By Eleni P. Austin
Sometimes great music just slips through the cracks. That’s what happened with Raging Fire, a thrilling combo from the early ‘80s that was just slightly ahead of their time.
Although Nashville was (and is) the Country music capitol of the world, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s an underground music scene thrived. It featured disparate sounds from Walk The West, Jason & The Scorchers, (who along with West Coast-ers Rank & File, invented a genre dubbed CowPunk), Power Pop from Questionnaires and Practical Stylists and the blustery Rock N’ Roll of Royal Court Of China. Raging Fire also emerged from this electrifying environment.
Guitarist Michael Godsey and drummer Mark Medley were a part of Nashville’s first Hardcore Punk band, The Committee For Public Safety, bassist Les Shields had fronted Proto-Punkers the Ratz. When Michael met vocalist Melora Zaner at a party and listened to songs she’d written for her band Color Flag, he urged her to ditch them and join forces with Mark, Les and himself. Initially, she demurred.
Although Melora identified with the Punk Rock ethos and her musical influences included Punk progenitors like Patti Smith, Blondie and Siouxsie And The Banshees, she also had an affinity for singers like Billie Holiday and Esther Phillips. Studying literature and philosophy at Vanderbilt University she developed a passion for Southern Gothic writers like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.
Michael wouldn’t take no for an answer, and pretty quickly, Melora joined up with Mark and Les as Ring Of Fire. The four-piece began intense practice sessions in a basement of a dorm on the Vanderbuilt campus. Stylistic touchstones like the Who, X and Led Zeppelin coalesced along with lyrics that were knotty and erudite. By their third live show they were opening for Psychobilly pioneers, the Cramps.
In September of 1984 they modified their name to Raging Fire. (Turns out, another band had already claimed Ring Of Fire), Their first show under their new moniker was in Los Angeles, opening for simpatico L.A. natives the Gun Club. Their debut EP, A Family Thing, was released independently in the Spring of 1985. It received rapturous reviews and led to their inclusion on City Without A Subway a compilation of Nashville Rock bands. They toured relentlessly, crisscrossing the United States.
Les Shields left the band in 1985. Initially, his slot was filled by Lee A. Carr, and then John Reed. Raging Fire soldiered on, releasing their first full length effort, Faith Love Was Made Of in 1986. Once again, reviews were enthusiastic, major labels took notice. A&R reps were passionate about the band, but label execs were at a loss as to how to market them. A few even tried to convince Melora to go solo.
The following year College Music Journal (CMJ) readers voted Raging Fire, (along with the Pixies), one of America’s best unsigned bands. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Raging Fire remained unsigned and the Pixies inked a deal with 4AD. John Reed quit the band and Rusty Watkins took his place, they also added Jerry Dale McFadden (who later gained fame in the Mavericks), on keys.
By then, constant touring was exacting a toll. Michael and Melora had become a couple, and the time seemed right to pursue higher education and new career opportunities. As the band was coming apart at the seams, Michael applied and was accepted to Parsons School Of Design in New York City. In 1989, Raging Fire agreed to call it quits.
Ironically, alternative music exploded in the next decade, with the advent of Grunge and the rise of independent labels. Raging Fire was just ahead of the curve, presaging ‘90s bands like Geraldine Fibbers and Shivaree.
In the ensuing years music remained an avocation for Michael and Melora, they branched out into more Electronic sounds with NYC musicians Giles Reaves and Tony Gilbert. Melora’s job as a graphic design executive with Microsoft took the couple to Seattle and then Shanghai, China. It was there they started their own label, recording young Chinese Rock bands.
Mark Medley had also returned to school, although his official profession is curator, he continued to ply a musical trade behind the kit in Nashville bands like Mercy Sanction and Nine Parts Devil. Les Shields became a lawyer. Sadly, as Michael and Melora began to comb their archives to create a Raging Fire compilation CD, he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2012.
Three years later, Michael and Melora’s dream became a reality, with the release of a 22 track anthology of songs, (most of the music painstakingly remastered from old cassettes), was compiled by Pristine Records. Everything Is Roses 1985-1989 arrived in October, 2015.
To commemorate the release Melora and Mark corralled Raging Fire’s three bassists, Les Shields, John Reed and Rusty Watkins for a one-off gig at Nashville’s legendary Exit/In venue. To round out their sound they drafted friends and peers from their heyday, singer/guitarist Joe Blanton, (Royal Court Of China, The Bluefields), Jeff Cease, (Black Crowes, Eric Church Band), and added Giles Reaves on keys.
The experience was scary, but enjoyable, prompting Melora and Mark to resurrect the Raging Fire band. The Exit/In line-up gathered together at Nashville’s County Q recording studio, and the result is their new record, These Teeth Are Sharp.
The album roars to life with the title track. Growling guitar chords buttress Melora’s petulant Baby-doll croon, (virtually unchanged from the band’s early ‘80s heyday). The song dates all the way back to the Ring Of Fire days, building slowly on the verses before the instrumentation lays rubber on the chorus. As the tempo accelerates the guitars go full-frontal Khachaturian, ratcheting up the tension with sabre dancing riff-age.
The band’s penchant for Southern Gothic Noir is on full display on two tracks, “A Narrow Sky” and “Hush Angel Blue.” “….Sky” weds a jackhammer back-beat to synchronized Metal guitars that crunch and careen over a Punk-tastic melody. Melora’s flinty vocals crest over the maelstrom as she breathlessly whispers the secrets of a skin-deep town; “Faces known and unknown save their changes for you in momentary sins.”
Country and Punk intersect on “Hush.” The tune is anchored by a propulsive hi-hat rhythm, prickly guitar, high lonesome lap steel and shades of Hammond B3. Melora’s double-tracked vocals layer like a one woman Greek chorus offering cryptic observations; “Her face turns, the curtain blows open again, I count the flowers on her dress/So this is how it is now, we’ve come this far, I wish she would leave to think about this, I wish she understood the problem, understood reluctance.”
Two tracks, “After Loving One Man From East Texas” and “Free To Be” represent the earliest and final collaborations between Melora Zaner and Michael Godsey. On the former, instead of Surf n’ Turf, it’s a throbbing blast of Surf n’ Twang. Ricochet bass coils around a pounding Stripper beat, as the lyrics unspool the sad saga of pretty Louise. “She sat back in her easy chair, pin curls were pulling her hair, no more diets for Louise, oh she has found a life that’s just fine/And no more backseats for Louise, oh she is just a simple girl.”
On the latter, a tick-tock rhythm connects with slithering bass and stinging guitar riffs. Something of a sideways anthem of empowerment, Michael and Melora packed the arrangement with icy piano notes and included a bridge sung completely in Mandarin. The band fully fleshes out the sound with an explosion of percussion and a strafing guitar solo.
mate track here is “Raindances.” Cyclonic guitar riffs cascade over boing-ing bass lines, a Punky pogo rhythm and a wash of keys. Tempos shift wildly, accelerating at locomotive speeds. Guitars pivot from face-melting pyrotechnics to dialed down, finger-picked filigrees. Melora’s vocals swivel from a whisper to a scream and back again. Despite the lyrics collective ennui; “A weather vane in the hurricane, he’s in the same place spinning powerless here and bored to tears,” the frenzied energy on display kind of confirms the theory that old Punks neither burn out nor fade away.
The action slows for two tracks, “Hopeful While In Bed” is a stompy waltz that blurs rattle-trap rhythms, sultry keys and guitars that shapeshift from buzzy authority to sparkling grace notes. The lyrics seem to poignantly address life alone after years together.
They also offer up a swampy and sepulchral reading of the Rufus Thomas classic, “Walking The Dog.” Rumbling bass collides with a dropped tom-tom beat and spiky guitars that spiral and flange. The tempo trickles to a crawl, and Melora teases out each word, adding shadow and portent. What was originally a playful double-entendre now feels menacing and vaguely ominous.
The album closes with the shimmery shuffle of “Dreams From Under The Love Seat.” The lyrics, from Mark Medley, extol the hypnotic pleasures of the “visionary trick or treat,” and “dreams with that William Burroughs beat.”
Back in the ‘80s, Raging Fire’s music broke rules and blurred lines, their Southern Gothic Twang exhilarated fans and confounded short-sighted label executives. Luckily, they have persevered, not only preserving the sounds they created so long ago, but creating new music that embodies that same spirit. Somewhere Michael Godsey is smiling