Friday, June 13, 2014

Urgh! A Music War

For many fans of New Wave and punk, 1982's concert film collage URGH! A MUSIC WAR has been some sort of cinematic holy grail. Those lucky enough to own the original VHS or Betamaxes have long clamored for a DVD release as the oxide keeps shredding off their old tapes.  URGH! was for years seemingly lost in the vortex of legal wrangling over music rights. This sort of complication has prevented many films and TV shows from being released on DVD, and is damned frustrating. Don't get me started on the current fate of LOOKING FOR MR.GOODBAR.

URGH! has been shown on cable over the years. The USA Network's fondly recalled Night Flight program scattered the movie into segments over several hours and even nights. Some performances were missing from broadcasts. It's actually a bit confusing: the '82 theatrical release was 96 minutes, then the original cable and VHS were just over 2 hours. The VH1 and other more recent network showings removed some of the acts who got a bit raunchy (the film carries an R-rating). Like The Cramps' lead singer Lux Interior's fellation of a microphone as he struts around in pants that look like they will fail at any moment. Or the Surf Punks' simulated sex den at the back of the stage (you don't see anything other than juvenalia).

Warner Archives, the studio's service that produces spartan, no frills on-demand DVD-R discs for interested buyers, released URGH! in 2009. As with the VHS, only one song is missing (Splodgenessabounds'  "Two Little Boys", which, like all of the scenes, can be found on YouTube). There is only the film's trailer as an extra.While the aspect ratio has been preserved, the image and soundtrack have not been remastered. There aren't even proper chapter stops: each is at ten minute intervals, regardless if a song is over or not. It's almost like an 8-track tape version of the movie.

But rabid fans (like myself) are just happy that the thing is available. To again enjoy the frantic buffet of music this film serves. Over 30 acts, each allowed one song (aside from The Police, who open and close the film, and get 3), one after another. The segments were shot in L.A., N.Y., and throughout Europe in 1980, part of a project engineered by I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland III (brother of Stewart). Everything is this film is thrown together, very slapdash. The editing between songs is, at times, jarringly sloppy, like that of your classmate who did an amateurish job on your Certron mix tape.

If you're familiar with early 80s music, you will recognize many of the acts: Echo and the Bunnymen, Devo, Joan Jett, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Gos. Many of URGH!'s lineup went on to great success.  There are also bands like Invisible Sex, Athletico Spizz (who use silly string as a prop) and Klaus Nomi, as well as several others who were and would remain obscure. Most performances are tight, though curiously two of my favorites, X and Gang of Four, are captured during less than inspired moments. X's Billy Zoom looks a bit bewildered. The Go-Gos really surprised with their raw, pre-pop image, their more strident version of their later hit "We Got the Beat." I also liked Jett's slower tempo (than the studio version) for "Bad Reputation."

I could easily critique each and every moment, from Gary Numan's well rendered "Down in the Park" (while riding in what appears to be one of those carts you sit in on amusement park rides) to Skafish's rather desperate fist shake at religion, "Sign of the Cross", complete with the lead singer swinging around a censer. The Police do an interesting version of their beyond overplayed 'Roxanne". You'll also get to see XTC in one of their few live appearances and a  throwaway rant from John Cooper Clarke called "Health Fanatic." The latter reminded me of  Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Loud Prayer", equally silly, from Scorsese's THE LAST WALTZ. Lesser knowns like Au Pairs and 999 burn up the stage and prompted me to seek out their work.

I mentioned THE LAST WALTZ. URGH! doesn't hold a candle to it. Certainly not to STOP MAKING SENSE, or even RUST NEVER SLEEPS.  It is reminiscent of so many scattershot concert docs of the 70s and 80s, with its suspicious audience cutaways, often so obvious that they're not reacting to what is being played at the moment. We also get the expected middle fingers to the camera and the girl who (almost) loses her shirt as she body surfs the crowd. But URGH! A MUSIC WAR, crude and poorly crafted as it is,  is such a blistering good time, a nonstop feast of beautiful noise that no New Wave fan should miss it.

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