Pere Ubu, The Garage, London
He showed them who's the daddy
Monday 08 March 2010
It's not often one sees a performer heckling an audience, but it's usually entertaining when it happens. And especially so when the heckler is a big chap with a little cartoon voice.
David Thomas has invested so much of his life in Pere Ubu (the band), and most of the past couple of years, he tells us, in Pere Ubu (the role), for the Quay Brothers' stage production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi that he appears to have taken on some of the vile character's repugnant traits as his own: treating first his band members, then the audience, to a display of prickly asperity and contempt; guzzling beer constantly, along with frequent nips from a hip-flask; belching and swearing loudly; throwing tantrums at the drop of a note; and I swear at one point he even blew his nose in the revolting manner practised by footballers, covering one nostril with a finger and honking mucus out of the other, but not into a handkerchief. It was a performance worthy of Jarry's "fat toad" himself.
The plan for this show was for Ubu to play "The First and the Last" – ie their classic 1978 avant-rock debut album The Modern Dance, and last year's album of songs from the stage production, Long Live Père Ubu!. The mistake, or masterstroke, depending on your viewpoint (and your proximity to the singer's nasal passages), was to perform the latter first, in order to avoid half the audience leaving during the intermission. Having invested so much of his time in the project, the slightest mistake drives him to distraction: it might sound like random noise at times, but it's all clearly ordered, to the smallest sonic detail. So when Thomas himself fluffs one song, he's mortified, and insists that we have to "suffer through it all again"; later on, a further repetition is demanded for some other glitch, as the singer stalks the tiny, overcrowded stage, swearing at nothing in particular. This could be a long night, if they're not careful. Particularly for the synthesiser operator, who has to do the routine with the chicken mask all over again.
The music, a combination of martial drumming, electronics and piercing guitar flourishes, with Thomas's helium squeak in discourse with the drummer's responses as Mere Ubu (not unlike Alastair Sim's drag voice), sounds fine to the audience, but Thomas himself gets increasingly frustrated at having to explain what's going on in between songs. Eventually, to our relief, he cuts the show short, abandoning the final couple of songs and storming to his dressing-room. When the band returns, with a majestic, menacing "Final Solution" heralding The Modern Dance, Thomas seems less gratified by the ecstatic response than one might have imagined, comparing the huge wall of cheers with the polite smatter of applause that greeted the more recent work on which he'd lavished so much time and energy.
"Thank you very much," he says. "You have no idea how it breaks my heart. I have nothing but contempt for each and every one of you." His words, of course, being greeted with further good-natured cheers. He then explains how he won't be doing the album's characteristic metal percussion, ever since "some little snot-nose goth kid" came up to him after a gig and said, "Oh, Einstürzende Neubauten do that!". Neubauten, it transpires, get off lightly, compared to the contemptuous tongue-lashings meted out during the evening to Frank Black, Sting and Thom Yorke, insulted in a manner I won't repeat here. But The Modern Dance, despite Thomas's grudging disdain, is magnificently delivered, the blasted topography of its dark, industrial soundscape replicated with unnerving accuracy by a band featuring none of the original members bar the singer.
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