Music We Love.

URGH! A Music War

William: I saw Urgh! in the 1980s, and it made a deep influence on my tastes and understanding of the punk/new wave scene.

After twenty (yikes) years, I found a used copy online, paid the big bucks, and we watched it. (The movie was sold to Sony for a laserdisc presentation and has apparently been sunk, never to be released on DVD.)

Seeing this film probably around 1986—I don’t remember the circumstances—influenced the course of my musical taste, and began my infatuation with Wall of Voodoo and Steel Pulse.

It’s clear that Urgh! offers live performances of bands now considered iconic to the punk/new wave movement (omitted are the New York set—no Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, Ramones). What is less obvious is that the movie is filled with bands that did not survive history, and is a smorgasbord of unknowns. Consider that in the second half of the 1970s, rock had a resurrection of sorts, a youthful rebirth of adrenaline that could not be properly managed or suppressed by the then-bloated rock industry. There was a proliferation of sharp exciting bands—young, brash, energetic, amateurish—and I would suppose that the primary channel for them to reach their audience was through performance. There would have been a handful of hipper radio shows and record stores, but there was no MTV, little in the way of television exposure beyond odd appearances on Saturday Night Live and such shows. Certainly no Internet, and self-publishing music was not as easy. So Urgh! captures not only a vital moment in rock, but captures it in its purest form--onstage in 1980.

It’s utterly fucking mesmerizing. From the willfully puerile clowning of the Surf Punks to the polish of the Police, with a rare glimpse of XTC shortly before Andy Partridge’s nervous breakdown that made the band stop touring forever. A young and eerily confident Stan Ridgeway; the solipsistic delusional conniptions of Pere Ubu; the auto-mechanic-esque badassedness of Joan Jett; the sweaty seizures of Gang of Four and the Cramps; the unpretentious Dylanness of John Cooper Clarke; the sinister nerdiness of the Dead Kennedys; the striking contrast between Gary Numan’s serious, brooding stage presence and the fact that he was driving around the stage in a toy car; and, oh, the musical, political, and sartorial splendor of Steel Pulse. But what fills out the scene are those we may never otherwise of heard of, much less heard, much less seen: Invisible Sex, Skafish, Alley Cats...

This is an unbelievable film. Put it beside Stop Making Sense. Compare the cool polish and professionalism of that concert film to the deranged sweaty exuberance of Urgh!.

What did you think, Cristy?

Cristy: Urgh! was a huge treat. I’d never heard of it. At first I was expecting a lot of annoying soundbites and backstage shenanigans, but the film was pure music.

W: A lot of those bands didn’t make it. Like Athletico Spizz 80.

C: The cool thing about Urgh! was that I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of bands I wasn’t necessarily fond of.

W: We try to avoid superlatives in Rock Geek Chic, but sometimes I wonder if that moment in the late ’70s was the most explosive revolution in rock. Do you ever think in those terms, or did the movie change your impression of that time period?

C: Absolutely. I always thought the late 1970s was the total armpit of rock: Saturday Night Fever, Some Girls, The Long Run. I don’t know if I’d call the late ’70s the most explosive revolution in rock (I could definitely argue for the early 1960s British Invasion or 1980s hip-hop), but this film certainly opened my eyes to punk’s relevance, and most importantly, women’s relevance to rock. I thought that was amazing. You had that in the ’60s with groups like the Supremes and Shangri-Las, but they were “girl groups.” Then you had charismatic frontwomen like Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, of course. But the women in Urgh! were different. They were tougher. They didn’t have to prove they were sexy. And that I think is awesome. The film helped me appreciate that much more.

W: Because there were so many women in the bands and they weren’t cheesecake?

C: Yes. And they weren’t singing just about their sexuality, they weren’t flaunting their scantily clad bodies, they didn’t look like porn stars. That’s pretty much par for the course for today’s female performers, and that sucks. The women on Urgh! were just playing music and rocking hard. It was very eye-opening. I think that if a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl saw Urgh!, she wouldn’t believe that female performers were like that!

W: When I think of the women of that moment in music, I think of Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Weymouth, Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex. Probably the closest thing to cheesecake would be Debbie Harry from Blondie, and she’s still way more sophistcated than your Britneys. It’s mostly the name of her band that seems to draw attention to her beauty, not the essence of the songs. “Rapture,” for example, is just weird and not cute or sexual in the least. I believe “Call Me” was written for the movie American Gigolo, so that doesn’t count—it’s not about Debbie Harry.

C: It’s not just the singers, either. Even the women who play guitar or piano today, it seems like they’re all in half-slips writhing all over the stage moaning about sex.

Urgh! didn’t have that. It had women like Belinda Carlisle. She’s no stick, but she’s cool and beautiful--and she rocks. (At least, before she sold out and posed for Playboy!) The X-Ray Spex weren’t in the movie, but I think of women like Poly Styrene, who had Orphan Annie curly corkscrew hair and braces. You’d never see that now, ever. You’d see a bleach-blonde chick with hair extensions, anorexic body, and implants. Oh, and maybe a skull-and-crossbones patch on her bikini bottoms to show that she’s “punk.” Now Joan Jett--she was so androgynous! She didn’t have to show cleavage to be hot. She’s the furthest thing from a prude, but she wore a long-sleeved black blouse and black jeans. Or Toyah Wilcox, who sang like a banshee and had short, spiky red hair. These women weren’t cookie-cutter beautiful but they were amazing to watch.

W: That’s really encouraging to hear. I think of that period as being one in which a music industry that had become bloated and profitable to a point where the spark had gone out of it. There were still some interesting things hapening in the first half of the ’70s with glam and art rock, notably David Bowie and King Crimson, but I don’t think of it as being a period of innovation or independent music. I think of Boston, arena bands, supergroups, 20-minute guitar solos, Led Zeppelin (which was just a record company creation playing music plagiarized directly from American blues). But rock and roll could not be held down--so what we saw with punk and new wave was basically the spirit of rock reincarnating itself through this tidal wave of unkempt amateurs.

C: Aesthetically, one of the things I notice about this music is that a lot of it has the same sound--it’s all kind of out of tune. It’s not very melodic. And the rhythm guitar is very staccato, like the Gang of Four.

URGH! A Music War.

The Cramps are unusual.

W: I wonder how much of that is the prevailing punk style and how much is the fact that they were learning to write songs onstage. That’s how Andy Partridge described that period of hs career. Some of it was very melodic, like Gary Numan and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All this took place, of course, just before the dawn of MTV, which would become a new-wave-managing force (Michael Azerrad, in Our Band Could Be Your Life, suggests that new wave was just punk on a corporate leash). As Andy Summers puts it in his autobiography, with the advent of MTV, music suddenly became visual and not aural—so that meant that appearance was a huge deal. That would affect men and women, perhaps mostly women. So we see in the punk and new wave movement in Urgh! people who are not only amateur musicians, but people who have not had professional wardrobe and makeup artists polish them up for their record deal.

C: Yeah. There’s no way to get back to that.

W: Perhaps not. Rock and roll will continue to be a burning spirit independent of any incarnation it might have, will continue to erupt through the cracks—perhaps “grunge” is a more recent example of that—but I don’t know if rock will ever be purely aural again, or if performance can dominate images.

C: I just hope that the cycle brings back original, innovative, dynamic women back. I think rock took a horrible, huge step backwards. In the early ’90s and even in the late ’80s I think that there was another explosion of really cool girls like Sleater-Kinney, Juliana Hatfield, Babes in Toyland, and even Hole (before Courntey Love got completely Botoxed out)--girls who didn’t look alike and celebrated their uniqueness and didn’t sing unoriginal techno-breathy songs about sex. Now it seems like that’s all you hear. I think that there was a burst of it in the early ’90s. Luckily that’s when I was an adolescent, and their music was wonderful to grow up with.

W: You have me thinking about Madonna, who must have come on the scene shortly after Urgh! (1981). Her arrival practically coincided with MTV. She represents some opposite pole from Joan Jett because she’s hypersuperduper sexualized in a way that’s really professional and self-managed. I tend to think of (and people will hate me for this) Ani Difranco in the same way. So much of her music and image seems to be about her sexuality and womanhood. I don’t get a sense of Joan Jett or Patti Smith being all about womanhood so then we have the female pop star who’s very sold as a entire commodity, not just a musician, but who also seems to be pulling the strings on that in a very conscious way.

C: Exploiting it?

W: Yeah. Putting herself out there as the product, the sexual product who happens to produce music almost as a jingle to sell herself. Ani started out, as far as I could tell, as an underground alternative folksinger with a huge lesbian fanbase. Then she got married and took some flak from her fans and worked it to her advantage. She went from being an oppressed sexual minority to an oppressed heterosexual whose “sexual freedom” was being challenged. Whatever music she was making was drowned out by all that. Image was louder than music. I don’t see any of that as different from Madonna’s calculated shenanigans and tireless Bowie-like constant reinvention of her image. But Joan Jett, even Joni Mitchell, just put out music. So let’s just hope that the wheels keep turning.

C: Yeah. We need another Poly Styrene. If girls had a Poly Styrene today I think the world would be so much better.

W: There may be one out there. Hope we find out about it.

listen to our radio show ROCK GEEK FM and talk back at