Pere Ubu and the B-Movie Connection

The legendary avant-garage frontman talks B-films, Orson Welles, and chaos.

On a warm summer night in 2005, Pere Ubu provided a raucous live soundtrack for a screening of Roger Corman’s 1963 wonderment X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. As a huge fan of both the band and the film, it was, needless to say, a memorable evening, and the ending was the clincher. A blink after the film’s final shot (Ray Milland looking skyward, having just plucked out his own eyes), Ubu frontman and founder David Thomas shrieked out the film’s long-rumored but famously unused closing line. If Thomas hadn’t shouted it, I would have. The fact that he did, however, told me he was a man who knew something about cult cinema. Of course there had been plenty of evidence prior to that night.

But let’s back up for the sake of history and context.

In 1974, as what would later come to be known as punk rock was emerging in New York in the form of Television, The Heartbreakers, the Ramones, and so many others, over in Cleveland, David Thomas co-founded Rocket From the Tombs. While the NYC bands were made up of the dissolute, the forsaken, and the geeky—streetwise poets, art students, heroin addicts, and assorted lowlifes—Rocket From the Tombs was different. There’s just something about the Midwest, where artists isolated from the scenes on both coasts have a knack for taking the fundamental building blocks of a form and turning them into something completely unexpected. Although inspired by fellow Midwesterners The Stooges and MC5, the band became seminal in its own right, blending youthful frustration, literary references, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom with sharp guitars, apocalyptic rhythms and feedback, crafting a unique style Thompson would dub avant garage. The band only existed for a year, but left behind a handful of enduring underground standbys like “Sonic Reducer,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “Final Solution.”

Shortly after Rocket from the Tombs disbanded, Thomas went on to form Pere Ubu, the band taking its name from Alfred Jarry’s revolutionary Absurdist 1896 play Ubu Roi, which had incited audience riots on what was both its opening and closing night. Having proved he could do the loud and fast hard rock thing with RFTT, with Pere Ubu, Thomas forged deeper into unmapped territory, adding elements of improvisational jazz, a wildly eclectic drive toward experimentation, and an expanded and varied collection of instruments that included vintage electronics, clarinet and Theremin. Weaving through the chunks of sound were Thomas’ nasal murmur, moan and yelp, and the arcane, subconscious poetry of his lyrics. Their debut album, The Modern Dance, came out in 1978, and though often erroneously lumped together with the punk scene, Pere Ubu’s sound, a staggered cacophony that veered from the spare to the playful to the majestic, remained absolutely unique and unclassifiable.

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Over the next four decades, along with releasing nearly twenty Pere Ubu albums, Thomas undertook countless side and solo projects (most recently David Thomas and Two Pale Boys and a reformed Rocket from the Tombs), worked in theater as a writer, director and actor, collaborated with Hal Wilner numerous times, gave some lectures, wrote some books, and in short has never stopped moving or experimenting. At the moment he’s overseeing the production and release of a series of career-spanning Ubu box sets.

Okay, now let’s stop a second here and back up again. From the very beginning, along with musical and literary references (everything from the Beach Boys and James Fenimore Cooper to Thomas Pynchon and Johnny Cash), direct and oblique film references have been an inescapable component of Thomas’ output. A woefully incomplete list of cited films includes Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Lady From Shanghai, Panic in Year Zero, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, When Worlds Collide, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Ubu’s astonishing 2014 album Carnival of Souls evolved out of another live film score into a kind of Symbolist opera inspired by Herk Harvey’s 1961 no-budget horror classic. Thomas has even described his assorted musical projects in cinematic terms, Pere Ubu as a Hollywood blockbuster in CinemaScope and his solo work as indie art house films. Yet for it all, he insists he’s not a film enthusiast. Not as it’s generally understood, anyway.

“We are a folk band, or, if you prefer, a pop band,” Thomas explained via email shortly after returning from the latest Pere Ubu tour. “Both forms are based on tradition, in different ways, and on building on a shared cultural language, on what has gone before. There are countless references to pop music in our work, numerous re-writes or fixes to earlier pop songs or forms. It’s an extension of the ‘flying saucer disc’ craze of the ’60s, bands responding to what other bands have recorded. The films that I most like are B-movies. The amateurish enthusiasm and naive intention, as well as lack of budget, of the B-movie encourages a kind of communal abstraction that approaches folk culture, and the frequent lack of a coherent agenda leaves lots of wiggle room for whatever personalized context or agenda an audience or band chooses to overlay.”

“As a kid watching Friday night monster movies, I understood that these things were not really about man-eating giant crab monsters or a woman who doesn’t know she is dead, etc,” he said. “I was not able to voice it, and had no desire to voice it, but I understood there were OTHER ideas involved. These secret, hidden, forbidden ideas were exciting to me by the nature of their obliqueness. Culture happens in secret, beneath the vision of the social elites. It is thereby preserved and passed on in sometimes vulgar language.”

Putting it a slightly different way, he said, “They are often one guy’s unique vision untrammeled by corporate interference and such things as continuity or a cohesive narrative. (Reading Raymond Chandler too much at a young age set that in stone.)” 

He further added, “Note as well that one of the ways to build complex narratives in a pop song context is to build on not only the vocabulary and lexicon that you yourselves have established in earlier work, but by also referencing what others have done. Finally, I am an American – rock music and, to an extent, films are uniquely American. All I know is being an American. I like to see what others do with the same ideas I work with but they are foreigners and I can never really ‘get it.’ I can appreciate it and study it and seek to understand the differences in perspective but, in my gut, I can never GET it. I find multiculturalism to be simply another more invidious form of imperialism. Study who you are, it’s a futile journey but it’s all you can ever hope to know.”

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Taking the idea of reworking and repurposing assorted bits of cultural flotsam in a new context one step further, about a decade back Thomas began composing underscores to accompany film screenings. In a way it was in essence turning the idea on its head. Instead of punctuating a new work by subsuming a pre-existing song or film reference, it was a way of inflicting (though that’s too harsh a word) a new and unexpected component upon a pre-existing work. Come to think of it now, though, maybe it does work the same way. It’s still using something old to create something new, but in the case of the new soundtrack, it’s the score that remains the focal point during the performance, taking dominance over the often already familiar film at hand.

While adding live contemporary scores for old films is nothing new (Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet, and others had done it), it was a practice usually reserved for silent films like Nosferatu, Metropolis, or Battleship Potemkin. Thomas, however, was one of the first to offer the same treatment to more recent cult films. Along with The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Carnival of Souls, he and Pere Ubu also toured with 3-D screenings of Jack Arnold’s 1953 sci-fi fundamental It Came From Outer Space, based on a Ray Bradbury script.

The trick, he says, to composing a score for a film that already has a soundtrack is staying out of the way as much as possible. “Then we try to enhance or fix or extend the vision and poetry of what is, or should be, there. Lower budget films are a whole lot easier to work with – there are fewer scene changes. It Came From Outer Space being a relatively big budget Hollywood film is the hardest to work with. X is easier. Carnival of Souls is easier yet, and filled with great character actors, particularly the land lady, who you have real affection for. Strangely, the one person you don’t have affection for is Mary. I have always wondered if that was intentional.”

So what was it about, say, The Man With X-Ray Eyes and It Came From Outer Space in particular that attracted him?

“Well, I LIKE them but there are also very powerful ideas in both those films that captivated me,” he says. “In It Came From Outer Space, the remnants of Bradbury’s poetry and particularly the notion of the alien traveling the telephone wires. Reference: ‘Wichita Line Man.’ In X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, the final non-scene in which, I’m sure at one point, included the now-eyeless Ray Milland screaming, “I can still see!” Evidently, Steven Spielberg has said there was supposed to be such a scene. With all due respect to Mr. Spielberg, I knew that as a kid when I first saw it.”

Despite his deep respect for B films, Thomas unhesitatingly cites fellow Midwesterner Orson Welles (see?) as a primary inspiration, making him one of those few and rare individuals who has a deep admiration for both Welles and Carnival of Souls. Pere Ubu even took the title of their 2013 album from Welles’ 1947 noir film Lady from Shanghai. It makes a great deal of sense. Both men were (and are) brilliant outsiders, multi-talented mavericks and innovators, larger-than-life characters with a singular style and vision. And as a result, both were forced to work independently in order to get that vision out there.

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“I found his ideas inspiring in one way or another,” Thomas says of Welles. “He also seemed to have a firm grasp on ‘just getting on with it.’ I like his narrative angles. Lady From Shanghai is really all about that shot where the camera is looking down on the ‘target practice’ guy (sorry, I forget the character’s name) with the sea raging below, as well as Welles’ walk/dialog away from the Hall Of Mirrors and his stumbling through the revolving tube – the body shape he adopts. I’m a big fan of Macbeth and Touch Of Evil – well, all of them. I love the stills and story that remain from the first cut of Magnificent Ambersons – it’s like Brian Wilson’s lost Smile album – perfect because it can only exist in the imagination where everything is purer and clearer. And I am inspired by his spirit in the face of everything he faced. I understand him. I should have played him in that biopic!”

It’s not that farfetched a notion. There is a certain undeniable resemblance, after all. Also like Welles, Thomas has done quite a bit of theater work over the years, writing and directing the 1998 improvisational opera Mirror Man and a 2008 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play, which he titled Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi. He also starred in a London production of Shockheaded Peter. I asked if, along with everything else, he had any interest in moving into film himself.

“I suspect I would like certain aspects of film making but detest the restrictions of the medium,” Thomas said. “I like to change things too much, to fix things, and film is not really suited to that. I’m also a firm believer in the Alfred Hitchcock dictum that the thing wrong with film-making is the actors. I thrive on chaos, again not a real good trait when you’ve got crews standing there on the clock. Throw me into a disaster and I will excel. Throw me into a well-ordered environment and I will do my best to turn it into chaos out of nothing more than willfulness. Also the other big problem with a film is that it starts, something happens (even if it’s nothing) and it ends. The notion of an ending irritates me. Big flaw. I like messes. One huge mess in which to interweave meaning and revelation. Sort of like Real Life.”