The archly titled four-LP set Elitism for the People: 1975-1978 covers the formative years of a pioneering proto-punk, art-rock ensemble. This smart anthology conveys Pere Ubu’s signature combination of Dada poetry and driving beats. The mix of David Thomas’ sometimes dour, sometimes chipper warble over Allen Ravenstine’s post-Eno synth blips suggests the early days of Roxy Music: a crooner leading an anarchic line-up that sounds ready to collapse.

Rising out of Cleveland’s depressed Rust Belt, the group defied industry norms, confounding expectations of what rock was supposed to sound like 40 years ago. Hearing “Final Solution” or “30 Seconds over Tokyo” on the radio back then was a rare and electrifying event. Thomas’ warped ditties wandered above sax squawks and doomed chords. Compared to then common radio acts like the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers, Pere Ubu beamed down dire transmissions from dark stars.

The bands earliest songs are collected on a disc called The Hearpen Singles. Some of these songs would appear on later Pere Ubu albums, but these early, primitive versions bounce. Thomas unleashes his formidable range and quirky sing-song lyrics on songs that stutter and start and stop. The sprightly rhythm section of Tony Maimone on bass and Scott Krause on drums snaps the songs into catchy melodies that make even the gloomier excursions more appealing. This unpredictable music endures as an exemplar from the avant-garage subgenre Pere Ubu jump-started.
By the time these and other songs were re-recorded for their debut LP The Modern Dance, the band had begun to tinker with their carefree, defiant ambiance. Released in 1978 on Blank, a subsidiary of Mercury, the album did not fit into the kind of new wave peddled as a friendlier follow-up to punk. Pere Ubu’s off-beat style failed to break to a larger market, and I can attest to how difficult it was to find the album, even in my native Los Angeles. The band earned critical attention but little airplay, which was a shame, for the irresistible squall of feedback heralding Tom Herman’s ‘50s-inspired riff on “Non-Alignment Pact” is a great rock moment, and the beginning of a slyly sequenced record.

“Non-Alignment Pact,” “Navvy” and the title track all clash with evocations of personal torment. The members of Pere Ubu splintered from Rocket from the Tombs (other members formed The Dead Boys) and the spirit of troubled songwriter Peter Laughner (his “Laughing” appears here) haunted the group, and you can hear it all over their debut. “Street Waves” is as sinister as anything Suicide recorded. The two minutes of “Life Stinks” succinctly convey its title. “Sentimental Journey” features the unsentimental sound of breaking glass. “Humor Me” doesn’t.

This grim mood pervades much of Dub Housing, which came out later that year on Chrysalis. Again, the label and the content seem mismatched. A grainy photo of the apartments where the band lived signals the album’s plunge into gloom. It’s a dense production that, like the rest of the anthology, was transferred by original engineer Paul Hamann from two-track analog tapes. Even on the mp3s offered for review in lieu of 180-gram vinyl, its miasma still simmers, the hiss and crackle sizzles. Although most of the songs are brief, they reveal shadows and depth, and lighter tracks like as “(Pa) Ubu Dance Party” and “Blow Daddy-O” totter along more deftly. Thomas’ unhinged delivery dominates the proceedings as the band’s tight collaboration pushes their music along. The subdued closer “Codex” prefigures the band’s future sonic direction into softer, reflective moods.

In concert, the band experimented with these songs, and Manhattan concludes the 35-song collection with a 1977 set from Max’s Kansas City. Brian Pyle’s meticulous remasters reveal the limits of live recording of the time, but even then, it sounds as if the band outnumbers the audience. All the same, this documents Pere Ubu’s interaction with its listeners and its challenge to the standard framework of rock. Elitism for the People is a testimony to a band’s campaign to break out of the conventional mold. Cleveland’s finest never made it onto the charts. But pitted against arena-rock behemoths, the heft of this intelligent, entertaining and sometimes sinister band towered above Top 40 dinosaurs.

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