Conceived in the certainty commercial and critical indifference would be the inevitable outcome of their enterprise, Cleveland’s Pere Ubu knew they had nothing to lose when they recorded the four singles that led up to The Modern Dance in 1977.
This consequence-free environment spawned an exhilarating confidence that thought nothing of whisking atonal electronica and garage-band naiveté against the thrumming industry of the local steel mills and body-shops from which they drew rhythmic inspiration.
When originally released in January 1978, The Modern Dance entered a market still shivering beneath punk’s nuclear winter. With plenty of prickly deadbeat attitude to spare, they appeared to have a lot in common with punk’s nihilist creed. Yet as Thomas makes abundantly clear in the video interview on this DualDisc, Pere Ubu regarded the movement that embraced them as something of a Luddite force.
Looking worryingly like the rotund 1970s television detective, Frank Cannon, and speaking with an autistic intensity that shuns all but the most fleeting eye-contact with his interviewer, Thomas argues punk’s anti-intellectual reductionism was the very opposite of what Ubu was all about.
The noise-laden semiology carefully encoded into the text and test-tones that form the backbone of this record demanded to be taken seriously rather than something to be dashed off in the rush of a two minute, safety-pinned sneer. Wearing its art-heart unashamedly on its sleeve, The Modern Dance threaded several cross-cultural fragments into a collage that was simultaneously precious and precocious.
In Simon Reynolds’ authoritative survey of the post-punk music scene Rip It Up And Start Again, the author memorably describes David Thomas’ vocal bleat as sounding 'like Beefheart if his balls had never dropped.' Listening to the frantic rant of “Life Stinks” or the astringent musicality of “Chinese Radiation” and “Real World,” you’d be hard pressed to disagree.
The other defining characteristic of the album comes from Allen Ravenstine’s non-keyboard synthesizer; not so much a free spirit roaming at will as a pissed-off, sore-throated banshee constantly banging into things around him.
“Non-Alignment Pact’s” abrasive whine, and much of the title track appear more indebted to the entanglements of music concrète, the psychedelic japery of The United States of America and Eno’s sonic subversion of early Roxy Music than anything which the punk scene had to offer.
“Street Waves,” with guitarist Tom Herman wringing a short history of the pop guitar out of two notes, surges heroically and oddly full of hope for a band that is constantly associated with post-industrial bleakness.
Elsewhere the Tourettes-tinged tension and release of “Laughing” remains commendable for its readiness to depart from the pre-prepared rock band script which so many of the day were keen to follow.
Even now, The Modern Dance seems heroically progressive in its desire to integrate abstraction, traditional pop songs and, as on “Sentimental Journey,” detonating crockery into a bracing musical melee, something this spacious new 5.1 mix emphasizes in spades.