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Jun
14

Repost: Urgh A Music War – The Best Concert Movie You’ve Never Seen

There’s a little problem with concert movies: they’re never as much fun as actually being there. Even if the performance is top notch or there’s something notable about the gig, you’re losing on the actual experience. It’s different than live albums since a film is a more active experience: you’re watching and listening, but there’s always a little remove from the actual performance.

So, I’ve never been very impressed with concert movies. Frank Zappa’s Baby Snakes? Watched it maybe twice all the way through. Ziggy Stardust? Not even twice. And I can’t even work up the interest to watch one of those Grateful Dead View From the Vault DVDs, let alone the video of them playing at the pyramids.

But there’s one concert movie I’m a big fan of. I watch it every once in a while and certain clips I’ll watch a few times a week. It’s Urgh! A Music War and it’s a damn shame more people don’t know about it.

Released in 1982 but was mostly shot two years earlier, Urgh is set apart from the average concert movie in how it doesn’t track an entire show, or even one band, but sets out to document a scene: what we’d very loosely call punk, post-punk or new wave now. It jumps around between bands, cities and countries without any narration or tying elements. It just goes from band to band to band, only repeating a handful of acts. This frees it to show each act at their best. And it’s packed with great bands, including some of the most famous of their time.

The movie’s heavy on The Police, who hadn’t splintered apart yet, giving them three songs (granted, Miles Copeland – brother of Police drummer Stuart Copeland – produced the movie). Still, it’s a nice look at how good a band they actually were before Sting started taking himself a little too seriously and they all stopped talking. Their performance of Driven to Tears is more fun than the album version and Roxanne is them firing on all cylinders: they rip through it, with a frenzied crowd shouting along, and start stretching it out with instrumental sections and Sting strings the crowd along in a call and response section before pounding into the song proper again. They’re a band whose hits are a little overplayed, but stuff like this shows they were a formidable live act, too.

Joan Jett’s performance of Bad Reputation is another highlight: she rocks out here harder than I’ve ever seen her, just ripping through the song, yelling how she doesn’t give a damn about her reputation. This would’ve been recorded at a tough time for Jett: the Blackhearts were her new backing band and had played England and the States, but hadn’t signed a deal. According to lore, they sold self-pressed copies of their first album out of the back of her car. A little later, Jett signed with a label and scored a hit with a cover of I Love Rock and Roll. This earlier, more fiery performance is a good look at how hard Jett could (and still can) rock.

One of the pleasures of Urgh is how it catches a lot of bands who never caught on or established themselves in the lore of alt-rock: John Otway, 999 (who kill it on Homicide!) or Athletico Spizz 80. Or take The Au Pairs, whose spiky, jangly Come Again is another standout performance. They were one of the great twin-guitar bands of their day (just listen to the way Lesley Woods and Paul Foad trade riff and vocals), but don’t sleep on how smart their songwriting was, too. They were a short-lived band, breaking up in 1983, and their music can get hard to track down these days: it only looks like a couple of their albums are in print now and their best album – 1981′s Playing With A Different Sex – is going for $80 on Amazon.

Another band that never quite made is Los Angeles’ Alley Cats, whose performance of Nothing Means Nothing Anymore is maybe my favourite in the movie. They’re a trio who cop pretty heavily from 50s rock – the guitar line is right out of rockabilly – but are crazily energetic. I love the guitar playing by Randy Stodola, completely raw and nearly out of control, and the interplay between him and Dianne Chai is top-notch, too. It’s easily them at their peak: their studio recordings don’t have the same intensity, sounding both a little forced and polished in my opinion. Maybe they were one of those bands you had to see back in the day. Either way, they’re a band best remembered on Urgh!

If that’s my favourite performance, The Cramps take on Tear It Up probably take the prize for most memorable. Lux Interior, clad only in an ill-fitting pair of leather pants, goes absolutely nuts on stage, jumping around, shoving the microphone in his house and generally showing why there hasn’t been many that compare to him (Indeed, there’s some outtakes from this show where Lux rolls around on stage and goes bananas; he was a fearless guy at the mic). But don’t forget the rest of the band, especially guitarists Poison Ivy and Julien Grindsnatch (I think?), who match Lux as he veers between quiet and screaming. This is absolutely a band at it’s full power.

There’s a few duds among these performances, though. A band called Invisible Sex, who I’m not even sure ever recorded anything else, have a DEVO-esque number called Valium that never really gets off the ground. The long-gone Skafish shows up to do Sign of the Cross, which reminds me a little of the Mothers of Invention, but doesn’t really rank among the best stuff here.

It’s also a good visual record for bands with a strong visual element to their live performances. Gary Numan shows up in a cloud of fog in a little car he drives around a stage during Down At the Park; DEVO’s Uncontrollable Urge has them dancing around in sync in front of a huge wall of flashing lights. Most notably, it has the late Klaus Nomi in a fantastic performance of Total Eclipse, where his voice goes all over the place and his band goes nuts (there’s a great guitar part) .Unlike anyone else here, Nomi was full on performer: dressed in an angular plastic tuxedo, hair spiked up and a backing crew that includes dancers, he’s the artist who most benefits from actually seeing him preform, not just listening. It’s a great way to remember the singularly-talented Nomi, who died from AIDS in 1983.

Urgh! is a treasure chest of music from the late 70s and early 80s, with every band playing their best number. It’s got everything from Oingo Boingo to The Dead Kennedys (and man does Jello Biafra look young there) to Steel Pulse, which gives it a pretty good cross section of what was musically happening at the time. And while it works as a good sampler, it’s also an exciting watch: even the dud tracks here are among the best songs those bands recorded.

It can be a hard one to track down: Warner Archives sells DVDs for it on demand, but they only ship to the US. I’ve seen the occasional second-hand copy around, though, and most of the clips can be found online. It’s worth looking around for: it’s the best concert movie you’ve never seen.

 

Originally published, Jan 15, 2013

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