Chinese Whispers, David Thomas’ accompanying book to Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai, explains the album’s process as this: “the goal was to meticulously apply a Chinese Whispers methodology to the composition and recording of a coherent and complex musical work.” The Chinese Whispers, which, much like the Chinese finger trap, is not an actual Chinese product and refers to the children’s/drinking game (a.k.a. “telephone”), intends to apply a sort of social deviation to a spoken phrase, and the result is usually humorous. I’ll spare you from rehashing the conceptual depth/intent of Lady From Shanghai and will instead follow the shared result between the social game and Thomas’ theory: Humor. The first track of the album, “Thanks,” is the most obvious example. Hearing Thomas sing “You can go to he-e-e-e-el, go to hell” in the tune of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” is funny, maybe a little gimmicky, but the nature of the game rests on the expected result of a gimmick. Essentially, if this is where the theory is exemplified in practice, it’s after this song that it ends, and Thomas and Co. seek to answer a language within the album’s phrase of “fixed dance music” by way of damage, which is also where the rest of the album is tested on its concepts.
From the available excerpt from Chinese Whispers, I find this assertion from Thomas most relevant and interesting: “I don’t experiment. I know what I’m doing. […] I don’t build roads — I find them.” What is most effective about the language that Pere Ubu establish (and have been effectively establishing for 15 albums or so) is regarding rock experimentalism/expressionism as the form in which constraints are made, not ignored. This is a well-worn cliché that associates “avant-garde” with unchecked do-whatever-ism. When Pere Ubu take these sorts of temporary glimpses of pop music in vague forms and constrains them with damage — warping “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on “Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing” or the split second/damaged intro guitar riff from Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” on “Musicians Are Scum” — it’s clear these roads are well-known, almost to the point of absurdity. So an absurdist rendition of musical language that feels dated and absurd in itself?
This seems to be the album’s hangup. The concept is pretty intriguing at first, not just in context of Pere Ubu’s history and creative methodology, but also because the execution does occasionally yield wonderful results. But this process is hardly unique, not only for the creation process, but also for the listener. Music is one large mondegreen, a social activity of massive mishearing. The “telephone” game is already inherent in any active participation in music itself by both artists and non-artists, and while the deliberation of inducing this quality in the recording is noteworthy, its deliberation has halted interpretation flat. Where do you go with that “Ring My Bell” bit? The commentary and the results seem fairly obvious, and with the presentation of forced chaos, the natural chaos that occurs outside of references, technique, and process seem depleted. This is the problem that Lady From Shanghai runs into on multiple listens: the concept understood, no longer intriguing, no longer as unique as it’s presented, runs out of interpretations on the final induction of every theory and concept highlighted.
What was that bit by John Peel in reference to The Fall — “They are always different; always the same?” One of (the many groups regarded as) post-punk’s greatest aspects: straddling the line between knowing and unknowing. This is one of the many wonderful aspects of David Thomas and Pere Ubu. Essentially, you know what you’re getting yourself into, but you’re not quite sure exactly what that experience will be like. Lady From Shanghai has these moments, but it’s so weighted by its hope to mean something conceptually that it occasionally ceases to mean something else or, even better, mean nothing. But this is not a group to become “predictable” in any sense; Pere Ubu are still fully capable of invention. As much as I wish Thomas would embrace not knowing, or unknowing, there is a sense of the undercurrent “experimentalism” attached to this band and the post-punk movement in general. Besides, who really knows what “experimental” means anyway?