I didn’t like ‘80s music in the 1980s. I still don’t. And that would have included these guys, if they’d registered as even a blip on my own radar screen back then.
Still, sometimes you need the freelance work, as I did, greatly, in the summer of 2004. And I took enough of such assignments that I found myself described by another music writer at Mountain Xpress, after I left, as “’80s luminary Frank Rabey.”
Originally published July 24, 2004 in Mountain Xpress | (c) 2004 Mountain Xpress
That comeback Urge
Fame stiffed Urge Overkill, but the band is on the way back up after two decades of up and down
Think you’re so important? OK, ever had a song written about you by a schizophrenic homeless guy with a round scar on his head from years of greeting people by head-butting them?
All right, then.
The shouted chorus to the late Wesley Willis’ manic “Urge Overkill,” in praise of fellow Chicagoans, the group Urge Overkill, goes thus:
“Urge Overkill! Urge Overkill! Urge Overkill!” (Repeat a few more times.)
So what better way to begin addressing the convoluted legacy that is Urge Overkill than with accolades from a jubilant street guy who wrote what the voices in his head told him to?
Because UO is a band that, nearly two decades down the line, is considerably more famous for its undisguised, seemingly delusional embrace of a celebrity it never actually achieved than for any particular mark it made on popular music.
Yet the trio did have great talent, and at times, the vision to have earned the fame they so baldly sought on the road to becoming a rock ‘n’ roll cliché of career-killing excesses.
At their best, UO created something grand, adventurous and almost preternaturally atmospheric, especially when guitarist Nash Kato’s Peter Murphy-with-the-blues voice was at the helm; at their worst, toward the end, they were bloated, directionless and bland.
“It was always hit or miss before,” the notoriously anti-interview Kato said in a recent brief phone conversation. “It’s a far better band [now]; it’s just more consistent.”
Which is to say that UO is back – well, two-thirds of them anyway: Kato (aka National Kato, real name Nathan Katruud) and Ed “The King” Roeser (vocals, bass), along with new backing musicians. UO’s most storied drummer, Blackie Onassis (real name Johnny Rowan), is conspicuously absent.
Roeser and Kato formed Urge Overkill in 1986, the name drawn from an old P-Funk song. UO’s first EP, steeped in the industrial hardcore then the rage in Chicago, included production by the soon-ubiquitous Steve Albini.
Then UO made an about-face, adopting a calculated image of ironic detachment, of lounge-living, martini-swilling hedonists – right down to their monogrammed smoking jackets and gold medallions nestled in nests of exposed chest hair. Abandoning their hometown indie label for Geffen Records cemented it: UO was everything the Chi-Town music scene was not.
And people began hating them for it.
Witness: Albini’s much-quoted dismissal of the group as “freakish attention-starved megalomaniacs.” And the creepy anti-fanzine, The Stalker, spawning a performance-art group that mocked UO at live shows.
Urge Overkill scored their only significant hit with an inspired, over-the-top reading of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which bore little resemblance to their by-then-cemented alt-rock power-trio sound.
Recorded, says Kato, “for a six pack and a bag of weed,” as filler for UO’s ’92 EP, the cut was used prominently in director Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 mega-hit Pulp Fiction. The scene right after the Uma Thurman and John Travolta characters meet.
“It was a pivotal scene in the movie,” notes Kato. “Everything turns to s••t after that scene.”
Oh, cruel, cruel irony.
By then, UO had opened a tour for Nirvana. And Saturation, the trio’s ’93 Geffen debut, had already made a big splash, with two fine cuts, “Positive Bleeding” and “Sister Havana,” doing well at rock radio. It really looked like UO had fame a-coming — so they went ahead and started living like it had already arrived.
Except that, well, fame then stiffed ’em.
This from the spring ’95 issue of The Stalker, regarding UO’s impending post-Saturation release: “Of course there’s no mystery as to whether or not it will suck.”
Sadly, Exit the Dragon largely did. (Exit Their Draggin’ Asses, crowed The Stalker, again getting it right.) That second Geffen album marked the literal beginning of UO’s end: the acrimony, the drugs, the fighting, the quitting.
“You can’t make music with people you can’t even be in the same room with,” Kato says. “We needed to take the break that we did.”
But as for now, it’s all good again.
“There’s peace in the valley,” Kato quips.
So give the new-model UO a shout-out: “Urge Overkill! Urge Overkill! Urge Overkill!” as sweet Wesley Willis would have it.
“I think [Willis] had one called ‘Blackie’s on Acid,’ too,” Kato offhandedly observes. “It’s the same song, only instead of saying ‘Urge Overkill!’ y’know, 50 times, he says, ‘Blackie’s on Acid!'”