Keep Cool but Care
Pere Ubu


Information

     Perhaps one of the most unfairly neglected bands of all time might be the massively creative group led by David Thomas and named after an overbearing character in a French play by Alfred Jarry called 'Ubu Roi.' I am talking, of course, about Pere Ubu. From passionate anthem-like works such as "Non-Alignment pact" and "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" to warbling ditties like the Pynchon-influenced "Navvy," the creative energies of Pere Ubu seem to know no bounds.
     The Pere Ubu song which clearly shows their Pynchon influence is based upon ideas about "flip and flop" propounded by the character McClintic Sphere in V., and also on two characters named Flip and Flop met by Pig Bodine and Benny Profane in Chapter 15 of V. as they listen to the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto (p. 394. All page references to the Bantam edition of V.).
     McClintic is described as playing music very much like that of Charlie Parker at the bar called the "V-Note," but that idea is downplayed by Pynchon when somebody says "He plays all the notes Bird missed" and is derided by Fu and threatened with the image of a broken bottle (p. 49). A more convincing case can be made for linking McClintic and Ornette Coleman's jazz club called "The Five Spot." A piece written by David Wild (© 1997, David Wild) lists the allusions which link McClintic to the club scene:

Pynchon introduces him [McClintic] in a remarkable section (p. 47 in my Bantam edition) with a whole series of links, allusions, echoes, and satirical reflections of the late 1950's and Ornette Coleman's legendary "Five Spot" appearance in Greenwich Village. The section starts with several of the New York cast arriving at a Greenwich Village nightclub called "The V-Note" (p. 48):

1. V for the title of the novel and an elusive woman, object of a novel-long search by one of the characters.

2. V as in the Roman Numeral for Five = Five Spot. This famous club featured Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane (1957) in a legendary engagement; it was the nightclub where Ornette Coleman first opened in November 1959 (and where he played a number of times over the following years)

3. V-Note. The Note = Half Note. Another Greenwich Village club, and another venue at which Coleman played during the period

McClintic Sphere is playing onstage when the group enters. "Sphere" is Thelonious Monk's middle name (Monk was a frequent performer in the village at the time and, as noted, is closely associated with the Five Spot). McClintic may be an echo of Coleman's unusual first name. (The only jazz musician with a somewhat similar first name would be Kenny Dorham, whose given first name was McKinley. He performed regularly in New York during that period and may be associated with groups that played the Five Spot).

James Stanley, of Dunedin, New Zealand, adds: "Ornette Coleman, along with Don Cherry, spent time at the Lenox school of Jazz in 1959 (his first year in NYC), and of course Sphere spends time in Lenox during the course of the novel as well. More supporting evidence for the association between two of the best artists in their respective fields."

p. 48 "He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone" --obvious reference to the plastic alto saxophone which Ornette used in the late fifties, evidently because it was cheaper than a metal sax and because it gave him a more flexible sound. "...with a 4 1/2 reed" Also a reference to the 4 1/2 strength reed which Ornette used in Los Angeles (described by Don Cherry in a famous passage in an interview with Joe Goldberg).

The next paragraphs include some nice descriptions of the reactions in the audience, from those who simply left, to those from other groups who were unwilling to reject it, to those few who liked it. This directly echoes the reports in Downbeat about Coleman's first appearances at the Five Spot in 1959:

"The group on the stand had no piano: it was bass, drums, McClintic and a boy he had found in the Ozarks who blew a natural horn in F". This is an echo of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, and the natural horn may be a reference to the unusual pocket trumpet which Don Cherry favored at the time. (Cherry was, of course, from Los Angeles).

"The bass was small and evil-looking and his eyes were yellow with pinpoints in the center". I have no idea which of Ornette's bassists this refers to -- possibly David Izenzon?  The bassist at the time was Charles Haden, by no means small and evil looking.

The next paragraph is a biting description of some of those in the audience, "mostly those who wrote for Downbeat magazine or the liners of LP records...". (Reader Clay Thurmond also points out that Sphere's playing is described here as "something else"--which is the title of Coleman's first LP on Contemporary Records recorded in 1958).

On the next page (p. 49): "Since the soul of Charlie Parker had dissolved away into a hostile March wind nearly a year before...". This is too early for Ornette, but only by three years. Parker died in March 1955 which would make this early 1956. In 1956 Ornette was still an unemployed, unknown musician in Los Angeles. He did not arrive in New York city until the fall of 1959, and the controversy, the club names and the rest of the allusions belong to that specific period. On the same page: "'He plays all the notes Bird missed,' somebody whispered". Another allusion to the impact of Ornette, who received a lot of attention as the next alto saxophonist after Parker to move the music forward...

      The lyrics of the Pere Ubu song "Navvy" specifically refer to McClintic's use of the terms "flip" and "flop." The lyrics are as follows:

"Navvy"

I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip flop
I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip flop
I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip-flip-flip, I have desire
"Freedom!"
I have desire
"Somewhere to go!"
(Boy! that sounds swell)

In my ears I heard a hurricane blow
In my ears I heard a hurricane grow
In my ears I heard a hurricane glow
I have desire
"Freedom!"
I have desire
"Somewhere to go!"
(Boy! that sounds swell)

I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip flop
I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip flop
I've got these arms & legs that flipflop
flip-flip-flop, I have desire
"Freedom!"
I have desire
"Somewhere to go!"
(Boy! that sounds swell)

     At one point in the novel McClintic is talking to a technician who is explaining the binary system to him: "he had found out from this sound man about a two-triode circuit called a flip-flop, which when it was turned on could be one of two ways, depending on which tube was conducting and which tube was turned off: set or reset, flip or flop" (p. 273). McClintic immediately relates it to an idea he'd had about the word "flip," as in "flipping out" or going crazy: "This word flip was weird" (p. 272). As in a binary circuit's "on/off" con-figuration, he felt that a human brain could oscillate between the poles of  flip and flop: "if a computer's brain could go flip and flop, why so could a musician's. As long as you were flop, everything was cool. But where did the trigger-pulse come from to make you flip?" (p. 273). He makes up some "nonsense words" (p. 273) to go along with the idea, words clearly echoed in the Pere Ubu song "Navvy":

Gwine cross de Jordan
Ecclesiastically:
Flop, flip, once I was hip,
Flip, flop, now you're on top,
Set-REset, why are we BEset
With crazy and cool in the same molecule… (p. 273)
[note how the capitalized letters spell "BEER"!]

McClintic believed that during World War II everything "flipped," while within Harlem's jazz scene everyone "flopped." He envisions a way to end the oscillation between being either "cool" or "crazy": "the only way clear of this cool/crazy flipflop was obviously slow, frustrating and hard work. Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it" (p. 342) and comes up with his resoundingly famous statement "keep cool, but care" (pp. 342-343).

Other significant Pere Ubu connections to Pynchon have been suggested by David Hoare:

"I've been looking for more Pynchon references in Ubu's music, David Thomas seems to have a great fondness for the number '49' or '149',a recent tshirt (and possibly album cover) bears 'US 49' on the front, a song from their third album is called '49 Guitars and One Girl', and a track from Dub Housing ends with him yelping 'there she goes..on cloud 1 4 9!", usually I'd put down use of the numerals 149 and 49 to be a mystical reference, but it seems like Ubu's music seems to have Pynchonian Leanings. Ubu are never shy about dropping casual literary references, whether it be Heart of Darkness or Pynchon, so it is likely that it they are also Pynchon references. The way these nods and winks to 'high art' are thrown around is probably due to Thomas' philosophy of being 'too pop for the art world, too art for the pop world'.

Also...have you seen the logo for David Thomas' disastrodrome project...it looks very familiar, like a WASTE horn styled into a trumpet. (speaking of which, here in aberystwyth a great many mailboxes have a WASTE-esque muted horn illustrations...and the first numerals of the town's postcode are 23...) http://www.projex.demon.co.uk/sobank.html"

Pere Ubu History

     Pere Ubu's music is a disorienting mix of midwestern groove rock, "found" sound, analog synthesizers, falling-apart song structures and careening vocals.
     Singer David Thomas named the band after the protagonist of Ubu Roi, a play by Frenchman Alfred Jarry. The single, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" b/w "Heart of Darkness",  released in 1975, was the first of four independent releases on Hearpen Records and, along with Television's "Little Johnny Jewel," signaled the beginning of the New Wave. In the early to mid-70's,  Pere Ubu was part of a fertile rock scene that also produced 15-60-75, Mirrors, The Electric Eels, Rocket From The Tombs, Tin Huey, Styrene Money, and Devo.
     The group's first album, The Modern Dance, sold only 15,000 copies initially but it was a startling work that influenced an entire generation of bands, e.g. REM, Husker Du, Joy Division, etc. Its follow-up, Dub Housing, was the masterpiece, "an incomparable work of American genius."  Pere Ubu toured Europe extensively in 1978. Late in 1979, Tom Herman left and was replaced by Mayo Thompson, the guitarist from 60's Texas psychedelic-rock legends The Red Crayola. The Art Of Walking followed, a challenging stew of inside-out song structures. The band stopped playing together in early 1982 just as the progressive-sounding Song Of The Bailing Man was released.
     In 1981, Thomas recorded the first of two albums with British folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson. Three more solo albums kept the nucleus of Ubu alive and working together. The last of these, 1987's Ubu-like Blame The Messenger, led to the reanimation of the Pere Ubu project. The clattering work called The Tenement Year, recorded for a British label (Fontana) headed by Ubu fanatic Dave Bates, introduced the two drummers lineup of Krauss and English prog-rocker (and long-time fan) Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, Art Bears, Cassiber).
     Teamed with another Ubu fan, producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order), Ubu shifted gears for 1989's Cloudland. Tired of touring and the grind of it all Ravenstine retired to take up a career as an airline pilot for Northwest. He was replaced by Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger) who appeared on Stereo Review's Record of The Year for 1992, Worlds In Collision, produced by Gil Norton (The Pixies). Cutler, unable to juggle all the demands of his many musical projects, had to leave. Feldman followed, joining Frank Black's projects. The last Fontana album, Story Of My Life, produced by Al Clay, marked the end of the period of experimentation with "outside" producers. (The intended title was "Johnny Rivers Live At The Whiskey A Go Go.")
     In 1993 Garo Yellin, playing an electrified cello, and veteran of The Ordinaires and several of Thomas' solo projects, was recruited to fill the "synthesizer" slot. During rehearsals for the Story of My Life tour, Tony Maimone left to work in the They Might Be Giants band. He was replaced by Michele Temple who had previously replaced him in the Jones/Krauss 80's side project, Home & Garden.
     In January 1994, again without a major label, the band recorded demos for a projected album, Songs From The Lost LP, intended to be a tribute to Smile. Krauss left. Yellin, busy with his quartet in NYC, was replaced by Robert Wheeler, organic farmer, Ravenstine protege, and president of the Edison Birthplace Foundation. Thomas announced that he was now ready to become the producer for Pere Ubu and that was what he was going to do.      Raygun Suitcase, awarded CD Review's Editors' Choice Award for 1995, was recorded to a click track in the hope that Krauss would change his mind. Scott Benedict, the drummer in Temple's group, The Vivians, came in over a weekend and recorded all the parts. The next week he retired to take up landscape gardening. Steve Mehlman, Benedict's replacement in The Vivians, replaced him in Ubu.
     In August 1995 Jones retired from the road for health reasons. Tom Herman rejoined the group for the Raygun Suitcase tours, and together with Jim Jones recorded 1998's Pennsylvania, a highly acclaimed album nominated by America's preeminent rock critic, Greil marcus, as the best of 1998. In 1999 for the Fall of The Magnetic Empire Festival at NYC's Knitting Factory, Wayne Kramer joined the group as alternate guitarist.

 

Discography

Heart of Darkness / 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (Hearthan Records HR-101)
-1975
Final Solution / Cloud 149 (Hearthan Records HR-102) -1976
Street Waves / My Dark Ages (Hearthan Records HR-103) -1976
The Modern Dance (only 1000 made) (Hearthan Records HR-104) -1977
** LP ** The Modern Dance (Blank/Polygram BLANK-001; re-release Rought Trade ROUGH-22) -1978
Data Panic in the Year Zero (12" EP 45 rpm incl. 30 Seconds over Tokyo / Cloud 149 / Heaven // Heart of Darkness / Untitled) (Radar RDR-1) -1978
** LP ** Dub Housing (Chrysalis CHR-1207) -1978
The Fabulous Sequel (Have Shoes Will Walk) // Humor Me (live) / The Book Is on the Table (Chrysalis CHS-2372) -1979
** LP ** New Picnic Time (Chrysalis CHR-1248) -1979
** LP ** The Art of Walking (Rough Trade ROUGH-14) -1980
Data Panic in the Year Zero: Final Solution / My Dark Ages (Hearthan Records HR-102/103) -1980
Not Happy / Lonesome Cowboy Dave (Rough Trade RT-066) -1981
** LP ** 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo (live) (Rough Trade ROUGH-23) -1981
** LP ** Song of the Bailing Man (Rough Trade ROUGH-33) -1982
** LP ** Terminal Tower (compilation) (Rough Trade ROUGH-83) -1985
** LP ** The Tenement Year (Fontana) -1988
** LP ** One Man Drives While the Other Man Screams (Rough Trade) -1989
** LP ** Cloudland (Fontana 838 237-1) -1989
** LP ** Worlds in Collision (Fontana 848 564-1) -1991
** LP ** Raygun Suitcase (Cooking Vinyl) -1995

Most important tracks on compilations:
Max's Kansas City 1976: Final Solution (Rem Records RS-1213; re-release -78 CBS 82670) -1976 URGH! A Music War: Birdies (live) (A&M AMLM-66019) -1981
C-81 NME Comp.: Misery Goats (NME Rough Tapes COPY-1) -1981
Cle Magazine flex-EP: Pushing Too Hard (33rpm) (CLE-3b) -1981

Bootlegs:
U-Men Live at Club Wow / Xmas Concert at Interstate Mall (live; LP)

Links

A Pere Ubu web page
A Pere Ubu web page
Pere Ubu on Cooking Vinyl
A Pere Ubu web page
A Peter Laughner web page
Links to other sites

Home of Ubu Projex
Avant Garage Online
Calendar Page
lyrics

Usenet Group: alt.music.pere-ubu

Write to Ubu Projex
snail mail:
PO Box 972,
London SE24 0PD
e-mail

 

Anderson, Laurie.
Famous New York performance artist Laurie Anderson dedicated a song to Pynchon on her Mister Heartbreak album.

Benatar, Pat.
Believe it or not, she named a final album Gravity's Rainbow.

Benny Profane.
English hard rockers from Liverpool, they took their name from a character in V.

Blowtorch, Eric
Reggae influenced artist putting Pynchon's lyrics to music.

Cassiber.
An avant garde German group used Gravity's Rainbow to tell a different tale.

Corey, Prof. Irwin.
The man who was the infamous stand-in for Thomas Ruggles Pynchon.

Dangtrippers.
They recorded Maxwell's Demon Box on their album, Days Between Stations.

Einhorn, Richard.
Another rendition of music devoted to the Demon, and much more.

Fariña, Richard.
An long-time friend of Pynchon, this folkie named an instrumental work after a Pynchon novel.

Favorite Color, The.
A New Jersey band sets a selection from V. to music on their album Color Out of Space (1996).

Fool, The.
Surely not Slothrop's band, this was a short lived group which did, in fact, have a harmonica player.

Forked Yew.
Independent, highly experimental rockers and Pynchon fans from the American South.

Frith & Kaiser.
An instrumental pair with a piece called The Kirghiz Light.

Hall, Ed.
An early 90's band influenced by Pynchon, they named a song Roger Mexico.

Insect Trust.
This jazzy, psychedelic group mined V. for lyrics to The Eyes of a New York Woman.

Jazz Butcher.
AKA Pat Fish, who named a track Looking for Lot 49 on his Fishcoteque album.

Jones, Spike.
Pynchon himself wrote the liner notes for Spiked!

Knopfler, Mark.
The Sultan of Swing sails to Philadelphia!

Koron, Barry.
Weilding the Sjambok never felt so good!

Lot 49 (Ontario).
This now retired hardcore outfit hailed from the hometown of Spermatikos Logos' own Laurence Daw.

Lot 49 (NYC).
Indie NYC rockers named after Pynchon's second novel.

Lotion.
A New York group whose liner notes were penned by the Man himself.

 

Maas.
A visit to San Narciso.

Nirvana.
Was the famous tune Smells Like Teen Spirit acutally inspired by a song from Gravity's Rainbow?

Nova Mob.
A "Rock Opera" filled with references to Gravity's Rainbow.

Ocker, David.
Musical meditations on Eight Facts About
Thomas Pynchon
.

Okasek, Ric.
Ride The Rocket with the former frontman of The Cars.

 

Pere Ubu.
David Thomas' legendary, seminal band shows some Pynchon influences.

PopCanon.
These literate Indies hail from Flordia, and have a song about Wanda Tinasky which is highly recomm-ended!

Poster Children.
This group from Champaign, Illinois, covers a lot of Pynchon ground!

Radiohead.
English art-rockers who incorporate many Pynchon motifs into their work.

Rapoon.
An offshoot of Zoviet France, Robin Storey's group named Rapoon released an album called The Kirghiz Light.

Sauter & Dietrich, Moore.
More liner notes written by Pynchon !!

 

Six Finger Satellite.
Indie electro-rock futurists Six Finger Satellite make a reference to Gravity's Rainbow.

Soft Machine.
Seminal "proggies," they recorded a full-scale work called Esther's Nose Job in 1969.

Spock's Beard.
In memory of "the evil Spock," they do homage to V.

Time in Malta.
A California metal group with a name taken from V.

Ware, Tim.
Pynchon scholar, Web master, and MIDI Musician.

Whole Sick Crew, The.
Purveyors of pirate folk-punk, truly a gang like their Pynchon namesakes.

XXX Atomic Toejam.
F. Thorendal, from praised thrash-heroes Meshuggah, gets one in for the Vikings.

Yo La Tengo.
Making music indebted to The Crying of Lot 49.

Yoyodyne.
Related to New York's Lot 49, ths Florida group also takes their name from Pynchon's work.

Zevon, Warren.
He recently released an album containing work inspired by Pynchon.

--Dr Larry Daw
& David Hoare
5 August, 2002