Raygun . . . Naked Raygun
By Peter Margasak
My first Naked Raygun show, at Tuts in Lakeview in 1983, was an oasis in a long summer of faceless hardcore. Metal influences and thrash were beginning to dominate punk rock, and most of the other bands I'd seen lately--the Exploited, Jodie Foster's Army, local boys Rights of the Accused--were graceless, pimply shouters in flannel shirts, all about velocity and volume with "politics" that rarely went deeper than "Fuck Reagan." But Naked Raygun looked positively sharp, with their close-cropped hair and carefully chosen thrift-store duds. They were equal opportunity cynics ("If you cared about the world / You wouldn't be here hanging on a girl," Jeff Pezzati sang), and their songs actually had hooks.
At the time I didn't yet understand that bands like Naked Raygun--in attitude if not sound--were cropping up all over the U.S., but it became apparent soon enough. The hardcore underground was too rigid to expand with the best bands it produced, and within the next year or so, independent labels like SST, Homestead, and Touch and Go exploded with remarkably diverse records by the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur, Husker Du, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, the Volcano Suns, Big Black, Die Kreuzen, the Butthole Surfers, and Killdozer--bands that, ironically, would set the stage for the profoundly homogenizing "alternative rock" explosion of the 90s. Some of them, like the Minutemen and Big Black, split up before the end of the decade. Others, like Dinosaur and Killdozer, backed themselves into stylistic corners; still others, like Die Kreuzen and the Buttholes, simply went to shit. But in the mid-80s they were all remaking rock in their own image.
Although Naked Raygun sounded more classically punk than many of those acts, they displayed a similar intelligence and disregard for what their peers were doing. But while most of these other bands were willing to take their shows on the road, touring relentlessly to increase their reputations, Naked Raygun kept their ambitions modest. In a 1985 interview for the fanzine Matter, Pezzati said, "If you want to live out of a Glad Bag that's fine. But I can't do it." Instead the band made frequent weekend trips around the midwest and occasionally out east, but zines and college radio nonetheless spread the word, and they eventually joined the impressive roster at Homestead.
In early '83, when Naked Raygun let a fanzine writer named Steve Albini release their debut EP, Basement Screams, on the fledgling Ruthless label (the EP and the group's five subsequent studio albums were reissued last month by Touch and Go subsidiary Quarterstick), they were still searching for an image. In fact, while certain elements of what would become their trademark sound were already in place--Pezzati's neo-Misfits whoa-oh-oh choruses, drummer Jim Colao's tribal, tom-tom-heavy swing, Camilo Gonzalez's throbbing, distorted bass, and the filthy, acidic noise Santiago Durango wrung from his guitar--the six-song record sounded downright schizophrenic. The anthemic quality that came to dominate Naked Raygun's later records was present, on the instant classic "I Lie," but so was the evil fuzz of "Bombshelter," the nauseous rockabilly of Durango's "Swingo"--with truly awful tenor sax honking courtesy of his eventual replacement, John Haggerty--and the twitchy quasi funk of "Mofo."
Not long after Basement Screams appeared, Durango--who along with Gonzalez had played in Silver Abuse, which some consider Chicago's first punk band--split to form the short-lived Interceptors with future Raygun bassist Pierre Kezdy, future MC5 documentarian Dave Thomas, and drummer Bob Furem, who'd go on to play in a 60s-style garage band called the Sapphires with future Crown Royals front man Pete Nathan. After that Durango contributed his bludgeoning smudge of a guitar sound to Albini's artier, more extreme Big Black (which in an earlier incarnation had featured Pezzati on bass). Haggerty had come on with Naked Raygun as a second guitarist before Durango quit, but they'd only played half a dozen shows with this lineup (which I will forever regret not seeing).
Durango's departure would have been a huge loss to a lesser band--nobody played like him, and he wrote half the material on Basement Screams--but Haggerty proved himself in the first seconds of the band's Homestead debut, Throb Throb, with the tense, menacing three-note intro to "Rat Patrol." His distorted, steely guitar sound was a machete that could split hairs as easily as it could lop off heads.
The songwriting credits were still split several ways on Throb Throb--to Durango's reported annoyance, the album even included two of his tunes. But the songs fell mostly into two camps this time: those that interspersed hooky fragments with odd blurts of noise and nonsense or simply trashed the structure from the get-go, as with the skeletal go-go grind of "Surf Combat" ("Napalm makes you vomit / As it sizzles off your weenie") or the nonlinear nightmare "Leeches"; and those that displayed an emerging melodic gift, like "Metastasis" and "Managua." At shows, it was the latter batch that got the crowds cranked up. The fist pumping reached a fever pitch on "I Don't Know," an anthem for disillusioned youth if there ever was one: "Listen now to what I say / About the kids of today / Subscribe to them all your fears / 'Til they become like you....What poor gods do we make."
Naked Raygun's live performances are now legendary. "Promoters [would] move their shows rather than book a rival show on the same night as a Raygun gig," Pezzati recalls in his liner essay for the Basement Screams reissue. The band routinely tossed gifts--"free shit," in the parlance--out to the audience, including toys, candy, and promotional items like combs and flyswatters. At a Metro show on or around Thanksgiving in 1984, somebody onstage, Pezzati I think, carved a raw turkey with a chain saw, sending slick gizzards, drumsticks, and breasts into the heart of the mosh pit.
But by 1986, when Homestead released All Rise, they had cut raw meat out of their diet in favor of well-done steak. Colao and Gonzalez had left and been replaced by Eric Spicer, a more powerful but less skilled drummer, and Kezdy, who favored more cleanly articulated bass lines. Only the start-stop intro of "Dog at Large" and the sinisterly swinging "Mr. Gridlock" hinted at Naked Raygun's old jagged edge. As a slab of heavy midwestern swagger, All Rise is still hard to beat, but it was the beginning of the end. In 1988 the band switched from Homestead to Caroline and made the bigger-sounding Jettison and Understand?, which between them contain a few more classic anthems--"Soldiers Requiem," "Treason." But by now the hooks were as predictable as Green Day's, and if the live shows were still terrific, for me the thrill was more in where Naked Raygun had come from than where they were going.
In 1990 Haggerty split to form Pegboy, and Naked Raygun made one final album, Raygun...Naked Raygun, with guitarist Bill Stephens of the aptly named Product 19. The cover features a James Bond figure with a blank spot for a face and instructions to "attach your favorite Naked Raygun head here," and intentionally or not it underscored how interchangeable the band members had become--Naked Raygun had become a Naked Raygun tribute band. In a recent interview for the Chicago Tribune, Pezzati suggested that if they had toured more they might have survived longer and sold more records. There may be some truth to that, but broader exposure wouldn't have changed the fact that their fat years were spent milking the innovations of leaner times. Few bands will ever make one record as brilliant as Throb Throb, and even Naked Raygun never made another.