One band made the leap from midwestern bars and the hors d’oeuvres slot on Rush and Kiss tours to Top 40 glory via three-minute grenades of razor-guitar pop and bubblicious song hooks. The other toiled in a remote quadrant of the underground, peddling a career-suicide line in literate, post-adolescent complaint and sing-along, garage-rock surrealism.
But don’t let the rose-colored fog of punk nostalgia fool you. Cheap Trick, an explosive hit machine whose TV-cartoon image belied a padded-cell lyric streak, and Pere Ubu, Cleveland’s avant-rock answer to the Velvet Underground, wrote big chunks of the secret history of the ’70s-rock mutiny — crucial chapters that still fall through the cracks between the Ramones’ eternal farewell, the Sex Pistols’ reunion and the CBGB campfire tales recounted in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me. These two box sets, together containing almost 10 hours of music, may seem like valedictory overkill. The noise, though, speaks for itself and for the revolt into style — away from bullshit purism and angst by numbers — that both Ubu and the Tricksters brought to the punk Zeitgeist with their luminous energy and bent genius.
Cheap Trick first achieved notoriety the old-fashioned way: They gave good shtick. But encoded in the band’s split-personality gag — the babe-hound glow of singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson vs. drummer Bun E. Carlos’ laconic-gangster slouch and the amphetamine-doofus act of guitarist and dominant songwriter Rick Nielsen — was a psychoerotic tension that surges through even the most apparently innocent nuggets on Sex, America, Cheap Trick. “I Want You to Want Me,” which sent Japanese schoolgirls into paroxysmal joy on the live ’78 hit single, is a stalker’s valentine spiked with the atomic pep of the Dave Clark Five. Nielsen’s raging paranoia in “Dream Police” is vividly rendered in a meltdown compound of charging guitars, tense orchestration and Zander’s high, wired whine. In “Surrender,” Nielsen nails the loss of innocence and price of experience in jarring snapshots of GIs hooked on junk and a middle-aged mom and dad baked on pot.
So what’s so punk about a little AM-radio dynamite? Cheap Trick proved that articulate, uncompromised dementia and zinger-hook appeal were not mutually exclusive, a lesson not lost on Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan. On Sex, America, Cheap Trick, you can hear how the group finds common rapture in the isolation-ward wail of “World’s Greatest Lover” (note Nielsen’s spooky, Lennon-esque vocal demo), the roaring anti-suicide note “Auf Wiedersehen” and an in-concert pipe-bomb make-over of Bob Dylan’s “Please, Mrs. Henry,” from 1977. The set’s fourth disc features mostly underrated treats from the band’s mid-’80s slump (“Tonight It’s You,” “A Place in France,” “Money Is the Route of All Fun”) that show how much top Trick rock was wasted on bad movie soundtracks or left in demo-tape limbo. Get this box, see’em live and repeat after me: Cheap Trick were, are and forever shall be the fucking business.
Named after a character in a series of plays by the turn-of-the-century French absurdist Alfred Jarry, Pere Ubu were the restless spawn of urban recession and proto-punk distemper — the Velvets, Captain Beefheart, the Stooges, Albert Ayler, Karlheinz Stockhausen — but were hardly sour revolutionaries. “Don’t be no misery goat!” warbled Ubu’s rotund vocalist, David Thomas, on the 1980 LP The Art of Walking. Indeed, a remarkable thing about Datapanik in the Year Zero‘s megaharvest of Ubu’s early work — five complete albums, vintage 45s, concert recordings, an entire CD of mid-’70s Ubu-related closet tapes — is the contentious spirit of adventure that catalyzes even the group’s most forbidding music.
Formed in late ’75, Ubu achieved perfection immediately with a run of independent singles and a 1978 debut album, The Modern Dance, that rival the epochal first recordings of Patti Smith and Television for free-associative risk — Thomas’ neurotic bleating, Allen Ravenstine’s disruptive electronics — and big-riff bliss (the immortal, ferocious “Final Solution”). The brief, brusque “Life Stinks,” written by original guitarist Peter Laughner (who died in 1977), codifies the choleric impatience in the band’s formative repertoire, but the claustrophobic restraint in “Over My Head” and “Humor Me” cuts to a greater depth and breadth in Ubu’s war on ennui.
The robust, if tangled, tonality of the songs on Dub Housing, also from ’78, and ’79’s New Picnic Time blows a cool breeze through the thick, apocalyptic menace that hangs over those records. The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man find Ubu’s whimsy turning more arch: The riffing is more tensile than torrid. But the delicate calamity is both maddening and haunting, a compelling dichotomy that distinguishes Ubu’s music to this day.
“Allen always said [Ubu] were a folk band,” Cleveland musician Charlotte Pressler (heard on the rarities disc) says in the Datapanik booklet. Ubu, she claims, “stumbled into a lost world where the sun would set, the inhabitants flee and the stones of the bridges, buildings and monuments whisper in the timeless dark, speaking in a dead language of the hopes and dreams and fears of the fathers.” Datapanik is the sound of Ubu bringing that language to life.