For Chris Wells.
Many were the times during my childhood and adolescence when, due to my consumption and enjoyment of certain particular pieces of popular or, I should more accurately say, in some cases, semi-popular music, my parents were forced to conclude that I had gone completely off the rails, and/or was gay. Listening to the Beatles' "Within You, Without You" on some kinda outdoor hi-fi setup over in a corner of the backyard one summer night in '67, I overheard one of the adults hanging out with my folks at the patio proper exclaim, "Sounds like Chinese funeral music," and saw my mom kind of shrug and roll her eyes and make this "what are we gonna do?" gesture. One afternoon a few years later, I brought home a copy of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane, which my mom politely requested to take a gander at; and when she opened the gatefold sleeve (see right) and got a load of the air-brushing at Bowie's crotch cleavage, she had her very first stroke.
But it was when I first played Pere Ubu's debut LP, The Modern Dance, on the Radio Shack stereo system of my family's home in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, some time in the winter of early 1978, that the determination was made by certain of my kin that I had finally and definitively lost my mind for good.
It was an album whose prospect I found highly intriguing, despite being rather suspect of the album's front cover artwork, which didn't look particularly punk rock or even post punk rock to me, as in, what's with the dude in the ballet slippers. I had not heard the Cleveland, Ohio-based bands independently released singles but I knew their work was rated highly by Robert Christgau, whose Consumer Guide I had been avidly obeying via the pages of Creem from 1974 on, at least until I found a Jersey drugstore that sold The Village Voice. There was also the matter of the band's name, which to me was redolent of Surrealism and French cinema, two of my major enthusiasms at the time. So having found this sort-of major label debut (the record was on Blank, a "New Wave" offshoot of Mercury contrived by Cliff Burnstein, later a cofounder of the very heavy management firm Q Prime) in the racks of a Sam Goody's either in the Rockaway Townsquare Mall or Garden State Plaza, I don't remember which, I was extremely eager to get an earful of its sound, which the aforementioned album artwork and minimal sleeve notes (band members' names in alphabetical order, no listing of instruments played or by whom) gave very little clue about. Pretty much no sooner did the needle lock into the groove than I was greeted with a high-pitched electronic shriek, implacable in its insistence, not coming up right into your face per se but calmly, inasmuch as it could be calm, asserting itself as a fact, the same way your dentist's drill does. Alongside the shriek was a semi-mechanical sounding tapping or clicking. And for several seconds it's just that—the shriek and the tapping. And it seems, the first time you hear it, like an eternity.
In fact it is only about three seconds before the electric bass guitar comes in, plucking bent doubled notes that just hang there before the electric guitar comes in with a kind of mutant Chuck Berry chording and then the whole band kicks in and chugs away—the shriek having dropped out—on the monumental riff of what is "Non-alignment Pact." All right then—rock and roll! Only then the singer starts in, with the shriek returning to buttress his fat-toned near-hysterical whinging about heads of state and whatnot. Even ignorant of any visual reference for Ubu lead singer David Thomas, he sounds like you'd imagine the grown-up Norman, a.k.a. "Chubsy Ubsy," of Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts, would have had he grown up, done a few substances, nursed a particular emotional petulance, and founded a band. By the end of this particular number, Thomas works himself up into such a frenzy over, one eventually learns from parsing the lyrics, his alienation form the fairer sex, that he actually sounds as if he's barking his frustration. The other people in the house weren't the only ones shuddering at this; I have to admit I did, too. The remainder of side one proved similarly...odd. The title track boasted another killer riff, this one propelled by that least punk-rockish of instruments, an electric piano; but the bizarre radio wave and conversational-snippets noise below its surface, the percussive hammer hitting a railway tie, and finally, the bizarre middle-eight (such as it was) with a noisy push-me/pull-you slide guitar solo by Tom Herman whose halts and returns were so abrupt that I had to inspect the vinyl several times to make sure it wasn't actually skipping; what was that all about? Then the bizarre horn work of the next track blending in with the atonal-seeming "scatting" of the singer; the horn in question, I later learned, was called a "musette" and was played by either...or maybe by both...Thomas or Allen Ravenstine, whose rudimentary, patch-cord operated EML synthesizers were responsible for the shrieks and hiccups and patches of white, white noise that never left the songs alone. It all came to a climax of sorts on the album's second-to-last cut, which seemed to be an extremely well-recorded chronicle of the singer breaking a bunch of glass ashtrays in the studio while drunkenly mouth-farting while the guitarist tried to piece together a lick and the other band members (Tony Maimone and Scott Krauss were the bassist and drummer, respectively) did...stuff. This "song" was entitled "Sentimental Journey." That thing that everybody's parents once said at some point about the rock and roll, e.g., "This isn't music, it's noise?" That pronouncement literally comes true with this particular piece.
Or at least it seemed to at the time. Even given the ostensible extremes of the stuff I'd been scarfing down in the summer and fall of '77—Ramones, Clash, Iggy and the Stooges (Raw Power but not Fun House, which might have given me a clue re Ubu and noise),Richard Hell and the Voidoids—and even given all that Velvet Underground stuff I had gotten into a few years prior to that, there was nothing that could have prepared me for this. As it happens, my memory of my particular circumstances of first hearing this record are a little blurry; I always associate it with my high school years, but the album's release date puts me in what I sometimes laughingly refer to as my second semester of college. I was attending William Paterson College as an English lit major; I had tried to get into SVU, on account of my best friend was gonna go there, but my parents balked at the cost and the fact that I would have to live in the city. They were going through a rather protracted breakup at the time, one that wouldn't become definitive until several years later, speaking of push-me/pull-you, and one of the end results of this that had the most impact on me (aside from the financial insecurity that eventually dictated that I go to a state school within commuting distance) was the fact that I was never entirely sure which "adult" authority figure was going to be living at our house at what time. So I don't precisely recall whether The Modern Dance gave my mother her third or fourth stroke, or if it caused my dad to give me that look that said "What are the genetic circumstances that led to my fathering an extraterrestrial being?" I do know that after the first audit, I tended to play it only when there was nobody else in the house. For in spite of the fact that it actually even weirded me out a little bit, I was kind of obsessed with it.
I played it for some of my buddies, most of whom were high school pals. We had formed a band in the late spring/early summer of '77, a very suburban quasi-"punk" outfit we called The Bad Taste Delegation. We covered half of side two of The Ramones' Leave Home on the one hand, and Loudon Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk" on the other. Most of its members were talented multi-instrumentalists largely known to the remainder of the student population as "band fags," and they were largely into "real" music, which largely meant Chicago. Our bass player was such a maven that he once won a block of tickets to a Madison Square Garden show by that band by correctly guessing, from the opening chord, the title track of Chicago singer/songwriter Robert Lamm's three-copy-selling solo album Skinny Boy on some FM radio contest. The guys were, how do you say, mildly intrigued by my musical tastes. "This Costello guy's got some pretty good songs," one of their number would allow. And then wonder, "How can this John Cale come up with something as great as 'Mr Wilson,' and then do this other...shit?" And so on. In any event, The Modern Dance in general and "Sentimental Journey" in particular took the cake for these fellows. "You're not going to believe the thing that Kenny's cooked up now..." And hardly anybody really could credit it.
Even today, the record doesn't exactly sound...cozy. "Non-alignment Pact" turns up in the background of a record-store-set scene in the last third of Olivier Assayas' 1986 Disorder, and it's welcome and bracing to hear and it sort of "fits in" with the rest of the New Wave music on the soundtrack (and given the film's storyline, it also evokes the ghost of Peter Laughner, the songwriter/guitarist who was an Ubu founder and who died of alcoholism/acute pancreatitis in 1977 at the age of 24), but it still sounds distinctive, its irritation factor is still there, there's little that's quaint about it. As much as the music cohered for me over months and then years of listening (and to be quite frank, seven times out of ten when I'm revisiting the record at this stage of my life, I will skip "Sentimental Journey"), there is still something a little scary about The Modern Dance. It would be less than a year before Ubu would release its second LP, the even more monumental Dub Housing, as a U.K.-only Chrysalis issue, Blank Records seemingly having imploded in the wake of Modern Dance's release. By that time I had moved out of my family house and into a place in about the poorest part of Paterson, gotten something like a proper girlfriend, purchased and enjoyed Art Bears' Hopes and Fears and Fred Frith's Guitar Solos, among other seminal works, and taken several further steps leading me from childhood into the fierce order of virility. In March of 1979 I would see Ubu live for the first time, on a bill with The Feelies at Hurrah's. That show was where I first would lay eyes on Robert Christgau, who had written of The Modern Dance, "Ubu's music is nowhere near as willful as it sounds at first. Riffs emerge from the cacophony, David Thomas's shrieking suits the heterodox passion of the lyrics, and the synthesizer noise begins to cohere after a while." My buddy Ron and I couldn't believe that my girlfriend Nicole had actually fallen asleep, her head resting on a speaker cabinet, during Ubu's set—but shows went on very late back in that day. By this time the music was making nothing but sense to me. I was beginning to feel as if I had found a place. I was somewhat mistaken, but not entirely.