Naked Raygun

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Among the most influential Midwest punk bands of the 1980s, Naked Raygun came out of Chicago with a powerful mix of anthemic melodies, slashing and grinding guitars, shout-along choruses, percolating rhythms, and lyrics that focused on the overlap between the personal and the political. In their hometown, they were widely acknowledged to be the most popular and important group on the scene as melodic punk evolved into hardcore, and through their approach became more streamlined with the passage of time, the force and passion of their music never lost its potency. 1985′s Throb Throb, their first full-length album, was the LP that established them as a force to be reckoned with, 1988′s Jettison was widely regarded as their finest album, and 2021′s Over the Overlords was their first studio album in over 30 years, after splitting up in 1992 and reuniting for live shows in 2006.
Naked Raygun was formed in February 1980 by bassist Marko Pezzati and guitarist Santiago Durango, a pair of punk rock fans studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jim Colao, a friend of Durango’s, was recruited to play drums, and Marko’s brother Jeff Pezzati, then singing with a cover band, came on board as their vocalist. The following June, the band played their first gig, but Colao soon dropped out and Bobby Strange took over as drummer. Strange didn’t last much longer, leaving the band in December, and after a brief spell with Jon Lundin on drums, Colao returned in time for a New Year’s Eve Show, and Lundin moved over to keyboards before quitting for good in 1981.
Naked Raygun began playing regularly in Chicago, most often at Oz, a bar that became a home to the Windy City punk community. Appropriately, their debut on vinyl came on Busted at Oz, a sampler of several Chicago-based acts (also including the Effigies, Strike Under, and the Subverts) recorded live at the club in March 1981. Not long after the album came out, Marko Pezzati dropped out of Naked Raygun, and Camilo Gonzalez, who had played alongside Durango in Silver Abuse, was hired to play bass. John Haggerty, a friend of the band, started joining them on-stage to play saxophone and additional guitar, and he contributed sax and backing vocals to the 1983 EP Basement Screams, which was Naked Raygun’s first studio project. Haggerty soon became an official member of NR, and the group had a two-guitar lineup until mid-1983, when Durango left to devote more time to academics and his other music project, Big Black, founded by outspoken Naked Raygun fan Steve Albini. (Jeff Pezzati also played in Big Black for a spell.) With Haggerty acclimated as lead guitarist, they began recording an album in the summer of 1983, though financial problems would prevent them from immediately releasing the project. Jim Colao left NR after completing his work on the album, and in the summer of 1984, Eric Spicer, formerly of DV8, took over behind the drum kit. A West Coast tour and extensive live work in the Midwest created a powerful buzz about Naked Raygun, and in early 1985, Homestead Records finally released the LP Throb Throb, which replaced some of the more experimental aspects of the band’s style with a tighter and harder punch. The disc received rave reviews in the underground music press and earned respectable sales, while NR were able to sell out some of the biggest clubs in Chicago.
After touring in support of Throb Throb, Camilo Gonzalez parted ways with the group, and Pierre Kezdy replaced him on bass in time for the sessions that would produce NR’s second LP, All Rise, which appeared in early 1986. Like Throb Throb, All Rise received positive reviews, and the band would jump from Homestead Records to Caroline Records (a deal engineered by former Minor Threat guitarist Lyle Preslar, now working for the label), and in 1987, they began work on their next album. Jettison, which was issued in early 1988, included a cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device” that was recorded at a November 1987 show at Chicago’s Riviera, a 2,500-capacity venue that would host many of their hometown performances. Naked Raygun mounted successful tours of the East and West Coasts, and a second LP for Caroline, Understand, appeared in shops in 1989. Following its release, Naked Raygun mounted their first overseas tours, playing in Europe and the United Kingdom. However, though the band’s popularity was near its height, John Haggerty was growing dissatisfied with Naked Raygun; his bandmates still had day jobs while Haggerty wanted to make the group a full-time pursuit, and he had unanswered questions about their finances. Unable to come to terms with the other members, Haggerty left Naked Raygun in August 1989. With an East Coast tour looming, they brought in Bill Stephens, formerly of Product 19, to play guitar. They were determined to carry on without Haggerty, and the first album with Stephens, Raygun … Naked Raygun, came out in October 1990. However, the band and their fans were both dissatisfied with the record, and the musicians were losing enthusiasm for the project. After demo’ing new songs in mid-1992 and playing a show at the Riviera, Naked Raygun quietly broke up. John Haggerty would go on to form Pegboy, and Jeff Pezzati became lead singer with a group called the Bomb.
The final Naked Raygun lineup briefly reunited in 1997 to re-record the songs from the 1992 demos (the new versions appeared on the album Last of the Demohicans) and play three shows at the Metro in Chicago; the concerts were recorded and became the basis of the 2001 LP Free Shit. By the time the live set came out, the group’s back catalog had been reissued by Quarterstick Records, an offshoot of the venerable Chicago punk label Touch & Go, with all the albums except Raygun … Naked Raygun including unreleased bonus material. After several years of inactivity, Naked Raygun were booked to play a reunion show as part of Chicago’s 2006 Riot Fest punk rock festival. Like the 1997 shows, the lineup was Jeff Pezzati, Bill Stephens, Pierre Kezdy, and Eric Spicer. The Riot Fest reunion proved to be major local news in Chicago, and the positive reception prompted Naked Raygun to make the reunion permanent. The group toured periodically, and in 2009, they released a new single, “Mein Iron Maiden” b/w “Out of Your Mind,” on Riot Fest Records. That same year, a documentary on NR, What Poor Gods We Do Make: The Story and Music Behind Naked Raygun, was issued on DVD. Riot Fest Records brought out two more singles in 2010 (“Growing Away” b/w “Just for Me”) and 2011 (“Burning Red” b/w “Black Eyed Blue”), and also in 2011, Pete Mittler (aka Sensitive Pete) became the group’s bassist for live work after Pierre Kezdy suffered a stroke. Fritz Doreza replaced Mittler in 2015, in time for Naked Raygun to open a massive Foo Fighters concert at Wrigley Field that also featured sets from local legends Cheap Trick and Urge Overkill. Pierre Kezdy died on October 9, 2020, at the age of 58 after a bout with cancer; his final studio recordings with Naked Raygun appeared on 2021′s Over the Overlords, their first studio album since 1990′s Raygun … Naked Raygun, which was issued by Wax Trax! Records. ~ Mark Deming