Urgh! A Music War re-released – sort of…
Author’s note: I have not received any accounting or payment from Warner Brothers since their re-release of Urgh! in August, 2009. This note was added on March 10, 2018.
Once again, the strange and twisted saga of the film Urgh! A Music War logs another installment in its nearly 30 year history, as Warner Brothers films has released it as a made for order DVDR from their website on August 4, 2009.
I’m sure that many of you will be excited to finally see this legendary live concert film re-released, but from the point of view of someone who has been in the film, I have a more complex perspective about all of this. Even though it’s Warner Brothers releasing the film as opposed to bootleggers, it may not be a fully legal release to begin with.
There are at least two factors that come into play: First, the original contracts with all of the artists allowed Urgh! to be released in the physical formats that existed at that time. As inept as this may sound, it is questionable that all of the original contracts allowed for the film to be released in any all formats available now and those that would be created in the future.
Therefore, new contracts would probably need to be renegotiated for a fully legal re-release. With Klaus Nomi and Lux Interior of The Cramps already passed on and 33 total acts in the film, getting everyone to sign off would be quite problematic for sure. For me, I would have no problem signing off, as I would be elated to see things done hopefully correctly.
In addition, all of the intellectual property/copyright owners of the film (besides Warner Brothers) include at least Michael White, Derek Burbidge, and Miles Copeland. They, presumably, would all need to agree to this release as well. So to make sure what was really going on with all of this, I decided to call Miles Copeland on Friday, August 7, 2009. His office told me that they had not heard anything at all about Urgh! being released by Warner Brothers.
As of this writing, I have not been contacted by Warner Brothers or anyone else involved in the project either. I would be willing to bet that Warner Brother’s lawyers simply advised the company to just put it out and hey, if they get sued, so what. What is the likelihood that most of the artists in the film have the deep pockets needed or the willingness to challenge a corporation such as Warner Brothers in court?
On top of the legal issues brewing here is the fact that Warner Brothers indicated right on their website that they have not remastered the film, or done anything to insure it being of the highest quality possible. They stated that all they did was take the best tape copy they had which will be dubbed onto each DVDR order that comes through. So they spend no money and can perhaps make a lot of money without paying any out. How clever and corporate!
This film may not mean anything to them, but because of how big they are, I would expect more from a major film company such as Warner Brothers regarding a release of Urgh!: Remastering the footage, and remixing the audio into 5.1 surround sound would be great.
The original release of Urgh! A Music War only featured one song by each artist, with the exception being The Police, who appeared at the beginning and at the end of the film.
However, three songs were reportedly filmed by each artist and hopefully, the inclusion of all three numbers would help to offer a richer package. Also, wouldn’t it be great to interview everyone who was involved in the project to put the film in perspective? Now that could make a worthwhile release on DVD — not DVDR.
With this new less than stellar release, it underscores the many problems that have plagued Urgh! for decades. The origins of the project date back to around 1980, when various cutting edge acts were filmed performing live in several locations throughout the world, including London, France, New York, and various parts of California.
My band was filmed in Frejus, France on August 28, 1980 in an ancient Christian Coliseum in front of 20,000 people. For us, it was perfect: The first blatantly sacrilegious rock song ever written being performed in an ancient Christian coliseum and in gorgeous sunlight which made our segment look like a Catholic Holy Card! We couldn’t have been luckier.
At the time, Skafish was on tour with such artists as the Police, XTC, UB-40, English Beat, Squeeze, and U2 and everything seemed possible in that moment. When the film was theatrically released in 1981, Skafish appeared twice in the original edit: performing Sign of the Cross, and appearing in the film’s finale on the song So Lonely with the Police, members of XTC, UB-40 and Jools Holland. When it was first released theatrically in 1981, the film clocked in at 124 minutes. Also, the soundtrack double LP was released on A&M Records – and for just a few years, everything regarding Urgh! seemed good.
However, the film was only in release for a short time and after it went out of circulation, bootleggers took it upon themselves to blatantly and aggressively pirate copies, making up to hundreds of dollars of profit per copy. They even posted erroneous information all over the internet to justify their thievery that because Urgh! had fallen into the public domain, it was ok for them to do this, which is absolutely not true.
Then, they attacked me for trying to stop some of them, as if I was the ogre of Urgh! simply because I didn’t want them ripping off the artists who made this film what it is. These greedy parasites claimed to be so about punk (like “Hey man, this film is for the people so let’s get it out there for everyone”). However, at $80.00 per DVDR sold plus S&H, they were so about profit – not about punk. One of them even tried to cut me in on the profits if I would just go along with the scam, which of course, I didn’t consider.
Yet another icky twist occurred in recent years when the film was censored and cut down to 98 minutes when being shown at certain times on VH1 and The Sundance Channel. The Cramps number Tear It Up, and the Skafish number Sign of the Cross, both considered too controversial for certain television networks, were sometimes edited out. Being left out of the film that I helped to champion was of course, a very hard pill to swallow.
So when I received an email on August 6, 2009 from someone who wanted to let me know that Warner Brothers had just released Urgh! on their website, I certainly had lots of mixed emotions. If I wasn’t in this current release, that hurts because of being left out; and if I was in it, then there’s all of these questionable legal issues. It’s not about money for me at all; it’s about the principle of things simply being fair for all concerned.
Still, out of curiosity, I wanted to see if The Cramps, Skafish, and everyone else from before was in the film, so I purchased my own copy. At almost $27.00 including S&H, I got it in the mail a couple of days ago on Thursday, 8-13-09. When I opened the package, the cover of the DVDR box has some silly, random picture I’ve never seen before of a punk, club, new wave looking kid and the package has nothing but a DVDR in it. On the back cover is a short, meaningless written blurb with basic credits, so the package is unimpressive, to say the least.
When I put in the DVDR, the only menu features are the original trailer and the film. Each performance is not a separate scene, but instead, one has to select the scenes in 10 minute intervals, so finding your favorite act is not that easy to do.
So as I began watching the film, it was more like watching an old home movie for me: “Klaus is in,” I fondly noted. When Miles Copeland stayed at my tiny apartment in the spring of 1983, he told me that Klaus Nomi had died of AIDS – I barely knew what AIDS was back then.
“Even Gary Numan is in. I thought I heard that he didn’t want to be in the movie anymore,” I recalled.
I said, “Oh! There’s Lux – The Cramps are in it! Good for Lux. I remember performing with the Cramps at CBGB’s in 1977!”
“It’s Sign of the Cross — My nose, it looks so huge! It’s all over the screen — I love it – Larry’s drumming is so phenomenal and Barbie’s having her religious seizure — Go Barbie!” I cheered.
“There’s Sting and me on So Lonely – I actually threw fruit into the audience – I didn’t remember that…. Oh my God, Sting is smiling and he seems so much happier then!” I noted.
So it seems that all of the original acts, including The Cramps and Skafish are in this release. The picture quality is good (although I did watch it on an HDTV) and the sound seemed adequate.
However, in all of my momentary excitement, I knew that the mixed emotions were bound to creep up on me pretty soon, so I just went on about my day and tried to live in the moment. After all, it’s almost 29 years to the day that I was first filmed for Urgh! and what has happened since regarding this film has not always been pleasant to deal with, both artistically and from a business perspective.
So, now it’s Saturday evening, and I’ve been emotionally up and down, yet I refuse to wallow in the past; so as I’ve done my entire artistic career, I’ll find a way to do something positive with this energy like writing some new songs. I’ve always said that if I had the money, I would get everything worked out correctly regarding a proper and exciting release of Urgh! and pay for it myself.
However, for now, I can take comfort in knowing that the number my band and me performed for Urgh! A Music War was beyond the pale, tremendously courageous, and a musically/theatrically flawless performance of great artistic triumph. For that and the experience itself, I am forever grateful.