More than a decade ago, as a precursor to performing the song concerned live, Richard Marx astonished a sold-out audience at his London’s Royal Albert Hall show by describing the 1992 worldwide chart-topper Hazard as “the dumbest, lamest thing” that he’d ever written. He then went on to add: “The only reason I recorded it was to prove that my now ex-wife – who along with many of my friends believed it would be a smash – was wrong.”
The motto of this tale is simple: if in doubt, always listen to your wife. The song Hazard went on to become a career-defining moment for the Chicago-born singer-songwriter.
“Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Hazard is up there with Right Here Waiting [a squelchy ballad from his second album, Repeat Offender, released in 1989] as my biggest global hit,” Marx agrees now, sounding slightly sheepish. Unsurprisingly, 31 years after Hazard helped to propel its parent album Rush Street towards more than two million sales, Marx has revised his opinion of the song.
“I love Hazard, I still love singing it and I never play a concert without including it,” he smiles about the fan favourite. “Even after all this time, I still get a lot enjoyment from how fascinated people are with the mystique behind its story.”
It was the working out of the plotline – when a woman called Mary vanishes without trace, the finger is pointed at a local social pariah who protests his innocence despite harbouring feelings for her – that gave Marx his biggest headache. Quite literally, the rest of Hazard was handed to him on a silver platter
“Dude, I dreamed that song!” he exclaims. “It was the first time that it had happened to me. I was on the tour for Repeat Offender and I fell asleep in the back of the bus somewhere between Illinois and Indiana and when I woke up at around 4am, I could hear the entire record in my head. The whole piece of music that provided me with the orchestration came to me overnight – what the bass part was, where the drums would go, what the guitar was doing, even the sound of the synthesiser pad… everything, except the actual lyrics.
“So I sang [the music] into my trusty Panasonic cassette recorder – hey it was 1990!” he chuckles – “and then I lived with it whilst deciding what the song should be about. The possibilities were endless because it was haunting and dramatic. The challenge was to write a story to match the music.”
Marx spent “weeks and weeks” tinkering with the song’s narrative, which follows a central character in love with Mary, who in turn goes out walking alone and never returns home. Following a visit from ‘a man with a badge’ and with a thousand pointing fingers, the narrator further stirs the pot by suggesting some kind of prejudice against him since he arrived in the town, aged seven.
“I swear, man, there was a point when I started to get really excited about it, but the more time I spent on the song I realised it was laughably stupid. I almost didn’t record it. It sounded like a really stupid episode of Twin Peaks. When you think about it, Hazard is buried as maybe track eight on the Rush Street record [in fact, it’s track five – Sequencing Ed], but when I was persuaded to put it on there Ifelt it would just be an album track. I didn’t think anybody would care about it, but somebody at the label liked it and the next thing I knew, it was huge.”
Apart from its brooding, stripped-down feel, the song’s real charm is its almost palpable sense of the sinister.
“I wrote it as a murder-mystery, and the conclusion is unsolved,” Marx explains. “I never wanted to reveal the culprit’s identity. Apart from it being set in Nebraska, the only thing I didn’t know wasthe town’s name…
“This was in pre-internet days so I called the Nebraska Chamber Of Commerce and asked a very nice-sounding woman to fax me a list of every town in the state. My fax machine started spitting out page after page. I shuffled them and took pot luck; it felt like picking a band name,” he laughs. “The first one I found was Ogallala, which clearly wouldn’t work because it had too many syllables, so I tried again. And that time it was Hazard, which I knew felt absolutely right.”
Released as the second single from Rush Street, Hazard peaked at No.9 on America’s Billboard Hot 100, topping the chart in Australia and going Top Three in Canada, the UK and Ireland. In New Zealand, Norway and Sweden it was also a Top 10 hit. Not too shabby for a tune its composer had initially written off as a lame duck.
Filmed in black and white to enhance its drama, the song was accompanied by a clever promotional video that has now been viewed almost 30 million times. It offers four theories to explain Mary’s death: that she either took her own life or was killed by the song’s central character, or alternatively, by the town’s sheriff, or even by an unnamed alternative lover. It concludes with Marx walking dejectedly back to his burnt-out trailer park home.
In spite of its immense popularity, to the best of Richard Marx’s knowledge, no other artist is yet to record a cover version of Hazard.
“I am dying to hear what a country artist could do with it,” he proposes. “I think that would be great.”
Hazard went on to become a bit of a housewives’ favourite, perhaps suggesting that Marx was just a croonsome balladeer and nothing else. When asked whether the song gave a false impression of his composing and performing skills, Richard bursts out laughing.
“Are you kidding? Maybe others of mine did, but not that one. My personal experience is that Hazard is enjoyed way more by dudes than by women. At my shows, every night someone in the crowd will yell out that title and I can tell you, it’s never, ever a woman!”
Richard Marx returns to the Royal Albert Hall on May 22, 2024. For ticket details and other dates, visit his website.