see all photos of this concert here

Pere Ubu
Bar Academy, London
Sunday September 18 2005
~ review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

First, a little bit of history. Or perhaps I should say, a lot of history. Pere Ubu have - frighteningly enough - a 30-year back story. The band originated in mid-seventies Cleveland, Ohio, where they grew out of the splendidly loud and snotty garage-glam outfit Rocket From The Tombs. Pere Ubu quickly made a name for themselves as purveyors of a more left-field sound, in which the lyrical raging of frontman David Thomas, equal parts bile and humour, was matched with severely mashed avant-rock. Pere Ubu were post-punk even before punk was invented.

Since those days, the band has journeyed erratically through umpteen line-ups, split-ups, major labels, minor labels, side projects, art excursions, weird noises, and tours tours tours. Sometimes, they've even made pop music. They have celebrity fans in Andrew Eldritch and Julian Cope (who holds the entirely reasonable opinion that Pere Ubu's 'Non Alignment Pact' is a record that everybody should own) and they've been covered by Peter Murphy (whose taste cannot be faulted, although his rendition of 'Final Solution' is a weak and woeful thing compared to the bug-eyed lunacy of the original). They've recorded a John Peel session, as one might expect, and, rather more unexpectedly, they've had their videos heavily rotated on MTV. In short, Pere Ubu have been around the block umpteen times by an assortment of scenic routes, and yet they've always managed to avoid anything approaching stardom. Sometimes, I've found that even people I'd expect to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Pere Ubu - the post-punks, the out-there rock crowd - tend to look blank when the band's name is mentioned. We are, in short, talking Cult Following here. But it's a cult worth joining. Entry is free; interesting times are guaranteed. I've been a member for years.

Tonight, the cult is gathering. Pere Ubu never stop. There's no new album just yet (the band's most recent release, St Arkansas, came out in 2002), but another tour is under way. This particular gig was originally scheduled for the larger Academy venue next door, but was  bounced down to the smaller Bar Academy at a late stage. It seems ticket sales were a bit slow: under the circumstances, better to pack out a smaller venue than half-fill a larger one. Frustratingly, I suspect part of the reason for the smaller-than-it-should-be crowd is the complete lack of support bands. A couple of opening acts, both able to pull in a crowd of their own fans, might've bumped the crowd up to large-venue size, while also introducing new people to the Pere Ubu experience. An 'everybody wins' result if ever there was one. Whoever made the decision to go ahead without supports tonight definitely needs a bit of boot/arse interface if you ask me.

What the hell. The London brigade of the Pere Ubu barmy army, although a little under strength, is nevertheless primed and seething. There's a certain air of an event about to unfold, rather than a mere gig. Here comes the band, trooping on stage, deadpan and purposeful. David Thomas himself is bearded and taciturn, a John Peel-esque figure fussing with his lyric sheets and frowning around as if convinced that something, somewhere, is going to go wrong any minute. The band crank up a shuddering, rattling racket like a Model T at a traffic light, and then they're away, hammering along on a roaring, backfiring, zig-zag journey through the Pere Ubu songbook. Looming at the mic, exuding perspiration and inspiration in equal quantities, David Thomas is a baleful presence with a voice that wavers between a mutter and an other-worldly shriek. His mood also wavers: between some songs, he's terse and tetchy, apparently annoyed with the gig, the band, the world. Between other songs, he's genial and avuncular, letting slip humourous asides - 'Who cares about the old punks who are heading for their mid-life crisis? What colour ribbon d'you wear on your lapel to show your concern?'  His demeanour, swinging so haphazardly between these extremes, adds a strange tension to the proceedings. As each song clatters to a close, there's no knowing which version of himself we'll be in for next.

The set ranges over the Ubu catalogue, from the muttering grumblescapes of 'Slow Walking Daddy' to the vintage crackle of 'The Modern Dance', from the melancholy lilt of 'We Have The Technology' - a song that balances precariously and effectively between celebration and lament - to a full-throttle rampage through 'Sonic Reducer'. And just before you say, 'Oh, yeah, a Dead Boys cover', let it be noted here that this song was, in fact, co-written by David Thomas and originally performed with his pre-Pere Ubu group, Rocket From The Tombs. Tonight's rendition is a gloriously incongruous squall of thundering and wailing, the vocal a caterwaul fit to hail passing ships across the Bay of Biscay. It's the most punk rock thing I've heard in ages. There's more quipping as our man straps on his melodeon, claiming as he does so that the ladies always go for a guy with a squeeze-box. 'Nah, it's the rubber apron!' shouts a voice from the audience, and indeed Mr Thomas is favouring us with this stylish red rubber protective garment, which I last saw when he was on stage in the London production of Shock Headed Peter a few years back. Nice to know the apron (and, indeed, the melodeon, which tonight is used to conjure feedback out of the monitors, guitar-hero style) is still going strong.

The band rumble their way to the end of the set like a train heaving its way into the terminal station. But the show doesn't end with the music, because no sooner are the musicians off-stage than they're back, hanging up T-shirts, setting out CD cartons. Pere Ubu's merchandise shop is now in operation, live on stage and staffed by the band themselves. A commercial imperative becomes a bizarre piece of performance art, although surely even Pere Ubu aren't quite so arty as to plan it that way. At least, I don't think so. You never know with Pere Ubu, for wayward art-rockers don't come any more wayward than this. May they shine like sweat on a rubber apron for ever.

see all photos of this concert here

Ubu Projex - the official website for Pere Ubu and related excursions:

The Pere Ubu story, as told on the Avant Garage site:

A recent interview with David Thomas:

A review of the Shock Headed Peter production in London, featuring David Thomas:

An info page for the pre-Pere Ubu band Rocket From The Tombs:

David Thomas speaks of Rocket From The Tombs and the mid-70s Cleveland scene which ultimately spawned Pere Ubu:

Fellow Rocket (and later Dead Boy) Cheetah Chrome's take on the same subject: