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Territorial pissings
Pere Ubu and the Girls make their early marks

Singer David Thomas has long insisted that the band he fronts, Pere Ubu, are a " folk band. " If so, The Shape of Things (Hearthan) is their version of a field recording. Captured on cassette by buddy (and, years later, guitarist) Jim Jones in April 1976, the disc captures Ubu in their natural habitat — the Cleveland nightclub the Mistake, to be exact — at a key early stage, when their line-up and their musical focus were both in flux. The sound is documentary in quality, and there’s an anthropological, slice-of-life feel to it, with scenesters wandering over to Jones’s table between (and even during) songs: one asks, " Can you put this coat by my bag? It’s Beverly’s, " while another keeps intoning " Te Deum, tedium. " (Ho-hum: another weekend, another Pere Ubu gig.)

Meanwhile, the band hammer and howl through two sets, drawing from self-released singles ( " 30 Seconds over Tokyo " and " Final Solution " ), material that eventually mutated into the 1978 album The Modern Dance, and covers that show their early allegiances (the Seeds’ " Pushin’ Too Hard " and the Stooges’ " I Wanna Be Your Dog " ). Some differences between this Ubu and later line-ups barely matter; the chaotic squeals of Dave Taylor’s EML analog synth are indistinguishable from those of Alan Ravenstine’s, who later rejoined. But drummer Scott Kraus sounds less inventive than he became on studio recordings, and Thomas himself hadn’t quite perfected his distinctive, comic/scary vocal approach. He roars on " Heart of Darkness, " but more often he’s doing his best just to be heard over the band.

The presence of Peter Laughner is what justifies this set’s belated release. Laughner had sided with Thomas in 1975 when Rocket from the Tombs bifurcated into Pere Ubu and the glam-influenced Dead Boys, yet at heart he was an Iggy/Reed/Dolls–centric guitar slinger. He’s all over The Shape of Things, singing the Velvets’ " Heroin, " letting Thomas sing his own absurdist " Life Stinks, " and larding everything else with adept, blues-grounded guitar work. Sharp-angled songs like " Cloud 149 " may show why Laughner was on his way out, but others suggest that the band might have tipped in a different direction had he remained (he died in 1977). Long-time followers may be shocked to learn that the feverish " Street Waves " started life as a near-boogie called " Gone Gone Gone, " and that " Sentimental Journey " was once underpinned by a skulking " Secret Agent Man " –style rhythm riff. (On The Modern Dance, it opens with a full minute of breaking glass.) This is a more rock-oriented Ubu than we’re used to, but it’s hardly a matter of better or worse. After all, any good folk song changes over time.

Another recent live release sheds light on a less-celebrated branch of the Ubu extended family. The Girls were among Boston’s art-punk pioneers, forming in 1977 and sharing bills with the likes of Mission of Burma, La Peste, and New York’s the Contortions before splitting up two years later. Their sole release at the time was the now-mythic " Jeffrey I Hear You, " which was recorded in Cleveland and released by Thomas’s in-house Hearthan (sometimes Hearpen) imprint. That seven-inch and a 1986 reunion LP are both long out of print — which makes Live at the Rathskeller 5.17.79 (Abaton Book Company) the least expensive way to hear their music. (Run by guitarist Mark Dagley, the Jersey-based Abaton also offers sealed copies of the LP packaged with a CD-R of the single and facsimiles of old flyers for a mere $30.)

It’s easy to hear in Robin Amos’s synth whoops and the Girls’ besieged, dystopic outlook ( " We’re all living on a Cubist grid/Better just get used to it " ) why they appealed to Thomas and company. But they were much more than a footnote. Even today, drummer/vocalist David Hild’s pounding would make Meg White sound like Brian Blade, and the lyrics to " Okey Dokey " and " Doggy Auto " outstrip Devo in their avant-nerdiness. If the show heard here is typical, the band were bludgeoning live: Hild — or Steve Stain, who is credited with " vocal interjections " — yells, " Please don’t be weird! " , and everybody proceeds to ignore his request for the next 30-odd minutes, with between-song banter as goofily confrontational as the music.

" Jeffrey I Hear You " is the inevitable highlight, with Dagley’s ringing, psychedelic guitar part quickly submerged under Hild’s unsyncopated thud while Amos skids atonally across an unchanging harmonic background. Three minutes in, the entire band shift as one (more or less) to another, equally artless rhythm for no discernible reason — a moment of simple, and simple-minded, perfection. If The Shape of Things shows a band finding their feet and preparing for a 30-year ascent, the Girls’ release documents one at their brief, intense peak and marking their territory with idiotic glee.

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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