Ray Gun Suitcase
The Hearpen Singles
The fall of 1995 marks the 20th anniversary of the formation of Pere Ubu. This may not seem a signal event to everyone, but the existence of Ubu and the implications of their jively thoughtful art-rock pronouncements continue to shape a significant portion of “underground” rock motion. The impulse toward what the Ubu collective called the “avant garage” is an odyssey that continues to capture the imaginations of untold numbers of young people with bad skin, poor posture, and “better” ideas.
Pere Ubu were and are a Cleveland-based band, formed by David Thomas after the collapse of the legendary Rocket From the Tombs. Thomas’s squawking vocals and weird, Ralph Kramden-gone-hippie presence were at the band’s center from the start. But their early guitarists–Peter Laughner and especially Tom Herman–provided stunning coils of sound for the vocals to wrap around, and the incredible, primitive atmosphere that Allen Ravenstine raised with his EML synthesizer (no keys, just patch cords and knobs) made Ubu a massively original instrumental force. Tony Maimone’s bass and Scott Krauss’s drums combined to produce a basic rock-solid bottom, and their band mates really tore some new holes in the fabric of known sound. To my ear, however, Ubu’s sonics became blunted in the late 70s, when Tom Herman was replaced by Mayo Thompson. By the time the band fell apart in ’82 they almost didn’t matter.
Ubu regrouped in ’87 with their old soundman Jim Jones on guitar and extraneous drumming by Chris Cutler. After witnessing one of these dull-ass reunion shows and hearing their equally naff LP Cloudland, I wrote the band off. Their subsequent albums have gone all but unnoticed. But sentimentality is an addictive fruit, so my thoughts have turned to Ubu once again as they pass the two-decade post. Those who choose to celebrate Ubu’s anniversary are presented with quite a mixed set of commemorative items.
First on the list is the new Pere Ubu album, Ray Gun Suitcase (Tim/Kerr Records). No one except Thomas remains from any of the band’s early lineups. The bass is played by Michele Temple, who was a member of Home & Garden, an apres-Ubu outfit that also included Krauss, Maimone, Jones, and Ubu’s new synthesizer player, Rovert Wheeler. The drummer, Scott Benedict, hails from Temple’s other band, the Vivians. Jones retains his guitar spot on Ray Gun (though Tom Herman subbed for him on the band’s recent tour). While it might be tempting to dismiss this version of Ubu as an ostensible solo vehicle for Thomas, Ray Gun Suitcase has a strongly integrated group sound that is heavily redolent of previous versions of the band. Everyone who’s playing on Ray Gun was obviously moved and shaped by their nominal forebears, and this new Ubu seems intent on re-creating their sound.
The most obvious conceptual parallel is to the later versions of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. While some misguided purists argued that it wasn’t the Magic Band without certain key members, if you closed your eyes and just went with the flow the latter-day Magic Band produced a vibe that was close enough to the original that it scratched several particular itches.
So it is with this version of Pere Ubu. The rhythms pulse the way they should. The synthesizer unrolls sheets of discord on command. Jim Jones’s guitar either strolls and explodes (like Laughner’s) or spiderwalks into near space (like Herman’s). David Thomas cackles and yodels like a pair of drunken sailors playing ninepins on a pier. All of the pieces are there. But as Gertrude Stein famously noted, “There’s no there there.” It’s such a fabulous simulation that I don’t give a shit if the band leave their songs’ platonic forms hollow, but the material doesn’t quite match the atmosphere in which it’s presented.
This is especially worth mentioning in light of the concomitant reissue of Ubu’s first four singles in a small boxed set, The Hearpen Singles (Tim/Kerr Records). Recorded and released between 1975 and 1977 (during which time Ubu signed with a “new wave” subsidiary of Mercury called Blank Records), these singles made Ubu’s underground reputation. And rightly so, since each 45 is nothing short of magnificent.
The first single, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” b/w “Heart of Darkness,” represents both the birth of Ubu and the last gasp of Rocket From the Tombs. The space-garage sinew in Laughner’s guitar lines, the up-and-down careening of the rhythms, the howl of Thomas’s TV-muddled muse, and the dithering of Ravenstine’s synth all add up to a debut with few equals. A spellbinding mix of the Velvets, Hawkwind, and generic 60s garage punkery, this single simultaneously demonstrates and perfects the band’s avant-garage ethos. If they’d never recorded anything apart from this, Pere Ubu would still be hallowed.
The second single, “Final Solution” b/w “Cloud 149,” is a bit lighter both lyrically and musically. “Final Solution,” built on an ominous guitar riff and extreme croaking synth, is slacker rock’s first ready-made classic. It contains what I still feel is Thomas’s most totemic lyric (“mom threw me out till I get some pants that fit”); it’s kinda ridiculous to think that at the time of its original release (March 1976) some people complained about it having Nazi overtones. Oh, those crazy punks. Meanwhile, “Cloud 149” is marked by the same lightness of tone that animates Ornette Coleman’s most approachable work. It also presents the first of those ineffable Tom Herman guitar parts that sound as though they were written for a clown opera.
The third single, “Street Waves” b/w “My Dark Ages,” is the first to feature Ubu’s stable early lineup (Thomas, Herman, Krauss, Ravenstine, Maimone), and it’s as tightly ferocious as a blood-suckled wolverine. Thomas’s words are as impenetrably garbled and open to interpretation as anything mumbled by Mick Jagger or the Residents, and the instrumental mix is deadly. Moving forward, standing still, and sliding backward all at once, this music is as magnificent as it was the day it was recorded.
The fourth single, “Modern Dance” b/w “Heaven,” is Ubu at their most upful and prole pleasing. Similar to the versions of the songs that appear on Ubu’s classic debut LP, The Modern Dance, these two tracks strike a balance between Ubu’s experimental impulse and their perfectly pitched rock action. The structure and performance of the material allow you to hear the songs to be as simple or complex as you want. Take ’em apart note by note, or just wag your head numbly. They will serve either function handily.
The Hearpen Singles box is an essential piece of America’s musical legacy. Ray Gun Suitcase is interesting enough that I’m inclined to check out the band’s albums that I’d previously dismissed. It has enough of Ubu’s animating spirit to make me think that there’s probably something worthwhile in its immediate predecessors. There are few (if any) other rock bands extant in ’75 about whom I harbor similar feelings.
Ubu didn’t evolve in a vacuum, however. Cleveland in the middle 70s was a fertile musical sump in creative (if not commercial) terms. For a better understanding of Ubu and their milieu, one need only look at issue #3X of CLE magazine ($10 ppd from P.O. Box 16613, Cleveland, Ohio 44115). It’s been 14 years since Jim Ellis last edited an issue of this august fanzine, but time has not diminished his crazy sparkle. This new issue includes an exhaustive history and discography of Ubu, a short update on their contemporaries the Mirrors, an overview of the Scat label (primary keepers of the classic Cleveland rock flame), fiction and art by the Electric Eels’ John Morton, and lots more. Also included is a CD that lets you hear the stuff they’re writing about. It’s an important addition to the canon of Cleveland underground rock lore. And as there are few scenes that produced so much music of comparable value, it’s well worth seeking out. It seems unlikely that Cleveland’s newly opened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will be bothering with any of this. So, as always, you’re gonna have to make this trek on your own. See you there. I hope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.