[All throughout the month of November, all NW4NW entries are based on requests made by you, dear readers. Because of the amount of requests received, there will often be more than one entry per week during this month - I recommend signing up for email alerts on the left-hand side of the screen so that you don't miss any of the fun! I cannot take anymore requests for this month, but please always feel free to suggest bands you might like to see featured in future NW4NW posts. You may do so either in the comments section of this post, on Twitter, or on the Facebook Fanpage.]
My old friend Gil Smart reviews both national and local politics in his always excellent Smart Remarks column for Lancaster Newspapers, as well as authoring the blog of the same name. While Gil and I seldom agree politically, we often find common ground when it comes to music. It surprised me, then, when Gil admitted to never having actually seen the New Wave era's equivalent to the movie version of Woodstock, the cult classic concert film Urgh! A Music War!
Urgh! is as perfect a time-capsule of the New Wave as could be created. 30+ bands recorded live in 1980, presented in seemingly random succession with no narration, no explanation, and no context save for the immediate comparison to the other bands who appear in the film. Each act is seen performing one song except for The Police, who open the film with a gripping version of "Driven To Tears" and end it with a sing-along medley of "Roxanne" and "So Lonely." Indeed, at the time of the movie's 1981 release, The Police were likely the most well-known group in the lineup (the only other "name" act at the time would have been Devo; The Go-Go's and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had yet to break big). Their featured status in the film had less to do with that, however, than it did with who produced the movie.
Urgh! was the brainchild of Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police. Miles Copeland had founded the influential indy label Illegal Records in the UK, which soon was renamed I.R.S. Records in the States. I.R.S. had a distribution deal with A&M Records, which in turn meant that the artists featured in Urgh! were largely plucked from the I.R.S. and A&M rosters. The bands ran the gamut from big name (Wall Of Voodoo, Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark, The Cramps) to no-name (the mysterious Invisible Sex is a band that no one seems to know much about outside of their appearance here); from the laid-back reggae of Steel Pulse to the hardcore punk of The Dead Kennedys; from the piano-bar standard of Jools Holland to the avant-garde loopiness of Pere Ubu. In each case, the music is left to speak for itself, and certainly some performances have aged better than others. What stands out is that everyone was so young at the time, and full of enthusiasm. If there is any throughline tying it all together, it is that combination of energy and naivete that exudes from each band. This was yet another generation who thought they could change the world with music, captured here before being jaded by the realities of the business.
The film itself exists in a few different forms: when originally released for its brief theatrical run, the movie clocked in at 94 minutes. The VHS and Laserdisc (remember those?) releases to the public include ten additional performances cut from the theatrical release, bringing the running time up to 124 minutes. During the 1980s, Urgh! was shown with some regularity on the USA Network's old overnight music and pop culture program Night Flight; the version USA aired was sometimes padded with even more footage that had not been originally filmed for the movie.
For many years, the movie was unavailable unless you either owned (or were willing to pay big bucks for) the VHS release or you still had a working Laserdisc player. It simply was not to be had on DVD, no doubt due to licensing issues (recent occasional theatrical showings have had to excise Gary Numan's performance of "Down In The Park," as he has apparently not been forthcoming with a signed release.) Finally, in late 2009, Warner Archives gave the film a legitimate, if lacking, DVD release: it's actually a DVD-R burned to fill each order. The film was not remastered or cleaned up in any way, nor are there any special features beyond the original trailer for the film. Worse, the DVD chapters are not synced with the performances, but rather only serve to fast-forward ten minutes at a time. On top of all that, the performance by the UK band Splodgenessabounds is inexplicably cut from the DVD version. Purchase at your own risk.
Rumors persist that, in actuality, three songs were filmed for each act, and that this footage is collecting dust in a vault somewhere. If this is true, consider the incredible DVD box set that could be put together by the proper curators!
In addition to the film variations, a soundtrack was released, originally as a two-record set, in 1981, featuring all but 8 of the VHS version's performances. The vinyl can still be found affordably on eBay and Amazon; the briefly issued and now out-of-print CD release fetches huge dollars.
Urgh! A Music War! was an important film if for no other reason than to serve as window to a time when, as one friend of mine likes to say, New Wave really was a wave. Both the VHS and the soundtrack are well worth digging up. To give you a taste, I've chosen four of my favorite performances from the movie. Rather than tell you about them, I'll just let you watch and let the clips speak for themselves, as the movie intended. Gil, thank you for an outstanding request!