Earlier entries of this series can be found here: archive.
“Buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction/ Guitars gonna sound like a nuclear destruction”
115. Pere Ubu – Final Solution
Country: United States of America.
Released as a single.
Acclaimed Music ranking: #2299.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 1st.
Ranks higher than I Wish by Stevie Wonder, but lower than A Roller Skater Jam Named ‘Saturdays’ by De La Soul, featuring Q-Tip.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: unranked.
Lyrics by David Thomas.
Produced by Ken Hannam & Pere Ubu.
Vocals by David Thomas.
Guitar by Peter Laughner & Tim Wright.
Drums by Scott Krauss.
Bass by Tim Wright.
Organ by Dave Taylor.
Synthesizer by Dave Taylor.
Somewhere in the pantheon of rock music Pere Ubu exists. The band’s founder and only continuous member, David Thomas, seems to view anything written or said about his group by anyone from outside with a certain weariness (and me just stating this would obviously be a mistake from his point of view (and this too (and this too (etc.)))). But what can I do? Pere Ubu exists, as does the song Final Solution, which my lord and commander Random.org has chosen for me to write about. On the Pere Ubu website David Thomas likes to posit his band as a workmanlike group that does what it has to do. But so do I and that’s what I’m going to do.
They probably don’t like to admit it, but Pere Ubu is perhaps the ultimate alternative rock band. Thomas likes to posit Pere Ubu as just a rock band that tried to make pure, modern rock, without any arty inclinations. “Art goes on the cover” he states on the website. “We are the mainstream”, he claims. In some ways yes, but Pere Ubu’s reputation is the direct opposed of the mainstream. It’s hard to think of another seminal rock band whose existence is known by so few. Captain Beefheart seems the establishment in comparison. Pere Ubu are important in influencing other rock bands. They got critical acclaim. But all this love and praise comes from people with deep knowledge of rock. Only when you look beyond the obvious parts of the canon you will find this band, mostly beloved by the Pierro Scaruffi’s of this world, as well as by Rate Your Music users who think everything more famous than Pere Ubu is beneath them.
All this says surprisingly little about how Pere Ubu actually sounds. Yes, there is experimental stuff here. There are weird songs. When some of the songs would appear on the radio station many people would switch channels never to return. This is the kind of stuff that you expect from musicians with Pere Ubu’s stature. But this is not the whole story. Thomas’ claim that Pere Ubu is at heart a mainstream rock band isn’t just all talk. Many of their songs, especially their early singles and first two albums got a lot of melody too. The songs are unique and a tat different than the norm – especially when placed in their time – but they are fun too and got a spirit that should appeal to anyone with a rock heart.
Final Solution is one of the early singles. It is actually a song that was originally written by another band: Rocket from the Tombs. If that name sounds familiar you might very well be thinking about Rocket from the Crypt, the nineties punk band whose name is derived from the older band, but is otherwise unrelated. Rocket from the Tombs was a band from Cleveland that contained several members that would later form Pere Ubu. They originally never recorded and where mostly a live act (demo’s and live recordings were finally released in 2002 and since then the group has recorded some other albums). When the group broke up, vocalist David Thomas still wanted to record some of the songs he wrote for Rocket from the Tombs. When he approached guitar player Peter Laughner, also from the old band, he explained Pere Ubu as just a recording act for that specific purpose. It wasn’t originally to be a long-time band and Thomas promised Laughner that the group wouldn’t play live. We are over 40 years further now and the band still exists and sometimes tours.
It didn’t go fast. The band formed in 1975. The first album, The Modern Dance, was released in 1978. By that time Peter Laughner had already left the band and subsequently died because of Acute pancreatitis, caused by extreme substance abuse. In these three years Pere Ubu did something that was rather unique at the time: start their own distribution company. They self-produced and -released their singles. Apparently, only Television did it earlier, by just a few months. Production was slow though and they only released a single every few months.
Final Solution was one of those singles and it was one of the songs that originated from Rocket from the Tombs. Based on a live recording, it was an incredibly furious rock song. On the Pere Ubu single it’s still a big monster, but it feels less like a physical assault. Most of the rage comes from David Thomas himself, whose wails adds the scream to the more smouldering terror of the instrumentals. If Thomas isn’t shouting he still sounds full of disdain. There is tension everywhere. Synths are used in an eerie way and are hardly recognizable as that instrument. Many lines are accompanied by short bursts of noise and other effects. Drums and bass are steady as they go, but everything else seems to highlight the psychological torment of the lyrics. When Thomas says “Guitars gonna sound like a nuclear destruction” there is a moment of silence, with only a slight echo, as if humanity – including of course Pere Ubu – has been wiped out.
Those lyrics are very interesting. They are definitely angst-ridden. It’s a song about alienation for which the singer doesn’t “need a cure/ I need a final solution”. My interpretation has always been that the implied final solution was suicide, but it seems that interpretations vary wildly. The solution might actually be to join a rock band. One thing is for sure, the “final solution” is not related to the Holocaust. Not that it seems to be on basis on the lyrics alone, but still people tend to think in simple terms sometimes. In the second halve of the seventies some bands picked up Nazi imagery, for shock tactics or worse. During that period, Pere Ubu removed Final Solution temporarily from the setlist, out of disgust.
The psychological element of this single was serious business, but that doesn’t mean that there is no room for humour. In fact, one of the least known elements of the Pere Ubu style is that they like to be funny. So Final Solution contains lines like: “Mom threw me out til I get some pants that fit/ She just don't approve of my strange kind of wit.” There may be angst, but Pere Ubu posit it as something that can come from both serious as well as silly reasons. No matter your sorrows, there is possibly no cure for it, but perhaps there is a final solution.
All the lyrical jokes aside, the power of this song resides first and foremost in its build-up near the end. After a short, musical bridge Thomas slowly but surely starts chanting the word “solution” over and over in an increasingly furious manner. There are humming voices (by Thomas himself I think) keeping things at least a little sweet, but also eerie. Pere Ubu may not really be punk and David Thomas may hate punk (he invented the genre ‘avant-garage’ to stop critics from pigeonholing them wrong, even though ‘avant-garage’ is not a thing), but there is something in this raging finally that has the same primal power as a lot of punk.
This is a fascinating band, with fascinating songs. Their website is almost a must visit for everyone, as David Thomas isn’t afraid to share his opinions on everything, no matter how contradictory. Final Solution is still very recognizably a rock song, though it’s sound was real novel at the time. Now it is a good introduction to the Pere Ubu sound, before things got even weirder. And here I stop, before I say something that embarrasses David Thomas even more.
http://www.ubuprojex.com/index.html - The website of Pere Ubu with a lot of FAQ’s containing the opinions of David Thomas. Essential reading.
This is one of those rare “classics” that doesn’t inspire a single karaoke version. There are no instrumental takes I’m aware of either. Not even a cover for babies. That’s a missed opportunity. There might not be a real market for Pere Ubu music, but maybe “Bedtime for Baby with Pere Ubu” is an angle to consider. You can’t claim to be mainstream before someone has tried to sell you to new parents.
There are still more covers here than I thought there would be, but this song belongs to the hyper-faithful. There is little creativity in the interpretations, except one translation in Swedish by Bob Hund. It is exclusively played by rockers who like to perform their music dirty. I think all these bands really love Pere Ubu and at least that shows by the consistent quality of the covers. Even the one track that has sampled Final Solution, Beauty Is the Beast by The Ark, is really good (and also borrows something of the structure of the original). The highlight is the cover by Peter Murphy, the one from Bauhaus. He also did it live with Nine Inch Nails and TV on the Radio and that is my favourite take.
Peter Murphy, TV on the Radio and Nine Inch Nails perform Final Solution live.