Style Vs. Substance- A Look At Their Career
Photo by Michael Lavine, courtesy of Sub Pop and The URGE-o-FONIC HYPERBOOK
by Ryan SetteeChicago's Urge Overkill are a largely overlooked and misunderstood rock n' roll group. They are known as a great band to some people like myself, to others, they are nothing more than "style over substance" poseurs, and to the rest of the population, they are not known at all. Some of these opinions, unfortunately, are based solely on Urge's one and only "hit," their cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." It's all just a part of the business.
Some bands spend half their careers trying to achieve this one big "hit," then spend the other half of their career trying to outgrow the misconception that they are a one scene act. This is all too familiar to Urge, a band that spent about 6-7 years toiling in relative obscurity to work towards their irony filled rave up of rock stardom, only to gain fame and then sabotage themselves at the 12th hour through drug busts, band member infighting, and label indifference from Geffen records. While it makes for a great story, in truth, it all left barely enough of an impression on the wider audience that Urge were always striving for.
In order to yield some perspective on what Urge worked so hard to achieve in the decade long struggle that they were together as a band, the band's history follows.
1985 to 1986- Guitarist Nathan Katruud (who would later adopt the persona "Nash Kato" and "Nate Kato"), bassist/ singer Ed "Kid" Roeser, and drummer Pat Byrne would form the first incarnation of Urge Overkill. Employing the services of Steve Albini (who was a onetime college roommate of Kato), they recorded Strange, I, released on Albini's own Ruthless records. The record is a noisy blend of songs that reflected both the burgeoning Chicago noise rock scene, as well as the influence of Albini, who had pioneered the "Chicago sound" in his own band, Big Black.
This kinship with Albini would make Urge one of the earliest bands that Albini would record, before he worked with more renowned bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana. Strange, I is more chaotic, less memorable, and ultimately not very essential, compared to the soul rock n' roll power pop that the band would perfect later on in its career.
1987 to 1989- Urge Overkill plays around their native Chicago, and releases the Jesus Urge Superstar album in 1989, their first for Touch and Go records, once again recorded by Steve Albini. Drummer Kriss Bataille fills the drum stool for the departed Pat Byrne, and the album is an improvement on Strange, I, as it displays more inventive song structuring amidst a loud and murky backdrop of noise (and an almost "I Wanna Be your Dog" Stooges riff in "The Polaroid Doll"). Once again, the somewhat forgettable muddy songs themselves are not very essential compared to the band's later work, but the band proves it's indie "cred" and punk rock roots with their tough, uncompromising sound, as well as with the Touch and Go alliance.
1990- Urge regroups with yet another new drummer, Jack "The Jaguar" Watt, who adds a more energetic and technical style to the UO sound. As well, producer Butch Vig adds a cleaner production style to their album Americruiser, and the band's songs are more accessible and pop oriented, exposing their love of soul, rock n' roll, and pop. Once again, Urge are ahead of the curve by utilizing Vig, as he would later go on to produce bands such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum and AFI. As well, the band's image- that of the suave, velvet suit wearing, martini swilling playboys- would figure prominently into the band's legacy and charm.
1991- Drummer Johnny Rowan (aka "Blackie Onassis") joins the group, and adds a sloppier, grittier element to the Urge Overkill vibe, not to mention his emphasis on the "image is everything" philosophy. They record The Supersonic Storybook, once again with Steve Albini, and it remains their rawest album of their modern, more soul influenced powerpop rock n' roll. It is also a less structured outing than the cleaner, tighter and more accessible Americruiser, with more overt nods to the earlier, noisier UO sound-- most notably in the album's closing song, "Theme From Navajo." On one hand it's a step forward with inspired rockers like "The Kids Are Insane," but also a step back, as tracks like "Vacation in Tokyo" sound a bit dull.
While The Supersonic Storybook finds UO enjoying their most success--both critically, and in terms of gaining new fans-- the album is not without it's own detractors, namely critic Robert Christgau, who says, "......what is this, anyhow? Fashion-plate metal? Lothar-EOAOR? I'm obviously no judge of their . . . what are those, designer leisure suits?.......With their sludgy hooks, whiner groans, and arrogant exoticism, they're about as 'subversive' as a spirochete--a social disease waiting to happen." 1
1992-Nirvana takes Urge on tour with them, exposing UO to a bigger audience of fans who are seeking "alternatives" to the confines of rigid MOR radio programming. During this time, Urge release the well received Stull EP, which features songs recorded by legendary engineer Kramer, as well as old cohort Steve Albini. This is also the record that features Urge's future hit, a cover of Neil Diamond's song, "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," although it would not be on the charts for another two years.
1993- Urge capitalizes on their growing fame by releasing their best and most accessible album to date, Saturation. A perfect swaggering blend of arena rock and powerpop, it seems poised to break Urge to a wider audience, the arena audience that had always eluded them. As unlikely a record as it is, due to the choice of the Butcher Bros- a duo who had worked previously with the rap group Cypress Hill- the record's upbeat and vital rock n' roll is also a contrast to the brooding and dark sounds of the grunge music of the time. As a result, it is unusually prescient, as the band's classic rock/power pop/garage punk sound and matching suit ethic precedes the garage rock/soul punk rock revolution of the late '90's/early '00's in bands like the Hives and Bellrays.
Although it is widely hailed as Urge's masterpiece and best work to date, the album, once again, does not come without its detractors. The most visible of such naysayers is Steve Albini, who (upon Urge's signing to the major label Geffen) calls them "freakish, attention starved megalomaniacs" 2, and "weiners in suits playing frat party rock, trying to tap a goofy trend that doesn't even exist."3 Saturation sells enough to warrant UO as being a viable musical entity, yet doesn't sell enough to make them a huge contender in the alternative world, mainly due to the fact that some people still do not know what to make of Urge's unabashed classic rock and "rock star" leanings.
1994 to 1995- UO continues their streak of good luck, when Quentin Tarentino decides to include their song, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," in a key scene in his movie, Pulp Fiction. Interest is at an all time high for the band, as they release Exit the Dragon, the much anticipated follow-up to Saturation. Much to the dismay of fans, it is a darker, less polished, and less accessible album than Saturation, and reviews are almost unanimously negative. Few people understand the band's pristine three dimensional knack for combining powerpop ("Monopoly"), rock n' roll ("Need Some Air"), and dirgier, moodier tracks such as "This Is No Place."
Bassist Ed Roeser says this about the album: "We've already got people coming up and asking us, 'Well gosh, Saturation was really great, why didn't you make the new album sound like that? Why didn't you just do it again?'. Some people need safety and certainty in their music - no surprises. It's what, I think, Michael Jackson thinks to himself, 'If only I could be MORE Michael'. You wind up limiting yourself. The thing is to not be what you just did."4
Geffen fails to promote the Exit the Dragon album, and it quickly sinks, along with Urge's fame. Geffen apparently promises to re-launch the album, but never does, and the band endures an implosion, with Blackie Onassis getting busted for heroin, as well as Ed Roeser and guitarist Nash Kato disagreeing on various things. Roeser is eventually out of the band by 1996, and is replaced by Nils St. Cyr, but the Urge Overkill name is retired, mainly due to Roeser's insistence that the band no longer use the name.
Steve Fever is later brought in (a bass player in a touring version of Urge, for the Exit the Dragon tour), but the old magic of the Roeser/Kato axis is gone. In 1996, Urge breaks up for good. Roeser forms the Kimball Roeser Effects and Electric Airlines, Kato forms his own solo project with Nils St. Cyr (who work on Kato's Debutante), and Blackie Onassis drops out of sight.
In conclusion, there's one quote by Bill Wyman (a writer, not the Rolling Stones bass player), that says it all about Urge: "the band was either too smart about being dumb or too dumb about being smart".5 In this day and age where they could be easily forgotten, it must be noted that Urge Overkill were ahead of their time, and their material deserves a legitimate listen with fresh ears.
Update: The fun isn't over. At the beginning of the year, Nash Kato and Eddie Roeseer resurrected Urge Overkill for a two month North American tour for their first dates in seven years, just ending as you read this. Also included in the group now are Mike Hodgkiss (bass, Gaza Strippers), Nate Arling (drums, The Last Vegas) and Chris Frantisak (keyboards, The Bon Mots). Future plans are unknown though this is thought to be a possible warm-up for something more if things work out. Details are at the official UO site.
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