After the clarion call of a repeated single A-flat guitar note, like a telegraph warning of an incoming missile, the crunchy rhythm guitar kicked in and the angry, authoritative baritone of Jeff Pezzati launched into “Treason” thusly:
“Why me? Why am I down?/I feel I’m not whole,/Why do I feel so far below?/I’m free to go?
”Why dream? Why partake?/Why be half of a weak embrace,/Of time and of space?/Why lose face?”
And that was just the beginning of their fourth proper album, Understand?
Naked Raygun was that rare punk band that dared to wear their hearts on their sleeves, who dared to sing of hopes and dreams, to allude to Dylan Thomas on one song and to glorify snipers on the next. Many of the “hardcore” faithful felt that Raygun were starting to lose the plot by this record, and it was the beginning of the end. But really it was their strongest record end-to-end, and signaled a musical and artistic peak that they would struggle to mount again.
Aside from founding member and Pezzati (who hailed from the Chicago suburb of Naperville and whose brother Marko was also an early member), the Chicago quartet comprised John Haggerty on lead guitar, Eric Spicer on drums, and Pierre Kezdy, credited on the record jacket with bass, striped and large mouth.
After Understand?, Haggerty, a member since the early 1980s, left the band and was replaced by Bill Stephenson. That quartet released one more full-length record, 1990′s desultory and soul-less Raygun… Naked Raygun before holstering their musical career for six years. After occasional reunion shows that started in 1997, they announced their permanent return as a band at Chicago’s Riot Fest in 2006. Fresh on the heels of another triumphant show the night before Thanksgiving at Chicago’s Metro, it’s the perfect occasion to take another look at Understand?
Aside from the anthemic (and aberrantly lengthy) “Treason,” almost every cut here should be considered a modern punk classic. From the pounding and bass-propelled “Hips Swingin’” and its ironic pro-world domination philosophy, to the cold mid-chord stop of the concluding cut, “Which Side You’re On,” the record features 12 slices of Buzzcocks-inspired guitar blazing, all led by Pezzati’s at turns harrowingly emotionless monotone and at other turns dynamically passionate vocals.
The inspirational motto-laden “Never Follow” was coupled with the Spicer-penned “lone gunman” sympathizing “The Sniper Song.” The title track took the air out of the concept of “understanding,” and “Which Side You’re On” nicely anticipated Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy”—it’s helpful to remember that this record was penned and released at the end of the Reagan era. “Entrapment” again embraces the importance of hopes and dreams, and “Wonder Beer” imagines that “if there are gods they must be drunk.”
While it’s true that the tempos had slowed down a touch, this record was better than its predecessors because of the compelling melodies, guitar hooks aplenty and the emotional resonance that was inherent in the lyrics. Fans and critics who are adherents to their earlier records Throb Throb and Jettison should give this platter another spin.
After Understand?, Haggerty left and formed Pegboy, and Jeff Pezzati started The Bomb, both mining a more pop-punk sound with less of a hard edge and focusing on their talents for crafting winning hooks and engaging melodies, although Haggerty’s outfit arguably retained a faster pace and a tougher edge.
The 1999 Quarterstick reissue appended two live cuts, the relatively inconsequential “Mr. Gridlock” and the essential “I Don’t Know,” with its resonant chorus of “What poor gods we do make.” We’ll see you later,” Pezzati says to the crowd at the end, and although that proved prophetic in the realm of live performance, aside from a few recent seven inch singles, the world is still waiting for a full-length follow-up that would serve as a worthy successor to Understand?
Naked Raygun – Understand? tracklist:
- “Hips Swinging”
- “Wonder Beer”
- “Never Follow”
- “Too Much of You”
- “Vagabond Dog”
- “O.K. Wait”
- “The Sniper Song”
- “Which Side You’re On”
- “Mr. Gridlock”
- “I Don’t Know”