughter, all turn to ash in yr mouth with its mind-dumbing familiarity. It is the “quiet desperation” of Pink Floyd‘s “Time” stripped of pomp and grandeur, replaced with nerve-shredding anxiety and occasional madcap revelry.
On the other paw, we wonder if Dave Thomas & co. were pre-saging the oncoming Cult(ure) Of Personality. Dub’s triple moon echo chamber, in this instance, simulating the 1-hour photo booths that would be dotting Pere Ubu’s Cleveland psychoscape, gradually accelerating to collapse in the event horizon singularity of the infinitely self-conscious NOW of selfie-culture. All will have to bow under the yoke of conformity or be shuffled off into the dustbin of history. All will play the game.
We wonder how well Dave Thomas, who would sometimes play under the name Krokus Behemoth, and his merry band of misfits would fare in this image-conscious world?
Pere Ubu don’t sound afraid of the future on Dub Housing. No, they seem to relish in the postmodern madness of post-punk. Dub Housing is a party record, but it’s a party in a shack at the town dump, bumping and grinding to a breaking-down wurlitzer with the occasional paranoid speed freak-out.
Dub Housing has it all, making it a particularly fine entry-point to Pere Ubu’s seemingly endless discography. First and probably most importantly for most music listeners, Dub Housing is surprisingly tuneful. You can hum, sing, dance, skip, and hum to any number of Dub Housing’s cuts. Album openers “Navvy” and “On The Surface” both bear some psycho resemblance to boogie rock ‘n roll, thanks in large part to the whirling wiry melodies of Tom Herman‘s guitar and Allen Ravenstine‘s synth. Pere Ubu were consummate musicians, separating them from Punk Rock’s anti-musical puritanism. Pere Ubu could plqy, but they turned their talents towards the strange and avant-garde. Let us pause and lament for the derailing of the polyrthythmic/post-structuralist potential of post-punk, as it was supplanted by the Chuck-Berry-On-White-Kross 4/4 barbary of safe safety-pinned Punk music.
The catchiness is interrupted with three experimental, exploratory numbers showing a range of Ubu’s different ways to make a racket. “Dub Housing” features Dave Thomas speak-sing-ranting over a pulsing, hypnotic drumbeat from Scott Kraus and Ravenstine on saxophone, which brings that frenetic firejazz freakout edge. Dub Housing redeems saxophone in rock ‘n roll, calling back to The Stooges and freakbeat, sleazy roadhouse bands. This is before the ’80s, remember, when the instrument would be tarnished for all time with cocaine-powdered atrocities.
“Caligari’s Mirror” is a warbling sea shanty over a minimalist steely bass and noisy bursts of static from Ravenstine’s EML synthesizer. It breaks out into a gloriously sunny chorus, like a break in the sooty Cleveland skyline, recalling some of Brian Eno‘s glamorous solo vocal work.
“Thriller!” closes out the triptych, sounding proto-industrial with shivering reverbed tapes and a tinny echoic beat. Ravenstine summons rainbowed organs of harp-like synth, while Herman’s guitar conjures druggy detuned slack-key disorientation.
Most of the instruments slide, bend, and warp throughout Dub Housing. Nothing is stable. Nothing is certain. Herman’s sliding atonal guitarscapes bend and dance around Ravenstine’s indeterminate, free saxophone playing and uniquely unmusical approach to his EML synthesizer. Pere Ubu were trying to break from the shackles of Western tonality, from the inescapable iambic pentameter of rock’s 4/4 faux epic balladeering. Melodies sound copped from tin-pan alley and drunken blacked-out gibberish as much as rock-n-rolla. Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, from which Pere Ubu derive their name, achieves a similar feat, incorporating nonsense, nursery rhymes, and mundane drama into its musical tapestry.
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band would be the other closest comparison, as mentioned above briefly. Like Beefheart, Pere Ubu sound remarkably tight, rehearsed, and focused, despite their making such strange music. You have to really know what you’re doing to break all of the rules and string ’em back together. Dave Thomas had a career as a music critic before starting Pere Ubu. It’s a rare and special talent and disposition to weld such finely-tuned instincts into creating something new and unique.
That’s what post-punk’s all about. Ripping it up and starting again. About welding rock ‘n roll’s Dionysian rebellion to various other kinds of music. In Pere Ubu’s case, that would be funk, jazz, and avant-garde noise. Their sharp, brittle, sometimes funky sound is a far cry from the more dour, greyscale Northern English sound that most people associate with post-punk. Post-punk is more of an attitude and an approach to making music, as we continue to look at other classic post-punk albums as this series continues.
Any other Pere Ubu fans in the (dub) house? Any love for Dub Housing? Tell us yr thoughts about Pere Ubu in the comment section below – how you got into them, what are some of yr favorites.
Also let me know if there are other post-punk classics you’d like to see covered, new or old. Leave us a comment or contact me directly!
Operating out of Portland, Or., J makes electronic music and DJs as dessicant, hosting a weekly radio show on Freeform Portland, Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness. He also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle with his partner, the visual artist/illustrator Lily H. Valentine, with whom he co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective/production company.