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I recently attended a Ministry concert. They were playing at the Aztec Theatre along with Melvins and Corrosion of Conformity. It was a great show, and Ministry were playing with so much energy that it might as well have been a show in the 80’s or 90’s. Their performance hadn’t aged a day. Unfortunately, I came down with covid shortly thereafter. I have it now and I’ll confess that I might not be in a state of mind conducive to a narrative flow. Anyhow, if you’ve ever heard their music, you might agree that a Ministry concert seems like a perfectly appropriate place to contract a disease. So, what better to write about since all I’ve been doing is sitting at home waiting to feel better while revisiting Ministry’s career and the history of Wax Trax! Records?

I remember the first time I ever heard the band, Ministry. I was in the fourth grade in Laredo, Texas, where I grew up. My best friend, Gonzalo, or “Gonzo”, as I knew him, had an older brother, Memo, who was a senior in high school. We looked up to Memo. He was a skater that was into music that was very far away from anything I’d heard before. The two brothers shared a room adorned with posters of Black Flag, The Sugarcubes, Dead Kennedys and the like. I didn’t have an older brother, so Memo kind of took on that role for me.

Gonzalo and I had bonded over our mutual weirdness and trying to emulate Memo thrust us even further away from anything considered normal. One day, after a few days of fretting about whether it was okay to ask, I bit the bullet and asked Gonzo if he could make me a mixtape of the weird music that I’d always caught snippets of while hanging out. It was a dangerous proposition because if Memo caught Gonzo messing with any of his cassettes, it’d put Gonzo in hot water. Gonzo was hesitant at first but eventually acquiesced and made me a cassette. It was essentially a Wax Trax (more on this later) hits cassette mixed with a little bit of NWA and Ice-T. I went into my room, turned the volume dial way down so my parents wouldn’t hear, and on came the song Stigmata. The sound of the samplers and drum machines and Al Jourgensen’s buzzing vocals was so foreign to me up to this point --I’d only ever heard radio music or whatever was on MTV up to then-- that I was instantly hooked. I’ve always had an affinity for left field stuff.

Now, at that time in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Laredo was relatively isolated in terms of popular culture, much less any sort of subculture. There was no internet to even out the playing field. Anything that was happening in the big cities typically came along a year or two later, at least. Considering that fact, one might wonder where the hell Memo was able to find out about all these crazy bands. Well, Gonzo and Memo had relocated from Chicago, where Memo grew up. And while in Chicago, Memo frequented his favorite record store, Wax Trax.

If you aren’t familiar with Wax Trax, I’ll give you a cursory introduction, and I suggest you follow up by going down a Google and/or a YouTube rabbit hole. There’s even a great documentary called Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records that’s available to stream, I believe. If you are familiar with Wax Trax, then you should read on anyhow since you’re already 601 words deep at this point. One could write an entire book about the history of the Wax Trax record store and label. I don’t have that kind of real estate, so what follows is a super cursory overview.

Originally a record store in Denver (where the original shop still stands), the Wax Trax record store was sold in 1978 by owners and life partners, Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. Jim and Dannie were unapologetically weird and marched to the beat of their own drums. They moved to Chicago where their weirdness could better be appreciated and opened another shop with the same “Wax Trax” name. The shop was known to carry fringe stuff that was to the owners’ likings rather than popular music that sold well at the time. The store developed a huge following from the social-outcast element of Chicago --glam rockers, skaters, punks, freaks, social misfits. Realizing that major labels weren’t picking up artists who were in the vein of what they enjoyed themselves, the owners launched a record label, known as Wax Trax! Records. With that, they pretty much brought the “industrial” genre of music to life and to the world.

Throughout its history, Wax Trax! Records has played a role in one way or another in the lives and careers of a great number of musical acts, including but not limited to The KLF, Ministry, Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Front Line Assembly, KMFDM, Meat Beat Manifesto, Laibach, Chris and Cosey, and even Nine Inch Nails, whose success ironically spelled the end for Wax Trax! Records. Trent Reznor was inspired by and collaborated with a lot of the Wax Trax folks in bands like 1000 Homo DJs, and Pigface. After the incredible success of Nine Inch Nails, major labels started scrambling to sign as many of these esoteric bands as they could and pay them big bucks. The fact that Wax Trax couldn’t compete with the major labels in addition to internal struggles and deaths marked the end of Wax Trax! Records as a label. They’ve since popped up again releasing back catalogue stuff and reissues.

So, anyhow, I listened to the rest of that tape that Gonzo made for me not realizing that at some point in the far future, Wax Trax would go out of business and make a resurgence and that I’d be ordering records from them for my own record shop. How could I know that they’d be sending me cardboard filler scrawled with hilarious graffiti? I could have no idea that I’d go to a Ministry concert and catch a disease that would lead to me writing a disjointed article about Wax Trax and Ministry and Gonzo and Memo in a fever dream. But here we are.

What I’m listening to:

Cobra Man – Toxic Planet

Shilpa Ray – Door Girl

The Bobby Lees – Skin Suit

Forthcoming vinyl releases of note:

Childish Gambino – Kauai  4-23-22

The Weeknd – Dawn FM  4-29-22

Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong  5-6-22

Tommy Newman is the owner and operator of Southtown Vinyl.

Wax Trax & Ministry & Gonzo & Memo

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