Since its release in 1981, the postpunk concert film Urgh! A Music War has attained a quasi-mythical status. It includes two hours of live footage from 34 acts, some already legendary and many to become so—the Police, Joan Jett, the Dead Kennedys, Devo, the Cramps, Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, Klaus Nomi—but its availability on home video has been so spotty that most people I know have never seen it except as a bootleg.
Though Urgh! came out on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and a short-lived format called capacitance electronic disc (CED), it’s spent most of the past 28 years out of print. (The accompanying double album, also out of print, was only ever issued on vinyl; with a little effort it can be found on eBay or at any decent used record store.) Though many of the artists featured have grown enormously in stature since 1981, the movie has never come out on DVD. Even if you tried, it’d be hard to engineer a situation more likely to provoke bootlegging.
The latest dodgy edition is being issued by a little imprint called Warner Brothers.
Jim Skafish, front man for defunct Chicago art-punk outfit Skafish, appears in Urgh! toward the end, leading his band through a campily sacrilegious performance of their frantic signature number, “Sign of the Cross.” A few weeks ago he got an e-mail from someone who’d noticed that the film had been released in early August via Warner Archive—a service that burns DVD-Rs on demand, to save the label the up-front costs of a proper pressing.
Urgh! is going for $19.95, though it was copied from a video source, not from the original film, and Warner has made no effort to restore the picture or remaster the sound. The only special feature is a trailer, and the movie is cut into ten-minute chapters whose indexing has nothing to do with the beginnings and ends of performances. Skafish says he still hasn’t been contacted by anyone involved in the reissue—though he has reason to believe that it should have required a renegotiation of his and other performers’ contracts. “I haven’t heard anything,” he says. “And I’m easy to reach.” Which is true: I dropped him a line at his MySpace page and was on the phone with him in a couple of days. (I had no such luck with Warner—I left messages with three in-house publicists and two more at an agency that does work for the company, and nobody replied.)
Skafish didn’t even bother trying to contact Warner—his lawyer told him it’d be futile, so he just ordered his own copy of the Urgh! DVD. His reaction to it took the form of a long post at skafishblog.com, where he sounds pretty level-headed and philosophical, all things considered. (He tells me he didn’t hear from anyone about those long-ago home-video releases either, so maybe he’s just used to disappointment.) He writes about checking with the office of I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland, who produced Urgh!, and learning that Warner Brothers hadn’t contacted him either. But though he’s cynical about his odds of ever seeing a dime from the DVD release, Skafish has no plans to take any action against Warner. What really bugs him is that it looks so shoddy.
“For me it’s really not about money,” he says. “I mean obviously if it was about money, I would’ve never done the things that I’ve done. I mean my entire career.”
Musicians who make a point of saying “It’s not about the money” are usually either stars paying lip service to the traces of art lingering in their product or nobodies trying to explain away their obscurity, but from Skafish the claim is actually credible. Skafish the group made music so strange—highly technical, highly dramatic, and unlike anything anyone else in punk was doing at the time—that even people with avowedly nonmainstream tastes can find it rough going. Skafish the front man—”over six feet tall with an unforgettably enormous nose and sagging man-boobs” and often “dressed in vintage ladies’ bathing suits or tube tops,” according to a past Reader profile—could be even harder for people to wrap their heads around. “When the film premiered in Chicago, I showed up and I was throwing holy cards at everybody,” he recalls. “I had holy water.” At that point the defenders of the faith hadn’t yet worn themselves out protesting the likes of Madonna and Marilyn Manson, and Skafish’s transgressive antics were enough to get their hackles up.
A common television edit of Urgh!, shown on both the Sundance Channel and VH1, cuts out almost half an hour of music, including “Sign of the Cross” and the Cramps’ crotch-rubbing, mike-sucking rendition of “Tear It Up,” but the Warner DVD is relatively intact—it includes 36 of the original’s 37 performance clips, minus only Splodgenessabounds’ “Two Little Boys.” (This is consistent with Warner’s note that the DVD was mastered from video—earlier VHS releases omitted the same track.) Warner used what they claim to be the best copy they had available, but that just raises the question of what they mean by “available.” Skafish says Copeland still has the original film, along with enough unused footage to assemble two more two-hour movies. He recorded three songs by each act, but almost all the performers had only one in the final cut. (Copeland was traveling and didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
One reason it’s taken so long for Urgh! to come out on DVD is that at least some of the artists signed flawed contracts. In the early 80s, contract language granting sync rights—the rights to use a composition or recording in film or video—tended not to include provisions for future transfers to other formats. That’s why, for example, episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD have had many of the hit songs on their original soundtracks replaced with generic approximations of classic rock. Skafish says he’s had his lawyer review his Urgh! contract to confirm that it lacks such provisions.
“I had a conversation with one attorney who thought it was just inept, that they didn’t just put in ‘Any and all media now and in the future.'” Skafish believes this means the label should’ve been obligated to negotiate for sync rights from Urgh! performers, himself included, for the DVD format.
But again, he insists, the royalty issue isn’t his main concern: mostly he’s upset that such an important document continues to be so roughly treated, and by a major label no less. The bootleggers at urgh-dvd.com, which at press time was “temporarily unavailable,” were actually handling the movie more reverently. Their version—which, unlike Warner’s, was available outside the U.S.—had all 37 songs and was indexed by performance.
If someone ever tries to give Urgh! the DVD treatment it deserves—remastered sound, unreleased performance footage, maybe some commentary tracks—Skafish says he’ll “be waving the banner and calling people on the phone saying, ‘Sign off! Sign off!'”
Even if that someone is Warner Brothers?
“I would,” he says. “I would. I really would.”