- Record Store Day, every day: You got it nicer at Licorice Pizza stores in the 70s and early 80s
- “TV Party”: Glenn O’Brien’s weekly late 70s public-access punk cocktail party TV show
- Zinelandia: Night Flight talks with Joe Biel about “$100 & a T-Shirt,” his documentary about zines
- In 1977, Prince appeared on “The Gong Show,” but no one has ever talked about the episode, until now
- The Wu Tang Collection: The weirdest “Ku Fung Theater”-style mostly-Asian action flicks you’ll ever see
- Bullseye! Arrow Films’ exploitation, Italian horror, spaghetti westerns, drive-in sleaze & more, now on Night Flight Plus!
- “Dynaman”: Night Flight’s popular series featured rubber monsters, good looking Japanese teens, silly jokes, and cool pop music!
- “All Dolled Up”: Night Flight’s exclusive interview with director Bob Gruen about his New York Dolls documentary
- “The Gumby Show”: America’s Favorite Clayboy is back again on Night Flight!
- Something Weird is happenin’ on Night Flight: Check out our classic cult, hippie & biker flicks, drive-in sleaze and exploitation movies!
War and Punk: Behind the lines at the ’80s music doc “Urgh!”
The 1982 punk/new wave rockumentary Urgh! A Music War was one of the most popular “Night Flight” attractions. I had the mixed blessing of attending the two major Los Angeles concerts that were featured in the film, which has attained something of a cult reputation among punk devotees in the ensuing 36 years.
Urgh! – the first mainstream feature to fix its lens on the new music – was the brainchild of the English theatrical and film producer Michael White. An art merchant whose tastes ran to both the sensational and the middle-of-the-road, White began his career with the 1961 London production of Jack Gelber’s drama about heroin addicts, The Connection.
He went on to mount the U.K. premiere of Michael McClure’s The Beard, which featured the onstage depiction of a blowjob. In 1973, he brought the world Kenneth Tynan’s all-nude revue Oh! Calcutta!
Many of his later shows were more sedate: He produced the London stage versions of Sleuth, Annie, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But it was a left-field musical that brought him his most enduring success: The Rocky Horror Show, which debuted in London, settled in for a long run at the Roxy in L.A., and became a midnight-movie favorite in its 1975 film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Prescient in his selection of properties but a poor businessman, White never saw any of the profits from his biggest hit.)
White brought some other interesting films to the screen – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, and John Waters’ Polyester. But his only stab at music documentary-making was Urgh!; with not enough expertise in pulling together a roster of hip contemporary bands, he essentially took on a silent partner for the picture.
The Man Behind the Curtain was Miles Copeland III, who is listed in the film’s credits as “creative consultant.” At the time that Urgh! began shooting in the summer of 1980, Copeland was a player in the L.A. music biz. He managed the Police, the poppy English trio that featured his brother Stewart on drums; with two popular albums already to their credit, the band was poised to become a huge stateside attraction. They would become the movie’s natural headliner – the only band afforded more than one song, with three numbers and pride of place, both opening and closing the film.
Miles also headed I.R.S. Records, a new-rock imprint distributed by A&M Records, the Police’s U.S. home. Copeland was undoubtedly critical in securing a soundtrack album deal for the movie at A&M; in return, three I.R.S. acts, the Go-Go’s, the Cramps, and Skafish, were earmarked for the picture.
Louis Black, co-publisher of the Texas alternative weekly the Austin Chronicle, says that Jonathan Demme – later the director of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and three Neil Young documentaries – told him that he originated the idea for Urgh!
The filmmaker told Black, “I wanted to use all the exciting unsigned acts of the day . Groups including The Huns, Joe “King” Carrasco, Bush Tetras, the Feelies, and the Suburban Lawns. I wanted to shoot them all in clubs, shoot for one night in Austin and for one night in San Francisco, one night in Los Angeles and one night in New York.”
Black adds that when the I.R.S. management team got control, they loaded the feature with their acts and Demme left the project.
The movie was designed with an international flavor, and shows featuring 34 diverse acts were filmed in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Frejus, France. In 1980, I was contributing regularly as a reporter and reviewer to Rolling Stone, and it fell to me to cover two nights of L.A. dates — billed as “The First Urgh!” – on Friday-Saturday, August 15-16, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The legendary concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show, featuring James Brown, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys, had been shot at the same 3,000-capacity oceanside venue in October 1964.
Nine bands, predominantly leaning towards the punk end of the spectrum, appeared before neophyte feature director Derek Burbidge’s cameras at the Civic: England’s Chelsea, San Francisco’s the Dead Kennedys, hometown heroes X, and then-recent L.A. émigrés the Cramps on night one, and Cleveland’s the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, England’s the Members and Magazine, and wry L.A. art-punks Wall of Voodoo on night two.
(I wasn’t assigned to cover an Aug. 17 shoot at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, a locals-only affair with the Go-Go’s, A&M nuevo wavo act Oingo Boingo, OG L.A. punk trio the Alley Cats, and the doofy novelty act the Surf Punks.)
It seemed obvious to me that something was wrong with the set-up from the first note on the sold-out first night. As I wrote in my review, which appeared in Rolling Stone’s Oct. 16, 1980, issue:
…[A] wide, heavily policed pit was built to shield performers, movie cameramen and photographers from any untoward audience spontaneity. And that wasn’t all. Night one’s sound was a booming cacophony, the bands sounding as if they were playing beneath a very large, wet wool blanket.
The house sound (which under such circumstances is always secondary to the film sound) improved on the second night, but the entire affair was a largely alienating spectacle. A huge gulf separated the bands from the audience, which not only had a hard time hearing what was going on up on the stage, but felt a distance that wasn’t present when the same acts played club dates in town.
Nowhere was this so acute as during the Cramps’ headlining performance the first night. I wrote:
“Their creepo-mysterioso brand of rock & roll juju never jelled, most likely because the physical gap between the stage and crowd became an aesthetic one that even a rockin’ ghoul like singer Lux Interior couldn’t bridge.”
In light of these remarks, it’s ironic that the Cramps’ “Tear It Up” is one of the highlights of Urgh! A Music War. Some of the Civic shows’ better sets – those by X, Pere Ubu, and Magazine – never come totally alive on the screen, but Lux’s sweating, mic-swallowing, stage-humping mania delivers the goods.
If Urgh! A Music War had maintained the relatively narrow punk-oriented focus of the Civic gigs, the finished film might have made for more worthwhile viewing in spite of its by-the-book concert staging. But the shows shot on the East Coast and Europe ventured down a wide range of stylistic alleys, and straight into some cul de sacs.
Thus, the picture ranges through English music hall (Jools Holland), synth-pop (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gary Numan), left-tilting British post-punk (Gang of Four, Au Pairs), British reggae (Steel Pulse, UB40), and, of course, more novelty acts (the utterly obscure Invisible Sex, the universally beloved Devo in their red flower-pot hat era).
All but one of the acts in Urgh! A Music War are forced to make their point in the space of one three- to five-minute piece of screen time. For me, the best, most effective performances in the picture are the ones that exude a kind of awe-inspiring madness.
Beyond Lux’s turn, I cherish English lunatic John Otway’s somersaulting, mic-gulping, violin-thrashing rendition of Bob Lind’s “Cheryl’s Going Home,” Klaus Nomi’s operatic, absolutely otherworldly “Total Eclipse,” and Pere Ubu’s “Birdies,” with inexplicable Tourettes-style shenanigans by singer David Thomas.
I will add that I have a special admiration for Au Pairs’ “Come Again,” caught at a show in London. It’s not an especially exceptional sequence, but one has to admire lead singer Lesley Woods for performing a song about sex while sporting what appears to be an enormous and very noticeable hickey on her neck.
Presented without narration and without even the most infinitesimal bit of context, the mélange of sounds and styles in Urgh! A Music War never managed to coalesce into anything resembling a coherent narrative.
In essence, it’s a time capsule surveying what was lumped together in the early ‘80s under the umbrella rubric of “new wave.” Which may lead some to recall the words of Slash magazine editor Claude Bessy in Penelope Spheeris’ outstanding 1981 film about L.A. punk, The Decline of Western Civilization: “I have good news. There is no such thing as new wave.”
Fittingly, in the fall of 1980, in what proved to be the mag’s last issue, Slash reviewer “Z.” hit the nail on the head in a typically hyperventilating description of what was wrong with the movie:
“…[I]f the film’s gonna show the world what a band is about, then why put them in a place that is not their natural habitat while fucking their sound mix in the process? Who is this document being made for anyway? Middle America, get your popcorn, relax in your seat and maintain a safe distance from these exotic creatures…with their strange clothes, and weird singing styles, and odd mannerisms, yes let’s look at the musical freak show and when it’s over we’ll pile into our station wagon and take the kids home, knowing those odd people are only out there on a stage, in a film, but not in real life.”
After its two-LP 1981 soundtrack album failed to dent the charts and the film disappeared rapidly from cinemas upon its release, Urgh! A Music War managed to maintain a decent afterlife on TV – probably the best medium for an omnibus music film of this type, since a viewer can head for the refrigerator or step out for a smoke when a boring performance comes on.
By the time “Night Flight” began airing its augmented version of the film (with footage not derived from the original shoots), performance-driven music docs of this sort had been rendered a thing of the past by MTV, which gave fans what they wanted at home, in easily digestible three-minute video slices.
Urgh! has never been accorded a full-blown DVD release: It is only available as a burn-to-order product, from Warner Archive.
A postscript: After my largely negative review of the L.A. Urgh! concerts appeared, Rolling Stone received a carefully written, enraged letter from producer Michael White, who suggested I should be fired.
White died in Ojai, California, on March 7, at the age of 80. Reading his obituary by theater critic Michael Coveney in the English paper the Guardian, I felt a shock of recognition when I encountered this remembrance by the writer:
“When I was less than enthusiastic about White’s 1982 Drury Lane presentation of The Pirates of Penzance, he came to a boardroom lunch at the Financial Times, where I was working, and affably suggested to the assembled bigwigs that I should be relieved of my duties. His charm was such that nobody took him too seriously.”