Pere Ubu - Trouble on Big Beat Street

Pere Ubu – Trouble on Big Beat Street

Pere Ubu have been, unashamedly, a bit of an acquired taste throughout their history, and this album marks a quite dramatic shift into avant-garde territory that requires the listener to take a huge leap of faith before tuning in and turning on. Suitable reference points would be Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Alex Harvey but David Thomas, the force behind it all, is definitely his own man and this is a unique listening experience.

The band was in the vanguard of proto-punk bands in America in the mid- to late-’70s. Ohio, where they were based, was a bit of a hotspot for punk at the time, with Devo being one of their more notable peers. Although they didn’t have any significant commercial success in the early years, David Thomas proved to be a master at developing the radical musical ideas around at the time and being ‘progressive’ with them, and Pere Ubu itself became a major influencer on the next wave of punk bands. The respect for the band’s role in shaping the sound of post-punk music ensured continuing support, and the last 50 years or so has seen David Thomas maintain the band’s output as shown by a healthy stream of album releases and tours, along with his own collaborations, side projects, soundtracks, books and theatrical works.

The album comes in two versions with the vinyl release containing the 11 tracks put together for the ‘standard’ LP and the CD version extended to include the best of the rest of the session’s finished works. It’s also notable that each track was recorded from one take. With the exception of Crazy Horses, which was assembled, none of them were played by the band more than once. “A song is best the first time it’s played. There is no right or wrong. Only later does error enter the frame,” said Thomas in 1992. I recommend treating the ‘bonus tracks’ as a secondary playlist since The LP set contains more than enough interest to take in one sitting. And yes, you read it right, whilst Pere Ubu has a reputation for naming songs after original ‘standards’, Crazy Horses is a bone fide cover of the Osmond family’s popular chart hit.

So, what about the music itself? There is a hint of King Crimson in the first track, which is evocative of a night time drive through the city. It has a simple five note sequence at its heart, with horns, clarinet, saxophone and heavy guitar chords cutting through it. The imagery created genuinely captivated me from the off and the uniqueness of the arrangement kept me listening. This style carries through into the second, Moss Covered Boondoggle, but in a slightly more eccentric form. Crocodile Smile, with its nod to Peter Pan, soon settles into a more avant-garde combination of rhythms and vocalisations and is followed by the more tuneful interlude of Movie in My Head, which exactly describes my reaction to this first section of the album.

Nyah Nyah Nyah is a bit how it sounds, a musical sketch and a stream of unconsciousness. It doesn’t do much for me to be honest, except to create a bridge to the centrepiece of the album, Worried Man Blues. This track begins with a spoken word vocal describing an other-worldly encounter in a café with a cast of blues greats and a song playing on a jukebox. When the band kicks in, although this is patently not a blues-style song, it does feel like it is intended to be a homage to ‘the Blues’. The phrasing of the vocals, guitar and rhythm section gives the listener just a hint of the inspiration behind it whilst providing a starkly different interpretation. Whether or not this is the intention, for me it is a genius-level piece of music and story-telling.

Following on there are a couple more songs that continue in this ‘slightly disturbed’ theme, Lets Pretend and Satan’s Hamster. They have a more improvised feel, continuing the King Crimson-ish comparison, with plenty of distortion and synthesised sound effects. They lead into the eagerly anticipated Crazy Horses, which turns out to be a reasonably straight-forward take of the original, all be it distinctively in Pere Ubu style. To be honest, by this stage, I’m not sure if this counts as a disappointment or not.

The album journey up to here has been intense and a bit over-whelming for my un-prepared ears. If this was the endpoint I would be satisfied and thankful for the experience because, despite it all being outside my comfort zone, there have been great moments along the way. The final track, Uh Oh, is much more discordant and the rest of the material is more ‘surplus’ than ‘bonus’, in my opinion, with the exception of the final track, Goodnight, which could have usefully substituted with Uh Oh at the end of the vinyl playlist to mark its endpoint.

It was previously noted that the tracks were laid down in one take, but this does not mean that the album is in any way garage-y or lo-fi. The production and mixing, all done by Mr Thomas, is exemplary throughout. Samples and additional instrumentation enhance the songs, and there is space and an attention to detail that allows the listener to hear everything that is going on.
This album isn’t for the Prog purists among you, but if you are open to a different take on what ‘progressive’ music can sound like in an unusual setting then this should provide plenty of reward for the time you invest in it.

01. Love is Like Gravity (5:43)
02. Moss Covered Boondoggle (4:07)
03. Crocodile Smile (6:16)
04. Movie in My Head (2:44)
05. Nyah Nyah Nyah (2:30)
06. Worried Man Blues (7:16)
07. Let’s Pretend (2:51)
08. Satan’s Hamster (2:33)
09. Crazy Horses (3:11)
10. Uh Oh (3:51)

Total – 41:02

Bonus CD Only Tracks
11. 76 BPM (3:27)
12. Pidgin Music (4:35)
13. Nothin But A Pimp (3:14)
14. Sleep (4:14)
15. From Adam (7:25)
16. I Dont Get It (2:14)
17. Goodnight (2:17)

Time – 27:26

Total Time – 68:28

David Thomas – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Melodeon, Musette, Theremin
Keith Moliné – Guitar
Gagarin (Graham Dowdall) – Synthesiser, Electronics
Chris Cutler – Drums, Electronics
Alex Ward – Guitar, Clarinet

Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 26th May 2023

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