In punk’s earliest days, critics picked at the genre for its narrow aesthetic – short songs with fast tempos, apocalyptic lyrics, and buzzsawing guitar solos, performed by skinny dudes in black jeans. A close listen to some of the most seminal punk records, however, would reveal its magpie sensibility. The most interesting punk bands feathered their songs with shiny elements of established genres like reggae, psychedelia, rockabilly, opera, Burundi drumming, and musique concrete. URGH! A MUSIC WAR, a concert feature shot at a period when the first generation of punk was evolving past its loud fast roots, offers audiences morsels of the punk sound as it developed.
By the late 1970s, the punk and new wave subcultures had gained great influence and notoriety. While Sid Vicious came to a violent end and gob-spitting youth clad in leather, spikes, and DIY body piercing ruled the London streets, college radio and alternative newspapers covered quirkier, more accessible bands. With concert films like THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME and THE LAST WALTZ finding an audience among musically minded moviegoers, a punk concert film seemed inevitable.
Little is known about the production of URGH! A MUSIC WAR. A film crew helmed by Derek Burbidge (who would later direct concert movies for Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC) shot full concerts by some of the leading acts of the punk and new wave scene. Over a year before the film hit theatres, A&M Records released a double-album soundtrack featuring some of the most notable songs from the film. (The prominence of artists like the Police and the Go-Gos led some online wags to suggest that IRS Records founder/URGH! “creative consultant” Miles Copeland had exercised undue influence over the bands included in the film.)
Once the 20 hours of footage were edited into a feature-length package, URGH! had a brief theatrical run. As with many of the second-rate concert films released in the early ‘80s, URGH! suffered from poor lighting and inconsistent sound quality. Burbidge’s perfunctory directorial style – mostly long shots, alternating between an audience-level camera and another in the wings – had flashes of accidental brilliance. One segment starts with a low-angle shot of two glorious, disembodied gams, but as the camera tilts up the performer’s body we find ourselves face-to-face with…Klaus Nomi. The Cramps segment unfolds like a sped-up, gender-swapped Tennessee Williams play, with frontman Lux Interior experiencing delirium tremens, copious perspiration, and full-body shakes; meanwhile, deadpan guitarist Poison Ivy stands a few feet away, barely acknowledging his apparent trauma. For the most part, though, these smeary clips lack the grandeur of THE LAST WALTZ or the visual pizazz and implied narrative of the best music videos.
URGH! was a hard sell to all but the most ardent punk fans, and with its distributor, Filmways, a year away from folding, it didn’t get much of a promotional push. As with many other features in the punk film canon, URGH! gained a cult following through USA Network’s Night Flight block. The film was so popular that the print became damaged from frequent broadcasts, necessitating alternate cuts with footage that didn’t appear in the theatrical release.
After USA sent Night Flight off to the big syndication deal in the sky, the legend of URGH! A MUSIC WAR grew. The early-80s VHS tape became a hot commodity at Kim’s Video and on eBay. Clips from the film would later surface on YouTube before being removed and then re-uploaded.
If punk nostalgics viewed URGH! as an important document of the first wave punk scene, then why did it languish in bootleg purgatory for so long? In a word: licensing. Rumors circulated online that the film’s home entertainment fate had been yoked to RCA’s SelectaVision technology, and once that became obsolete, the film became less of a priority for rerelease. Realistically, renegotiating music rights for future broadcasts and DVDs with two dozen bands was probably an onerous task for Warner’s legal department, with little financial payoff.
In 2012, URGH! A MUSIC WAR finally became available as a barebones made-to-order DVD. While the picture quality and sound had gone untouched from its VHS days, several repertory theatres programmed a restored 35mm print of the film.
In the years since URGH!’s release, punk has evolved into many things it once opposed. The genre’s eclectic sound grew to encompass noodly stoner jazz, overblown Broadway musicals, evangelical Christianity, and thick-necked frat jock aggression. Punk has gone from the most threatening of all post-hippie subcultures to another commodity sold at its own specialty mall store. Viewing URGH! will bring viewers to a historical era when punk was artistically dangerous, and it seemed like anything could happen in those grimy clubs.