The first thing you hear in the first song “Navvy” is the guitar playing a melody. Then a counter melody joins it, followed by a strange scratching sound provided by the synth player. Then the rhythm section kicks in with a thudding beat and singer David Thomas (neither the Wendy’s guy nor the Bob & Doug McKenzie guy) starts singing “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” over and over and it immediately positions the band as something different. There were already the synthetic sounds that Allen Ravenstine was producing to make the song sound slightly off, but between that and Thomas’s strange crowing and lyrics, Pere Ubu set themselves apart from what anybody else was doing in rock music. But a bit about their history first.
Dub Housing is Pere Ubu’s second album. They’d actually already set themselves apart from what anyone was doing with their 1975 and 1976 singles and their first album The Modern Dance, which was recorded in 1976 and 1977 and released on a small independent label in early 1978, but many tied the singles and parts of The Modern Dance to the burgeoning punk scene because of abrasive textures and the speedier rush of some of the songs. Not so much with Dub Housing, which ventures confidently into waters that only Ubu knew how to navigate. They have long called their music “avant-garage” since it stems from the same jamming garage rock ethos that spawned a thousand punk bands in the wake of The Stooges, but is also heavily indebted to avant-garde music and art ranging from the Velvet Underground to Brian Eno to Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play from which they took their name. It’s probably also worth mentioning that while so much of American punk happening at this time is tied to the CBGB’s scene, Pere Ubu was based in Cleveland and evolved a very different type of music. It’s additionally worth noting for context that the same year Ubu released this album sophomore albums by Talking Heads, Wire, and Elvis Costello hit the shelves, Blondie put out their classic third album Parallel Lines (like Ubu, it was their second 1978 release), Captain Beefheart returned from a few disappointing years with the great Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Devo, X-Ray Spex, and The Cars released their debut albums, and Brian Eno began his first official venture into ambient music with Music For Airports. Something was in the air and a lot of people were drinking deeply from the same stream. Back to Dub Housing now.
“Navvy” sounds like rock, yes, but what’s up with this singer? Those who find David Byrne’s delivery too eccentric will quickly learn that he’s relatively calm by comparison. Why does Thomas keep repeating “I got these arms and legs that flip flop, flip flop” and then follow it with “I have desire!” and a voice from above telling him “Boy, that sound swell!” Well, first of all, because it sounds good and he’s got a great sense of rhythm, but secondly, maybe it’s not as weird as all that. If a navvy is defined as “a worker who does very hard physical labor” (especially used in the context of large-scale industrial projects), it’s entirely possible that these words aren’t just weird, but that the song is about a working class stiff, swept around by currents of the world he has no control over, asserting his own creative identity in a 1970’s industrial city beleaguered by financial depression – almost sounds like punk, no? More poetic than your usual punk approach, but still born of the same spirit. Doesn’t hurt that halfway through the song guitarist Tom Herman tears loose with a great solo. Herman is an unsung hero of American rock. Unless you ask me to make such a list, he’s simply not on the lips of people making “top ten guitarists” lists, but he’s got a unique style that falls somewhere between aleatoric noise and effects, and a strong, rhythmic lead. He’s also buoyed (and simultaneously lifted) by the rhythm team of bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss, who are – for me – the finest rhythm section in American rock of the 70s other than their peers in Television. And then there’s synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, who doesn’t use synths as glorified keyboards but uses them for their own qualities as producers of weird noises. So when the group gets together for some real avant-garage strangeness – as they do here especially on “Thriller!” and “Blow Daddy-O” – it can get pretty out there. But even on those, they’re grounded by Maimone and Krauss, which allows Ravenstine to layer strange sounds and effects into a musique concrete soundscape on the former song, and gives Herman space to stretch out a themeless, non-melodic solo on the latter that stands as his finest 3 ½ minutes or so on record. And the rest of the songs – even with their odd qualities – bear more of a relationship to rock as most of us know it. “I, Will Wait” reads as a paean to the underground music scene with lines like “The sun never sets on this world I have found” and the pragmatic/optimistic DIY thought “I believe in practicalities/practicalities are possibilities” and then nods back to Roxy Music’s first album when Ravenstine unleashes a “solo” full of bleeps and blips that recalls Eno’s work on “Re-Make Re-model.”
The album offers so many different moods – from the oddball optimism of “I, Will Wait” and “Navvy” to the playful tone of “Blow Daddy-O” to the more ominous “Thriller!” or the obsessive closing track “Codex” that it keeps you on your toes, shifting hither and yon along the same currents that buffet the protagonist of “Navvy.” But it speaks to the magic of Pere Ubu that they make something of the strange times they live in and respond with a recognizable, yet compelling, strange and unique vision. They’ve never voiced it more compellingly than they did on Dub Housing.
- Patrick Brown