TERMINAL BOREDOM THEATER
"URGH! A Music War"
By Rich Kroneiss
Everyone has certain formative moments in their musical history where your perceptions are altered through exposure to some then unknown experiences/sounds. Those moments when you first see or hear a band or record that changes you, or your mind, from where it previously stood. They happen throughout life, but the ones that happen at a younger age seem to steer you somewhat more severely than others, as they are obviously more impactive. For instance, first hearing the Reatards surely blew me away, but not as much I would imagine if I hadn't already heard the Dead Boys or even the Oblivians before that. Those youthful experiences when the vast world of music is opened to you, past the Zep you heard on the radio, past your father's record collection, and even past the Sex Pistols and punk rock proper, are obviously the foundation the rest of your music life is built upon. The moments when you realize that music operates on a nearly infinite scale, that for every band you've heard of record you've listened to there are thousands more you haven't. Understanding the fact that there is both punk rock and rock'n'roll, an underground and a mainstream, genre and sub-genre is where most people either jump ship or dive headfirst into a life of musical obsession, which it is safe to assume all of us have. Without getting too far ahead of myself, one of those moments for me was seeing a concert film sometime around age 10 called "Urgh! A Music War." It was 1984 or so, and I seem to remember first seeing it on Night Flight, but I'm not sure. I do remember that for what seemed like a full year it showed almost daily on HBO and I watched it repeatedly and religiously. At that point I had already been exposed to punk rock. Pistols, Clash, Ramones, all the basics and some more due to having a young father who was thankfully very involved in the late Seventies punk outbreak. But I really didn't understand it all. In my young mind the Damned and Sham 69 were the equals the Who and the Stones. I didn't understand the concept of mainstream and underground. I knew you never saw Sid Vicious on TV or heard "Neat, Neat, Neat" on the radio, but had no idea why. I was close to discovering that moment when the door to the undeground goes ajar, and you realize there is an ocean of records and sounds out there, and the deeper you dove the harder things became to find and sometimes understand, that the crowd around you thinned, that you actually had to search for certain records and bands that it seemed most other people hadn't even heard of, and that the depths were limitless.
So, seeing Urgh! had a huge impact on me. Looking back at it now, it obviously seems dated, yet gratifyingly so.It is a perfect cultural document. A snapshot of the burgeoning New Wave scene of the early Eighties and all that came with it: post-punk, synth-wave, bad reggae, garage, and more. It was one of those times when the underground begins to seep into the semi-mainstream. You get the best of both worlds in Urgh!: the safe major label New Wave being pushed, and true underground artists. I would watch this movie relentlessly, memorizing the three hour line-up of bands and their one song. I kept track of the good ones and sought out records. Some of the bands I hated even then, some I didn't even understand (and still don't), and some are still favorites today. These days it's a great film to get drunk to and laugh along with for many segments, and then be blown away the next. It certain won't be as impressive and meaningful as seeing it in the early Eighties as it will be now, but I think it's one of the best music films of all time. I'm surprised when people say they haven't seen it, as ingrained as it is in my musical DNA. It's probably lost much of it's mind-blowing power after 25 years, but I still urge everyone to see at least one time.
From what I've cobbled together, Urgh! was filmed by one crew led by director Derek Burbidge throughout 1980 at various locations: in LA at the Santa Monica Civic and Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the Ritz in NYC, the Lyceum and Hammersmith Odeon in London, a rock festival in Frejus, France, a Devo concert in San Diego, and a couple other oddball locations.You get thirty bands in three hours, each performing one song live, some with brief cinematic intros. IRS Records funded and imagined the film, Lorimar/CBS released it, and A&M Records released the double LP soundtrack (a promo-only single LP version and an impossible to find CD version also exist). The performances are heavy on the IRS/A&M rosters, but bands from various other labels, both major and indie, are also included. It seems to be a serious cross-genre attempt to document the rising stars of the time, not just document a certain region, scene, style, or label, which I find most interesting about Urgh! now. I seriously doubt any film such as this could exist now, although I wish someone would make it. Obviously the climate of the music industry is a lot different now. The distance between major labels and the underground seemed to be a little shorter then. Influential underground groups could still be valid and vital and not be considered too overtly whorish for being on a major imprint. It was what happened back then. And I shouldn't say this film couldn't exist now. It could, but majors don't sign innovative bands anymore. They wait for the underground movement to become almost big enough to explode, then start puking out pale imitations of it, homogenized for mainsteram appetites. The Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs get signed these days, not the Reigning Sound or Hunches. But you know all of this
So, I'll get on to the play-by-play of the movie. I could write a book about it, but I'll just give a not too brief rundown of the good, the bad, and the ridiculous contained in the three hours of footage. Regretfully, the film is bookended by two POLICE performances, which is not altogether surprising since Stewart Copeland's family ran IRS Records. A completely despicable group that effectively coat-tailed the punk movement to Top 40 stardom (don't forget, the Police were initially marketed as punk and even played the infamous Spanish punk festival along with the Damned, Clash, and others). Copeland plays a huge drum kit that even Neal Peart would envy, Sting looks like a smarmy ass even then, and Andy Summers is simply one of the most boring guitar players ever. Even back in 1984 I realized what this was: hip sounding music for women in their early forties. A brief and somewhat bizarre cinematic intro then introduces WALL OF VOODOO, who do "Back in Flesh", a good song by a middling band. The Stan Ridgway WOV stuff is sometimes intriguing noir-styled weirdo wave, which is more miss than hit I later found. Just thank God they didn't do "Mexican Radio". During the Voodoo segment you get a good look at the Santa Monica Civic crowd, which is ugly: lots of thick glasses and thick mustaches. An English bird by the name of TOYAH WILCOX appears next in one of the more ridiculous segments. Bad "danceable" new wave to which she strangley does callisthenics to. She does actual jumping jacks at one point in an attempt to dance. Weird. If you're worried about the movie at this point, don't be. It starts a little slow. Giant British elf JOHN COOPER CLARKE is next, reciting some beat-style poetry which isn't half bad. Apparently, he had quite a following across the pond. His ears actually look pointy. Clarke is followed by OMD, a terrible, terrible band who I later learned to hate even more after seeing the movie "Sixteen Candles." Gay in a way I've only seen the English be. Strangley enough, on recent review, their drummer looks a lot like Matt Williams of the Baseball Furies. Our first punk band proper, CHELSEA, appears next. They were probably one of the better B-list punk outifts, and Gene October was not a bad frontman at all. They do an electric version of "I'm on Fire" duting which guitarist James Stevenson somersaults on stage in an outfit pre-dating Euroboy's androgynous motorcycle leather boy look. Very good. The OINGO BOINGO performance that follows is actually likable. Typical Eighties quirky wave from the genius that is Danny Elfman, complete with sharp suits, a horn section, a girl without a bra on stage diving, and a crowd shot of a bemohawked Darby Crash, freshly back from his trip to Britain and blowing Adam Ant. It appears that he is digging the band.
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN perfom next, live from the Lyceum. Their segment is interspersed with street shots of London punks and Sue Catwoman lookalikes. They do "The Puppet", their third single, which I had a bitch of a time trying to find in the US. Yes, I am an Echo fan, and I make no apologies. But even if you hate them, you;ll ove this song. Trust me. Ian McCulloch looks suitably sedated, and the band delivers a great performance of a great song. A fast-forwardable JOOLS HOLLAND doing airport lounge music segment comes next, followed by XTC doing a then new song, "Respectable Street", at the Frejus concert. Watching Andy Partridge perform makes one wonder what happened to give him such terrifying stage fright that the band stopped performing live soon after. He's commanding, quite likable, and seems totally in control and comfortable, even if he is wearing a bad string tie. Very good. Some NY street footage follows up to the door of the Ritz, where a woman I have been told was/is Julian Cope's wife welcomes you in to a performance by none other than KLAUS NOMI. If you've never seen a Nomi performance before, be prepared. Completely reprehensible music from a man(?) I once heard referred to as "the only person weird enough to work with Bowie during his Berlin period." It's all here: the mime make-up, Sci-fi hairdo and outfit, gloved Mickey Mouse hands, the operatic falsetto. You have to see it at least once just to understand what a complete fruitcake this guy was. Watch him break into some happy hands dancing dancing and then a little Vogue-ing while some African dancers come out and gyrate alongside him. Still as bizarre now as it was when when I first saw it. ATHLETICO SPIZZ 80 do a rousing version of their hit "Where's Captain Kirk?" next, which is pretty good. Following this we see the GO-GOS arriving at the Whiskey in the back of a vintage pick-up truck. We see the Whiskey billboard which advertises the bizarro line-up for the evening: Go-Gos, Surf Punks, Oingo Boingo, and the Alleycats! Belinda looks endearingly pudgy here, the outfits could be in an Valley Girl museum somewhere, a girl stage diver in a Selecter t-shirt gets endlessley groped by a seemingly all-male audience, and some dude rushes the stage and attempts to whip his junk out for Belinda before being chased off by a bouncer. Fun. Goos old Jello prefaces the DEAD KENNEDYS performance from the Civic with a tirade about "skinny tie wimpy pop bands" before launching into "Bleed for Me". Always the eccentric, Jello performs in rubber gloves and is typically annoying. I never really understood why so many people held the DKs on a pedestal, but then again I've always has a gag reflex reaction to Biafra. I do however quite enjoy East Bay Ray's guitar playing, and I think the impeccably named Klaus Fluoride looks a striking bit like Steve Albini. DH Peligro is conspicuously absent, with some white dude in his stead. And don't forget, before they formed the feverishly independent Alternative Tentacles, the DKs were signed to IRS. It is cool to see them play to what looks like over a thousand or so people though. STEEL PULSE give us a serving of the reggae that was big at the time, and it's pretty unremarkable except for the fact that they appear to be the Jamaican version of P-Funk: the singer is dressed like a bumblebee, one dude is in traditional African robes, another wears a Bootst-styled soldier outfit complete with epaulets, the drummer is a dead ringer for George Clinton himself, and the keyboard/percussion player dons a Klan outfit for their performance of "Klu Klux Klan".
Eighties excess is no more evident than in the next unbelievable perfomance from none other than the general of the Tubeway Army, GARY NUMAN. There's a huge stage set that loooks a lot like a disco, with a synchronized light show, a huge light-up "T" backdrop, and a completely fog shrouded stage. "Down in the Park" kicks in and Gazza is nowhere to be seen. The he appears, singing seated from the inside of a mini-car that totes him around the stage for the duration of the entire song! It spins and rotates around during the lengthy instrumental parts, while Numan does absolutely nothing but look suitably pissy. The thing even has fucking headlights, which is lucky considering the amount of fog machines that appear to be in use. Completely unbelievable. As the song ends Numan disappears into a mini-carport beneath the drum riser, and the crowd goes apeshit as darkenss falls. Wow. JOAN JETT performs next, from the stage of what might possibly be CBGB's. She actually looks kinda cute. As a kid I was aghast to discover during this performance that Joan didn't play the guitar solos on her songs! Shocking but true! MAGAZINE follow Joan with a fine performance from LA. Devoto looks suitably reserved and strolls around the stage looking bored in a parody of Punk-rock pogoing. He sardonically announces "This ones full of moral fiber," before they run through "Model Worker". He even looked old back then. A band I've always found interesting for some reason, here at their peak. The bad joke that is the SURF PUNKS appear next, with a suitably stupid cinematic intro. Goofy surfer clothes, skateboard guitar, a bass player wearing a Van Halen t-shirt, a lifeguard shack onstage in which some simulated sex occurs, and chick in a bathing suit who shows a little tit at the end. Lots to laught at. Bad white reggae band the MEMBRANES play next, and deserve no attention. They are followed by the AU PAIRS, who do deserve it. Crisp and well-played post-punk, great boy/girl vocal interplay, English guitar player pacing around, Lesley Wood's husky vocals. Awesome rendition of "Come Again".
The real show stopper follows, which is what was my first exposure to the sound and look of the CRAMPS, a band I and a lot other people still hold to be one of the greatest bands ever. It's an incredible performance of "Tear it Up", with NIck Knox on drums, and post-Brian Gregory guitarist Julien Griensnatch. I repeat, this is the first time I ever saw or heard the Cramps, and I was completely floored. Lux has on the "are they gonna fall off or what?" leather pants, does half the song with the mic in his esophagus, whacks himself in the head with it a few times, touches himself a lot, and just looks insane in general. Ivy looks sultry, chewing gum and wearing gold lame pants. I was completely hooked and bought every Cramps record I could find. I never actually got to seem them live in person until more than ten years later, and it was still just as incredible as this looked. Lux must've been in his twenties. They're still incredible, but you know that. The completely bizarre and obscure INVISIBLE SEX follow, playing a synth-rock ode to "Valium" with a really long guitar solo at the end. The entire band wear white hazmat suits and facemask made out what look like silver oven mitts. The back up singers come out on stage throwing pills into the audience. New Wave at it's strangest. Then it's PERE UBU. Even though I didn't get the music when I heard it back then, I was hypnotized by David Thomas' performance. He mumbles, looks pained, babbles, and just generally acts up during a performance of "Birdies". They certainly didn't even look like musicains to me then, but I supposed there was something interesting there. Many years later, I ended up buying the box set, and I still don't get all of it.
We next to cut to a crowd outside the California Theater in San Diego going nuts waiting to get into a DEVO show. They do "Uncontrollable Urge' and don't disappoint. White hazmat suits, of which only Mark's is ripped and torn revealing a Devo t-shirt, synchronized moves, tall boxes of lights behind the band synched to the music, jumping around, flower pot helmets. Devo for the masses, and the huge crowd is loving it. Top notch. Next is the ALLEYCATS doing "Nothing Means Nothing Anymore", a great song from a band who released two great singles and some semi-decent albums, and later became the really terrible band the Zarkons. Great performance, with a George Clooney look-a-like on drums. JOHN OTWAY follows, a man of that peculiar breed of English rockers/nutters that includes Ian Dury, and he tosses off a completely haphazard and enjoyable performance with a lot of running about. Wild. This is followed by a stunnning GANG OF FOUR performance of "He'd Send in the Army". Jon King spends the duration of the song whacking a piece of leather with a billy club as percussion, the Burnham/Allen rhythm section is incredibly tight here,and you need to see Andy Gill play guitar like someone with a stutter speaks. You'll see what I mean. Pure post-punk power, without any funk/disco bullshit in evidence. 999 treat us to their one hit, "Homicide", next, and it really is a good song. Hearing this led to an ill-advised purchase of the "Greatest Tour in Sport" mii-LP soon after. Not good. But "Homicide" is, even if the band look like a bunch of middle-aged gay men. Next up are the FLESHTONES, ages before they became the garage rock dinosaurs they are now. A young Peter Zaremba goes all out on "Shadowline" which is still my favorite Fleshtones song. I think they're playing at CBGB's, and they sound great. A couple of years ago I asked Zaremba to play "Shadowline" at a live show, and he said they don't even remember how to play it anymore. They played something crappy of their latest album instead. X run through a typically great performance of "Beyond & Back" next. Exene looks good, Billy Zoom poses for the crowd, Bonebrake and Doe hold it down. Always a pleasure to see early X.
Not much left after that. The terrible SKAFISH perform "Sign of the Cross". Watch this to see one of the biggest noses to ever grace a stage. Really, Jim Skafish's beak is enormous. The music sucks though. British weirdos SPLOGEDNESS ABOUNDS follow, with no less than twelve people on stage, including a lead singer in a Gary Glitter get-up, a girl in a leopard print leotard dancing, a sax player and like three guitarists. They had some jokey UK hits that no American would ever listen to, and the singer was actually in Angelic Upstarts for awhile. Strange. That's about it, with Top 40 reggae act UB40 and another nauseating Police perfomance with an All-Star Jam of the bands that played in Frejus at the end. Another Gary Numan tune rolls over the end credits. Done.
So, there you have it. The trouble now is, how are you going to see this film? It's hopelessly out of print, being left in legal limbo after the dissolution of IRS, but there is a reissue petition campaign out there fighting the good fight. VHS copies pop up on eBay in the $80-$100 range. Bootleg DVD's popped up for auction a while back, but they were pulled by none other than Jim Skafish himself! The Sundance channel airs it on the rare occasion, but minus the Numan footage, Apparently Gazza wanted too much dough for the right to use his impressive performance. You're best bet is a local indie video store that still has it's Eighties stock on the shelves. Don't forget to check the Documentary section. I know of quite a few people who have found their copies during video store close-outs or old stock sales. It's out there somewhere. And for those of you in NYC, it appears the Knitting Factory is planning a two-day screening/tribute to the film on September 23rd-25th, which will include bands doing covers of Urgh! standards. (My money is on the Rogers Sisters doing the Au Pairs). Apparently this film has shattered more youthful minds than just mine. There is also a Yahoo news group dedicated to the film.
In closing, Urgh! should still hold validity and interest today, even if you have never experienced it before. Apparently New Wave is alive and well these days, and the post-punk and garage sounds that were happening back then still seem to be happening. Watch it and see who and what is eerily similar to some things going down right now in musicville. The sound is great for all of the performances, the cinematography and editing are top notch, and it is just a really well made film. Nobody will like it all, even I don't. But everyone should at least find a few of the segments stunning, and have a good laugh while they're at it.
This essay is the first in what is planned to be many looks at what we feel to be important music films, a list which is tentatively set to include The Decline of Western Civilization Pt. I, The Punk Rock Movie, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, DOA, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, Cramps Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, Dope, Guns, and Fucking Up Your Video Deck, the Flipside video Series, a thorough look at Mummies live bootleg footage, and much more.
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