Film: Urgh! A Music War

The old maxim that one never grows out of the music of their youth floated around in my head while I was revisting the concert film Urgh! A Music War (1982), a compilation of footage that might be described as a faux, proto-Lollapalooza. Well, if this film is any indication, I’ve grown out of the music of my youth, although it was interesting to see what still resonated with me.

I mean, the eighties were kind of a cultural wasteland. TV was mindlessly formulaic, film had started its inexorable slide into LCD blockbuster homogeneity, and music’s synthetic soullessness was growing steadily more cloying. Curation was key, and the internet wasn’t around to help. So, you tended to follow your favorite bands into the trenches to see where they led you. Back then, there were only two bands I could truly call my own: Devo (whose cynical experimentalism had its finger on the toxic pulse of late-stage capitalism long before anyone used that term) and Oingo Boingo (which pioneered its own genre by basically throwing every genre into a blender). I remember following Devo and Boingo to Urgh! A Music War as a teenager, borrowing the records from a friend and taping the more promising tracks onto a cassette. It was weird to see pristine, live performances of those same tracks, minus the tape hiss and recording glitches that marred my old boom box tapes. (Good lord, was I really alive back then?) While my tastes have definitely complexified since then, Devo’s raucous rendition of “Uncontrollable Urge” and Boingo’s frenetic “Ain’t This the Life” remain standout tracks, and I can see why I was drawn to those bands, which still periodically kick up in my rotation.

The rest of the performances are a mixed bag of genres that don’t always play nice together: punk, post-punk, ska, new wave, reggae, and borderline pop. Looking back, one can imagine producers arranged these concerts and filmed them with an open-mindedness toward discovering who might become the new big thing. To draw viewers in, the headliner that opens and closes the film is The Police, who hadn’t quite reached their Synchronicity peak but were still the clear superstars of the lineup. Their performances—especially “Driven to Tears”—are exceptional here, and one can see why their popularity soared. (And Stewart Copeland’s pioneering drum work is just sick here.) There aren’t a lot of breakout pop bands here, although The Go-Go’s (here with “We Got the Beat”) are a notable exception.

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn more to the less conventional music. The new wave scene delivers two deeply weird gems: Wall of Voodoo’s quirky “Back in Flesh” and Pere Ubu’s deranged “Birdies.” The hard-to-classify XTC is on hand with a rollicking rendition of “Respectable Street,” while the seminal post-punk band Gang of Four holds up nicely with “He’d Send in the Army,” displaying showy stage presence and an unpredictable, skronky guitar style that feels innovative for its era. Also, there’s the outrageous Klaus Nomi performing “Total Eclipse,” which is…kind of impossible to describe. If you haven’t seen Klaus Nomi before, he’s worth googling for the sheer, deeply strange spectacle.

Unfortunately, sandwiched amidst these interesting oddities are too many strutting, mediocre punk bands, and a number of half-decent, underwhelming new wave outfits. The reggae groups (UB40 and Steel Pulse) bring much-needed variety, without being particularly fun to watch. On the whole, I’d say roughly seventy percent of the tracks are forgettably dated. Even so, Urgh! A Music War is worth watching for anyone interested in the weird, transitional period of the music it covers. If nothing else, it’s an effective snapshot of a number of artists attempting—with wildly uneven results—to pioneer something unique and new for its time.

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