Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has said that of all of the alternative rock magazines of the '90s, “The most feared, the most radical, and the most confusing was Ray Gun.” The publication, which had a short run from 1992 to 2000, became one of the most emblematic of its era, permanently shifting the constraints of design, journalism, and printed matter.
Ray Gun was the visual chronicler of the post punk world — tracing a musical evolution through grunge, britpop, electronica, and hip-hop. Radiohead, Bjork, Beck, Eminem, PJ Harvey, Chemical Brothers, and Jamiroquai all either graced the cover of Ray Gun or appeared inside long before being prominently featured anywhere else in print. This is of course a testament to the staff’s genius in predicting the tastemakers of the '90s.
Ray Gun was a meditation on the intimate correlation between music and style, and their fierce support of avant-garde characters also meant propagating progressive approaches to fashion. It was an essential bridge between the trendsetters and the public. Longtime editor Randy Bookasta explains, “The music and the artists we were championing were in many ways anti-fashion, though ironically their styles became the fashion of the time.”
From an outside perspective, it was a magazine dedicated to and adored by icons. For example, Ray Gun counted Davie Bowie as one of their biggest fans and most frequent collaborators. In an era where the press was viewed as both a deterrent and nuisance, Bowie enjoyed a kinship with the editorial staff.
This month, Rizzoli released Ray Gun: the Bible of Music and Style to honor the publication that captured the zeitgeist of the decade.
In 1992, publisher Marvin Scott Jarrett was driving down Hollywood’s La Cienega Blvd. It was a time of flux for him. He had spent the previous two years working as the publisher and editor of the beloved rock magazine Creem, but after it was sold to a new owner, he knew it was time to focus on an independent initiative. As fate would have it, David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” came on the stereo. Jarrett was particularly drawn to the lyric, “Put your ray gun to my head,” which informed his ethos moving forward.
“It started with three people, in the dining room of my one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills,” says Jarrett.
He recognized that although music was changing, magazines weren't. Ray Gun was determined to be something that aligned with the sounds and tastes of a younger generation — like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains in Seattle — and Oasis and the Stone Roses in England.
David Carson, a professional surfer turned DIY graphic designer, was tapped for the role of art director. At the time he was turning heads at a publication called Beach Culture with his daring approach to layout and typography. One of Jarrett’s most consequential decisions (beyond choosing him in the first place) was to give Carson free rein over the design — a rare privilege that allowed him to take his tastes to a new extreme.
“It was a turning point and a transitional moment, a combination of a bunch of fresh ideas with a bunch of fresh technology,” says Carson.
The post punk, “rip it up and start again” ethos manifested itself relentlessly in the layout. Carson’s industrial aesthetic was anarchic, off-kilter, and completely unpredictable. Ray Gun interviews would be printed upside-down, chopped off, and often times illegible (one interview was notoriously printed in the symbol font, Dingbats). The concept of urban decay also ran throughout. Textures were heavy and thick, while images were abstracted, blurred, and incoherent. In Ray Gun, strangeness was the rallying call for beauty. The quintessential “grunge” aesthetic started with Carson and in this magazine, and has been imitated all over the world ever since.
Rendering the masterminds who graced Ray Gun’s pages — like Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, and Morrissey — as barely recognizable was a counterintuitive marketing decision. It reflected the anti ethos that defined the publication by unveiling the transactional nature of the music industry and how that was at odds with the spirit of the rebellious culture that Ray Gun dedicated itself to.
Bookasta explains, “The writers and musicians would be holding their breath, waiting for the issue to come out, not knowing whether their words, interviews, or pictures would be upside-down or completely hanging off the page.”
While many contributors embraced this whimsy, the Ray Gun team often found themselves on the end of screaming phone calls. Though Carson spent only three years as art director, Ray Gun’s reputation as uncompromising and freakish persisted with each subsequent art director hire. However, the magazine became more legible over time.
Ray Gun’s editorial approach was on par with its rabid aesthetics. While stories like “GOTHS ON ACID” reflect this quite literally, the Ray Gun staff’s journalistic mission had verifiable integrity. Bookasta, who played a huge role in shaping who was covered and how, describes it as an, “incredibly unconventional operation at the time" that wanted to turn the entire world of rock journalism on its head. They achieved this to great effect by allowing musicians to take on new roles in the process. As a result, Bowie sent in photo series. David Grohl interviewed Led Zeppelin, and John Lennon interviewed Brian Wilson.
“It became a regular element of Ray Gun, pairing artists together and turning the tables a bit”, says Bookasta.
Ray Gun also earned itself a reputation as a “you heard it here first” kind of place by spotlighting impactful talent in their early stages of development. The editorial staff was less concerned with how popular an artist was, and much preferred to gauge their impact in how adventurous they were. As a result, people like Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips credits the magazine for their ascent.
"We looked for people who were doing something really eclectic and different, people that didn’t sound like anyone else. To us, Missy Elliot was just as edgy and experimental of an artist as Radiohead, in her own way,” says Bookasta.
Audience participation formed another huge aspect of the magazine’s DNA. Artists, illustrators, and photographers were constantly sending in work to the editorial staff that was inspired by specific features and editions. From the beginning, the reviews were so glowing that Carson named the letter section “Actual Letters” to assure readership that they weren’t made up by the staff.
“One guy thanked me for giving him a reason to live," says Carson. "Plenty said that Ray Gun changed the trajectory of their career. Even 20 years after I left, I received a thank you letter from a middle age woman who said Ray Gun helped her through her most difficult teenage years. When she was drowning in angst and rejection, it made her feel like she wasn’t quite as weird and alone as she thought."
Although the publication could have become pigeonholed as a source for simply grunge and indie music, it also showed a commitment to other burgeoning genres like hip-hop and electronica — meaning it touched the hearts of a broad spectrum of listeners who were united by a chronic aversion to the mainstream. The magazine generated a community that became sacred amongst people who felt otherwise alienated by popular culture.
Editor Dean Kuipers explains the impassioned response, saying, “This precedes the internet, right? So it was like the comment section of a post. People would write in saying they loved or hated something, and then there would be 15 response to that and another 25 to that. It started a massive dialogue. It was a publisher’s dream, in a way, because people were paying attention.”
In flipping through the pages of Ray Gun, it's clear the magazine made a sartorial impact. Some of the earliest and most authentic documentation of quintessential grunge looks — graphic tees/band shirts, layering, sloppy proportions, knit sweaters, and earthy color palettes — are exhibited on their originators (Nirvana, L7, etc), with candor and authenticity.
Their commitment to supporting pioneers also translated to the realm of fashion photography. Ray Gun worked with photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans, Corinne Day, and Michael Lavine early in their careers, artists who Bookasta says, “All took very untraditional approaches to fashion with their work.” He continues, “My goal was to really showcase the artists’ own looks and styles, and let their individualities shine. My sense is that Ray Gun’s design and photography, along with the platform we provided artists to flaunt themselves, had a significant impact on fashion at the time.”
It’s only fitting that a magazine that made such a bold statement against the confines of convention lived a short life. Though its last issue was in 2000, its influence has proven mammoth.
“It was a couple of years before we were starting to see Ray Gun stuff in other media and people copying the style,” says Kuipers.
Traces of Ray Gun’s influence are visible everywhere. The logos for hit movies like Se7en and Fight Club, as well as album covers for bands like Blink 182, Pearl Jam, and Sonic Youth are direct derivatives of Carson’s design. The musicians and fashion icons they covered have proven themselves omnipresent in cultural discourse. It’s even fair to say that the best experimental publications of the present, like the “anti-design” Buffalo Zine, couldn’t exist without Ray Gun.
Jarrett moved on in 1998 to start the hit music magazine Nylon. Jarrett compares their legacies, saying, “Did I reach millions of people with Nylon? Absolutely. But Ray Gun had this fanatical fanbase, and it struck a different chord. Someone once sent me a photo of Ray Gun displayed at the Tate Modern. It’s a totally different level of prestige.”
For decades, it’s been nearly impossible to find copies of the ephemeral magazine, making its remaining issues coveted collectibles. It’s obscurity is the ultimate realization of Jarrett’s mission to make Ray Gun a “Permanent throwaway” — something he wanted people to cherish in an era when magazines were disposed of after a single read.
In speaking to Jarrett, Carson, Bookasta, and Kuipers, they all described Ray Gun in the same way, stating: “It touched a nerve.” Fortunately, for the loyal subscribers from the past and the curious new readers of the present, Rizzoli’s book makes it easy to relive the magazine’s best days.
Ray Gun: the Bible of Music and Style is available now.