Urge Overkill

Park West, May 6

By Frank Youngwerth

At least the song piped over the PA was right–Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” But as the stagehands went about their business, the signs didn’t bode well for Urge Overkill’s public reemergence. Flanking the stage were two small identical banners emblazoned with the name of the band’s new label (550 Music/Epic) and a large square to symbolize the cover of the forthcoming release. But the plain lettering within the square read simply, “New album soon.” What? No tantalizing image to fire the imaginations of the band’s assembled hard-core hometown following? Very un-Urge-like.

Another, larger banner hung directly behind the stage, looking like it had just been retrieved from the mothballs. It bore the familiar “UO” logo, surrounded by wisps of smoke–the cover design from Exit the Dragon, Urge’s poorly received 1995 swan song for Geffen. Founding guitarist-bassist Eddie “King” Roeser provided that album with its best material, namely “The Break” and “Jaywalkin’.” Now that he’s exited the group, Urge seems to have gone from jaywalkin’ to sleepwalkin’.

A lot of my record-collector type friends wonder what I ever saw in these bozos anyway. Well, I feel OK admitting it now. I thought I was witnessing the second coming of, ahem, the Raspberries. Guess you had to be there with me, rocking out to AM radio in the bedroom I shared with my brother growing up in Libertyville. In mid-1972, WLS (“the Big 89”) started playing a song called “Go All the Way.” At first I almost couldn’t believe my ears. How gloriously, incongruously 60s it sounded, so unabashedly bright and passionate amid the hip, funky radio pop of its time (Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well,” Bill Withers’s “Lean On Me”). “Go All the Way” just had to be an oldie–but it got aired regularly and was listed on the station’s weekly survey sheet, meaning it was a new song.

Well, a new song borrowing offbeat rhythm guitar from “Don’t Worry Baby” and the “come on, come on” climax of “Please Please Me.” But to my mind, with its high-gloss production and meticulous arrangement–a mass of hard ‘n’ heavy guitars topped with luscious harmonies–“Go All the Way” packed more pop firepower than any one 45 either the Beach Boys or the Beatles (only the two greatest pop bands ever) had ever unleashed themselves.

Capitol hyped the Raspberries plenty–it even put a raspberry-scented scratch-and-sniff sticker on the cover of their debut album, a trick recently duplicated by Yum-Yum. I didn’t know about that, or have even the vaguest notion of what hype was at the time. Yet I could still remember the tremendous stir the Beatles had caused among the neighborhood teens seven summers earlier. The Raspberries were going to be my Beatles.

Of course, they weren’t, and 20 years later I was 30, and rather bummed out by how little I cared for most bands making “alternative” music. Then I found out about Urge Overkill, a promising local outfit that had recently signed to a major. The band was then releasing its farewell indie EP, Stull, which led off with a faithful remake of a nearly forgotten Neil Diamond ballad from the 60s. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” overflowing with gorgeous, chiming guitars, drew me in, much as it would draw in all those people who bought the sound track to Pulp Fiction. I went out and bought up the whole Urge catalog, and told myself I was going to like these guys.

At that point, charter members Roeser and Nash Kato hadn’t turned out anything that indicated a strong Beach Boys or Beatles influence. Or had they? Okay, so maybe the westbound Greyhound in “Ticket to LA” never did arrive to find a warm California sun beaming down to brighten Urge’s collective soul. But hey, probably the first-ever rock warbler to pipe up in the burnt-out rasp that would evolve (via Kiss) into the trademark UO vocal style was Brian Wilson’s doomed drumming brother, Dennis.

And to my mind Kato’s smarmy persona lined up with the hard-rocker role Paul McCartney had played through most of the White Album. It’s easy to imagine Kato doing more convincing versions of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Helter Skelter,” or “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” than could the aged crooner of “Silly Love Songs” himself.

But ultimately I placed my pop faith in a philosophy elaborated by Kato. In prerelease interviews to promote Urge’s Geffen debut, Saturation, he explained how the band had come up with that title. Every selection on the album was painstakingly composed, arranged, and produced, Kato said, to locate and actualize the individual song’s fullest rocking potential. Yeah, yeah, yeah; later I realized this was mostly the blather of a pretender. At the time, though, I wanted to believe him. I wanted to find the next “Go All the Way.”

And I just about did. Kato’s “Bottle of Fur,” the centerpiece on Saturation, sounds like it took weeks to write and record, with all that detailed effort resulting in a near classic. Sure, the title is awkward and the lyrics don’t always match (“I’m missing the smell of her / Like when I’d hold you in the night”). But it’s a musical tour de force, built on the solid foundation of a groove that crosses the southern honky-tonk of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” with the glam locomotive boogie of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” A choir of acoustic guitars ushers in the taut, harmonically complex chorus, while two different bridges keep you guessing what’ll happen next.

Sadly, Urge’s Park West show lacked any such tension or suspense. Replacement guitarist Nils St. Cyr demonstrated plenty of finesse but couldn’t begin to fill Roeser’s shoes. Neither could a smattering of half-baked new songs replace the numerous crowd-pleasers Roeser apparently took with him when he left.

Except for charismatic drummer Blackie Onassis’s out-front encore “Dropout,” which quickly deteriorated into a long, pointless jam, this was Nash Kato’s show. Well, it would have been, if he’d had enough energy to carry it. Instead he mostly mumbled and walked his way through the set, every once in a while launching into a predictable rocking-out-at-the-edge-of-the-stage routine. Kato seems also to have lost some of his always narrow vocal range. After the show, one fan observed, “He was really out of tune for ‘Bottle of Fur.'” I had some trouble figuring out what key he was singing in for an especially listless “Sister Havana.”

Maybe before it’s too late Kato will snap out of his funk and deliver a few more shining pop songs. But his split with Roeser and the band’s departure from Geffen close one of the most intriguing chapters in rock that the Chicago scene will likely ever witness. Urge Overkill rashly and ruthlessly pursued rock stardom on a grand scale, only to cause a few ripples and then fall flat on its face. Plenty of skeptics must be having a good laugh now over the band’s failure. But neither mere commercial success nor scene diplomacy ever secured a band a place in rock’s annals. And who knows–the clutch of great tracks Kato, Roeser, and Onassis left behind just might.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Urge Overkill by James Crump-RSP.