(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
Released in May 1982, Urgh! A Music War is one of the most salient artifacts from the musical movement that would later be dubbed “new wave.” Clocking in at just over two hours and featuring over thirty live performances, the anthological concert film showcases artists in their prime as well as their infancy. Except for a few brief interludes, the film doesn’t leave the sweaty and smoke-filled venues it inhabits. There’s no peak behind the curtains into the candid exploits of the bands, no cutaways to talking head journalists editorializing, no voice-over narration providing context. It’s pure performance without comment or critique, capturing the ferocity of a time when punk, reggae, pop, and rock were simmering in the same musical pot, eventually boiling over to produce some of the most esoteric and commercially viable music of the 1980s.
Some of the featured artists would go on to illustrious careers, but the film finds most of them on the brink of notoriety, still a few months or years away from eminent albums and MTV fame. Although The Police and Gary Numan are shown amid their success, Urgh! A Music War is largely composed of bands on the precipice of their influence such as Oingo Boingo and Echo & The Bunnymen. There’s Wall Of Voodoo pre-“Mexican Radio” and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts pre-“I Love Rock ’n Roll.” There’s Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark blazing through “Enola Gay,” the latest single from their recently released 1980 album Organisation. Steam rises off XTC (literally) during an adrenaline-fueled rendition of “Respectable Street,” also released in 1980. The Cramps smolder in front of a raucous Los Angeles crowd during a perfectly sleazy performance of “Tear It Up.” Moments later, UB40 grooves out to “Madame Medusa” in a packed amphitheater in Fréjus, France. There are performances from art-rock acts that would eventually break into the mainstream such as Devo, as well as others who would fade into obscurity like Invisible Sex.
Urgh! makes no mention of any kind of populism regarding the acts it features, eliciting the feeling that they’re all loose threads from the same wild piece of fabric, yet to be sewn into the cultural zeitgeist. And in many ways, at the time the film was shot, this was true. There’s a charged electricity throughout that reflects the excitement of the time; the potential that all of these bands had circa 1980. It’s only in retrospect that we can trace their trajectories. We now know the meteoric rise The Go Go’s would have the following year after the release of their 1981 debut album Beauty And The Beat while other budding L.A. bands such as The Alley Cats would struggle to break out of the regional scene.
It’s a beautifully preserved time capsule of a very specific moment when wildly different artists such as Klaus Nomi and Jools Holland could be featured alongside each other; before anyone knew which bands would go on to become household names and which would become brief footnotes. The “why” and “how” this happened is left to the viewer to explore, as Urgh! A Music War only concerns itself with the “who,” “where,” and “when.” The resulting “what” is a sonic and visual assault from one of the most colorful points in music history, arguably one of the most underrated concert films ever made. | e hehr