It has been some years now that I have been saying that the Pere Ubu album entitled New Picnic Time, from 1979, is the scariest album ever made, and perhaps the time has come now to back up this claim, to speak of the dark truths of New Picnic Time. Yes, I understand, there are a great many other scary albums out there. For example, there is The Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. That is a very scary album, based on a certain subjective notion of scary, which is that scary involves consciousness in the process of decay or confinement or miniaturization. Test Department were occasionally scary. Throbbing Gristle, definitely scary on occasion, and with some similarities of intent and mission with Pere Ubu. The first album by Einsturzende Neubauten, called Kollaps, plenty unsettling. Or what about some of those bands like Cannibal Corpse? They recorded a song called “Addicted to Vaginal Skin.” Well, actually, Cannibal Corpse is silly, and any band that features the heel-toe double bass drum sound is not capable of being more than silly. Or any band with that screaming thing, the death metal screaming pitch-shifted thing. Although I do in fact find Slipknot kind of disturbing. “Sister Ray,” by the Velvet Underground? Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass? Yes, it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. (Although: I just noticed on iTunes that listeners who bought Plague Mass also bought Teenage Dream by Katy Perry.) Butthole Surfers? Legitimately terrifying on occasion, e.g., Locust Abortion Technician. You can come up with your own list. I will attempt to explain what I mean about New Picnic Time below, and in the process I will try to explain why music from the punk era is disturbing when, in fact, it’s a lot less intentionally menacing than Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death.
So: it was the third album by the band (if you discount EPs and singles), and the second in the row to feature what was a rather stable lineup—David Thomas on vocals, Scott Krauss on drums, Tony Maimone on bass, Allen Ravenstine on synthesizer, and Tom Herman on guitar. The album that immediately preceded New Picnic Time was the album called Dub Housing, which by most criteria of the time was a masterpiece. It combined a quaint but relatively pure garage rock assault with tricky art rock restlessness, and then bits of pure sonic chaos as in the passages making especial use of Ravenstine’s synthesizer bleeps, which were not like anyone else’s, likewise Thomas’s unconventional vocal stylings, which had about them a bit of Appalachia and a bit of the twenties crooner. But what made Dub Housing especially indelible was the writing. The band played together with the seasoned tightness of musicians who had gigged a lot, and the compositions had a real group feel, as though generated collaboratively. Even Thomas’s vocals, not melodic exactly, often proceeded from (and even commented on) the music happening around him. On tracks like “Caligari’s Mirror” and “On the Surface,” Thomas is playful and sardonic, with a withering narratorial gaze. But on the title track, “Have you heard about this house?/Inside a thousand voices talk,/And their talk echoes around and around,/The windows reverberate,/The walls have ears,/A thousand saxophone voices talk,” he is more prophetic than sardonic. Or maybe it’s just the music, a saxophone wailing in the sonic distance and a backing vocal choir singing “We know” over and over. The song moves into a powerful crescendo, with some fine drumming by Scott Krauss. There’s something impenetrably dark about “Dub Housing,” in its haunted qualities; there’s something grim indicated beyond the confines of the song that is not in the song, but is felt in it.
If Dub Housing did not sell a lot of copies, which almost no album by Pere Ubu has done, it did nonetheless have a real impact, the way Double Knickles On the Dime did later, the way Pink Flag did, the way Slanted and Enchanted did, the way Entertainment! by Gang of Four did. It got under your skin. Okay, but surely this band, while teetering on the edge of something entirely non-commercial and wholly devoted to art, kind of wanted to sell a few records, too, or at least to have success on its own peculiar terms?
New Picnic Time was the rejoinder to any questions about what exactly Pere Ubu wanted, and the rejoinder was a mammoth stick in the eye. Gone, almost entirely, were the more user-friendly aspects of Dub Housing, and in their place we heard a willful insistence on experiment and double-crossing, but also expressive darkness. Let’s look closer.
“The Fabulous Sequel”
The first lyric uttered on the album is exactly contradictory: “It’s me again!” How could it be the narrator again if this is the first song? Unless the intention is to get right up in the face of the music-listening audience out there, the audience that found Dub Housing challenging. At the same time: the band is, to use a beleaguered term, smoking. Okay, it’s not a bad term, however beleaguered, because later in the song we have the couplet “Put out the cat/Put out the fire” sung over and over for a while. So there is a fire, which is the fire of burning down something, consigning domesticity to flames, which is the consumption of certainties in flame, which is the idea of rock and roll as an accessible, definable form, consumed in flames. The band is smoking, which means the groove is heavy, especially the groove that is about Tom Herman and Tony Maimone, locked in like they have in fact passed the last couple of years driving back and forth to New York City to play, and this groove is so catchy (note Scott Krauss’s rolls) that it almost dupes you into believing that Pere Ubu could be a good time kind of a band, because the groove keeps us from thinking about the spooky parts of the song. Part of what’s spooky is the fact that there are two lead tracks of David Thomas, the singer, going at the same time (“It was a tin can, it was a dream”), and these two tracks are not, it bears mentioning, singing harmony together (“Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark”), they are just flinging a lot of paint at the canvas and seeing what will stick. Thomas definitely could be improvising the lyric on the spot. Is he saying “Kick that dream” at the conclusion? And then there’s Ravenstine, who is playing something drenched in reverb that sounds like a Halloween sound effects recording from the early seventies, and just when you start to think that you like the song (while Thomas is singing “bye bye” for a while), it ends so abruptly that you
“49 Guitars and One Girl”
“It was a sound he heard/it was a funny thing to feel,” and what is the funny thing to feel on a record that is going to end with the apocalypse, with the Big Uncovering, especially since after singing the couplet, Thomas says “bubbles” several times, as if the excited way he is saying it could somehow suggest a bubble to someone who had never seen one? Don’t panic, don’t panic, which, yes, is like the injunction to relax. Being told not to panic almost always engenders incipient panic, and the panic in this case is spiritual, is the way that the linear thought, the verse/chorus way of thinking about things, is completely frustrated by Thomas/Ravenstine who play on this song like they are yelling randomly in your ear during a dinner conversation; nevertheless, “49 Guitars and One Girl” does not break down the entirety of rock music, not yet, although it starts. The bass seems to be playing a different composition from the rest of the band, and the synthesizer seems to be aping a two-year-old who has just been told no. What does “Yellow Walls” mean? Maybe that there were yellow walls in the studio that day? “All for the love of you” might refer to the one girl in the title, that emblem of rock and roll, the girl, or it might refer to the spiritual absence that is at the heart of the album.
“A Small Dark Cloud”
There is something that is obviously synthetic under this cloud, the cloud named above, but which is meant to sound like a bird, or what a bird would sound like, a baby bird, if it were being dreamed by an inexpensive toy robot of Chinese manufacture, and this baby bird, or this flock, this nest of baby birds is present at the beginning of the song along with some timpani, or perhaps toms, and then a few luminous piano chords, suspended, and such is the action of the song until the vocals, wordless, and mixed back, erupt with what could be a theory of the entirety of New Picnic Time: “There’s a fly in the ointment! There’s a speck of a fly! There’s a fly in the ointment!” The bass comes in at 2:39, along with multi-tracked voices, keening, chirruping, not exactly coming clean with any discernible lyric. “Put out the cloth on the anthill.” Or: “We’ll sit around and sit around and sit around and wait.” And this could be some kind of demonic picnic, as referred to in the album title, which is also chanted here “Picnic time!” “Picnic time!” Which eventually gives way to the words “Don’t rock the boat!” sung by some massed chorus of David Thomases. But if it’s not a real picnic, what is it? The last song makes clear exactly what, but more on the last song when we get to the last song. It’s important from a musical perspective to remember that sometimes Pere Ubu went into the studio without any material, and “A Small Dark Cloud” feels like one of the songs—weighing in at a whopping 5:51—that was made up on the spot, but is no less ominous for all of that. The contribution of the bass, for example, so subtle, but so melodic, so destabilizing, is worthy of comment, and then Allen Ravenstine’s ability to make his very primitive EML synthesizer do some amazing things, some bird sounds, some industrial noise, some swooping stuff that was probably virtually impossible to get the device to do a second time, and in the pursuit of a very ominous theme, the fly in the ointment theme, he sounds on this cut very ominous indeed. Let us also note that almost no colloquial expression devoted to the idea that things will go wrong is as disturbing as: “There’s a fly in the ointment.” Partly because we sympathize with the fly, wriggling to its demise? Partly because ointment is one fucked up word? Would it be the same if there was a fly in the unguent? Would people know unguent well enough to use it in this kind of an expression? Actually unguent and ointment come from the same Latin, as I understand it—unguentem—but ointment comes via the French for same, oignement. What is the ointment doing in some place where it might attract flies? And is any smell as disturbing, in the abstract, as the smell summoned in the words “There’s a fly in the ointment”? The small dark cloud of this song is the small dark cloud of doubt about the outcome of things, which is a millenarian anxiety, but what is terrifying about this song is that, for the course of this lyric, there is no mitigation of the anxiety, just the dense, stifling, constricting fear.
“Small Was Fast”
Later on, when Pere Ubu imploded for a good stretch, David Thomas was in a period when he resisted rock and roll, even disliked it volubly, and New Picnic Time vacillates between a love of the incredibly perfect band sound that was this group of players, and pieces that are like an arsonist in the house of the popular song. This is one of the former songs. It has the beautiful rhythm section of Krauss/Maimone/Herman, and they are playing something that sounds like rock and roll, and over this there is some falsetto Thomas (“I waited for you!”), and some synthesizer noise. It is somehow plausibly punk and plausibly art-oriented, until the big organ chord at 1:21, which sounds like it was overdubbed without listening to what had already been recorded, and this in turns gives way to something like a chorus—the words “I want sleep! I want sleep!” As if New Picnic Time were not recorded inside of sleep, and were not a depiction of the inside of a dream. And to reinforce this, the song abruptly stops at 2:50, and there are some very reverberant children’s toys, or perhaps a dog toy, squishable in the mouth of some dog, and the sound of wind, and Thomas singing “I waited for you,” which means waited for what exactly? For a person or personages to come? For a millenarian remission of facts of this earthly life? The rhythm section returns for a few sprung iterations, and then “Small Was Fast” collapses into an uncertainty about how to close itself.
“All the Dogs Are Barking”
“You gotta have happiness, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have home, homes, you gotta have heart, head, you gotta have hands, you gotta have horns, you gotta have heart, you gotta have hope, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have . . . help, you gotta have help, you gotta have . . .” Even in the most recondite and unusual of bands—and there are few more so than this—there is the moment in which one must employ the one-four chord progression, and this is the song that does so on this grim document, and there are no drums, and Tony Maimone would seem to be playing the prepared piano, and Scott Krauss is on shaker, and there are no dogs barking, despite the title of the song, and it’s all happening—whatever it is that’s happening—in the guitar, and the organ, and the improvised lyrics, in the piling up of disbelief, because there’s not a moment in the litany above when you believe that this singer, this lyricist, has any of these things, the things he is after, or is perhaps never in danger of having these things (“Help!” he says matter-of-factly), and so the dogs are barking over some kind of emergency, they are the dogs barking at sirens, inaudible to the human ear, the cry of things to come, the cry of a supersonic immanence of destruction and judgment . . .
“One Less Worry”
And so: “Here it goes, somebody . . . help . . . ” because the album has not gotten onto its feet, is still in need of help, and the lyric here is mainly concerned with the inability of the song to start, as though the band cannot be bothered (“How’s it look? Not too good!”). Not that one, not that one, not that one. Sort of a reggae groove here, not real reggae, but the sort of groove by a band that was listening to the deep sounds of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and almost everyone was listening to Lee “Scratch” Perry in those days, but it’s likewise as if Thomas is daring the band to keep going, while he utterly disdains the necessity of song composition. In fact, the song starts with negation, nope nope, and what is being negated? The rock and roll idiom is being negated, but also the consistent or unitary or confident lead singer, in possession of a consistent or unitary or undisturbed point of view, which is mainly the province of the rock and roll song (“pretty bleak . . . pretty bleak”), or as though he is commenting on the band’s project as a whole. And it’s odd, when you bear down on the Thomas of more recent years, how vulnerable, how completely in danger of some kind of emotional collapse (“I don’t think about it anymore, no more, not that one again, not that one again”) this Thomas sounds. Maybe it’s just the slightly warbly jazz-age crooner about his voice that makes this the case, but on this song, the desperation catches up with, and eventually overwhelms the attempts of the band to complete its work, even though its labors are appealing.
Tom Herman was the first to go after New Picnic Time, and I will get to some of the reasons why later on, but “Make Hay” is the song on which he best shines. It’s therefore possible to imagine that he wrote much of the music here, which is part psychedelic and part surf rock, but coming as it does, after the grim, ominous mess of “One Less Worry,” which should probably be called “One More Worry,” it’s sort of too little, too late. Moreover, this song is sequenced near the trio of songs that end this album, in which almost all human hope is scraped away and replaced with nothing but the expectation of annihilation. This song is therefore anomalous. Tom Herman was a beautiful guitar player, and when the band hired Mayo Thompson, next, to be its guitar player, their sound changed utterly, acquired a certain R&B influence, and, dare I say it, a little jazz, and this is the end of the most rock and roll period of Pere Ubu, and it was largely rock and roll because of Herman’s dependable grooves, against which the artier and more recalcitrant agents in the band could bash their heads. Herman, in this period, made it possible for people to think they were still listening to rock and roll and not sound art, or minimalist electronic music, but David Thomas had more appetite for generic destruction, and so this is the last time Herman was allowed to bust out and play. Hail and farewell.
And now things get really scary. The title alone is pretty terrifying in any pop song in which you are willing to pay close attention, the farewell being one of the tropes of the deeply suicidal person, but if you pay close enough attention to any farewell, or the way in which kids think about the word goodbye, that the word is a cudgel that is going to be used upon them, then it is a deeply upsetting word, and Thomas seems to know what he means by the title, and by the repetitions of the lines: “This does not seem to be a very happy person.” The words are mumbled, really, and somewhat occluded by some organ and some Allen Ravenstine noise, but the message is there for anyone who wants to listen closely—the imminent farewell (“Useless,” “Give up,” “Come home”) that creeps in and out of the creepy, reverb-drenched organ. What we have here is not an unusual chord progression for Pere Ubu, whose “Humor Me” from The Art of Walking was a slightly more up-tempo version of a similar mood, and that song summoned the death of the band’s original guitarist, in which the refrain, “Humor me! Humor me! Humor me!” meant just the opposite, but this is later on, and there is more giving up involved. So to what is the narrator saying goodbye? Not a person, I would contend, but, rather, to an entire culture and an entire time, to an entire way of being and seeming in, for example, the Midwest of the United States of America, whose flaming rivers and dilapidated factories are the stuff of the backdrop that is Pere Ubu (they named one live album Terminal Tower, after a building in their hometown). So this is about letting ago, which is about religious vision, but the thing about religious vision is that it is lonely, and so the David Thomas who would have some truck with a millenarian vision, an apocalyptic, is trying to believe he needs to be this lonely, comforted only by a power that you can’t put your hand on, or even talk to, not in an constructive dialogue-oriented way. He’s trying to talk himself into it, into leaving behind all of this stuff, this Cleveland, around him. He both believes and, in the context of the album and in the band’s group dynamics, doesn’t believe, and the album wants it both ways: the end of everything, and the intense regret about letting go over everything. Religious vision. Probably kills more people than it helps.
“Voice of the Sand”
The lyric here is based on a poem by Vachel Lindsay, I believe. The song, such as it is (for it clocks in at 1:29), consists of almost nothing but analogue synthesizer noise over which Thomas whispers, and I mean whispers, close-mic style: “This is the voice of sand/the sailors understand/There is far more sea than sand/There is far more sea than man.” Then some more synthesizer noise. Like the kind of stuff you would hear on an album of early electronic music from the sixties. Really beautiful, not musical in any conventional way, and of a piece with the annihilation of the Thomas lyric, which is about the absolute insignificance, numerical and otherwise quantitative, of all that man is when considered in the panorama of creation. It’s a very short piece, involving only Thomas and Ravenstine, who was perhaps his only ally in the band at this moment, and it will make your skin crawl if you really listen to it. In a good way. It’s impossible to listen to this and not feel yourself in the ocean of the insignificance it’s selling.
“Jehovah’s Kingdom Come”
Which brings us to the apocalypse. The apocalypse is so fraught with peril, and the behavior of particles during the apocalypse is so strange that all the reliable facts become unreliable as you approach it, and so, for example, even the name of the song in question is thoroughly contested. Or: on New Picnic Time, this last song is called “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and the implications here are pretty clear. Later, on the compilation of the early albums Ubu called Datapanik In Year Zero, the song is listed as “Kingdom Come,” which peels away some of the doctrinal heavy-handedness of the other title. But: on the Ubu Projex web site (as of February 2012), in which David Thomas exerts a fair amount of justifiable sway (being the only original member left in the band), where lyrics to all the Pere Ubu albums are catalogued, the song is not included on the New Picnic Time page at all under either title, and is instead called “Hand a Face a Feeling.” And the lyric, as inscribed therein, leaves out the refrain on the song, which is simply “Jehovah’s Kingdome Come,” and to excise this portion would seem to me to miss some of what the song is about, though I am also very interested in Thomas’s recalibration of the song from this late date. And so to consider mining the unreliable: the way I have heard it, Herman and/or Maimone wrote the music to this track (and since Herman is credited with the organ on the album, it would make sense to suppose that the track, which has plenty of organ, is his), and they thought they had a pretty good rock song, maybe one of the best the band had written in a while. Then David came back with the lyric—which is nothing but one big long invitation for the End Times that Thomas was imbibing in his Jehovah’s Witness period, “These are the best times of all”—and Herman decided he would leave on the spot. An oversimplification, maybe even a fabrication, or a reading of the album’s themes back against the lives of the principal actors in the story, and that is never entirely fair. But let’s say it has some marginal accuracy. Thomas’s temporary adherence to the Jehovah’s Witness movement must have caused a fair amount of dissension in the ranks. Herman left, and the band, as it was, was over. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have reckoned on the end of this world many times, that’s the short version of this particular belief system, and have constantly had to renegotiate the date of the end. At the time Thomas would have “joined,” however briefly, in the late seventies, the church was in something of a crisis, because predictions about the End Times at all, which the leaders of the movement had believed were imminent in 1975, had failed to bring about any End Times. Unless you happen to believe that Cleveland in the late seventies was some kind of representation of apocalypse. This is an album about preoccupation with the end, and this is the song that crystallizes and makes apparent that preoccupation with the end—the eschaton, as David Foster Wallace called it—and a preoccupation with the end is terrifying in all cases. No wait, that’s not it. If a preoccupation with the end were terrifying, then a lot of contemporary evangelical nonsense would be terrifying, and it’s not. I don’t find the hellfire vision of a Pat Robertson or a Jimmy Swaggart terrifying. I find it ridiculous, unsupported scripturally, and I don’t believe they believe it either, because they are primarily motivated by the accumulation of power and the monetization of that power. On the other hand, the millenarian movement that, in 2011, predicted the imminent end of the world, which then caused a bunch of evangelicals to give up their jobs and abandon their possessions, and so on, that I do find terrifying. What is terrifying is the entirely self-destructive belief, and the kind of imagination that gives to this vision a fertility, a kind of imagination that is primarily a sort of isolation. And Jehovah’s Witnesses, who shun people who leave the faith (Thomas must have been heavily shunned at one point), and who do not consort with the outlanders of American culture, are heavily isolated, and experience a real ideological constraint in their daily lives. All of that outside stuff, the seductions of what happens out here in the world, must feel considerably threatening. David Thomas believed in the line he was being sold, and unlike Patti Smith, who drank a little bit of the same Kool-Aid, or so I am told, around Wave, and Michael Jackson, who was also observant, Thomas made a recording from inside the belief, because he was vulnerable in this way, human in this way, and because he understood something about art, something that Patti Smith no longer understood by the time of Wave, something Michael Jackson, or Dave Mustaine, for that matter, never understood, namely that art is about consciousness. So “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and indeed all of New Picnic Time as a whole, is about the inside of this belief, the psychology of the millenarian, the apocalyptic, and the doubt that must adhere to millenarian conviction, doubt that the ideological system is accurate. In this case, the doubt, and the belief, are coincident with garage rock, with Cleveland, with some of what punk was about, a sense of the militancy of outsider art, a sense of the aggression of rock and roll, the purpose of rock and roll. And, as in high art, the result is a complex of feelings, not a simple feeling, and for me, the best word for that complex is: dread.
What it was the end of, actually, was this band. Nothing else, really, although many things change. Cleveland changes. Whatever punk was in its infancy changes, and the guys in the band get older and move on, become airline pilots or what have you. But New Picnic Time was the end of a certain idea about Pere Ubu, because, in truth, it’s impossible to go any further in this direction than this album. There are other albums like this, Trout Mask Replica, let’s say. Or Metal Box. Or Suicide. Or A Love Supreme. Where everything you have done you have now done, and there’s no going on, unless you dramatically reinvent. Many of these albums are significantly scary, scary because they risk everything artistically, but for me New Picnic Time towers above the other scary albums, because the subject matter and the absolute lack of compromise in the approach are one and the same. Pere Ubu had little to lose, they were willing to lose what little they had, and they lost it, at least for a time. They even lost each other for a while. And at the time almost no one understood what was here, even the people who liked this sort of thing. It has taken me years to fully understand this album myself. And as with most great albums, each of those years was worth it.
Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. He also plays and writes songs in The Wingdale Community Singers. He’s at work on a new novel.