By the time producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange signed up to work with Mick Jones on Foreigner’s fourth album 4, his reputation preceded him. Lange’s attention to detail was second to none – and so was the amount of hair-tearing stress that could come with it.
Still, Foreigner leader Jones found himself impressed with the South African producer’s approach from the start. “It was the first time working with Mutt, and he was the first producer that wanted to come around to my place and he wanted me to play every single idea that I had on cassette,” Jones told UCR’s Matt Wardlaw in 2014. “He said that it didn’t matter if I was embarrassed or whatever, he just wanted to hear everything.”
The guitarist admitted that Lange “did challenge me” from the start, and “there were definitely ideas that I never would have played for anybody.”
Nevertheless, among the “two or three gems” that Lange picked out was the beginning of the song “Urgent.” “I had the riff starting out,” Jones recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s like an experimental instrumental thing that I’m working on.’ He said, ‘No, it isn’t anymore -– let’s take that one, because that’s got a lot of potential.’ There wasn’t even a song with it.”
Feeling the need for an outside influence on keyboards, Jones and Lange brought in the then-unknown Thomas Dolby, who described the experience as “very productive.” He noted in his 2018 memoir The Speed of Sound that “I gained the utmost respect for Mick Jones, a thoroughly decent bloke, as well as for Mutt Lange’s amazing production skills. I’ve never worked with a more fastidious producer. He would make me go over and over my parts, adjusting the inflections on every single note until it was exactly perfect. Some simple strings of notes took hours and hours to record.”
That wasn’t always how it played out, though. “When he brought in sax legend Junior Walker for a solo on ‘Urgent’ and recorded at least a dozen versions, Mutt had the wisdom to recognize that the very first solo Junior blew, rough edges and all, was The Take,” said Dolby.
Watch Foreigner’s ‘Urgent’ Video
In 2013, Jones told Wardlaw that “Urgent” was an example of how Foreigner could “go into another area, still [remain] within the character of the band, but just present something slightly different.”
It was the first single released from 4, in June 1981, and became one of the band’s most successful hits, reaching No. 4 and holding the position for four weeks. “‘Urgent’ … was a bit of a hybrid,” Jones said. “It was a soul song, really – a quirky kind of rock and soul combination. That album had a bunch of different departures on it from the album that preceded it, Head Games. … It was just like a musical journey.”
In 2016, Dolby said “Urgent” had at least some of its roots in a demo tape he’d sent to Lange earlier, in the hope of securing his own publishing deal. “He was a very big fan of some of the sounds I used in a song of mine called ‘Urge,’ and the chorus sort of goes, Urges, urges,” he explained. “He asked me to put it one of [Foreigner’s] backing tracks. … A while later, they added the vocals, which were Urgent, urgent. … I raised my eyebrows slightly – but you know, I’m glad to have influenced them in a positive way.”
“Urgent” was the first of five singles spawned from 4, four of which broke the Top 40. “We were seriously battling together and battling each other to get what we thought we wanted from that album,” Jones said in 2014. “It almost ended a few weeks into it, just through arguments and a whole bunch of stuff going on, but by the time we finished, we were the best of friends and, thankfully, we still respected each other very much. I know I respect Mutt for what he’s done. He definitely gave us a tough time, but he got it out of us.”
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It’s hard to imagine rock radio without the string of hit singles Foreigner peeled off in the ’70s and ’80s.