Posted by Jeff Stafford on November 14, 2009
Among the many titles being released through the no-frills Warner Archive Collection are a few oddball orphans and obscurities that didn’t get much love the first time around like Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), Carny (1980), Angel Baby (1961) and The Rain People (1969) and are well worth a look. The one that has the potential to make you pogo though is URGH! A MUSIC WAR (1981), which was a compilation concert film featuring live music acts recorded in different cities in the U.S. (Los Angeles, New York) and Europe (London; Portsmouth, England; Fréjus, France).
Featuring more than 26 acts, each one getting a single song showcase with the exception of The Police who serve as bookends, opening the film with “Driven to Tears” and closing it down with “Roxanne” (not counting the end credit roll with the group sing-a-long in France to their “So Lonely” -a nostalgic artifact), URGH! A MUSIC WAR was filmed during 1980 and released in 1981 to capitalize on the punk scene, which was already quickly fading as noted in Penelope Spheeris’s much more focused The Decline of Western Civilization released the same year. It was also targeted toward fans of The Police who had become an international music phenomenon. It’s no surprise then that the creative masterminds behind URGH! were Ian and Miles Copeland, the brothers of drummer Stewart Copeland of The Police, and rock promoter/record producers in the industry; Miles founded IRS Records and Ian’s talent agency managed The Smiths, The Bangles and others at one time. So it made perfect sense to build a concert film around The Police, who were at the height of their fame. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make the film a boxoffice success.
For one thing, it was poorly distributed and had few bookings outside the Landmark Cinema chain in selected cities. The title didn’t help either. What the hell is URGH! A MUSIC WAR supposed to mean? If it was a battle of the bands, was there a prize at stake? The collection of groups was also all over the map, giving the impression that this was a major mishmash. Well, it was and is, but what a wonderfully fun record/time capsule of the music scene in 1980! In some ways, URGH! is an unclassifible animal that embraces punk (The Dead Kennedys), reggae (Steel Pulse), new wave (Devo) and various rock mutations (The Fleshtones); even the now-long-forgotten or obscure acts such as Athletico Spizz 80 (spraying Crazy String into the crowd as they perform “Where’s Captain Kirk?”) retain a curiosity value…at least for me. The few critics who reviewed the movie at the time, however, were mostly unimpressed such as Robert Palmer of The New York Times whose opinion was shared by many: “Apparently, the idea behind the format was that the film be ”democratic” and reflect the anti-elitist sentiments of the movement it documents. But few rock groups can communicate much of what they stand for or are capable of in one song. Urgh!” is a jumble, and a misleading jumble. Some of its strongest and most significant bands – X, UB40, The Cramps, The Au Pairs – are represented by snippets that fail to indicate the dimensions of their talent or to reproduce a fraction of the excitement they can create….There are some bright spots – a riveting exercise in the building and releasing of musical tension by the Gang of Four, a joyous ”We Got the Beat,” from the Go Go’s. But they aren’t enough to salvage a rushed, uneven film.”
It’s true that seeing all of these groups out of context and for only brief moments in the spotlight is not the best way to experience them, especially for new audiences. And yes, the film lacks stylistic distinction; the cinematography is rarely creative or inspired and so is the editing – the few attempts to weave in other footage are lame ( punk kids on the streets of London interspersed with Echo and the Bunnyman’s rendition of “The Puppet”). We’re often subjected to the same crowd shot set-ups (especially in the L.A. sequences) and some of the groups aren’t at their best here (The essential X on film is in Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization). But I don’t care because URGH! A MUSIC WAR works on so many other levels. There is a sense of exhilaration in some of the performances while others express self-conscious irony or genuine anger without regard for the audience. And it’s a cultural artifact that transports me back to another time and place, often makes me laugh and puts me in a deliriously happy mood.
Because of the film’s low visibility over the years, it’s acquired something of a mythic reputation, partly due to its confusing history: the theatrical release of URGH! A MUSIC WAR ran 96 minutes. A later video release ran 124 minutes featuring additional acts cut out of the theatrical print. Then Night Flight on the USA Network aired an altered version that included material not originally filmed for the movie featuring such groups as the Alleycats and Wall of Voodoo. I, like most people, never got a chance to see URGH! A MUSIC WAR during its initial release but I finally caught up with a screening of it a few years ago in Los Angeles as the Egyptian Theatre. It was presented by the American Cinematheque on a double bill with the premiere of Stewart Copeland’s EVERYONE STARES: THE POLICE INSIDE OUT (2006) with Copeland in attendance. Copeland’s homemade documentary of the super 8 footage he took during his years touring with The Police was like a video scrapbook that had its moments of interest but URGH! was the real treat and I went searching for the soundtrack CD immediately after the screening. Of course, it had been out of print for years and still is….but now with the Warner Archive release, you have the entire 124 minute version on DVD.
Here are just a few of my favorite moments:
Klaus Nomi “Total Eclipse”
Looking like a more effete Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Nomi takes the stage and launches into his rock opera-like song using that multi-range octave voice of his (our first glimpse of Nomi starts with his footwear and travels up from there to his alien persona with white minstrel gloves) . It’s hard to know where to look with so many visual hooks competing with each other; the black dancers with white highlights for eyebrows gyrate furiously in their leotards while the backup band, dressed in their all-white ABBA wardrobe, keep the electronic beat. Nomi was a truly unique performer and those will any interest should check out the documentary, THE NOMI SONG (2004), which also features this famous clip , a favorite over on YouTube. Unfortunately, the German-born Nomi was an early AIDS casualty (he died in 1983), ending a career that was just getting started.
Gary Numan “ Down in the Park”
According to some sources, this musical segment was the only one not originally produced for URGH! A MUSIC WAR. Instead, it supposedly was an excerpt from the concert film Micromusic, filmed by Derek Burbridge, the director of URGH! While a grim-faced Numan motors about the stage in a reconverted golf cart singing words of doom about a lethal future world, fog machines work overtime, neon lights blink and strobe and we get one of the few “real” performances in the movie.
The Au Pairs “Come Again”
In the hypnotic, stripped-down style of Gang of Four (who also appear in the film performing “He’d Send in the Army”), The Au Pairs have an intense presence which is in perfect keeping with their angry, leftist music. It sounds great and you can dance to it while lead singer Lesley Woods sarcastically skewers sacred cows from her lesbian feminist viewpoint.
Invisible Sex “Valium”
Little is known about this novelty act that appears in the London portion of the show but I was sure of one thing. I had definitely NOT seen this performance in the theatrical print of URGH! because I would have remembered it. On a first viewing I was helpless with laughter. I’m not sure what is the most absurd aspect of their act – the fact that there are so many of them, half of whom are singers and/or dancers, all dressed in white nylon body suits with metallic colored face masks (Was Santo, the Mexican wrestler superhero, their inspiration?) or the insane call-and-response chorus which gets into crazy Japanese pop territory or the big guitar riff break with several non-musical members doing synchonized air guitar moves with cardboard guitar props. Their act might be a one-shot gimmick – and it’s easy to see why nobody knows who they are today – but I find myself enjoying “Valium” more and more each time I hear it.
Pere Ubu “Birdies”
I was late in discovering Pere Ubu’s music and had never encountered them until I saw them perform “Breath” (video below) on Sunday Night, a short-lived music show (1988-1990) hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland (who has a solo keyboard number in URGH!). If there is such a thing as avant-garde rock, this is it and singer David Thomas has a mesmerizing stage presence with an unpredictable vocal style that can go from a wail to a shout to semi-melodic singing, all of it infused with a touch of paranoia and madness. “Birdies” was one of the numbers originally cut from the theatrical print, along with Chelsea’s “I’m on Fire,” The Members’ “Offshore Banking Business,” the aforementioned “Valium” and six others, yet it’s a highpoint for me.
Devo “Uncontrollable Urge”
Pure fun and a perfect example of what Devo was all about on stage. This also happens to be one of the better edited and photographed musical acts in URGH!
There are plenty of other memorable moments in this sprawling concert film, some of which are entertaining for all the wrong reasons. For example, Toyah Willcox’s “Danced” is not very compelling as music but Wilcox, who was first discovered by Derek Jarman in his 1977 punk fantasy Jubilee, is unintentionally funny as a performer here. Jumping up and down and pumping her fists repeatedly in the air, the dayglo orange-haired singer looks more like a demonic jazzercise instructor leading her class through a frantic weight-loss routine. In what probably makes sense as a progressive career path since then, Willcox has provided voiceover for Teletubbies, the British children’s TV show, and written a book about her cosmetic surgery experiences, Diary of a Facelift.
Then there’s the occasional odd moment: a boy groupie jumps on the stage during The Go-Gos’ “We Got the Beat” number and does a quick ring around lead vocalist Brenda Carlisle while grabbing at his pants. It looks like he’s about to pull the full monty when he leaps back into the audience to escape security. And one is always struck by just how YOUNG some of these musicians look. Vocalist Ian McCulloch, of Echo and the Bunnymen, looks about 15 but so does Joan Jett, Brenda Carlisle (below at bottom center) and a host of others. And Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys almost looks innocent here.
In the end, though, it’s all about the music and it’s great to have a record of this, capturing a moment in time with groups like XTC, UB40, Magazine, 999, The Cramps and Oingo Boingo, which features a hyperactive Danny Elfman (below center, hands on hips), years before he became one of Hollywood’s busiest film composers.
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