>> Friday, August 28, 2009

So I just watched URGH! A music war and I'm feeling a little giddy from it. I've seen maybe half of it over the past nearly-thirty years, and only in snips and bits. This was the first time I'd seen it in its entirety straight through, and there were some parts (like Gary Numan's original version of "Down In The Park," a song I mainly know through a phenomenal Foo Fighters cover) I'd never seen at all.

URGH! is, if you're a certain age, a classic. The gist is that Miles Copeland, record label founder (I.R.S.) and band manager was trying to promote some acts on his label and that he represented, including an up-and-coming band his kid brother had started up that he managed (but was actually signed to A&M, probably in part to avoid conflicts of interest), and so he helped put together a concert festival and film featuring some of the hottest rising bands in postpunk and new wave.

The funny thing about the nepotism, as some of you may already know, is that kid brother Stewart's band, which he played drums for, was called The Police and featured a jazz-bass-playing, reggae-singing schoolteacher named Gordon "Sting" Sumner and a prog-guitarist named Andy Summers who'd previously done mostly session work for people like, oh, you know, the late Jimi Hendrix and others. The other funny thing is that while The Police were fairly big in 1981, the year the movie was made, and prominently bookend the start and finish of the movie they arguably weren't as big at the time as some of the other acts featured, like Devo or Gary Numan despite already having several hits under their belt at that point. And adding salt to that punchline is the fact that URGH!'s relative "nobodies" include The Go-Gos, Oingo Boingo, Joan Jett (not wholly unknown from her previous life as a Runaway, but not quite established as a solo act), XTC, The Fleshtones, OMD, Jools Holland, Pere Ubu and Echo And The Bunnymen. Yeah. That's the kind of movie it is.

So people have been waiting for years for this movie to come out on DVD, and it finally has, sort of. It's still waiting for the definitive DVD treatment, although one imagines that licensing issues for some of these acts are so thorny at this point that it may just be impossible to remaster the soundtrack or get some of the players to agree to a reissue. Some of the acts in URGH! actually have fallen off the Earth, others wound up embroiled in ugly litigation with their labels and/or management, still others (I'm looking at you, Gary Numan) are simply notoriously finnicky about agreeing to let their back catalog be licensed for anything. It's actually a surprise that the movie's seen any kind of reissue at all.

What's out now is the Warner Archives version. Warner Archives is kind of the anti-Criterion but even more awesome for it. Basically, Warner is sitting on a ton of films that people want to own on DVD but that don't merit a full-blown DVD reissue complete with remastering, bonus features and ad campaign. Some of the movies are cult classics, some have various legal strings that hamper distribution; anyway, what Warner is doing is they're making a lot of these movies available for direct purchase via the internet. They're not remastered, they're simply ripped from whatever best print Warner has in storage, they don't have bonus features or even chapter divisions (there are chapter tags every ten minutes, however, to expedite fast-forwarding), they're burned in small lots as opposed to manufactured in bulk (the DVDs have the distinctive purplish sheen of a DVD-R, though the title side is screen-printed), even the boxes are generic.

I don't know how URGH! would fare on a boss sound and video system. I suspect that the quality is equivalent to a brand-new VHS copy, maybe a little better, or maybe even a laserdisc version. For my system--a slowly-dying CRT and a sound system that was fairly good fifteen years ago--it's excellent, or at least as good as it ought to be cranked up; there are a few performances where the sound mix isn't great, but wasn't great on the original recording (and you'd have to wonder how faithful a digital remaster would actually be, since the saturation issues are probably inherent to the original audio recorded at the venue--i.e. there's not actually anything to remaster because the clipping is on the original analog tape). But this isn't a Pink Floyd show, y'know? Quite the opposite. The Cramps, for instance, ought to sound a little frayed, it's part of their native charm.

Anyway, I feel I had to go into the technical limitations as a caveat for anyone who might consider buying this DVD, by which I mean anybody who likes punk and new wave and early eighties music. I'm happy to say URGH! kicks as much ass as it did thirty (ouch!) years ago, and it's a lot of ass. It really is a blast, an awesome, awesome time capsule of some really interesting and exciting stuff. I'm still grinning like a lunatic over what I just saw and heard.

Playing us out: it was hard to pick one, and the one I picked (Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation") isn't embeddable (but you can watch it here), so here's Devo, with "Uncontrollable Urge"--


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