Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Wayback Machine: Naked Raygun - Throb, Throb

Chicago punk never really made a national name for itself. I understand, I don't take it personally. We never had the trendy nihilism of the LA scene, or New York's CGBG's hookups, never mind the authenticity of London punks or the artiness of Manchester. But Chicago did come up with a few corkers in its time, bands that are too often overlooked. Though few have as much love in their heart for band like the Effigies as I, it's hard to argue that Chicago's biggest punk act wasn't Naked Raygun. They once described their sound as "aggressive, melodic, intense, chanty music... bat cave funk, zydeco bop, twist and ground flailer, closet Motown", which probably sums it up as well as anything.

Raygun was one of those punk bands that had something for everyone. Oh wait, no, not something for everyone in that Clash "oh look, they write love songs and dance hits too" kinda way. I mean they had something for every punk niche. They were loud, chanting and angry enough for the hardcore kids, their attitudes towards sex would please the straight-edgers and they were weird and challenging enough for the pretentious punks and students. Not only did they hit all the punk highlights, but these were huge fucking midwestern dudes playing loud, angry music in a way that even pulled in some of your dive-bar hard rock fans. As my grandfather would say, they were the real deal.

It's no surprise they were as good as they were, Naked Raygun was formed alongside Big Black with bassist Santiago Durango and singer Jeff Pazzati splitting duties in both bands for a time. They played Chicago throught the early eighties, releasing a 7" and an EP before recording their first full-length LP, Throb Throb in 1985. By that time Durango had left Raygun for Big Black, being replaced by Camilo Gonzalez and Pazzati had made the opposite choice. They were joined by drummer Jim Caolo and iconic punk guitarist John Haggerty for the album. Although the band shifted lineups a great deal over the years, they were never better than on Throb, and with Durango gone, each member had a chance to contribute songs.

Coming out a year after milestone punk classics like Zen Arcade and Double Nickles On The Dime, it would be easy to overlook Throb Throb, with it's lack of sprawling eclecticism or overarching narrative ambition as evidence of Chicago punk being, as always, a day late and a dollar short. I can see where that temptation lies, this being a debut full-length from a supposedly seminal eighties punk act coming halfway through the decade. But that would be ignoring Raygun's incredible talents as a band that could be as noisy as the Hüskers, as raw as the Misfits and as daring as the Minutemen all at once.

The album starts with a mind-melting riff that sounds like the Cramps on speed, as Haggerty's spastic guitar mixes rockabilly with noise rock. "Rat Patrol" is a fitting opener for an album with strikingly tank-heavy artwork, recalling Montgomery's famed "Desert Rats" chasing Rommel across the North African sands as the native inhabitants look on. This segues quickly into "Surf Combat" which is like a fever dream of Apocalypse Now's surfing scene with Robert Duvall's famous proclamation "I love the smell of napalm in the morning". The song is a bloodily surrealistically depiction of a napalm attack on a vacation beachfront.

This military imagery sets a tone for the record, which is one that flirts with macho violence, but only in the most ridiculous way possible. The men in Naked Raygun may have grown up playing war in middle America, but they also saw the tragedy and despair in Cold War military posturing and they attacked it with a combination of seething riffs and goofily violent comic book imagery. In "Gear" as Pazzati's lyrics play on the painfully obvious phallic nature of nuclear weaponry as he references "reentry vehicles" and "missiles in [his] garage" while warning the listener to "strap down, buckle in" for "the ride of your life". Finally, he exposes the juvenile one-upsmanship of the doomsday standoff by yelling "my dad's bigger than your dad".

Camilo Gonzalez
The opening trio of songs show off a little of Raygun's artier side along with their shout-along Misfits fetish, the real gems are yet to come. Camilo Gonzalez's bass playing is generally givenshort shrift in the up-tempo rockers, but starting with "Leeches", we see his impressively deft touch. The song is pure Dada, talking about "lions and tigers and bears" over a syncopated bassline before shattering into another shout-along chorus of "Leeches! Let 'em live!", over and over. "Libido" is even more impressive as Gonzalez lays down a slinky, jazzy, dare-I-say-sexy bass line that both tugs at your hips and sticks in your brain. This is fitting at first as Haggerty splatters impressionistic yet crunchy guitar over the groove before Pazzati comes in. Then, despite the song's mood, he starts telling us that his libido is low because... his prostate fell out dancing? It's juvenile humor, to be sure, but its subversion of expectations and insouciant charm make it an easy highlight.

This is followed by rave-up "No Sex", which extneds the theme of the best track from Raygun's debut EP, "Potential Rapist" with a shattered guitar riff just dripping with testosterone and a pained scream about a total lack of sexual desire. Poking fun at both meathead rockers and straight-edge purists with lines about not wanting to "take it up the butt", it serves as an effective interlude. Joining it are songs like "Metastasis", which not only seethes with anger but turns modern medical jargon into almost funny singalong gold (until you realize it's about spreading disease). Album closer "Mangua" is little more than a sentence of lyrics backed by a catchy riff but its evocation of the Nicaraguan capital alone was enough to remind listeners in Reagan's America of the shocking evils being committed in their name. Even the apparent noise collage throwaway "On" was actually a backwards recording of a quick little ode to the fairer sex wherein the singer lands on "horny" as the only kind of girl for him.

But Naked Raygun most stood out as a band when it combined art, melody and shrapnel-spewing guitar work and Throb Throb had those anthems aplenty. "I Don't Know" was perhaps one of the greatest generational anti-anthems of its time, released the same year as "Bastards Of Young" but with an even catchier chorus. "What poor gods we'll make" seemed like a phrase destined for immortality, especially when combined with the chugging guitar and similarly Gen X shoulder shrug of the title phrase. "Only In America" once again skirts the political, with observations like "someone can make a buck / on the cure for your bad luck" in-between tirades against chemical production and eating boogers (the horns are a nice touch though). "Roller Queen" with it's frenetic breakdown would also go on to become a live staple.
"We're the band your brother sings to in the shower. Clever enough to be the next Beatles, original enough to never be signed to any major or large independent."
So said Naked Raygun in 1985 and, although Throb Throb was no Please Please Me, they weren't entirely wrong. The album showed a rollicking, energetic, inventive, restless band just starting to grow into their talent and push themselves. They would go on to release increasingly varied albums throughout the eighties, to varying degrees of critical and little commercial success. The band became a big draw in Chicago by the end of the decade but did little outside of our fair city. They finally called it quits in the early nineties, just as punk broke and bands like Nirvana and the Jesus Lizard were able to bring their ideas to a larger audience than ever. No matter though, this was a band that never really aimed for success and probably wouldn't have been comfortable playing arenas. 

They now reunite on-and-off for seven inches or (mostly local) shows and thus can remain a relatively secret treat for those lucky enough to love them. I plan on catching them live in a few weeks at Metro, but even for those who don't get down with the whole late-career reunion thing, there's always the albums. For those people, it should be a comfort to know that Throb Throb is still there. Never overplayed, never corrupted, just waiting to leap out of your speakers and leave a few scratches in your cerebellum.

Surf Combat
I Don't Know
Only In America

Roller Queen [Live]

Buy the album.

You should also go see them live at Metro, you know that'll be amazing!

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