War and Punk: Behind the lines at the ’80s music doc “Urgh!”

By on March 31, 2016

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.

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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!

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Michael White

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • http://spacegod.tumblr.com/ spacegod

    I also loved Klaus, Pere, and Devo….but my mostest favoritest moment (from the LPs) was XTC’s Andy Partridge ranting grudgingly gratefully to the ‘thief that had stolen his effects pedal’–that now he had to ACTUALLY PLAY.

    That remains profound to me.

  • http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/ Richard Vachel Lindsay

    That’s fascinating! Someone could probably write a book about all the machinations that went on behind the scenes on that film. It’s amusing to note that while The Police were the ‘headliners’, it’s Lux from the Cramps on the cover of that massively distributed VHS tape.
    No doubt Urgh! was many people’s first impressions of many of these seminal New Wave, Punk, and Post Punk bands. It certainly was a life changing moment for me, picking that video up at our local mom n’ pop video store. Where else would some alienated kid from rural Washington state see bands like Splodgenessabounds (for better or worse – I believe they’re the one band culled from the on-demand ‘release’ from the studio)?
    It was amusing to note that in an interview, Lux and Ivy had a less-than-favorable memory of their shoot. Lux complained that the producers insist he get a perm, which accounts for his awkward mop in their clip. Outtakes from their set are available on YouTube. It makes me hope for an extended release someday, with outtakes from more of the bands.

  • Sebastian Hassinger

    I saw Urgh in a repertory theater (The Seville) in Montreal in about ’86 I think, blew my mind.

  • Scott Parker

    well said, I saw this in my tiny little shore town in new jersey in my early teen years and it totally blew and expanded my mind as to what was out there that I wasn’t otherwise being exposed to in my little pocket of the world at that time…

  • Bat42

    From the LaserDisc DataBase ( http://www.lddb.com/laserdisc/39249/888-8909-2/Urgh!-A-Music-War ): “From a good quality clean 35mm print. This feature had a very limited short run cinema release in 1981. Rarely seen in the UK but it has been broadcast often in the USA. Over the years the prints have deteriorated & later US broadcasts have had some of the songs removed due to print damage. Later broadcasts did not include the Gary Numan track Down In The Park as he owns the rights to the footage & it is thought he has refused any further broadcasts of his footage. The A&M audio soundtrack album did not include the following artists featured on the original release as presented on this laserdisc: John Cooper Clarke, Chelsea, Surf Punks, Invisible Sex & Splodgenessabounds. Valium by Invisible Sex is thought to be the only public performance by them. A full re-release of the originally presented feature is very unlikely as with the number of artists featured, to renew the rights to them all would now be very expensive & a potentially long winded process. Warner Archive released an official DVD-R of the movie, which were individually burned on a made-to-order basis. The movie was not remastered or restored for the DVD-R. The Splodgenessabounds’ performance of Two Little Boys is not on the DVD but all the other original performances are included. Quite a few of the early ’80s PDO pressed laserdiscs now suffer from laser rot but I have seen two copies of this feature & the audio & visual playback on both was faultless. A very scarce laserdisc & still the only way of seeing this feature as is was originally released & presented in US cinemas in 1981.”

  • Jim Powers

    There’s a MySpace music page for Invisible Sex: https://myspace.com/invisiblesex/events

  • Allen Belz

    Just one more chime-in agreeing with the sentiments expressed below. First exposure to a lot of these bands, yup. Made me a fan of many of them, yup. Watched it on NF every time I knew it was coming on, and am now a happy owner of the Warner Archive DVD.

  • Riot Nrrrd™

    A year late seeing this post so I’m sure you won’t see this reply, but anyway …

    I think context is everything here. Slash was an L.A. mag, these shows were L.A. area shows, they (and the movie) were covered in real-time as such. History often presents itself differently as the years recede. I can appreciate your “flyover country revelation” comment just as much as I understand Z’s frustration at having things sanitized.

    BTW I went to both Urgh! nights at the Santa Monica Civic and still have both ticket stubs. It was so forgettable that I literally can’t recall even being there now, despite loving most of the bands on offer. For the life of me I can’t recall why that is. (I saw The Jam and XTC at the same venue that same year and remember both gigs well so it’s not like my memory’s completely shot.)

  • Almostred

    No worries; still here. ) I get what you’re saying but, to the rest of us, it still sounded like the privileged ennui of someone immersed in a scene they took entirely for granted. I’ve seen a doc on URGH! producer, Michael White, and the logistical and licensing issues related to filming shows in LA, NYC, London and France were…daunting, to say the least. Those of us on the outside were lucky they were able to release anything at all. Cheers.