Sunday, December 3, 2017

John Haggerty talks Naked Raygun, Pegboy, Stiff Little Fingers and more

John Haggerty playing with Stiff Little Fingers in Brooklyn in 2011. (All photos by Andy)

By Andy

Play it like you mean it. And if you can inspire people along the way, that's just about as good as it gets.

That's how John Haggerty feels when he wraps his deft hands around the black Fender Stratocaster the he's owned since the age of 15. From learning the ropes while strumming along to Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin records as a teen to hammering out his signature riffs in front of stoked fans at Naked Raygun and Pegboy gigs later on, the south side Chicago native has embraced his time with the six-string to the hilt.

Haggerty, 57, still rocks that same Strat of his youth at Pegboy gigs, including the latest show on Nov. 22 in Chicago.

"I thought it was the coolest looking guitar, so I got it," he laughed over the phone last Friday. (It's not his only axe, though, as shown in the accompanying photos.)

He's humbled when people say he's influential, and the self-described "one trick pony" jokingly figures it's because he's hung around long enough.

"To this day, I try to practice every day and there's really no substitute for it. Some people have more aptitude towards it, but I think in the end, how good you are is directly proportional to how much you practice," he said. "I hope that I'm a better guitar player every day -- I try to be. There's always something new to learn. It's really a wonderful instrument in that you can play it all your life and still not know everything. It's always a challenge and it's always fun."

Jeff Dean -- guitarist for All Eyes West, Dead Ending and Airstream Futures -- put his Haggerty thoughts on the table.

“The guitar tone that defined the Chicago sound, as far as I’m concerned. Like Bob Mould, Adam Franklin, J Mascis, John’s sound and writing has always been a go to for me as inspiration," he said in an email.


Haggerty didn't gravitate toward the guitar until he was about 15 years old. Before that, he honked on the saxophone in the grade-school band, which is where his brothers and sisters cut their musical teeth as well.

The guitar literally became a larger-than-life obsession for the youngster when he checked out the Led Zeppelin flick "The Song Remains the Same" on the big screen.

"I went to see that in the theater when it first came out, and I saw Jimmy Page up there, and I said, 'Yeah, that's what I wanna do.' Didn't quite turn out that way (laughs), slightly different path," he said.

Armed with a K copy of a Gibson SG (his first guitar; the Strat came later), Haggerty took lessons from his buddy's brother-in-law and things took off from there. It was all about classic rock at first, but "a couple years in, I started to hear punk rock, and that kind of changed my whole outlook."

First up was the Buzzcocks, which he heard via a reel-to-reel tape that his friend's brother toted home along with a tape deck he bought when he was stationed in Germany in 1977.

"On this tape, he had all kinds of punk bands, including the Buzzcocks. As soon as I heard them, I was, 'Ah, man, this is it. This is something different,'" he said. "And then from there, it just really kind of exploded, at least in my little world. I began to seek out other punk bands, and right around that time, in Chicago there was one or two punk clubs that just started to emerge almost simultaneously from my first hearing that kind of different music. It just kind of blew up from there."

In 1979, he began frequenting punk gigs at clubs like O'Banions and Oz. Local bands like Strike Under, the Effigies and others struck a chord with him -- and got him into the game.

"I said to myself, 'This is something I could actually do,' whereas before, when I was looking at things like Deep Purple with Blackmore or Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page, I would look at them and say, 'I could practice 30 years and maybe never be this good or probably never be this good,'" he said.

Haggerty would soon put his guitaristry to use in his first band.

Haggerty with SLF.


While hanging around the clubs, Haggerty soon met the Naked Raygun guys -- Jeff Pezzati, Santiago Durango, Camilo Gonzalez and Jim Colao -- who were working toward releasing the "Basement Screams" EP in 1983.

Haggerty would first revisit his grade-school days by playing sax on Raygun's "Swingo" on the EP and he then joined the band as second guitarist; when Durango departed, the guitar slot was all Haggerty's.

"It felt great. It felt like I was doing what I wanted to," he said. "We kind of built that band up from nothing, from pretty much from scratch. When I first joined the band, I think we were probably lucky to get 50 people at a show, and by the time I left, we were playing the Riviera, which I think is about 3,000 or something."

Raygun toured Europe twice and the United States a couple times. While in England, Haggerty was thrilled to have Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks join the band on stage for a cover of "Harmony in My Head," and later, Charlie Harper of the UK Subs hopped up on stage to play his band's "Emotional Blackmail" with the Chicago crew.

"I just had a heck of a lot of fun," Haggerty said of his time in Raygun, which ceased in 1989 when he left due to issues with management that couldn't be resolved.

"It's always great when you go places, especially far away, and they're really into what you're doing and they say, 'Your music has changed my life for the better and made me happy, given me hope' or something. I get that every now and then and that really means the most to me," he said.


Pegboy was next on the docket for Haggerty, who was joined by his brother, drummer Joe, on this venture beginning in 1990.

"I got to set it up the way I wanted to, which was very gratifying," John said, noting that Pegboy felt more like a band -- a team -- than a group of individuals.

Among the many "wonderful moments" in Pegboy, Haggerty focused on the time when the "Strong Reaction" LP hit the shelves, received a great response and the band toured Europe.

"We went and played a place in Serbia during the war," he said. "The kids there were so glad to see us that they made their own T-shirts. We had to have a military escort in and out. They were just so happy to see us and were such fans that it just blew me away that we could do such a thing right in the middle of a war."

Nowadays, Pegboy plays about five shows a year and last month unleashed its tunes on Brazilian fans in Sao Paulo. They played a festival with Bad Religion and others and a small club date as well.

"Brazil was amazing. We had no idea we even had any fans down there," said Haggerty, noting that they received a random Facebook message from a friend of a friend of the promoter to set it up. Pegboy also played the Fest 16 in Gainesville, Florida, in October.

The recent hometown Chicago show was a blast.

"Everybody's still pretty excited about it -- so am I (laughs)," he said. "It feels great. It never ceases to amaze me that we have such loyal fans. They come out and they have a great time every time we play."


Haggerty had the time of his life when he assumed rhythm-guitar duties for one his all-time favorite bands, Stiff Little Fingers, for nine US dates in 2011. He filled in for Ian McCallum, who was ill.

When SLF leader Jake Burns moved to Chicago, he and Haggerty became friends and had already played SLF songs together in the Nefarious Fat Cats, a cover band that performs at a benefit each December for KT's Kids, an organization that helps underprivileged children in Chicago. (This year's annual toy drive gig is Dec. 10 once again at the Liar's Club. In the past, the band has ripped through covers of Raygun, Clash, Thin Lizzy and more.)

On a Raygun/Haggerty note and further SLF tie-in, the band featured a live version of "Suspect Device" on its "Jettison" LP.

So, Haggerty was an ideal match with SLF since he already knew at least half the material; he learned the rest of the set while practicing in his hotel room on the road.

"It was so much fun. By the time it was over, I was just getting comfortable. Right around the ninth gig, I was confident, I had the songs down. And then it was time to stop. At that point, I literally felt that I could do that the rest of my life and not ever go home. It was no less than a dream come true," he said.

Haggerty even sported one of the matching SLF stage shirts.

"It wasn't demanded, but I figured, 'Why not?'" he said with a laugh.

On becoming close with Burns, Haggerty added: "Usually, when you meet your idols, it's a letdown, but not in Jake's case. In his case, he's just as cool as you think he is. He's just a great guy all around."

Another Haggerty SLF shot.


With many years passed and a ton of guitar riffs wielded, Haggerty feels fortunate to still be hitting the stage with Pegboy and the Fat Cats.

For him, the key to keeping the guitar fire alive is having a passion for his craft.

"It's not something you're gonna make a lot of money at, so you have to really love what you're doing. The thing that really keeps me going is that every now and then, you'll have a really positive influence on people and they'll let you know," he said.

He recalls a platoon sergeant in Afghanistan who contacted him and said every time he took his men out and knew trouble was on the horizon, he would listen to Raygun's "Soldier's Requiem" to make it easier for him and his men, give them a purpose.

"I thought, that's the greatest compliment, that's probably the greatest thing I could ever do in my life is to positively influence someone like that," Haggerty said.

Once in San Diego, a kid in a wheelchair approached Haggerty and said, "'Thank you for your music, it saved my life, it got me through chemotherapy.'"

Haggerty added: "Some people are really touched deeply by it and that's the most rewarding thing there is."

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