Why Urge Overkill’s under-appreciated ‘Saturation’ was the greatest album of the ’90s

Urge Overkill in the mid-'90s. (Photo: Getty Images)

Urge Overkill in the mid-’90s. (Photo: Getty Images)

In June 1993, a Chicago power trio of lounge-dwelling, martini-swilling, leisure-suited hedonists released the very best album of that year… and one of the most misunderstood albums of the entire ‘90s. But 30 years later, Urge Overkill’s massive masterpiece, Saturation — to quote the LP’s rifftastic lead single, “Sister Havana” — still comes on like a bicycle army. And it actually sounds much more modern — postmodern, even — than most of the records released by their flannel-flying ‘90s peers.

Saturation was entirely out of the step with its decade — a potent, shaken ‘n’ stirred rocktail of AM radio gold, souped-up ‘70s Camaro rawk, ‘80s excess (drummer Blackie Onassis actually once described UO as “the Duran Duran of ‘90s rock”), and hi-fi hip-hop. And then there was Urge’s lounge-lizard image. In an age where Goodwill-foraged lumberjack plaids and holey jeans passed for the ultimate in fashion, these preening, pleasure-seeking playboys’ monogrammed smoking jackets, Tony Manero menswear, and medallions nestled in exposed chest hair made them the scorn of the early-‘90s Chicago scene. But the worldly Urge always had their sights set far beyond the city limits of the town they not-so-fondly nicknamed “Guyville.”

“Looking good as much as sounding good is sort of what brought us together,” the band’s gangly, flaxen-haired, perennially wraparound-shaded hipster co-frontman, Nash Kato, told fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce in 1995, as he recalled the kinship he felt with his bandmates and fellow pop provocateurs, Eddie “King” Roeser and Onassis. “They seemed to uphold a certain fashion sense in the midst of this sort of strange, fascist, industrial-techno, Anglophilic, homophobic, misogynistic punk-rock look and scene. We all seemed to be displaced or switched at birth or something. As far as I could tell, Ed and Blackie were the only two motherf***ers who were not happy with the [Chicago] situation. So, we jumped in some magic suits and started playing pop songs on 11. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well. We were sort of exiled for a while — exiled in Guyville.”

“When you think about it, the ‘punk-rock’ ethos really was, you know, you’re gonna poke the bear,” Roeser told Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM in 2022. “So, once we realized that the worst, most offensive thing you could do in Chicago is to step onstage not wearing a T-shirt and jeans, we got our sparkly suits out. Any button we could possibly push, we did. … Maybe people don’t realize that ‘Urge Overkill’ is actually a phrase that comes from Parliament-Funkadelic, and our roots were sort of well-hidden in the funk-soul tradition of showmanship — being a little flashy.”

Urge Overkill's Eddie

Urge Overkill’s Eddie “King” Roeser, Nash Kato, and Blackie Onassis. (Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

“For so long, we were in this endless breadline of garage bands,” Kato told Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM as he remembered the band’s struggling pre-Saturation days. “We decided there’s gotta be some way to jump the line — to jump to the shark! — and just move to the front. I mean, how could we not stick out by donning some suits and some flash? [Our image] piqued the public curiosity, and we just kind of rolled with it. … And then, once there was more media coverage, they really jumped on it. No one could find our [indie releases] in the record stores, but everyone knew what we looked like. The press was into what we looked like — the medallions and the crushed-velvet suits and all that — way more than we actually were. So, then it just became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Like, if you dress like a rock star, people will start assuming you are one.”

That rock-stardom prophecy finally seemed about to come true when, after putting out four increasingly buzz-garnering (if difficult-to-find) albums on local independent punk label Touch and Go, Urge Overkill piqued Geffen/DGC Records’ interest. And upon the recommendation of Geffen superstar Kurt Cobain — who was a fan and friend, and had taken Urge on tour with Nirvana in 1991 — UO signed with that major label. (Ironically, Roeser revealed that there was a time, before Sub Pop and Geffen, when Nirvana had “actually tried very hard to get on Touch and Go.”)

Urge OVerkill in 1993. (Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Urge OVerkill in 1993. (Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

There had been hints of Urge’s swanky swagger in their cruder earlier releases. 1990’s Americruiser, featuring the fist-pumping “Ticket to L.A.” and “76 Ball” and loungey “Faroutski,” laid down the blueprint for their Rat Pack-meets-Black Sabbath sound. (Spin actually described that record as “a punk-rock version of ZZ Top’s Eliminator,” which was also apt.) There was 1991’s Supersonic Storybook, a fascinatingly unfocused opus of political speeches, riotous teen anthems, folk legends about twin brothers separated at birth, and even a Hot Chocolate cover, all glued together with UO’s trademark super-sticky riffs. And a year before Saturation there was the Stull EP, most famous for the Chicago diss “Goodbye to Guyville” (which inspired the title of fellow Windy City outlier Liz Phair’s landmark Exile in Guyville album) and the Pulp Fiction-popularized Neil Diamond cover “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” However, signing to Geffen/DGC finally gave UO the opportunity, as Kato put it, to make their “wet-dream record” and “recreate the sound of rock when we were growing up — that big rock radio sound.”

“We had gotten [punk] out of our system,” said Roeser. “Chicago is sort of seen as more of industrial, like noise rock, and we were working with [Big Black’s] Steve Albini, who’s known for, like, sheets of violent noise. And we always wanted to hear the vocals on our record; our records always turned out sounding more sludgy than we wanted them to. … So, when we were signed, we were like, ‘OK, we’re gonna turn towards something that we couldn’t do before.’ Sure, it was pretty easy to do a noise record over a weekend, but the type of multi-layered pop we were trying to achieve took a while to make. We were like, ‘Well, if we’re gonna sign to a major, we’re gonna use the time to get it exactly right, how we want it.’ Our dream was to make some records that could be listened to anywhere and everywhere, even at the grocery store. We just wanted to be on the radio.”

Urge Overkill had worked with not only Albini but with two other in-demand ‘90s rock producers, Butch Vig and Kramer, but to fulfill their grand Saturation vision they once again thought outside the alt-rock box and enlisted Ruffhouse Records’ hip-hop producers Joe and Phil Nicolo, aka the Butcher Bros. “We wanted to have a very big-sounding record,” explained Kato. “Our early recordings sounded pretty small, then you’d go see us live and it was a very big sound; we were always trying to capture that live sound on tape. So, we thought, ‘What’s the biggest-sounding stuff out right now?’ All this indie crap wasn’t sounding very big — and this sort of recent glorification of lo-fi, I don’t get it myself. The biggest-sounding stuff seemed to be in hip-hop, and the better-sounding hip-hop seemed to be coming from the Butchers’ laboratories: Cypress Hill, Schooly D. We all agreed that was the toughest shit out there. We were floored when they agreed to do the project. They’d never recorded rock bands before.”

Like the Butcher Bros., Urge Overkill were newbies when it came to this sort of cross-genre setup. In fact, “We’ve never recorded in the big leagues before!” was one of the band’s goofy spoken studio soundbites that the Butchers looped and layered over Hawaii Five-O and Mary Tyler Moore Show samples, during one of Saturation’s hip-hop-inspired between-song skits and segues. But Urge were clearly ready for this moment. The ambitious, fittingly titled Saturation was kitschy and kitchen-sinky, borrowing as much from Kato’s childhood idols (Brill Building songsmiths like Neil Diamond, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, and Carole King; soul stars like Otis Redding and Al Green; and “little Michael Jackson”) as it did from arena-rockers like ZZ Top, Bad Company, the Doobie Brothers, Cheap Trick, and Some Girls-era Stones. The supersonic, supersized record was simply a monster — fearless and full of “ATTITUDE,” to quote another sassy sample from the cheeky “Woman 2 Woman.”

Saturation opened with the crushed-velvet-throated Kato daring the listener to “come around to my way of thinking.” This gauntlet-toss was impossible to ignore or resist once “Sister Havana,” one of the greatest first album tracks in pop history, made it to “there’s no time to loo-ooohze!” (one of the greatest bridges in pop history) two minutes later. From the Southern-fried boogie-rock jams “Tequila Sundae” and “Nite and Grey”; to the sultry makeup/breakup song “Bottle of Fur”; to the manic and punky “Erica Kane” (an apparently unironic love letter to the long-suffering Susan Lucci that I’d like to think helped the All My Children actress finally win a Daytime Emmy six years later); to the Beck-like mellow-gold electrofunk experiment “Dropout” (monotonically intoned by Onassis); to the turbo-charged garage-rocker “Crackbabies”; to the sumptuous and Eagles-esque poolside ballad “Heaven 90210” … Saturation was basically 12 tracks and 69 minutes of pop/rawk perfection. (And that’s not even counting the bonkers secret bonus track — remember those, from the heyday of CDs? — “Operation Kissinger.”) But Saturation’s most perfect three minutes and 42 seconds were definitely distilled in the shiny, happy powerpop singalong “Positive Bleeding” — which was inspired by the band’s aforementioned ’91 tour with pal Cobain, when members of Nirvana joined UO during soundcheck while Urge were writing that feel-good anthem of the decade.

Once Saturation was unleashed on an unsuspecting and/or doubting public, Roeser recalled that Geffen/DGC was a “great label that allowed us to do what we wanted, exactly how we wanted to.” This included various “crazy marketing ideas” (Urge Overkill were early branding geniuses, stamping their iconic, recognizable-from-space “UO” logo on 76 gas station-inspired orange antenna balls and velvet-choker medallion necklaces that are now collectors’ items) and “all these insane videos” — like the eye-popping, pop-arty “Positive Bleeding,” starring a mod squad of video vixens in Nash/Eddie/Blackie drag, and “Sister Havana,” a big-budget retro cop caper shot a full year before the Beastie Boys’ similarly campy and action-packed “Sabotage.”

“Videos are so goddamn serious now — serious about nothing. What the hell are you going on about? Delivering babies and dying old people? What the f***? And all these videos seem to have children. It’s like, include a lot of dirty ragamuffin children and dying lonely old people, and you can’t be stopped,” Kato drolly griped to Porkchops & Applesauce in 1995, presumably referring to Live’s dour, sepia-toned “Lighting Crashes” video, a huge grunge-era MTV hit. Added Roeser: “That whole ‘kill me now, we’re so serious, we’re miserable!’ thing … We wanted to add a little bit of levity to the situation.”

Of course, not everyone got the UO joke. “People were like, ‘Who the hell is this band? What are they? Is this supposed to be funny?’ But it was always funny to us,” said Kato. “We were always juggling multiple gags at any given time. It was all a great gag for us. Some people were just confused, but if anyone laughed or was laughing with us, we were all for it. Mission accomplished.”

UO became even more divisive and derided once “Sister Havana” started having some moderate MTV success, although the band members tried their best to enjoy the ride and ignore the haters — which was much easier to do back in that pre-social media age. (“When there’s a backlash against you, no one tells you exactly to your face that there is,” Roeser quipped.) In 1994, two longtime Chicago-area Urge haters actually resorted to launching a 5,000-circulation anti-fanzine, The Stalker — a nod to one of Saturation’s most raucous and rockin’ tracks — in an attempt to antagonize the band and even derail their career. (“Yeah, we inspired one of the first hate zines ever,” Roeser chuckled wryly.) Albini, who’d recorded Urge’s debut hardcore EP for Ruthless Records and two of the band’s Touch and Go albums, was another high-profile detractor, scathingly decrying UO as “freakish, attention-starved megalomaniacs.” But clearly a group that could provoke such extreme reactions must’ve been doing something right. At least no one was ignoring Urge Overkill.

Saturation sold a respectable 300,000 copies, and “Sister Havana” brought Urge Overkill the radio play they’d wet-dreamed of, respectively peaking at No. 6 and No. 10 on Billboard’s Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts. But ironically, it wasn’t that single, or any other Saturation track, that really pushed Urge Overkill into the above-mentioned big leagues. Instead, that happened with an earlier, much rougher recording. UO’s tongue-in-gaunt-cheek cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” — recorded when it was still a bit unfashionable to admit to digging Neil Diamond — appeared in a key Pulp Fiction scene a year after Saturation’s release. At first the band, who’d just gotten accustomed to crafting slick sounds with hot-shot hip-hop producers in fancy recording studios, had mixed feelings about this unexpected break.

“That was a classic do-it-yourself Urge recording, done years ago for a case of longnecks or a bag of weed or something that nature,” Kato chucklingly said of the pre-Geffen Stull cut. “It was riddled with bad takes and tempo and pitch fluctuations, and we were certain that [Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino] would want us to re-record or remix it. But he insisted on it the way it was. It didn’t make any sense to us until we saw the movie, and then all the f***-ups made sense. Everything that was so wrong was so right. It was rather chilling. … And [Diamond] told us — I don’t know if he was being diplomatic or what — that of all the covers he’s heard of his material, it’s by far his favorite.”

Diamond reportedly once told Urge Overkill, “Save room for me at the top,” predicting big things for the band. Unfortunately, Saturation’s anticipated follow-up — 1995’s flaccid Exit the Dragon, recorded amid Kato and Roeser’s feuding and Onassis’s heroin addiction — lacked the humor and hookiness of its predecessor. It was a massive disappointment, both critically and commercially, and it ultimately failed to capitalize on the momentum of Saturation and Pulp Fiction. (The Stalker cruelly, albeit amusingly, dubbed it Exit Their Draggin’ Asses.) And so, despite all their promise, Urge Overkill soon imploded, like a cautionary tale from the middle act of a VH1 Behind the Music special. Roeser quit the group, and while Kato and Onassis signed a new deal with Sony’s 550 Music in 1997, they released no new recordings as Urge Overkill. (After Kato was unable to legally secure the band name, he did put out one solo album, 2000’s Debutante, featuring six co-writes with Onassis, but it only sold 5,000 copies.) Kato and Roeser eventually reunited as a duo in 2004, and even played Tarantino’s famous Friars Club Roast in 2010, but they would not release another Urge LP until 2011’s Rock & Roll Submarine. And then another 11 years would pass before their next and most recent album, 2022’s Oui.

But for a brief, razzle-dazzling moment in time, Urge Overkill were the biggest-sounding, if not the biggest-selling, rock band on the planet, creating a vibrant sound and a world all their own with Saturation. And while indier-than-thou alt-rock purists may have disparaged the record at the time, most have finally, wisely come around to Urge’s way of thinking.

Urge Overkill's Nash Kato, Blackie Onassis, and Eddie

Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato, Blackie Onassis, and Eddie “King” Roeser. (Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

The above article is taken from Nash Kato’s interview with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker’s fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce and Eddie Roeser and Kato’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of the latter conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.

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