Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Urgh! A Music War

Urgh! A Music War is a British film released in 1982 featuring performances by punk rock, New Wave, and post-punk acts, filmed in 1980. Among the artists featured in the movie are Magazine, The Go-Go's, The Fleshtones, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, XTC, Devo, The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi, Wall of Voodoo, Pere Ubu, Steel Pulse, Surf Punks, 999, UB40, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Police. These were many of the most popular groups on the New Wave scene; in keeping with the spirit of the scene, the film also features several less famous acts, and one completely obscure group, Invisible Sex, in what appears to be their single public outing.

Urgh! A Music War
consists of a series of performances, without narration or explanatory text. All performances are live, recorded around 1980, mainly in England and the USA. Clips were also taken from a concert in Fréjus, Var, France with The Police, XTC, Skafish and UB40 among others.

To coincide with the film, A&M Records released a double-album soundtrack. The selection of songs was almost the same as the film, but there were a few minor changes and several acts featured in the film did not make it to the album (John Cooper Clarke, Chelsea, Surf Punks, Invisible Sex, Splodgenessabounds).

Urgh! A Music War was briefly released to theatres by Filmways Pictures, but acquired a cult following in the United States in the 1980s due to its frequent showings on USA Network. It aired on VH1 Classic on October 30, 2006 as part of its Rock and Roll Picture series. The film has been released on videocassette, LaserDisc, and as of the present time, on DVD.

The film rights are owned by both its original producer, Miles Copeland (founder of IRS Records), and Warner Bros. Pictures (successor-in-interest to production company Lorimar). However the rights to distribute the film on electronic media have been, until recently, mired in red tape. A popular theory was that the rights were "lost" as a result of the collapse of the failed CED or SelectaVision videodisc format — to promote the adoption of the format, RCA reportedly purchased exclusive rights to Urgh! such that it could not appear on any other media without re-negotiation. When Thomson Electronics acquired RCA, SelectaVision was a dead issue for them.

The more likely scenario is that much like other films from the 1970s and 1980s, the original contracts covering the artists and songs in the film only covered existing media, and that all those details would have to be renegotiated for any new media such as CDs, DVDs, or mp3 downloading. Naturally, with the large number of labels and publishers controlling the material, combined with the increased value of the music, to reclear the performances would be extremely cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. It is rumored that three songs from each band were filmed and saved during the editing process and that Copeland has these in storage. There is the potential for a six-hour special edition, possibly containing over 100 songs, should Copeland and Warner Bros. decide to release it later.

Exhibition rights were retained by Copeland, and Urgh! has been shown on TV numerous times, including recent airings on VH1 and various cable-only channels. As the film prints aged and songs became damaged, airings were often edited to remove damaged songs. In some cases, additional material not filmed for the movie was added to fill space. In particular, Night Flight aired a heavily augmented version of the movie spread out over an entire night on several occasions. This included additional material by Wall of Voodoo, The Cramps and Alleycats that were not filmed for the movie, as well as other bands that were popular at the time. Notably missing from almost all recent broadcasts is the Gary Numan song "Down in the Park." Because Numan once again owns the rights to this footage, it is speculated that he has refused the broadcast rights to the clip.

Other portions of Urgh! appear elsewhere in film and video: The Klaus Nomi clip "Total Eclipse" appears in the 2004 documentary The Nomi Song, and details of its filming are discussed. The 1982 documentary The Police: Around The World was also filmed by Derek Burbidge and features footage used in Urgh! as well as other footage filmed at the same concert.

In addition to recent cable showings, some of the remaining intact prints of the movie have toured the USA in recent years (one tour sponsored by the humor periodical The Onion), and video showings in clubs and film houses have sparked a resurgence of interest in the film, which resulted in a DVD release by Warner Bros. as part of its "Warner Archive" series of DVD issues of their lesser-known titles from the WB vaults. It is now available via the WB web site.

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