Chicago’s Naked Raygun was one of the encouraging new punk bands that bloomed in the Midwest long after thrash had apparently isolated the punk aesthetic in its own circumscribed ghetto, where it would never again challenge the musical values of regular folk. Lump the longer-running Raygun in with Hüsker Dü, Man Sized Action, Big Black and Breaking Circus and you’ll be oversimplifying, but you’ll have your finger on an early-’80s movement of sorts. All of these bands expanded the boundaries and cast aside some of the trappings of punk to bring it back into contact with the mainstream. If none of them ever attained huge success, all at least appealed to adventurous people who don’t have mohawks.
Naked Raygun (like most of the other bands mentioned) had an unabashed love for the naïve arty experimentation of Wire and the Buzzcocks. Basement Screams is a hodgepodge of underproduced, underconceived songs with a lot of Misfits-type paramilitary chanting; energetic and articulate but not directly compelling. (With that, guitarist Santiago Durango left to join Big Black and was replaced by John Haggerty.) Throb Throb‘s songs are much better, its drive more urgent and Haggerty’s piercing guitar lines a sonically expansive, sharp force. Even at low volume, the album is loud. The best track, “I Don’t Know,” is a grippingly melodic art-punk anthem that turns on singer/plumber Jeff Pezzati’s anti-idol wail, “What poor gods we do make.” A potent, impressive album.
All Rise keeps up the all-out assault level, with dynamic co-production by Iain Burgess making the guitars roar with speaker-shredding distortion. Pezzati’s subtly vindictive lyrics (e.g., “Mr. Gridlock” and “The Strip”) voice their critiques in an oblique, ironic fashion generally outside the capabilities of punk auteurs. All Rise may be a bit short on melodies (something hinted at in “Knock Me Down”), but Raygun is obviously getting better all the time.
Raygun continue to achieve excellence on their third LP, Jettison. Quite different from previous releases, the music’s considerably slower speed (only the most notable change) gives almost breathtaking impact to the already forceful sound. “Hammer Head,” “Soldier’s Requiem,” “When the Walls Come Down” and the utterly brilliant “Walk in Cold” are staggering in their intensity. The CD adds four songs: three live cuts and “Vanilla Blue,” originally issued as a single.
Understand? finds the band at peak power, delivering its best collection of songs to date. Continuing a trend begun on Jettison, all four members contribute more or less equally to the songwriting, resulting in a compelling array of martial chants and supercharged rockers. With one exception (the overtly geopolitical “Hips Swingin'”), the lyrics all stick to the theme of personal politics as filtered through macho adventure comics.
John Haggerty then left to form Pegboy, creating a void in the band which new guitarist Bill Stephens doesn’t adequately fill on Raygun…Naked Raygun. A disappointing album full of pretentious cyberpunk lyrics and half-baked ideas (isn’t it a bit late for skateboard songs?), some cuts add insult to injury with muddy, almost demo-quality production. Stephens lacks the chops to step into Haggerty’s combat boots, but he is the author of the disc’s best song, “The Promise,” an aggressive shot of melodic punk that does the band’s class of ’77 forebears proud. Though hardly a total disaster, Raygun…Naked Raygun is a definite misstep from a band that has done much better.
As for Haggerty’s new endeavor, Raygun’s loss is Pegboy’s gain. On the introductory 12-inch, Haggerty, his drummer brother Joe and a couple of ex-Bhopal Stiffs race through four blistering doses of melodic punk reminiscent of, well, Naked Raygun and Bhopal Stiffs. A nice job, but the gooey, introspective lyrics could use some work.
Since 1999, Pezzati has fronted the Bomb, a bracingly loud but tuneful punk quartet. The self-released Torch Songs was produced by Albini; following a lineup change, J. Robbins (Jawbox) produced Indecision, an album of speaker-shaking guitar chords, earnest singing and agitated, angsty lyrics (“Indecision,” “Further From the Truth,” “Never Want to See You Again,” “Bring the Shotgun”). In “Up From the Floor,” Pezzati spits from a new place in his life. “They say young’s wasted on youth / Whoever said that didn’t speak the truth.” If he’s suffering a bit for his endurance, it’s still reassuring to hear an oldtimer bring it with such conviction.
All of the 1999 Quarterstick Raygun reissues include bonus tracks.