Sunday, December 11, 2011

Urgh! A Music War (Derek Burbidge, 1981)

You would think that a concert film that featured twenty or so hardcore, new wave, post-punk, synth-pop, and reggae bands at the height of their cultural relevancy might make for one tedious night at the movies. Well, that's where you'd be wrong. If this flick had been made, oh, let's say, the mid-1970s, you could make that argument. But the artists who appear in Urgh! A Music War, unlike the bloated stadium rock of the previous decade, know how to convey their message in a highly succinct manner. Moving at a brisk pace, the film wonderfully captures what it must felt like to be a cool person in 1981. Despite the presence of bands like, The Police and UB40, two bands that ooze a sickly form of undiluted squareness. Actually, I'd like to back away from that statement a bit by saying that the sight of The Police's Andy Summers wailing on that weird-looking guitar while standing atop a post-apocalyptic mound of torn fabric in the music video for the title track from their Synchronicity album was one of the defining images of my youth. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, despite the presence of bands who failed to sonically moisturize my scabby flesh, and the fact there's not a single close up of Jane Wiedlin in the entire movie (a special note to any editors out there: if you have footage of Jane Wiedlin playing guitar, whether it be with The Go-Go's or as a solo artist, use as much it as humanly possible), the film, directed by Derek Burbidge with a workmanlike efficiency (there's very little in regard to dilly dallying), managed to rekindle my love-hate relationship with concert going. It's true, the idea of getting dressed up in your fanciest duds (i.e. the black army jacket without the frayed collar), waiting for what seems like an eternity for the band you want to see to hit the stage, only to have some unwashed degenerate constantly stepping on your foot might sound awful, it's actually... Wait a minute, I can't believe there was a time when I used to pay money to have my shoes ruined, and, not to mention, spend an entire evening almost getting kicked in the face (I'm looking in your general direction Spooky-era Lush fans). Yeah, while that's on the cusp of being interesting, even a stick protruding from a puddle of lumpy sick like me has to admit that the synergy between a band, even if they use backing tapes, and an audience, even if they're drunk racists, can be quite the exhilarating spectacle.

The best way the watch Urgh! A Music War is to not know the order in which the artists appear on stage, as I find that it keeps the viewer on his or her toes. What I mean is, part of the fun is trying to figure out what band you're looking at before their credit pops up on the screen. And since the band's name and the location of the venue are all that appear onscreen (sorry, no song titles), the film has a straightforward, no-nonsense feel about it (the thought of some cheesy radio personality introducing the bands makes me cringe for some reason). Culled from concert footage shot in city's such as London, New York City, and Los Angeles, the bands simply show up on stage, and, if they don't suck, blow us away with their prowess when it comes to making new wave and post-punk music.

Straight out of the gate, the biggest surprise has to be the way an obscure band called Invisible Sex (a band so obscure, the internet doesn't even seem to know they exist) managed to out-Devo Devo with their strange stage show (they appear on stage wearing hazmat suits and wield cardboard guitars at one point); my favourite non-crowd surfing audience member was the guy in the white shirt with the mustache–you can spot him in the front row at a couple of the L.A. gigs (there was something about the way he danced without moving that appealed to me); I liked the leopard print blazer this punk chick outside the Lyceum Theatre (it's hands down the best animal print themed garment in the entire movie); and I'd like to give a general shout out to all the bass players in Urgh!

Top Ten Urgh! A Music War Performances: #1 -- The Cramps - "Tear It Up" – I don't know what I enjoyed more, Poison Ivy's sneering contempt or Lux Interior's low-rise leather trousers. Let's just say I enjoyed both equally and leave it at that. Attacking the shady-looking audience with their unique brand of psychobilly punk rock, Lux Interior, who takes microphone consumption while barely clothed to a whole new level of awesomeness, and Poison Ivy, who shreds it while giving everyone the impression she doesn't give a shit (the nonchalant gum chewing was also a nice touch), want you to "tear this damn place up," and judging by the melted faces of the saps in the front row, they succeeded in doing so. Fashion: I've got to give up to Lux Interior and his low-rise leather trousers, as they're the stuff of hip-revealing legend. And sticking with the trouser theme, I would totally wear Poison Ivy's super-tight gold lamé trousers if I was stranded on a desert island and the only way to get the rescue party's attention was to don a pair of super-tight gold lamé trousers.

#2 -- Wall of Voodoo - "Back in Flesh" – While Stan Ridgway was reciting the song's lyrics in his usual Ridgwalian manner (he also plays the organ), I couldn't help but notice how much he looks like Griffin Dunne circa After Hours. Anyway, kudos to Wall of Voodoo for being the only group in the movie to employ a drum machine, and to Bruce Moreland for that slick bass line. Fashion: Lot's of drab t-shirts (a nice mix of sleeveless and sleeved) paired with dark slacks. "Telephone call for Wall of Voodoo."

#3 -- Au Pairs - "Come Again" – On the surface, the luminous Lesley Woods and an antsier-than-usual Paul Foad appear to be taking turns singing on a peppy dance rock number. However, if you delve a little deeper, you'll find is that they're actually having a frank discussion about the quality of the involuntary contractions that occur within the muscles of their genitals during sexual intercourse. Fashion: As this conversation is taking place, bass player Jane Munro is looking fab in a turquoise t-shirt.

Hey, "Welcome to the Ritz" lady. I was wondering if you might wanna go get a slice of pizza after the show? I hear the joint down the street has a Galaga game.

#4 -- Klaus Nomi - "Total Eclipse" – If you have seen the documentary The Nomi Song, then you know this isn't the true "Klaus Nomi Experience" (keen observers will notice that his usual sidekicks, Joey Arias and Janus, have been replaced by leotard-wearing dancers and that his back-up band have been replaced with a bunch of aging hippies). But, as they say, a little Nomi is better than no Nomi, and Klaus Nomi destroys all comers with his kooky mix of opera and new wave. Fashion: The classic Nomi outfit, which includes a futuristic tuxedo jacket, black tights, white gloves, and a pair of black pointy boots. Oh, and make sure to stick around for the film's closing credits to hear Klaus's "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix."

#5 -- The Alley Cats - "Nothing Means Nothing Anymore" – When this trio, featuring husband-and-wife duo Randy Stodola (guitar and vocals) and Dianne Chai (bass and vocals), and drummer John McCarthy, hit the stage, I was like, "who are these losers?" But they managed to win me over with their straightforward, L.A.-tinged punk rock. No silly string required, these guys simply rock. Fashion: White shirts paired with jeans.

#6 -- Toyah Wilcox - "Danced" – Look at her! Fashion: Toyah's jumping jacks and new wave-friendly poses are complimented by one square-shaped earring that was hung on an angle in her right ear, two giant gold bracelets on each arm, and a black mesh top.

#7 -- The Go-Go's - "We Got the Beat" – It's probably been covered/butchered by Selena Gomez, the cast of Glee, and countless others over the years, but nothing can touch the original by The Go-Go's, especially when it's performed at the Whiskey A G-Go in 1981 (the band arrive at the gig in the back of a pick-up truck). Seriously, the spunk trickling oh-so playfully from Gina Schock and the girls during "We Got the Beat" is downright infectious. Sure, guitarist Jane Wiedlin is out frame for most of the song (to the uninitiated, they might be mistaken for a foursome), but I'm not gonna let a little thing like that ruin what was a rousing performance. Fashion: Belinda Carlisle looked yummy in an orange Chinese-style dress (I also dug the matching headband), drummer Gina Schock wore this cool polka dot top, Jane Wiedlin looked relaxed in a teal t-shirt and a pair of tropical themed trousers (yeah, she was onscreen long enough for me to remember what she was wearing), guitarist Charlotte Caffey rocked a pair of white boots (her black nylons only exacerbated their whiteness), and bass player Kathy Valentine Margot Olaverra blinded all the sexist pigs in the audience with the brightest pair of yellow pants the Sunset Strip has ever seen.

#8 -- Gang of Four - "He'd Send In the Army" – I don't know what Jon King is hitting to make that sound, but I like it. Fashion: Semi-puffy dress shirts in a wide range of colours.

#9 -- Oingo Boingo - "Ain't This the Life" – While not as catchy as "Dead Man's Party," as overplayed as "Weird Science," or even as creepy as "Little Girls," Danny Elfman and his band, which includes a horn section, still manage to get the kids moving (i.e. slam dancing) with this lively number. Fashion: A sleeveless white undershirt. Duh.

#10 -- Gary Numan - "Down in the Park" – Don't get me wrong, I love the futuristic go-cart thingy Gary drives around during his performance of this classic track (the steering device was located near his crotch). It's just that, after the novelty has worn off, it doesn't exactly make for compelling television (I didn't expect him to remain seated the entire song). That being said, I will always, no matter what the circumstances, choose Gary Numan over Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. He is, to quote Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, "so fucking suave." Fashion: Underneath all that smoke, it looked like Gary was wearing some kind of red leather getup.

Since I've already mentioned my favourite non-crowd surfing audience member, I guess now is a good time as any to revel who was the absolute bee's knees when it came to crowd surfing. It was no contest: the woman in the Selecter t-shirt at The Go-Go's show was definitely my fave crowd surfing audience member. Not only was she thrown around like an overly molested rag doll, she also managed to briefly reestablish my love for ska band t-shirts ("briefly" because Sting insists on wearing a Beat t-shirt during The Police numbers; way to go, grandpa).

uploaded by mutantwarfare1


  1. Hello to my wife before she gushes over this post.
    And hello Yum-Yum. Hope you've been well.

  2. I love the guy who gets literally run off the stage by security during "We Got the Beat." Was he putting his hand down his pants??

  3. Personally, my favorite performance is "Homicide" by 999, for the sheer fact that I didn't know the song and fell in love with it after their vigorous performance, and unlike Numan and Nomi who had all manner of costume and staging theatrics to make them get over with the crowd, all 999 had was their musicianship, and that's all they needed; the audience I saw it with applauded them when they finished.

  4. I can't believe I've never heard of this! Netflix doesn't have it so it looks like I'll have to actually buy it.

    I thought the guy during the Go-Gos was trying to take his pants down. Who knows, he probably doesn't remember what he was doing.

  5. The Cramps are simply godhead in this flick, more proof - as if anyone needed any - that they were one of the mightiest and most frighteningly awesome live bands on this planet or any other. Lux & Ivy may have been the perfect rock'n'roll couple.

  6. oh my god, oh my god!
    Yes, 'Ray' is right: Gush!
    More laters!

  7. Oh man. Poison Ivy. Christ, it's like butter wouldn't melt between her thighs. Only X's Billy Zoom, a few sets later in the film, even comes close to that level of guitar deity cool.

  8. Oooo, I'm so glad you watched this, Yummers! Now imagine my teenage self watching it for the first time, sitting really close to the television in the middle of the night. (Night Flight, my life would have been so incomplete without you.) Imagine my reaction to Lux Interior's pants. I taped it one night--Night Flight used to broadcast it quite a bit--and watched it frequently.

    Here's my top five for now:

    1. The Cramps, for the sheer "What the heck did I just watch?" factor. I actually didn't like the band that much, but holy heck, that performance. The pants! That guy at the 0:59 mark, the one with the foot-thick glasses! (Some commenter refers to him as "Napoleon Dynamite," and I think he may show up in the some of the other Los Angeles performances. He and that "Welcome to the Ritz" girl are my favorites of the non-musicians in the movie. And the crowd-surfing girl in the Selecter t-shirt you mentioned.)

    2. Klaus Nomi -- Again, my teenage mind was blown. Those four minutes are better than the whole of the Nomi Song. (A little Klaus goes a long way?)

    3. Gang of Four -- I love Andy Gill's blue shirt with that upright collar. (Haberdashery is not my thing, so I don't know that collar style's name. But I had some shirts like that in the 80s.) This is a song I used to rewind to hear over and over. Love King's percussion work, too.

    4. XTC -- Hard to believe that shortly after this tour, Andy Partridge would suffer a nervous breakdown and never perform live again. His presence is magnetic. Like so many of the performances in this film, the live version trumps the studio version.

    4. The Au Pairs -- I had a crush on this guy in high school. I made him a mixtape with "Come Again." I left in the part with Lesley Woods introducing the song. LOL.

    5. The Police and friends, "So Lonely" -- Sorry, Yummers, I obviously like early Police more than you, but the beauty of this performance is the spontaneous jam with all the Frejus bands. And again, Andy Partridge steals the show, dueting with Mr. Sumner. Seriously, when are we ever going to see The Police, XTC, Jools Holland, UB40, and Skafish (???) on stage?

    And I love the "just play the music" approach to the film.

  9. @Ray: Hey.

    Oh, mark my words, there will be gushing.

    @the-scandyfactory: I'm no expert on the subject, but I think he was trying to find his penis.

    @Marc Edward Heuck: While I admire their vigor, 999 didn't quite meet my narrowly defined criteria of what cool looks or sounds like. In other words, I'm shallow. ;)

    @Robert Lindsey: From what I've read, The Go'Go's had to put up with a lot of crap like that during the early part of the career.

    @Will Errickson: "On this planet or any other." The Cramps blow all those lame Uranus bands off the stage.

    @Sarcastro: Thanks for the mental imaged of a stick of unmelted butter languishing between Poison Ivy's thighs.

    @Karim Amir: Wow, I didn't know you were an Urgh! fan. ;)

    I was told that City TV used to air Urgh! back in the day. Wait a minute, you had a VCR in the 80s?!? Well la-di-freaking-da. ;)

    I like the youtube comment that basically says that Lux would be a better performer if he would just loosen up a bit. :D

    Woo-hoo! K.A. digs the crowd-surfing Selecter t-shirt girl.

    Yeah, I'm sure that collar style, like almost everything in the fashion world, has a name. Anyway, I've seen those collars worn in videos by everyone from Killing Joke to Strange Advance.

    You're right about the live versions. I mean, I find myself listening to the Urgh! version of "Come Again" way more than the studio one.

    The front man for Skafish, like Michael Emerson, has a Nomi-esque quality about him.

    I don't care for spontaneous jams. :D

    I'm glad I finally got around to watching this, because it seems like forever when you first told me about it.

  10. This is the movie where I discovered Klaus Nomi and I have not turned back since. I should say I first learned about Toyah Wilcox here as well (I'm always about 2 decades too late). The stills you picked are fabulous.

    I think when I first saw Urgh, I didn't truly appreciate what a time capsule it was, although it was already the late 90s when I discovered it. When I saw Nomi Song, Urgh became really special to me. What a great era for music, a lot of which remains undiscovered.

    I had the soundtrack on cassette too. Me want again!

  11. You're lucky, as I went through the '80s and '90s completely Nomi-free. Yeah, that's right. No Nomi for me. Well, at least not until the 2000s.

    Anyway, I blame myself for this lack of Nomi in my life, but also unimaginative radio programmers and the squares at Much Music.

  12. I also came of age watching URGH! on Night Flight (also would have missed half my life without it's influence), and I recently ordered this off Amazon from their 'Warner Archives' series. That means none of the artwork on the case or disc are original, BUT you get the unexpurgated film with no bells or whistles for about $10. Quite a deal. I showed this to my 14 year old grandson the other day on his birthday and he really dug it. I explained to him how utterly my mind was blown by the entire film (Dead Kennedys, Surf Punks, etc), but ESPECIALLY by Andy Gills guitar-work! The moment I saw him flailingly striking the strings and producing this metallic clang I was addicted! Way before Sonic Youth hit...THIS was the shit! Dave Thomas fronting Pere Ubu and pantomiming not being able to jump over a tiny invisible wall also sticks out in my mind. I could gush on, but I'll stop now. Great review Yum-Yum!

  13. That was NOT Kathy Valentine playing the bass on We Got The Beat ... it was Margot Olivera, their original bass player.

  14. Oops, I guess I should have looked at the credits more carefully.

  15. This one (and Downtown 81) is just too good to be true! Pure unadulterated musical bliss.
    Just to see The Alley Cats gotta love Dianne Chai!), Au Pairs and early Go-Go's alone is worth a look.

    The only negative thing about it is that they didn't make like 10 volumes of it.

    Would have loved me some Suburban Lawns, Neon Hearts, Ballistic Kisses, The Bags, Comateens, Nash the Slash, Punishment of Luxury or Shivvers etc...(and the list goes on and on).

    Btw. Really dig your musical taste. That Max & Intro 7" is amazing. Have played it at clubs quite a lot (not from the original unfortunately). Do you DJ as well?

  16. I love the Comateens; thanks for reminding me of their extistance. Oh, and I'm glad you dig my music taste.

    I did flirt with DJ-ing as a teen, but haven't done it since. :(

  17. I was at the Los Angeles Urgh! show but I don't remember too much about it. I think I had a good time because I liked quite a few of the bands that played that night. For some reason, my only lasting impression is the bizarre sight of the overstuffed lead singer of Pere Ubu singing that crazy birdie song. The song wasn't that great but the noises he made are forever burned into my grey matter.

  18. I agree whole heartedly. Fav audience member: Big new wave chick losing her fucking mind during the Cramps. You know she lives in rural Georgia now, beating her grandkids with the same fervor.

  19. You might be interested in the zine "Marks in Time: the Very Early Go-Go's" - lots of Jane info! It may still be available through Goteblud here in San Francisco...