Friday, May 2, 2008
Melody Maker, 1993
by Simon Reynolds
How to explain Urge Overkill? Maybe they don't even translate into English terms (just as, say, Denim don't mean a darn thing to the Yanks). As it happens, Denim and the rest of the kitschadelic crew are the best way to get a grip on UO. Like Denim, Urge are 'Against The Eighties'. Like Teenage Fanclub, Urge adore the Seventies because that was the era when it was riffs that made the teens squeal, not samples and sequenced beats. So where Fannies'fuse Status Quo and Smokie, Urge pay homage to the stadium-rock soundtrack of their adolescence: ZZ Top, AC-DC, Bad Company, The
Who's Live At Leeds, but above all Cheap Trick, pop-metal kooks whose blend of Beatlesy sugar-harmonies and hi-gloss thrash was the closest most US suburban teens got to punk.
And like Saint Etienne (who they really dig), with Urge Overkill you get a look (they once recorded a song called "Very Sad Trousers"), a lifestyle, an entire worldview. Like Wiggs & Stanley, Urge Overkill have created a sort of never-never-pop wonderland packed with private references and idiosyncratic iconography: a real
"Join Our Club" deal. Yessiree, it's our old chum Record Collection Rock: Urge was born after an intense session of staring at album covers and listening to records in order to formulate their idea of the ultimate band. Pop-about-pop, with all its flaws and limits, but born not of nostalgia but of dissatisfaction with what's on offer today. Urge say they're not retro but "now-tro".
Apart from a couple of best-ignored platters, the UO story really begins with 1991's The Supersonic Storybook. Everything you need to know about Urge comes crashing through on the opener, "The Kids Are Insane". The methodology is post-modern pick'n'mix: the title and scything rifferama are on loan from The Who, the is-
it-a-guitar-or-is-it-a-voice effect on the title chorus pays homage to Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" (and possibly Pete Frampton's voice box), while the mid-song roll-call of North American cities is lifted straight from a James Brown song. But irony is over-ridden by sheer immediacy and (ins)URGEncy: this is pure teenage rampage the way they useta do it. "The Kids Are Insane" is
Urge's anthem and manifesto. "We really believe that kids should just freak out," says drummer Blackie Onassis. "There's so much pressure to conform".
Other "Storybook" goodies include a cover of Hot Chocolate's "Emmaline", "The Candidate" (inspired by the Robert Redford movie about a Presidential hopeful) and "What Is Artane?", an eerie song about a pharmaceutical with horrendous hallucinogenic side effects.
"A friend of ours was paralysed," explains Blackie. "He suffered muscle spasms, so the doctors gave him this muscle relaxant called Artane. And he had such hellish hallucinations that he got us to take the pills away with us. We tried them and it was the worst. It's the only time I've ever felt: 'am I gonna come back?'. The
trip seemed to last about 2 days. We did meet one freak who claimed
he took it all the time, but I can't imagine there's a subculture where they do it for fun. We certainly weren't advocating it, just asking why the fuck they prescribe the stuff. But we did get the doctors to stop forcing 'em down our friend's throat."
Then came '92's Stull mini-LP. Highlights include the broken blues of "Goodbye To Guyville" and "The Barclords", a punky paean to a semi-fictional anarchistic sect not unlike The Justified Ancients of MuMu.
"The Barclords are a sort of musical Illuminati", explains Blackie. "Did you know Mozart was a Mason and 'The Magic Flute' is based around Masonic numbers? Plus, we've also always liked that idea of the band within the band: Ziggy Stardust, Cheap
Trick's 'Dream Police'."
The stand-out, though, is the bluesy jam of "Stull", a shimmering evocation of the Kansas ghost-town that's said to be the magnetic dead centre of North America.
"There's loads of UFO sightings there, occult goings-on. The song really captures the
eerie vibe of the place. People warned us not to mess with Stull, but we believe rock is the devil's music. We wanted to exorcise that demon."
And now, after leaving Touch & Go for Geffen, there's Urge's major label debut, Saturation. The band's Top 40 ambition can be gauged from the fact that they called in ultra-successful hip hop producers The Butcher Bros to buff and boost their sound. Ironically, the Bros gave them a total rock sound: "Saturation" is
all punchy riffs, glitzy lead-runs, choppy New Wave chords and groovamatic beats. It's their most consistent record, although I can't hear anything to rival "The Kids Are Insane" for mock-insurrectionary frenzy or "Stull" for soul.
Lyrically, the album is mostly Urge's usual retro-nuevo make-believe fantasia (lots of songs about drinking cocktails in Central America), but there's a couple of tracks with uncharacteric political themes. "Positive Bleeding" is about how "maybe if men had periods, the world would be a better place. It's also about how
sometimes there's no way to happy other than just BE HAPPY! There's so much pressure today, you need to cut yourself some slack. Apparently 80 % of our generation feel sexually dissatisfied, which would explain all the negative music around today. We see the whole LP as a sexual aid."
"The Stalker" is a diatribe about a growing problem in America: twisted types who become romantically fixated upon someone - usually a woman - and pester and persecute them (turds through the post as love token, that sort of thing). "We've had a lot of thankyou's for that song," says bassist King Roeser. "It's something we've had personal experience with... There's this group of people, from a circle we used to hang with, who've been playing nasty pranks on us. The song is a kind of 'don't fuck with us' message."
Urge Overkill have been a name to drop, a burgeoning cult, for some time in the States. But not everyone likes them. One rockcrit friend of mine complained that Urge "reek of insincerity. Which is why they're liked: insincerity is valued in the scene they come from." Slacker irony does pervade Urge's work (although I was
surprised by how passionate they were about what they do). But Urge's image is utterly opposed to the slack aesthetic: they fervently believe in looking sharp. Their clothes -monogrammed turtle necks, medallions, suits, rings - are made specially for them by a company called Meredith 900.
"It's a style house in New York", says Blackie. "They send us sketches every three months, and we send ideas back. We're kind of a secret project for them. Right now, they're helping us find a tour-able fabric. We need something breath-able but stylish, 'cos sometimes the suits are uncomfortable onstage. We're leaning towards
a nice thin cotton, something that doesn't wrinkle. Or rayon or a durable silk. We have vinyl suits but they get sweaty. The nicest clothes aren't that road-ready. When you embark on being fashion-conscious, it can consume you, but as long as it doesn't detract from the music, that's OK. In Urge, we sometimes don't know when to
say 'No'. All of our cuts now are anti-retro. We were into the Seventies but that's been done to death, and now we're trying to incorporate Sixties and Nineties style. The Nineties is starting to look good: rave fashion is pretty cool, although too many bright colours are a turn-off. We can do without dayglo and pastel!"
Urge's flashy image has provoked hostility in some sectors of the US indie scene, where nerd tastemakers regard stylization as synonomous with "Limey haircut bands".
"You get bands like Suede who are treated with suspicion here, but maybe they just wanna rock, y'know. No one told Ziggy Stardust to cool it. Fashion and persona play a bigger role in rock'n'roll than people realise. In order to psych yourself up, you've really gotta go for it. We've always thought denim was just as much of a
uniform as wearing vinyl trousers or a suede cape. When we started we wore suits 'cos so many bands roll into town looking like burn-outs and we wanted to counter that uniformity. Bands like Urge and Suede, who are trying to be flamboyant, get criticised, but it's not such a big deal for people who aren't bogged down in the indie scene. When I used to go see bands like The Godfathers and The Bad Seeds, I was blown away that they wore suits. We're still punks at
heart and for us, punk was never about rules, it was always about change, going against the grain. We're just Renaissance men, when it comes down to it. There's so much more to rock than feedback."
As well as grunge drabness, Urge also deplore the revival of crudely sloganeering, simplistically politicised rock.
"For us, music has always been an escape. So much music now is ideological, people screaming political viewpoints in your face, and like, where's the poetry?. The last thing the world needs is more politicians. We need bands like The Spiders from Mars, bands that really wanna rock. Rock has always been to the Left of the establishment, that's obvious. I get pissed off when politics eats into rock'n'roll. I prefer imagery and poetry, I don't want musical newspapers. People should get more serious about rock as a cause in itself, and let the other causes work themselves out. Obviously, the Nineties are really politically charged, and we don't want to
come off as indifferent to that, but at the same time we do just want to ROCK. We're also really interested in pop culture. On 'Saturation' we have a song about 'Beverley Hills 90210', 'cos we wonder why people are so into it, why do they love it so much? When people want to be entertained, they go for stuff that's far out. And a little bit of fantasy is healthy."
All this - their style-flair, their positivity, their commitment to POP - puts Urge Overkill out on a limb vis-a-vis American rawk. A few bands share Urge's now-tro approach. There's Monster Magnet's pastiche of biker-psych (Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf,
Hawkwind), but they're just a scuzzier Zodiac Mindwarp as far as I'm concerned. There's Pussy Galore offshoot The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Yardbirds for the skronk generation) and there's Raging Slab, monster dynamite boogie purveyors. Raging Slab put out a promo kit containing everything you'd need to watch a Seventies arena show: Thunderbird wine (tastes like perfume), brown paper bag and
tube of glue (to get high), hideous T-shirt, a lighter to hold up during the ballad. No Quaaludes, sadly, but aspirins for your hangover. So what would the Urge Overkill Kit hold?
"Mmmm. A nice pair of sandals. A silk shirt, real loose. Some understated jewelry. Sunglasses. A trigger or two of marguerita. Or some California Chardonnay: Cali wines are really good. A couple of accesories - a nice choker for the ladies, maybe a straw hat. And a totally open attitude."
URGE OVERKILL'S ICONS & IDOLS
'THE RAT PACK' (FRANK SINATRA, DEAN MARTIN, SAMMY DAVIS JNR):
Cocktail-sippin', womanising, suave muthaf***ers. "We want to
resurrect the era of the swinger, the playboy. That whole attitude
where having a good time is the priority".
JAMES BROWN: Urge are crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed man who knows
how to put on a SHOW.
JIMMY WEBB: Songwriter famous for epic orchestral C&W pop: Urge
once covered his "Wichita Lineman".
NEIL DIAMOND: The consummate entertainer. Urge covered his
"Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" on Stull.
THE WHO: "We're really into that phase when mod started to
loosen up and turn into hippy, circa '68. The Who were the best
dressed band, but then, overnight, they became the worst dressed!"
SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: "The look we like is somewhere between
Carnaby St and early Sly and the Family Stone."
CHEAP TRICK: Metallic power-pop purveyors with a zany image.
SAINT ETIENNE: "The way they dress is right on the money. That
late Sixties English spy fashion, it's so neat. Those are some of
the nicest clothes ever made."