It’s been a long time coming, but nearly 30 years after it was released to theaters, Urgh! A Music War is again available for purchase. For music fans of a certain age – especially those who have suffered from years of squinting at grainy VHS dubs and bootleg DVDs – its purchase is mandatory; Urgh! is the ultimate document of the post-punk movement known as “the New Wave” (not to be confused with the later, poppier genre generality of new wave).
Thanks to a pioneering initiative at Warner Bros. Pictures called the Warner Archive, in which films with limited retail appeal are sold on a duplicated-to-order basis, that purchase is just a few clicks away. Although Urgh! can’t be picked up at your local music shop or on Amazon, the archive’s online store (http://www.wbshop.com) offers a direct-to-your-door deal that gets you a DVD-R pressing of the movie made from reasonably clean prints for $20. And it’s official, which means that, hopefully, some of the 30-plus artists featured on the movie will see some of that money.
Urgh! was briefly sold in the ’80s on VHS tape and laserdisc, but neither of those versions stayed in print for long. It’s important to remember that, in the early and mid-’80s, home video libraries weren’t nearly as common as they are now; most videotapes were sold to video stores for rentals, while laserdiscs, though beloved by cinephiles, were never broadly embraced by the general public. So videos frequently fell out of print quickly after their first run. In the case of Urgh!, it probably didn’t help that the USA Network’s excellent Night Flight program seemed to play the film and various clips frequently, thus negating the need for anyone to actually purchase a high-priced former rental tape or track down the hard-to-find laserdisc.
In the 28 years that have passed since Urgh! was originally released, the film has taken on a legendary reputation, due to its content and its rarity. The relative ease with which the music was licensed for the original production was a natural facet of the late-’70s music business; nobody was considering cross-collateralization, digital download residuals or multiplatform hybridization. Producer Miles Copeland (founder of IRS Records, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland) presented all of the artists with a fairly straightforward contract that permitted the use of their music and performances in Urgh!’s theatrical presentations and television broadcasts, and allowed for the initial home video versions as well as a double-LP soundtrack – which, sadly, remains out of print. Everything after those initial permissions would require every single artist – all 34 of them – to sign off on any new versions; thus, no CD of the soundtrack and, until now, no DVD of the movie. How Warner Archives got around those contracts is a mystery, but the fact that Urgh! is only available as a bespoke DVD – rather than in a full retail version – is probably reflective of the acres of red tape that have accumulated around it.
All those licensing issues, and all those memories of tracking down nth-generation copies, fades immediately upon popping in the Warner Archives DVD. The film itself hasn’t undergone any remastering process, but the print used for the transfer is suitably crisp, and the difference between this version and the unauthorized versions that have been traded for years is simply remarkable. More importantly, the Dolby stereo audio track provides a powerful and dynamic reproduction of the music.
Of course, the music is the entire point of Urgh! Filmed – not on video, but on film – at a multitude of concerts in various venues around the world in 1980, Urgh! features live performances from ’80s crossover stars Joan Jett, the Police, Devo, the Go-Go’s, Gary Numan (doing “Down in the Park” on an overwhelming stage setup) and Wall of Voodoo – all captured at the moment just before MTV made everyone tired of them. Beyond those marquee names, though, are the stars of the post-punk underground – Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cramps, Magazine, XTC (yes, live), Dead Kennedys, Surf Punks, Oingo Boingo, Chelsea (snarling through “I’m on Fire”), Pere Ubu, Gang of Four. Combine those well-known names with excellent, now-footnoted acts like the Members, Toyah Willcox, Skafish and Athletico Spizz 80 and the variety of music on display here – punk, post-punk, power pop, electro-pop, reggae, quirky new wave, a touch of postmodern weirdness and even spoken word – is simply staggering. There’s not a single performance on Urgh! that’s less than impressive: The Cramps’ blistering take on “Tear It Up,” Echo’s fiery, angsty version of “The Puppet,” Klaus Nomi’s legendarily operatic “Total Eclipse” and the Police’s taut and terrific runthrough of “So Lonely” are essential watching.
While some viewers might complain that the Warner Archives version doesn’t allow skipping right to those moments (you can only skip through in 10-minute intervals, not by indexed, single-song chapters), watching Urgh! straight through is how the film has been experienced for most of its 28-year history. If you could go straight to 999 playing “Homicide,” you’d end up skipping past the Alley Cats doing “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” and you would probably never even bother watching the masked men of Invisible Sex play their cardboard guitars on “Valium.” (Worth noting: The fifth chapter skip takes you right to the beginning of the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me,” which, with its segue into Steel Pulse’s “Ku Klux Klan,” is a highlight of the film.)
While this was probably a money-saving (or licensing) consideration, it actually helps preserve the dizzying effect the original had on audiences. And to those who try to make the argument that new wave was the purview of well-coiffed, telegenic pretty boys who couldn’t play their instruments, I highly recommend buying this DVD and preparing for a two-hour lesson in just how great this period in music was.
First appeared Oct. 22, 2009 in Orlando Weekly.