Experimental: Pere Ubu, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” (1975)


You’re in a hole-in-the-wall record shop rooting around in a singles bin and you find a release by Pere Ubu (Pere Ubu!) called “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” That’s the hook, for starters: you don’t know why an underground Cleveland band in 1975 would pick up this shard of World War II history, and you’re ready for a cool juxtaposition or non sequitur, whatever it is. You know it ain’t going to be no Ballad of Jimmy Doolittle (captain of the famous raid).

What’s intriguing, as it turns out, is that it kind of is a ballad of Jimmy Doolittle. The words take you through the raid from a slightly delirious pilot’s perspective, and before it’s over the synthesizer even mimics the drone of the B-25 engines.

The sun a hot circle on a canopy
The ’25 a racing blot on a bright green sea
Ahead the dim blur of an alien land
Time to give ourselves to strange gods’ hands

And the music style in the verse is Black Sabbath-y—not predictable, in this context, but not what you’d call provocative either. Still, you are made to puzzle over what it all means because of the borderline insanity of singer David Thomas’s delivery and the disturbing electronic commentary of Allen Ravenstine. The band is fulfilling its promise to be EXPERIMENTAL. You and the band are collaborating to see what happens when you mix ingredients that don’t come together naturally. The music as you’re now experiencing it is that event. That’s the principal hook. More than anything, it’s the attitude: everyone here is ready to try something!

A great experimental band like Pere Ubu also creates replayable hooks inside the track where you’re vividly aware of the mad scientists at work and impressed by their results. I find the unleashing of sounds as we come out of the second verse stanza (the one quoted above) really lovely:

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” 1

The song has made the “one way ride” of the B-25s [1] your model for contemplating this thing called life, in some of its most alienating aspects; then in the last section the electronics do tremendous things to make you feel the engine- and radio-noise qualities of this life:

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” 2

Here’s what’s become of it, as of 2013. Robert Wheeler playing theremin is fun to watch (coming in at 1:45):


The categories of experimenting and improvising are interestingly related, I think.

You can see that David Thomas is the right poster boy for experimentalism from the way he talks about the beginnings of Pere Ubu on the liner notes of Terminal Tower:

Pere Ubu was assembled to record these songs [including “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”] and maybe others. Rehearsals yielded “Heart Of Darkness” and indicated that this combination of personalities could produce an interesting music.

He’s striking the mad scientist note. Experimentalism is defined by trying new combinations of known things (a sound, an instrument, a kind of song, a personality), whereas improvisation is defined by playing freely enough to let new music emerge (see the earlier post on this). Obviously Pere Ubu’s music owes a lot to improvisation for its development, and the players keep improvising to keep the songs interesting. It would be a very strange experimental group that didn’t improvise. But I wouldn’t have used “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” as an example of improvisation.

Conversely, if you look under the hood of improvising—say, in the mind of Jimi Hendrix while producing his Woodstock improvisations—you will surely see a lot of conscious experimentation. He isn’t just gushing out new notes, he’s working with combinations: this chord change at that earlier point, that sound effect in this section, etc. But we hear him as an improviser because he convincingly owns the new music expressively. The trial-and-error assemblage is hidden from us. There are errors in there, or anyway unintended effects, but they’re fitted into the flow.

In pure experimentation there are duds but there is no such thing as an error. You wanted to see what would happen and you saw what happened. Perhaps you wanted to try everything—now you are one step closer to your goal.


[1] The bombers couldn’t carry enough fuel to return to base, so they had to land in China. That mostly didn’t work out very well.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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