This will no doubt be an illegal movie forever. After seeing it at the UC Theater in the summer of '82, I recently found a copy on a bootleg VHS for $1 at a Friends of the Library sale, still burned with the Sundance Channel bug. In today's cinema, much is made of the nostalgia value of the 1980s soundtrack: a famous example being Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" during Donnie Darko's opening. You can have your MTV, though, since URGH! A Music War was the soundtrack to my 1980s. Hey, what a surprise, no Duran Duran, no INXS, no Soft Cell covering a Gloria Jones soul classic and convincing a history-impaired generation that they wrote it. And yet it's clear why this film failed.
As a business scheme URGH seems, in 2008 hindsight, a uniquely quick way to burn a fortune. The film documents second-wave punk and New Wave bands playing from LA to London, editing them together without any particular zeitgeisty event like a music festival. So: play it a little under a real kiss-of-death title, and then wait to be deafened by the wails of bands, managers and lawyers zooming in to fight over the non-existant money. The Police were the headliners, opening and closing the film. They wrap up the film, too; you can see drummer Miles Copeland wearing an URGH! T-shirt. Is this perhaps all he was paid for this film? There are mostly cinematic performances here, and we see how much was lost by the fact that the Industry couldn't figure out a way to use their talents in the movies. Here's a key to the best of the show, omitting slurs of forgotten bands who perished long years ago.
Track #2. "Back in Flesh" Wall of Voodoo.
Nothing like a song about good old honest hard work, the ring of the alarm in the morning, the manly handshake with one's boss, the satisfying tick of the timeclock. The band took the name from an obscure Italian horror film, and practiced their brand of horror-soundtrack rock for a few years. Happily, after a few sucky solo albums, lead singer Stan Ridgeway is playing the folk-club circuit.
#4. "Health Food Fanatic" John Cooper Clarke.
Hide, it's poetry! Manchester's answer to Bob Dylan is still at it: check the old fella's performance of his f-bomb laden masterpiece "Evidently Chicken Town" in Closer. "Chicken Town" also turned up as the close-credits on one of the last episodes of The Sopranos this season. A great anti-song, "Chicken Town" and, I'm afraid, better than Clarke's protest here against inoffensive organic-foodies.
#5. "Enola Gay," Orchestral Maneuvers AKA Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark
This synthesizer band's one pleasant forgettable dance tune has a nice riff and a haunting subject. Did you see that Colonel Paul Tibbets died last November? The obit in the Columbus Dispatch, in what I hope is graveyard wit, closes a summing up of Tibbets' life and career with the line: "He is to be cremated." Tibbets never lost any sleep over his most famous war time service. He once restaged his bombing of Hiroshima at a Texas air-show in 1976, using a jumbo bag of flour. He named his bomber "Enola Gay" after his mom. The song lyric "It's 8:15, that's the time that it's always been" refers to the famous picture of the Hiroshima city hall clock, frozen forever at the moment when-as Einstein put it-everything changed except our way of thinking.
#7. "Ain't This The Life," Oingo Boingo
Look how chipper Danny Elfman is! The frightful energy of this hymn to greed just bursts of the screen. Just as the song predicts, Elfman was soon going to be doing the backstroke in a swimming pool full of diamond-encrusted caviar. He still makes beaucoup bucks selling Bernard Herrmann-style soundtracks to the movie business. The one song of his that always runs around in my head like a caged squirrel is "It's A Cruel Cruel World" from the first Spy Kids movie.
#8. "The Puppet" Echo and the Bunnymen.
Remember Jack Black putting down "your precious Echo and the Bunnymen" in High Fidelity? This dirge band didn't do anything better than this snarler. Even a big fat atheist like me can respect the angry Jesus quote (Matthew 5:13) in the song's chorus.
#10. "Respectable Street" XTC
This bouncy tune addresses a really loaded word in the English vocabulary: "respectable." "We've always kept ourselves respectable..." is what really poor English people used to tell themselves when they're facing up to squalor, according to George Orwell.
#11. "Total Eclipse" Klaus Nomi.
I know, you're thinking, who is this German goonie-bird? He looks like a mime! Well, here's mitigating factors: he was a really nice man, according to the documentary about him; he was one of the first casualties of AIDS. And on YouTube, you can see him using that opera-trained voice to back up David Bowie during the great man's 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance, on the song "The Man Who Sold The World."
#12. "Where's Captain Kirk?" Atheltico Spizz 80
Yeah, where is he? The best song about Star Trek; later REM covered this lovable superspeed tribute to our galactic hero.
#13. "We've Got The Beat" The Go-Go's
I made as much fun of "The Dodos" as anyone, but they were so spunky and sweet. What was wrong with me?
14. "Bleed For Me" The Dead Kennedys.
Well, see, this is what was wrong with me. I loved this East Bay band and I hated pretty much everything else. The DKs were preachy, they were yacky, they eventually broke up so lead singer Jello Biafra could just stand and harangue the audience. But: the roar of that rhythm section! Oh, that furious bridge! Oh, that buzzsaw voice! With a few insignificant addendums to the lyrics, this song is as current as today's waterboarding scandal. Who's laughing at Biafra now?
#17. "Model Worker" Magazine
This outfit did just about the best white Motown imitation ever (check out the Supremes-style keyboard riff on "About the Weather": it's not a sample, kids!). The man with the lightbulb head behind the microphone: Original Punk Howard Devoto, whose often sinister songs still draw me in. "Parade" and "Permafrost" were my favorite breakup tunes in college; I used to blast them at 3 am, wringing out my broken heart like a wet rag.
#20."Do It Again," The Au-Pairs
"This is a song about faking orgasm." Aren't they all! Radical clangy stuff from this really Marxist English band; rather sweet and gentle in spots, considering what an angry subject it is. Lovely in an age of irony to see performers meaning every word they say.
#21. "Tear It Up" The Cramps
And here's the real orgasm! Bad editing (those annoying audience reaction shots) cannot damage this, and it doesn't get stale from repetition. This hard-R rated performance is everything that's dreadful and menacing about rock and roll. It's a cover of a Johnny Burnette Trio song by this veteran shockabilly act. Happily, they're still up to their old tricks. And the dynamic is the same as it's been for 30 years: tousle-haired, barely-trousered skeletor Lux Interior (above) on the vocals, and his spouse Ivy Rorschach on guitar. Check Ivy's amazing look of wifely contempt-us husbands will recognize it-as her beloved does his headless-chicken dance. From that slow-burn, it's easy to guess what line of work Ivy used to be in before she became a musician. (Hint: it involved whips, handcuffs, and rich guilty businessmen.)
#23. "Birdies" Pere Ubu
This just about makes me want to cry, although most people listening to this will give up on it as horrible jazz. Absolutely sincere and innocent lead singer Dave Thomas, a pale Jackie Gleasonish character in a Blues Brothers suit, unburdens himself about his love for our little feathered friends. Plus he looks like he's just going to take wing right there on stage.
#24. "Uncontrollable Urge" DEVO.
The Devolution Band plays this memorable rave-up to a bunch of unworthy San Diego weenies. Most hilarious in 2008, though it was pretty funny in 1981, too: the band ripping off their paperoid jumpsuits, to reveal the scrawny ivory colored nerd-flesh underneath.
#25. "Nothing Means Nothing Anymore" The Alleycats aka The Alley Cats.
This sweaty tight closeup of these husband and wife rockers sharing a microphone is an example of the garden variety punk rock we used to get in LA for $3, along with two other bands: they'd stand up and give 150% and vanish into the night and smog. The Alley Cats are pretty obscure: two albums, one comeback, and then the vanishing. Saw them myself in a beat-up supper club on the nastier side of Hollywood Boulevard 30 years ago.
#27. "He'd Send in the Army" The Gang of Four.
There are some furious bands in this movie...the Dead Kennedys, the Au Pairs....but this Leeds-based political quartet is the most furious of them all. It's a minor tune, a b-side, shouted out against their famous hammer-and-anvil style percussion, and it concerns the media build up to the Falklands War: "Hello, boys! Seen any action?" Timely, in a word.
#29. "The Shadow Line" The Fleshtones
Sharp San Diego rockabillies doing a severely tight and lovingly polished salute to the Yardbirds. They take their subject from a minor Joseph Conrad novella; the title refers to the line between youth and adulthood.
#30. "Beyond and Back" X
Ignore the disgusting camera work. That drunken air-raid siren in the black fright wig is called Exene Cervenka and her ornery partner is John Doe. The grinning immobile gent on guitar is Billy Zoom, and he still looks exactly like that 25 years later. Orange County and Born Again Christianity keep man young: just look at Pat Boone. As it was said of the marriage of the historian Macaulay, John and Exene's marriage was a good thing in the sense that it made two people unhappy instead of four. Still, the Cervenka-Doe ménage provided the world with dozens of brilliant songs of self-loathing, intoxication, despair and cruelty, and they're still at it. (The documentary The Decline of Western Civilization to see a better look at them.)
#33 "Roxanne" The Police.
At this point she must have turned off the red light. She'd be a very old lady by now!