Words & Music

The Modern Dance
Pere Ubu

Thirty-five years on from its release in 1978, The Modern Dance by Pere Ubu stands as one of the great achievements of the punk era. Steeped in a claustrophobic atmosphere of industrial decay and cold war paranoia, it combines garage rock and arty experimentalism to explore some of the tribulations of life in the modern age.

The album opens with a squall of synthesizer-generated feedback. A metronomic beat ticks off the seconds until an electric guitar finally busts out the mutated Chuck Berry riff of the album’s opening track, Non-Alignment Pact. It sounds like the past colliding with the future. Singer David Thomas, an awkward, enigmatic anti-rock star with a high bleating voice, pledges his love in the language of cold war-era diplomacy:

I wanna make a deal with you girl and get it signed by the heads of state,
I wanna make a deal with you girl and get it recognised around the world,
It’s my non–alignment pact

Thomas sings, shouts and chatters his way through the songs, often teetering on the edge of hysteria as he jumps at the shadows, ranting like a lunatic. The results are disarming, like you’ve been given the keys to his unconscious. It’s an approach, he has said, that came out of not knowing how to sing.

“I had never sung and I couldn’t hit any notes – I really am tone-deaf… so I worked out how to… communicate a story in a musical way that had a semblance of melody. I create a phrasing… and it all somehow comes out okay.”

Song structures and arrangements on the album are equally unorthodox, the band segueing from heavy grooves worthy of their beloved Stooges or Seeds, to freeform industrial soundscapes. Tom Herman’s guitar lines, at times sharp and stinging, lyrical or woozy, provide counterpoint to the spluttering sound factory of Allen Ravenstine’s analogue EML synthesizer. Like Brian Eno in early Roxy Music, Ravenstine takes a ‘non-musical’ approach to the instrument, conjuring up great clouds of sonic smoke that darken the songs with their poisonous sounds. 

According to Thomas, that sound is a response to the environment the band grew up in – the city of Cleveland, Ohio, whose Cuyahoga River was so contaminated with effluents it caught fire in 1969.

“Cleveland is a giant, blown-out factory town,” said Thomas, “there’s the Flats with all this incredible industry, steel mills going flat out all day and all night, and it’s just a half-mile away from where all the people live… all I can say is whatever you feel from the music is what it feels like being there.”

In the song Chinese Radiation, the spectre of the cold war emerges again amid the radio static, television sound bites and 1950s sci-fi style Theremin. ‘I saw the Red Guard, I saw the new world’ cries Thomas, cheered on by the sound of the masses. The punk assault of Life Stinks comes next, offering some shout-it-out style resistance before the broken resignation of the album’s darkest moment, the epic Sentimental Journey. Going home never felt so bad or so pointless. Drums explode and bottles smash to reveal the full irony of the song’s title.

Lastly, to the strains of a military beat and an army of jackboots, the album finishes with the defiant Humour Me:

What a world, what a big world
What a world to be drowned in…
It’s a joke! That’s a joke?
Uh huh, come and humour me

Today, The Modern Dance remains a surprisingly contemporary and relevant piece of work. The cold war may be over but in its place have come new enemies to fan the old fears, while the album’s anxieties about zealotry, technology and environmental degradation seem more important than ever. Musically, the group’s use of ‘non-musical’ sounds and approaches may be seen as a precursor to the post punk and industrial rock movements of the 80s and 90s. 

When Pere Ubu formed in the mid-70s they felt they had inherited the responsibilities of a new music. Rock ‘n’ roll had outgrown its adolescence and was ready to make art. By creating music out of noise and beauty out of ugliness they expanded the vocabulary and aesthetics of rock music. The Modern Dance is rightly lauded as one of the first great artworks of the ‘avant-garage’.


Pere Ubu perform The Modern Dance at the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival curated by ATP and The Drones in Melbourne on Sunday February 17.


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