Foreigner – Urgent
I’ve never been what anyone could even remotely describe as a ‘Classic Rock’ fan. All that posturing and ‘axe grinding’ never really appealed to my predominately pop-orientated palate. Okay, I tried it once when I was a teenager, but I only did it in a pathetic attempt to fit in with my Heavy Metal friend – everybody had to have at least one at my school – and it never really stood a chance of taking hold considering the fairly strict ‘No Guitars’ preferred listening policy I was subscribing to at the time. But every now and then a record which could only be classified as ‘Rock’ would nag its way into my brain and then inevitably into my record collection. Thus, in the second half of 1981 a 7” copy of Urgent by Foreigner, costing a mere 50p, became as much a part of the soundtrack to my summer as the decidedly more typical Tainted Love by Soft Cell and OMD’s Souvenir. But while both those records spent much of the summer months inside the UK top 10, on its initial release Urgent crashed and burned outside the top 50 and spent only four weeks on the chart.
It neatly typifies a problem facing many well-established American rock acts towards the end of the 1970s and throughout much of the 1980s as they struggled to get a foothold on the UK singles chart despite effortlessly scoring a string of sizeable hits on their home turf. Perhaps it had something to do with the dominance of home-grown pop acts on national radio or simply that the more traditional combination of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards were somehow less interesting to the British record buying public and were being largely replaced by the more alternative sounds being created by the likes of The Human League, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan.
US chart mainstays such as Boston and Journey may have managed to sell a few albums here during their lengthy careers, but they struggled to land UK hit singles with any degree of consistency. Boston had managed to shift over 25 million copies of their first two albums in the US alone and picked up respective Gold and Silver sales awards for those albums here, but by the time their third album, appropriately titled Third Stage, arrived in 1987, the sales difference between the two territories was enormous – 4 x Platinum and no.1 chart position in the US, no.37 chart peak in the UK. The disparity between Journey’s success in the US and the UK is even greater, with the band’s 1980s output selling in the region of 20 million albums and spawning 15 US top 40 singles, while in the UK the band’s signature songs, Who’s Crying Now, Open Arms and even the eventually ubiquitous Don’t Stop Believin’, failed to crack the 40 on their initial release. Thankfully, most US rock acts would eventually discover that the one thing the Brits just couldn’t resist was a tear-jerking ballad and they soon realized the entire nation was in the grip of a massive First Wedding-Dance Song Deficit. Thus, artists such as Richard Marx, who had failed to score any UK hits from his self-titled debut album in 1987 despite all four singles released in the US reaching the top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100, finally made his breakthrough with his swoon-inducing piano ballad Right Here Waiting, reaching no.2 in the UK charts in 1989.
It was this strategy which had previously been employed by Foreigner towards the end of 1981, ensuring a belated UK breakthrough for the band with Waiting For A Girl Like You, a no.8 hit in December of that year. The band had already released three US top 5 albums, with cumulative sales in excess of 15 million, but had so far failed to make a dent in the UK top 20 in either the singles or albums chart and it would be their fourth album, rather unsurprisingly titled 4, which proved to be their international breakthrough. Waiting… was actually the third single to be released from the album, following Juke Box Hero (no.48 in October 1981), and the album’s introductory single, and the subject of today’s piece, Urgent, which had also missed out on a place on the UK’s top 40 single chart when it was initially released in August.
On paper, at least, and in terms of the pop music I was buying into, Urgent exemplifies virtually everything the 15 year-old me would have normally chosen to ignore. Firstly, those guitars were always going to be a sticking point for me back then and despite sterling work from Hazel O’Connor (and in particular her band-mate Wesley Magoogan) earlier that year with Will You?, it would be a while before I fully embraced the concept of a ‘good’ saxophone solo. For someone whose bedroom walls were plastered with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and The Human League posters, the band themselves were hardly heartthrobs – as the camera panned along the line-up in their videos it was more reminiscent of the transformation scenes in An American Werewolf in London than something to send pulses racing – and when it came to the school disco…not even Kevin Bacon could dance to this. But something about Urgent got under my skin.
Perhaps the clue was in the parent album’s title, because the number four wasn’t merely a sequential choice, it reflected the fact that the band had recently slimmed down to a four-piece, losing founder member, keyboard player Al Greenwood and Ian McDonald, who had predominately performed rhythm guitar duties but could also turn his hand (or lips) to the saxophone when required. During the recording of the album session musicians were drafted in to fill in the blanks, and this, along with the decidedly more pop sensibilities of producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, went a long way towards shaping the overall sound of the album. Thus, a then unknown keyboard wizard named Thomas Dolby was largely responsible for the atmospheric synth washes and the decidedly more contemporary electronic sounds employed throughout the album’s recording process – something which is especially noticeable and particularly effective on Waiting For A Girl Like You and Urgent.
Urgent sounds like an out-and-out Pop record which just happens to have been made by a Rock band. Not a million miles away from the empowering, anthemic pop that has since become the trademarked sound for the likes of Pink and Kelly Clarkson, Urgent is given, well, considerable urgency by its relentless rhythm section, some serious power-chord guitar riffs and a few uncharacteristic – and fairly freaky – electronic keyboard effects. A special nod must also go to legendary session player, Junior Walker, for the blistering sax solo which enlivens the middle section of Urgent and stands as one of the best examples of an instrumental break which feels fully integrated into the song, rather than something recorded separately or bolted on as an afterthought.
A second release, following the success of Waiting For A Girl Like You, saw Urgent improve slightly on its initial chart placing but still left it marooned slightly short of the top 40 glory it deserved. It would only be a couple of years before Foreigner would score their biggest international hit, I Want To Know What Love Is, hitting no.1 on both sides of the Atlantic and cementing its status as the ultimate anthem for ever left-on-the-shelf bridesmaid to drunkenly sing along to at EVERY wedding reception from now until doomsday.
Myself, you’re more likely to catch me, as the eternal ‘confirmed bachelor’, doing a fully choreographed dance routine to Urgent at every single wedding I attend, belting out the words, “But I’m not looking for a love that will last / I know what I need and I need it fast / Yeah, there’s one thing in common that we both share / That’s a need for each other anytime, anywhere,” with tears streaming down my face. Go on. Invite me, I dare you.
Entered chart: 29/08/81 and 08/05/82
Chart peak: 54 and 45
Weeks on chart: 9 (over two separate releases)
Who could sing this today and have a hit? – Shannon covered this way back in 1985, proving rather emphatically that it couldn’t be converted into a pop/R&B/dance track but I think with Max Martin on production duties this could be another hit worthy of becoming a series of inspirational mini-posters for Kelly Clarkson.