This piece was originally published Monday, April 12th, 2010.
Filmed in 1980 and released in 1981, the concert film, URGH! A Music War, was then and still is, a revelation.
Not only was it one of the few film examples at the time where you could actually experience 38 punk rock, “New Wave” and post punk acts performing in one 122 minute back to back smörgåsbord, but a large number of the acts at the time were operating at their peaks of creativity.
The film was produced by Miles Copeland III, the powerhouse businessman & brother of The Police’s drummer Stuart Copeland, who at the time was leading one of the largest indie labels, IRS Records, and simultaneously managing his brother’s band. Copeland’s IRS distribution deal with major label A&M Records insured that there would be no shortage of quality acts to cherry pick from, such as those successfully gaining momentum in popularity, records sales and mass appeal like Gary Numan, XTC and of course, The Police, alongside other lesser known or even no label “underground” acts.
Directed by Derek Burbidge, whose filmography has since been primarily as a director of both short and long form music videos by giants such as Queen, AC/DC and The Police, filmed the concert sequences at various venues in the U.S. the U.K. and at a concert headlined by The Police in Frejus, Var, France.
What made the film such an oddity at the time and still so much fun is that it is sans dialogue, narration, a political agenda or message, and does not contain any type of connecting plot. Instead Burgidge lets the various individual styles of music and each act’s visual differences stand by themselves in one big juxtaposition. If you truly dislike a band, then there is a fairly certain bet that one coming up will more to your liking.
Seeing the film now brings up a wonderful mixed bag of delights. It’s funny how some that were so “cutting edge” or even dare I say, dangerous at the time have now become known more as best selling classic new wave oldies acts i.e. The Police and The Go-Go’s and some have band members who have really taken off with massively heralded success like once again, The Police’s Sting, who as a solo artist is beloved in the adult contemporary world (not too many songs about hookers or suicide these days), while Danny Elfman, whose early band Oingo Boingo make a worthy appearance, has now skyrocketed to gargantuan global renowned via his soundtrack work for an endless number of box office hit films.
URGH! A Music War has become a sweet time capsule filled with a lucky selection of bands, some of which have since fallen aside as mere pop music footnotes, while others have now become legendary in their status as important and increasingly influential to today’s artists and musicians.
A few memorable moments for me in order of appearance:
Wall Of Voodoo—Pre “Mexican Radio” when they were breaking out as a group of humorous, soundtrack sounding and unique music-makers. Stan Ridgeway was here and still is, an incredible and brilliant performer and songwriter.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark—Before they broke big in America via their lighter sound, Electro pop practitioners OMD had emerged from a darker, still melodic but much more interesting and creative place. “Enola Gay” is the catchy sound of a sad reference in history.
Echo and The Bunnymen—”The Puppet” is an early example of the richness that was and still is a part of this incredible British psychedelic band.
XTC—”Respectable Street” is a very rare chance to experience live XTC, because soon after this, due to Andy Partridge’s “stage fright” they stopped touring forever. I still shake my head that I was lucky enough to see XTC in concert and they really were a great live band, and I still marvel at how wonderful their recorded output is. Why they are never mentioned among the best of all time is a head-shaker. You can explore their catalog and hear what you may have missed.
Klaus Nomi—I point you in the direction of a fantastic documentary that best tells the story of this inimitable operatic performer from the outer spaceways…
Gary Numan—This was a year after he had already broken huge around the world with a massive hit single (“Cars”) and hit albums. There is little as thrilling as when Gary emerges onto the stage (and what a stage it was!) driving out in his tiny car.
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts—Her first real band after the breakup of The Runaways, and a solo album, was a fun, exploding shot of vibrant rock & roll. Joan eventually emerged a superstar and this performance has all the parts in place for that speedy ride to come.
Magazine—If ever there was a truly classic and innovative band that came out of the punk/post punk movement, it would have to be Magazine with vocalist Howard Devoto. Magazine, which formed after Devoto left Buzzcocks, turned into the first and actually one of the more innovative, skilled and lyrically brilliant of the post punk rhythmic art groups. Recently reformed, their live shows have them picking up with the same genius of where they left off. Let’s hope there will be new recordings to come.
Au Pairs—One of the early and better post punk woman fronted bands who have gone down as a great influence on the subsequent riot grrrl movement of the ’90s.
The Cramps—Practitioners of one of the greatest hybrids of garage/trash/psychobilly/and surf rock and roll that ever existed. Until his untimely recent death, vocalist Lux Interior and his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy, had no contenders. Their representation in this film, is a nice starter for anyone who never had the fortune to experience the band live. For fans, it is yet another feather in the cap of their storied, never to be forgotten, career.
Pere Ubu—A self proclaimed (and rightly so) band known as the “Avant Garage,” began life as proto punksRocket From The Tombs before segueing into their still ongoing namesake tribute to the absurdest writer Alfred Jarry and his Ubu Roi. The band, with leader and constant member (and yes, he is a genius) David Thomas, has always had one foot planted in the intelligent surreal Avant Garde, another in the band’s Cleveland, Ohio, blue collar urban pre-punk roots, and a third foot in the influence of the catchy “teenage symphonies to God” work of Thomas’ favorite Beach Boy, Brian Wilson. The lineup in this performance featured guitarist Mayo Thompson of the legendary ’60s underground band, Red Krayola, and is once again, catchy meets way out there and the result is wondrously delightful.
DEVO from URGH! A Music War
DEVO—Any and all DEVO is necessary.
Gang Of Four—What Brian Eno said about The Velvet Underground “that everyone who bought their albums formed a band” could now easily be said for GOF. Perhaps not selling as well as some of their peers at the time, they have outlasted many in influence and legendary status. This post punk band’s sound has been an archetype for younger groups ever since. Andy Gill’s brittle glass-shard guitar work sounded like nothing guitarists did before him, and the funky, clipped rhythm section which played over Jon King’s leftist but oh so funny lyrics, is the stuff of inimitable individuality. One of a handful of bands for which the term “post punk” was born from. Soon to release a new album!
The Fleshtones—They still endlessly tour and continue to hold their position as one of the greatest, most fun live shows you’ll ever see for under $15. These kings define the term “life of the party” and this early glimpse of the band is filled with the same rock and roll exuberance and lampshade on the head feeling that still remains completely unchanged. These guys don’t call their official web site The Hall Of Fame for nothing.
X— I was never really that big a fan of the original mid ’70s hardcore punk scene that emerged out of L.A.—minus some exceptions, I always gravitated more towards the diversity that was happening in nearby San Francisco or other parts of the country. Yet, one of the greatest exceptions would have to be X, a band that managed to meld their country roots and thrift store aesthetics to a punk rock and roll rush, a garage rock excitement, and a darker poetic Doors intensity. Hep cat/Doors keyboardist Ray Manzanera must have felt the same way since he produced their first four remarkable albums.
While URGH! A Music War only contains one song from each band, it has always been said that 3 songs were in fact filmed for each of the bands. If you do your math, 38 bands at around 3+ minutes a song makes for a voluminous amount of material that has been languishing in someone’s vault, said to be co-rights holder Miles Copeland. In any case that could make for one hell of a fantastic dvd box set.
Unfortunately, and unfathomably, considering how really great and historically important it is as a musical document, since its original release on vhs and LaserDisc and a few brief runs theatrically and on VH1 (and a soundtrack lp) the film has been largely gone unreleased, forgotten and relegated to a where the hell is it? status.
Until now that is.
Warner Brothers Pictures, which now holds the release rights to URGH! (successor to the previous Filmways and then Lorimar Pictures) has decided to include it as part of the opening of their Warner Archive vaults. Order it here.
A double edged sword indeed, for while URGH! looks the best it has considering the previously seen versions were either on vhs or bootlegs and you can now legally purchase it (and it does contain a bonus of the original trailer). There is a caveat: the film has not been remastered, it is burned on a made-to-order DVD-R, one band has been cut from the release (though not such a loss is the performance of U.K. punk band Splodgenessabounds) and the chapter selection just fast forwards ten minutes ahead, not by the band selection.
Hopefully, should the parties who hold the rights one day come to realize just how remarkable (and I believe what a big seller a box set version could be) the film is, we must enjoy it as is. Perhaps enough DVD-R sales can convince them? A little birdy also told me that the film has been remastered in 5.1 sound HD Net around two years ago, but this version remains unreleased…
All in all, just being able to own URGH! A Music War legally and see it again, is enough of a reason to really celebrate for now, so I must thank Warner for this opportunity.
Now just where is that Adam West’s Batman complete series box set??
The Cramps from URGH! A Music War
Fleshtones from URGH! A Music War