10 classic ’80s underground moments from the movie ‘Urgh! A Music War’
The 1981 concert film captured the early days of such iconic bands as the Police, the Cramps, Dead Kennedys and many more, like the loudest photo album you never heard.September 4, 2020
In the ’80s, there were plenty of great recordings that came out of the nascent new-wave and punk scenes. But one of the single greatest documents of the period was actually a movie. Urgh! A Music War was the 1981 concert film that featured 36 bands from the U.S. and U.K. playing live. The film was directed by Derek Burbidge and produced by Michael White, with Miles Copeland III on as a creative consultant. He managed the Police (his brother is drummer Stewart Copeland), arguably the biggest new-wave band at the time.
The thing that made Urgh! so compelling to music audiences was its breadth. It could have easily been hijacked by major labels looking to market forgettable acts. However, the movie works because its foresight was 20/20. For every big name (The Police, Joan Jett, the Go-Go’s, Gary Numan), there were five relatively unknown (at the time) acts. (Like a pre-“Whip It” Devo.) Many of the performances in the film go down in history as some of the participating bands’ best documents.
Here are 10 performances from the original film that continue to raise eyebrows nearly four decades later. While the whole concept of the film is untouchable, it does conjure some questions. Urgh! would have made a great franchise, with intermittent sequels documenting the music and culture in succeeding years. Whether this is a trip down memory lane or a portal you’re just discovering, you’ll be glad you’re taking this trip.
The Police – “Driven To Tears”
Urgh! is bookended by performances from the Police, one of the premiere new-wave bands. As players, Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland were pretty untouchable at a time when shambolic performances and eccentricity were hallmarks of the genres. “Driven To Tears” appears on their third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, but this live version simply shoots sparks by comparison.
Chelsea – “I’m On Fire”
Chelsea are historically known as the band whose members quit to form Generation X, leaving frontman Gene October to reboot it. “I’m On Fire” originally appears on their 1979 self-titled debut LP. But if you really want to feel October’s fire-breathing snarl, adjust the volume settings on your device. Sadly, Chelsea don’t appear on the official Urgh! soundtrack album. Which goes to show that nothing can ever really be perfect.
Oingo Boingo – “Ain’t This The Life”
Most listeners know Danny Elfman as the composer responsible for the scores of some of their favorite movies. (Tim Burton fans, represent!) But Elfman was also the founder of Oingo Boingo, one of L.A.’s acclaimed new-wave bands. “Ain’t This The Life” finds Elfman in hyper-ska mode with a rhythm section that’s tighter than a wealthy relative and a similarly punchy horn section. The band released a cache of stunning records before disbanding in 1995.
Klaus Nomi – “Total Eclipse”
Rock enthusiasts will remember Klaus Nomi as one of the space-alien backing vocalists for David Bowie when he appeared on SNL in 1979. But Nomi made a name for himself in NYC with his sartorial flair and stunning vocal range. On this performance of “Total Eclipse,” Nomi puts it all out there, solidifying his status as an unforgettable figure in the history of new wave. His records were only available as imports in America (despite his NYC mailing address), but his work is unbelievable. Next time you see Coheed And Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez, ask him to show you his Nomi tribute tattoo.
The Go-Go’s – “We Got The Beat”
The Go-Go’s were queens of the L.A. new-wave scene (and beyond) across 10 years and three albums. Primarily known for their first mega-hit “Our Lips Are Sealed,” the all-woman band had their punk bona fides in order, having their first single “We Got The Beat” issued by U.K. label Stiff Records in 1980. Here the quintet throw it down like the best pop-punk slumber party you weren’t around to get an invite to.
Dead Kennedys – “Bleed For Me”
Like Chelsea, Dead Kennedys don’t appear on the Urgh! soundtrack, either. But it’s not a big deal. Why? Because this is the version of “Bleed For Me” that you have to see to feel it. From the paranoid warnings frontman Jello Biafra intones to East Bay Ray’s slicing guitar work, this performance is a high-water mark not only for the DKs but for punk-rock history. And what’s that pile of broken stuff onstage that Biafra keeps trying to avoid?
The Cramps – “Tear It Up”
Here’s another 15-on-a-10-scale performance that gives Urgh! its continued resonance. Akron, Ohio born, NYC-bred psychobilly icons the Cramps turn in the masterpiece of the underground. This performance succinctly summarizes the band’s legend. It’s all here, from frontman Lux Interior channeling every bad dream you ever had to guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach’s hate-you sneer. And watch your face when Nick Knox’s cymbal comes flying at you. R.I.P., Lux and Nick.
Gang Of Four – “He’d Send In The Army”
The legend goes that there was plenty of amphetamine sulfate going around the Gang Of Four’s dressing room on this particular night. Andy Gill’s guitarist-interruptus fakeouts are truly something to behold, adding more tension to the proceedings. Seeing this original lineup of Gill, vocalist Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham in action is mesmerizing. Go4’s performance is both jarring and captivating, conveying the feeling that you’re really on the ground floor of a cultural movement. We miss you, Andy Gill.
Gary Numan – “Down In The Park”
Gary Numan (and Devo) made synthesizers cool in a world that was all about guitars. Here, director Burbidge chose to avoid using Numan’s mega-hit “Cars” and instead placed footage of the dark “Down In The Park.” What’s really stunning is the stage construction of buildings made of light, which gives the song an even more sinister feel. Fun fact: In some cities, Numan was prohibited from driving that pictured vehicle onstage. Union regulations demanded a crew member had to steer it, so Numan sat in the worker’s lap, who was covered so no one could see him.
Alley Cats – “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore”
The Alleycats turned in another fierce punk-rock performance in Urgh! with their first-ever single, “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore” (issued by Dangerhouse). The L.A. trio of Randy Stodola, Dianne Chai and John McCarthy were a stripped-down unit who abided by punk’s harder-faster-louder rules but actually had great songs instead of mindless flailing. Sadly, the Alleycats never achieved the fame of forward-thinking bands such as X (who were also featured in the film). But anyone discovering Urgh! for the first time will definitely be dredging Spotify for more music about these underrated punks. Because when you think about it, discovery was Burbidge, White and Copeland’s motives for all the bands featured. Having said that: Can we start a GoFundMe to get Urgh! 2025 made?
Check out more tracks from the movie here.