Agony Shorthand

Friday, September 05, 2003
MASTERPIECE : PERE UBU : “HEART OF DARKNESS / 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO”….is pretty much my all-time favorite record. It really, truly doesn’t get any better than this. Interesting, too – when I first heard PERE UBU I was certifiably, positively not impressed, but then, I was 16 years old and watching their bizarre performance of “Birdies” on a VHS tape of “Urgh, A Music War”. It was only late in college that I actually heard this record and “The Modern Dance” , and quickly became a worshipper – but I’m still working on trying to enjoy their other ones (“Dub Housing” excepted). I wrote a review of their landmark debut 45 for my own fanzine in 1997, which I will now attempt to re-create and update with new phraseology.

The handful of underground freaks who were habitually rolling the dice with weird-looking records in 1975 must’ve thought they’d been handed the keys to the kingdom when they stumbled upon the “Heart of Darkness / 30 Seconds Over Tokyo” 45. To listen to the first Pere Ubu record and then realize it was made over 28 years ago is to stand amazed at its complete inventiveness and left-field creativity. Like great artists in every conceptual medium, Pere Ubu opened up new doors that others had never considered pushing. Krautrock had certainly unlocked some portals in the preceding years; naturally the Velvets and Stooges had opened many more. Yet Ubu uniquely began their career in a medium that will forever bookmark their place in rock history: the 7” single. Without an opportunity to foist whatever scant filler they had upon an uncaring populace, they cobbled together their own small record label, chose their four best numbers, and unleashed two of the greatest singles the world will ever know (the other being “Final Solution / Cloud 149”)

“Heart of Darkness” is a quietly intense, masterful song. It has the single greatest bassline I can actually pick out of a record – a gently disturbing, rolling groove that is the rock for Peter Laughner’s & Tom Herman’s guitar electro-static bursts. David Thomas, perhaps realizing from his days of shouting as “Crocus Behemoth” in Rocket From The Tombs that he was not blessed with a particularly charismatic set of pipes, brings his vocals down to a breathy whisper-speak that heightens the building tension of the song. I don’t believe any band save the Velvet Underground had created as brilliantly sinister a rock n’ roll number up to the point of this record’s release.

“30 Seconds Over Tokyo”’s subject matter is self-evident from the structure of the song itself. It menacingly attempts – some might day chillingly succeeds – to re-create the do-or-die nature of a pilot assigned to deliver death from above. It features jarring, fried analog synthesizer that compliments another deeply intense, brooding backdrop of guitar, bass & drums. The song sputters and coughs in a hailstorm of synth noise and Thomas’s repeated muttering of the song’s title to bring this masterpiece to an abrupt, crashing end. As cliché as it sounds, I am still spooked by the ending of this one in a way that few songs have ever moved me. That original Pere Ubu unit – Thomas, Laughner, Herman, Krauss, Wright & Ravenstine – were among rock’s most cohesive and forward-looking. Once they’d staked their place in 7” history, they unfortunately were never again documented in this configuration (Laughner ended up bringing his tragedy-defined life full circle by Their self-referential term “avant-garage” couldn’t have been more appropriate, as no other band in ’75 could legitimately claim to push the boundaries of emerging rock and roll form as wonderfully and as artistically as Pere Ubu did.