A few weeks ago I was over the moon because I finally had the opportunity to see one of the screen’s most spectacular achievements, BEN-HUR, projected on the big screen, but that event pales in comparison to an upcoming screening that I never, ever imagined I would witness. Still unavailable on non-bootleg DVD, 1981’s cult classic international concert documentary URGH! A MUSIC WAR is getting a rarer-than-tits-on-a-trout screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on November 29th, and if I have my way I’ll be dragging as many of my friends as possible. To those of us who came of age in the early 1980’s and had a taste for the results of the tail end of the punk rock movement and the early fruits of “new wave” music, URGH! A MUSIC WAR was kind of our generation’s answer to WOODSTOCK. A bizarre, somewhat obnoxious, gaudily colored answer that made one forget whatever the fuck the initial question was.
Clocking in at a very packed two hours, URGH! was the ultimate punk/new wave sampler film, highlighting some 32 bands, several of whom would later go on to achieve lasting fame. Using the pre-“Ghost In The Machine” Police as the “name” draw, the film quickly makes the viewer forget all about Sting and friends as it rolls out a cornucopia of bands that would make the uninitiated stop dead in their tracks and ask a heartfelt “What the fuck was that?” Since punk never really caught on as such in the States much of what was on display in the film was quite a shock, both musically and visually, and with the exception of a couple of performances the whole package is simply riveting.
The Police’s “Driven To Tears” sets the stage and then the film jumps all over the globe, taking the audience to venues ranging from huge stadiums to small, grimy clubs, and while the whole film is certainly worth your time, the following — in no particular order — are the performances that made me a rabid fan of this film for life:
"Back In Flesh"-Wall of Voodoo
If you thought their 1982 hit "Mexican Radio" was weirder than pistachio-flavored bat shit, then you are in no way ready to handle "Back In Flesh," a tune that sounds like a Devo cast-off. It's like something you'd hear if David Lynch had opted against filmmaking and had become the late night programming director of an independent radio station.
“Enola Gay”-Orchestral Maneouvres In the Dark
The most simultaneously fey and powerful song about nuclear horror ever, this isn't quite as good as the studio version but it's definitely engaging.
"I’m on Fire"-Chelsea
A buzzsaw blast of distinctly British punk at its best, and a vast improvement over the studio version of this tune. The singer, Gene October, seems so tightly wound that you half expect him to attack the audience without warning, diving into the crowd feet-first and wielding the mic stand like a Claymore.
"Ain’t This the Life"-Oingo Boingo
Electrifying proof of just how energetic and tight this band was when performing live, with the delightful added bonus of front man Danny Elfman — yes, that Danny Elfman — looking like the bastard son of the Joker.
"The Puppet"-Echo & the Bunnymen
Nasal as hell and featuring a terrific beat, how can you not like a song with the lyric “I practice my fall ‘cause practice makes perfect?”
"Foolish I Know"-Jools Holland
Squeeze’s keyboard jock, busting loose with a solo old-fashioned ditty that offers a complete one-eighty from the rest of the film’s musical stylings.
One of this band’s finest songs, rendered with Andy Partridge’s customary nervous edge. The bouncy beat attached to this tale of nosy and snooty neighbors will have you fighting hard to stay in your seat rather than getting up and dancing like you're baked out of your mind (a state of mind I recommend for this film, BTW).
By far the goofiest act in the film — although there is a good case to be made for the Surf Punks — this cadre of silver-jumpsuited and bemasked loons caper about the stage wielding guitars crafted from what appears to be brown construction paper. Obscure beyond belief, I have never found mention of this group anywhere other than in conjunction with this documentary.
"Total Eclipse"-Klaus Nomi
Hands down the single most bizarre thing in the entire movie, this bit may be the moment when I realized I was watching a classic. Klaus Nomi was a weird little German dude who sang shattering classically-trained falsetto arias applied to old standards, and his music fell into the new wave classification by default because it was simply impossible to pigeonhole anywhere else. Resembling a middle-aged Astro Boy decked out in an angular plastic tuxedo, Nomi will leave your jaw on the ground with his sheer "what the fuck?"-ness. One of the first entertainers to perish from the scythe of AIDS, Nomi's death was a tragic waste of a true original, and his story is eloquently told in the excellent documentary THE NOMI SONG (2004).
"Where’s Captain Kirk?"-Athletico Spizz 80
This energetic ode to STAR TREK and the Enterprise crew is a shitload of fun, plus it teaches us the possibilities of Silly String as an offensive weapon.
"We Got the Beat"-The Go-Go’s
The most rockin' version of this song that you'll ever hear, this performance comes in about a year before the band's first album, "Beauty and the Beat," was released and gives us the sight of a far more punky and chunky Belinda Carlisle than the dangerously thin, well-groomed cover girl of the years that followed.
"Bleed for Me"-Dead Kennedys
From the days before their sense of humor sort of overtook their uncomfortable and in-your-face early efforts, this terrifying description of third world torture and murder is ominous and scary as hell, reminding one of just why this most intelligent of American punk bands was once considered dangerous by the U.S. government and unfairly expunged during a bullshit distribution of pornography charge.
"Bad Reputation"-Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
The definitive performance of the pre-"I Love Rock 'N' Roll" classic, with a young and chunky Joan belting it out for all she was worth, which was a lot.
One of my favorite songs during my third year of college — aka the year when I spent as much time as possible doing bonghits and O.D.ing on untranslated Japanese cartoons — this is a terrific tune that actually features a lyric in which the word "hegemony" is not awkward in the least. You've got to give any song that can accomplish that feat extra points, and former Buzzcock Howard Devoto's vocals are far better than one could hope for in the punk arena of the time.
"Tear It Up"-The Cramps
Coming in at number two on my list of all-time favorite bands, the Cramps are not so much heard as they are experienced, and this performance captures their insane, no-frills psychobilly to great effect. Upon hearing this on the film's soundtrack back in 1981 I became a fan for life, later going on to buy all of their albums and see them live in concert more than any other group (up to the time of this writing, that is). This cover of Johnny Burnette's rockabilly classic must be seen to be believed, and you will stare in mesmerized anticipation as you wonder whether singer Lux Interior's dick will flop out of his way-too-tight pants. Guitarist Poison Ivy, the other mainstay throughout the band's many lineup changes, is also on hand, providing her ultra-sexy trademark disdainful sneer.
Most people think I'm crazy when they find out Devo's my favorite band of all time, but I let those people slide because the only Devo the average listener has heard is stuff like "Whipit" and "Beautiful World," both of which are a lot more airplay/MTV accessible than the real meat of their edgy and once-unique work. This performance of "Uncontrollable Urge" is from just before the Akron spudboys hit it big, and it totally kicks ass. Friends of mine who hate Devo have seen this segment and unanimously agree it's excellent, and even hardcore Devo fans, including Yer Bunche, think this version blows away the one on the band's debut studio album. Thank the gods that this was captured for posterity!
"Nothing Means Nothing Anymore"-The Alley Cats
Working in the same territory as Vince Taylor & His Playboys' fifties classic "Brand New Cadillac" — better known to most rock fans via the Clash's excellent cover of it on "London Calling" — this guitar-driven tune gives off a real sense of foreboding. Too bad these guys didn't last long.
"Cheryl’s Going Home"-John Otway
One of the most anguished performances you'll ever see, this strange fusion of a rock tune and a spoken word/acted piece about a guy arriving too late at the train station to stop his girlfriend from leaving him is just plain great, and you will be riveted from the second Otway vocally explodes with "The thunder CRACKS against the night!"
When I first saw this film and heard the opening lyric of "I believe...in homicide!" I nearly pissed myself while laughing my ass off. The tune rocks hard, but what makes this is the sheer energy emanating both from the band and the audience, and I defy you not to want to sing along.
"Beyond and Back"-X
One of the truly great Californian punk bands, X ruled for a million reasons, but you really have to give it up for their unique front woman, Exene Cervenka, a gal who simply did not give a flying fuck about appeasing audience members who expected women in rock groups to be sexy masturbation fantasies brought to life, or at the very least visually appealing (well, in the band's early days at least). Exene belts this one out with a yowl like a drunken, diseased cat and takes the stage with a hairdo so monumentally fucked-up that you'd swear she'd just boiled her own head. When all factors are weighed, her look comes off as a junkie version of the Wicked Witch of the West gene-spliced with Jayne County, only possessing an all-natural vagina (unlike Jayne).
"Sign of the Cross"-Skafish
The first album by Skafish was one of my favorites during high school for such lyrically biting and painful songs as "Joan Fan Club," "Disgracing the Family Name," "We'll See A Psychiatrist" and the excellent ode to unrequited love and the frustration thereof, "Obsessions of You," but nothing could have prepared me for the full-scale assault of lapsed Catholic absurdity that was "Sign of the Cross." Jim Skafish — my vote for the ugliest rock 'n' roll front man in history — stalks the stage, incense-burner merrily fuming, and exhorts the audience to join him in doing the "brand new dance craze" the Sign of the Cross, in which the dancer stands stiff as a board and holds out his arms in imitation of the crucified Jesus. Blasphemous as a motherfucker and funny as hell, this one's a real showstopper that's guaranteed to piss off the faithful in the audience.
“Two Little Boys”-Splodgenessabounds
A delightfully out of control cover of Rolf Harris' tale of childhood loyalty performed by the geniuses behind "Simon Templar" (a protest of Ian Ogilvy's portrayal of the Saint), "Blown Away Like A Fart In A Thunderstorm," "I've Got Lots Of Famous People Living Under the Floorboards," "Whiffy Smells," and the immortal "Michael Booth's Talking Bum."
There are a couple of quite good reggae numbers by UB40 and Steel Pulse and many more wacko bands, so I beg of you not to miss this ultra-rare screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday, November 29th. I'll post a reminder shortly before then, but mark the date on your calendars immediately!
NOTE: all images respectfully cribbed from the excellent "Official/Unofficial" URGH! fan site.