50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music — Rock In The ’80s

wax trax store front
Wax Trax record store on Lincoln Avenue was central to the rock, punk and industrial music scenes in Chicago in the 1980s. Courtesy of waxtraxfilms.org
wax trax store front
Wax Trax record store on Lincoln Avenue was central to the rock, punk and industrial music scenes in Chicago in the 1980s. Courtesy of waxtraxfilms.org

50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music — Rock In The ’80s

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If Chicago rock was for the most part incredibly lame through much of the ’60s and ’70s, it came roaring back with unprecedented aggression and innovation in the punk and indie-rock underground of the ’80s, with sounds that not only have proven the test of time but remain quintessentially Chicago.

Yes, there were a handful of punk bands before those lauded here, and others who were noteworthy peers. These are the groups that loom largest for me as we head toward our arbitrary cap of 50 acts that scream (literally, in this case) “Chicago.”

And no, none of these bands were known primarily for playing Lounge Ax, which is where Andrew Gill and I filmed this week’s video. They were far more likely to be found at clubs such as Exit, La Mere Vipere, O’Banions and others that deserve a nod. All were vital centers of community, as much as Maxwell Street or the gospel church before them, and Lounge Ax does epitomize that.

More than anything, the music of this era was about an attitude. John Kezdy of the Effigies put It best in a 1990 interview with Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune: “We were a bunch of bands with a basic, gut-level sound and no pretension: Brains, brawn, guitars, melodies … that’s the essence of the Chicago sound that started in the early ’80s.”

Much of the alternative explosion of the ’90s is unimaginable without that attitude and those sounds, and their influence continues to inspire today.

32. Big Black

“I guess I’m just pleased that the ideas I had at the time survived.” — Steve Albini

For two generations of indie rock fans worldwide, Steve Albini has been as symbolic of a certain uniquely Chicago ethos as Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel in the literary world.

As a writer and always-quotable philosopher, the Montana native has eloquently (and often controversially) stressed the importance of the Do-It-Yourself ethic and an uncompromising commitment to one’s artistic vision. And as a recording engineer still huddled daily over the tape heads at his Electrical Audio on Belmont near Western, he has popularized a no-frills, vibrantly live, and in-your-face sound on a long list of recordings that includes bands as diverse as Nirvana and Low and the Pixies and Page and Plant.

Yet while it’s hard to separate Albini’s other doings from his own music, Big Black would still be hugely important and tremendously influential even if he’d never done anything else. And he was of course not the only member of the trio — or quartet, if you count Roland the drum machine. I never saw the original lineup with Jeff Pezzati, later of Naked Raygun. But the combo of guitarist/vocalist Albini, guitarist Santiago Durango and bassist Jeff Riley remains one of the most intense live bands I’ve ever witnessed, bar none.

The group produced only two full studio albums between 1981 and 1987, but those remain essential listening for any fan of inventive post-punk rock. The sounds of the band’s dual guitars (“train guitar” and “rocket guitar,” as Albini once described them), the programmed rhythms (which always evoked what John Bonham would have done if he was a machine), and the sarcastic journalistic portraits of the dark underside of American life continue to loom large in the rock underground.

Click here for a great in-depth discussion of Big Black’s 1986 album Atomizer moderated by John Pierson for his Jughead’s Basement podcast.

33. The Effigies

“It’s pretty obvious that we’re dealing with a limited market for this, so it means we’ve got to be dedicated.” — John Kezdy

Less acclaimed even by underground standards than Big Black or Naked Raygun, the Effigies left an important legacy nonetheless, with five strong albums that span the ’80s. Through numerous lineup changes, with vocalist John Kezdy the sole constant, the group was active roughly from 1980 to 1990, subsequent reunions aside.
Kezdy was just as intense a front man as Albini, and even scarier onstage, while guitarists Earl Letiecq and Robert O’Connor and drummers Steve Economou and Joe Haggerty pushed the basic sounds of hardcore punk to new extremes, with exciting twists and turns along the way.

Albini gets much of the credit for shaping this city’s underground, but the Effigies were arguably even more important. As Albini himself has said, “The Effigies were absolutely essential to the development of a healthy punk scene in Chicago. Between them and Naked Raygun, in the early ’80s they basically kept the scene going until it developed momentum beyond them.”

The Effigies are featured in the fine 2007 documentary about Chicago punk in this era, You Weren’t There (the trailer can be seen here), and the film also dives much deeper into a lot of the history being condensed or excluded here.

34. Naked Raygun

“It would be easy to put ‘whoa-whoa’s’ in every song, but they’d have to be really good ‘whoa-whoa’s.’ ” — Jeff Pezzati

While Big Black and the Effigies drew from and built upon the harsher or artier ends of the punk spectrum (bands like Minor Threat, Wire, and early Public Image Ltd.), Naked Raygun’s heroes were the more melodic and anthemic Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers.

The massive, often wordless sing-along choruses that vocalist Pezzati references in the quote above are the sonic trademark fans think of first. But just as amazing was the penetrating guitar work of John Haggerty and later Bill Stephens and a Spartan but moving approach to the lyrics, the politics of which remain sadly as relevant today as they were in the ’80s.

Just listen to “Rat Patrol.” Or recall the band’s new-generational update to Dylan’s “Don’t follow leaders” on “I Don’t Know”: “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 we do make.”

Poor gods, perhaps, but more than worthy of our continued admiration. Pierson also dug deep into Naked Raygun’s 1985 album Throb Throb on this episode of Jughead’s Basement.

35. Screeching Weasel

“People who like the band in the mainstream press always ask, ‘Why is it that a band like Blink-182 or Green Day is so popular and Screeching Weasel hasn’t reached that level of success?’ It’s probably 95 percent by choice.” — Ben Weasel

By their own accounts, Ben “Weasel” Foster and John “Jughead” Pierson, the heart and soul of Screeching Weasel, never considered themselves quite as cool as anyone in the three punk bands noted above: They were younger, they didn’t play poker or smoke cigars, and they came together in 1986 in the suburb of Prospect Heights, not in the city.

More importantly, Screeching Weasel had a very different aesthetic. After discovering punk via the 1984 film Repo Man, Ben and Jughead set out to write songs as fast and melodic as the Ramones. In retrospect, they clearly provide the link between the four brothers from Queens and the endless tidal wave of pop-punk that starts with fellow travelers Green Day and continues to the present.

A long list of other bandmates came and went through the years, and Ben continues as the last original member to this day. But for me, the best music always was the result of both Ben (who is if anything even more controversial and irascible than Albini) and Jughead (a true renaissance man who also is a great writer and formerly a longtime driving force of the Neo Futurists theater troupe). The prime Weasel period stretches from 1987 to 2011, albeit with long lapses, and every one of the 11 original albums the band released during that time has its rewards. I recount much of the history and legacy in a long feature for SPIN magazine in 2001 that you can read here.

36. Ministry

“Basically, Ministry had a name and we funded Wax Trax by signing Ministry to a major label… I whored out Ministry.” — Al Jourgensen

Limiting the influence of the independent industrial-music label Wax Trax to one spot on this list — and giving that spot to Ministry, which left the label for Sire Records in 1986, five years after it first came together — will offend many who hold near and dear the legacy of record store and later label owners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. But for better or worse, Ministry is the band the embodies the sound of industrial dance/metal, and which carried it furthest around the world.

Born Alejandro Ramírez Casas in Havana, Al Jourgensen — a.k.a. Alain, or Alien, or Hypo Luxa, or any of half a dozen other noms de rock — started out making fairly uninspired dance-pop in Chicago heavily influenced by the British New Wave and New Romantics groups. The much harsher, more mechanical, more experimental, more radically political, and more influential Ministry that most people know evolved over time, with periodic fits and starts.

Like Screeching Weasel, the band’s best period — roughly 1987 to 1999 — was the result of the fruitful pairing of two dissimilar collaborators, in this case Jourgensen and multi-instrumentalist Paul Barker. And Al never has been as good on his own without Paul.

There is much, much more to say about Ministry and its myriad offshoots — some of it said in the 2011 documentary The Ministry Movie — as well as Wax Trax, as was evidenced by the March reunion of many of the key players who gathered to celebrate the new film Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax Records. And, as noted in the House Music installment of this series, Greg Kot and I interviewed Frankie Knuckles, Santiago Durango of Big Black, and Wax Trax mainstay Chris Connelly (a sometimes member of Ministry and the Revolting Cocks) during a Sound Opinions event celebrating Chicago music in the ’80s at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012. That audio can be streamed here.

About this series:

In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”

In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.

Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.

Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.

Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.

Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.

Click here for Part Three in this series, Gospel.

Click here for Part Four in this series, Rock in the ’60s and ’70s.

Click here for Part Five in this series, Soul and R&B.

Click here for Part Six in this series, House Music.

Follow me on Twitter at @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.