All of us have two families in our lives: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we choose. The strength of each is determined largely by upbringing and instinct, though coming from a loving household doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always have loving friends, and vice versa. What we’re all ultimately looking for in others is a shared connection, be it through blood, interests, or experiences.
Music often functions as one of life’s great connectors, because it’s easy to bond over a song based on the feelings it evokes when listening to it. Technology has made it easier than ever to not only find and share new music, but interact and make new friends with people from around the globe who share your passion. That wasn’t possible thirty years ago, yet music fans still found one another thanks in large part to places like concert venues and record stores.
One of Chicago’s primary hubs for music lovers throughout the ’80s and ’90s was Wax Trax! Records. It was a store and eventual record label that brought all types of people together, with a particular focus on industrial and post-punk scenes at the time. To hear people describe it, there was this underground counter-culture movement happening in music packed with misfits living on the edge of society, and in many ways Wax Trax! played a central role in helping it to spread across the United States. This is all chronicled in the new documentary Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records. The film traces Wax Trax! from its auspicious beginnings as a Denver record store founded by partners (in business and in life) Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher in the mid-’70s through it’s move to Chicago, the genesis of the record label, and the eventual demise of both.
Wax Trax! initially built its reputation on being one of the most unique record stores in the U.S., featuring a wealth of albums and singles you couldn’t find anywhere else in the country. Nash and Flesher were Anglophiles, and imported a large number of releases from Europe, primarily by artists very few people had heard of on these shores. As an engine for music discovery, people often traveled long distances just to spend some time browsing the bins and talking with the clerks and other customers about what they were listening to. There were Wax Trax! parties thrown and shows organized, all of which eventually led to the formation of the record label in 1981.
Chicago punk band Strike Under’s Immediate Action EP marked the first official Wax Trax! release, followed closely by the novelty single “Born to Be Cheap” by Divine. Local musician Al Jourgensen received encouragement from Nash to expand on some demos, so he pieced together a band that would become known as Ministry. Their first EP gained significant traction both locally and internationally, thereby giving Wax Trax! some money and notoriety to work with more artists and continue to grow. Just as the label began to work with bands like Front 242, Minimal Compact, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and KMFDM, the industrial dance music revolution began in earnest. Wax Trax! soon earned a reputation for their industrial releases, working with some bands to record, promote, and sell their albums while also serving as the U.S. label and distributor for a number of international artists.
One of the biggest reasons why the Wax Trax! label worked was because they built a strong community that also gathered at their retail store to buy records. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a sustainable business model, especially since Nash and Flesher never signed any of their artists to contracts. In a similar fashion to Factory Records in the UK, deals were done with only a handshake, so when artists began to see real success, other labels would step in to offer lucrative contracts. With rising distribution costs, extensive royalty payments, artists abandoning the label for greener pastures, and the industrial genre falling into decline, the deck soon became stacked against Wax Trax! and they filed for bankruptcy in 1992. TVT Records then bought Wax Trax! and allowed Nash and Flesher to retain creative control. Nash passed away due to AIDS-related complications in 1995, but Flesher continued on until the label finally shut down in 2001. Flesher died in 2010.
The Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records documentary does a great job of letting the people drive the story. Artists including Al Jourgensen, Chris Connelly, Frankie Nardiello, Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, Richard Jonckheere, Trent Reznor, Steve Albini, Dave Grohl, En Esch, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti all appear in the film to talk enthusiastically about either working with Wax Trax! or visiting the shop or just the influence the label had on their lives and music. You also get some insight into the business side of things directly from people who worked at the label or the shop, plus members of the Nash family (Jim’s daughter Julia Nash directed the film, appears in it, and works to maintain the Wax Trax! legacy today). Of course the main attraction is the music itself, and the songs really help keep the 94-minute documentary moving at a brisk pace. Plus, there’s a certain thrill hearing so many Wax Trax! classics on the soundtrack, showcasing just how adept Nash and Flesher were at spotting and showcasing incredible talent.
Last Saturday at House of Vans Chicago, members of the Wax Trax! family gathered with a few hundred fans for an event that was billed as “The Wax Trax! Experience.” It included a screening of the documentary, Q&A with some label personnel and artists, plus performances from Cold Cave and Ministry. Memorabilia that included old posters, ticket stubs, artwork, stickers, promotional materials, and banners lined the walls, much of it rescued from a mountain of storage boxes discovered in a barn on Dannie Flesher’s Arkansas property where he lived in the years leading up to his death. One corner of the space was also devoted to creating a very slight reproduction of the Wax Trax! shop, complete with overhead sign and bins of Wax Trax! vinyl and cassettes for sale. A classic neon Joy Division sign from the store also hung on the wall.
One of the most exciting things about the event was the people watching. There were a lot of older (55+) punks in attendance, a surprising number of them clad in studded and patched leather jackets they’ve probably kept tucked away in a closet for the last couple of decades. But plenty of younger folks showed up too, many of them showcasing the punk and goth ethos complete with plenty of piercings, colored hair, outre makeup, and even the occasional mask. Most importantly though, everyone was exceptionally nice. I spoke with so many people who were excited about getting together to celebrate Wax Trax! and its legacy, whether they were alive to experience it at the time or not. There was at least one married couple who met at the Wax Trax! shop in the mid-’80s.
The artists were generous with their time as well. I spotted Frankie Nardiello and Chris Connelly wandering around the crowd, starting conversations with strangers, taking photos, and signing autographs when requested. Director Julia Nash was also bouncing around the venue, happy to talk with anyone about her dad and growing up around Wax Trax! her whole life. Moments before the film screening started, someone stepped out in front of the seated crowd to take an official photo for the event. Everyone smiled and raised their middle fingers to the sky, a grand “fuck you” gesture in the spirit of independence and rebellion.
It’s always a blast to watch a film with a crowd, and Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records was no exception. People cheered when notable names and faces appeared on screen, and laughed at the occasional joke or ridiculous moment. The standing ovation as the credits rolled made it clear that the fans were satisfied. The Q&A with Julia Nash, Nardiello, Connelly, and others following the film was cut short due to time constraints, but many people seemed hesitant to step up and ask a question anyway. Ultimately it was illuminating enough to make the effort worthwhile, even if some random guy wearing a yellow reflective vest took a minute to go on a rant about communism and the “plight of the worker.” Not sure what that had to do with Wax Trax!, but okay…
After a brief changeover to remove all the chairs from the venue, Cold Cave materialized on the dark House of Vans Chicago stage for a performance. The start of their set was plagued with issues, as the on-stage audio monitors weren’t working. They understandably couldn’t play without being able to hear themselves, so they just wound up standing around on the smoke-filled stage while the tech guys ran around with flashlights trying to solve the problems. The monitor issue took a couple minutes to fix, but the band took it in stride and then launched straight into the dark wave 8-bit synth groove of “Icons of Summer.” They sounded good, but after two songs chose to stop again because their background visuals hadn’t kicked in. Another short delay, more running around, then suddenly everything was okay and stayed that way.
While Cold Cave have only been in existence since about 2007 and were therefore never signed to Wax Trax! Records, their sound and spirit would have made them an ideal fit for the label back in the day. Similar to Ministry, their lineup has gone through a number of changes over their lifespan, with the only mainstay being singer Wes Eisold (who calls the musicians he performs with “contributors”). Their sound has evolved to a degree as well over the years, incorporating elements of darkwave, synth-pop, post-punk, and even a little industrial to give fans a reason to dress in black and dance a bit. That’s pretty much exactly what occurred during their House of Vans performance as they powered through songs from their 2011 album Cherish the Light Years, their 2014 singles compilation Full Cold Moon, and last year’s You & Me & Infinity EP. Once they settled into a groove with the high tempo, pulsating synths of “Nothing Is True But You,” the set really took off into the figurative stratosphere. “Confetti” in particular sounded great, as did the intense surge of closer “The Great Pan Is Dead.” I’m not sure how familiar most of the crowd was with Cold Cave and their catalog, but they responded with enthusiasm and dancing that ranged from simple head bobs to full on body spasms. “Really good stuff,” I overheard one older man tell his wife. “Gonna have to look up more of their music when we get home.” It’s probably safe to assume a lot of people felt that way.
Ministry’s headlining performance was promoted as a “Wax Trax! era set,” which was tantalizing for a number of reasons. If you’re familiar with the history of the band, you know they’ve had a tumultuous ride to say the least, filled with an ever-evolving lineup (save for Al Jourgensen), deaths, multiple breakups and hiatuses, trips to rehab, and just general levels of mayhem. Most of that was highlighted in the band’s own documentary Fix: The Ministry Movie back in 2011. But Wax Trax! was responsible for Ministry’s debut single “I’m Falling / Cold Life,” the latter of which became a pretty big hit and elevated both the band and the label to prominence. While neither song was performed at House of Vans on Saturday, the overall set list stuck exclusively to hits, rarities, deep cuts, and covers from the ’80s and early ’90s. That included a number of classics they hadn’t performed live in well over a decade.
Things started out strong with an extra aggressive version of “The Missing,” resulting in an immediate mosh pit and some crowd surfing that would pretty much continue for the duration of the set. The band not only seemed to be in good spirits, but hungry to tear into these songs. “Stigmata” sounded stronger and more vital than ever, while “Just One Fix” got the crowd completely hooked and wanting more. The first performance of “Jesus Built My Hotrod” since 2006 marked a great showcase for the guitars, as they wound up mostly burying Jourgensen’s rambling, auctioneer-style vocals and various audio samples. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but there was a high degree of satisfaction and excitement anyway because they chose to dust off an old favorite. The same goes for “Burning Inside,” though that one sounded great all around and featured a special guest appearance from Chris Connelly. In fact, Connelly joined the band for four songs, including the set closer “So What” and a pair of covers (from Black Sabbath as well as Ministry offshoot Revolting Cocks) during the encore. His presence gave even more life to those songs, perhaps best outlined by his live wire behavior on stage. It gave me the impression that Connelly was having a blast.
The second encore closed out the evening with “The Land of Rape and Honey” followed by an acoustic version of “(Everyday Is) Halloween.” I was a little disappointed with the gentle rendition of “Halloween,” but I also understand the inclination to end with something slower and quieter. Still, the song is a goth classic and a perfect dance track, so stripping those two qualities from it also takes away much of what made it so intoxicating in the first place. While the crowd had been extremely enthusiastic and aggressive yet ultimately respectful throughout Ministry’s set, there was a minor fight that broke out during “The Land of Rape and Honey” that seemed to imply the balance of moods had been rather precarious all night. Two middle-aged men started throwing punches at one another when things got a little too heated in the mosh pit. A small group of people struggled to pull the two of them apart and keep them separated until security arrived. Sometimes even the families we choose end up in fights.
Outside of that momentary and minor instance of violence, everything else about the event was a success. A few hundred people gathered in Chicago on Record Store Day to remember and celebrate a revolutionary record label and store. Wax Trax! remains an important piece of music history and Chicago history, not just for the talented artists involved and the people who worked there, but above all else for the fans who connected with the songs and with others to form their own community and family that continues to grow and flourish long after the label and shop have shut down. That is the true legacy of Wax Trax!.
Ministry Set List:
Jesus Built My Hotrod (first live performance since 2006)
Just One Fix
Burning Inside* (first live performance since 2003)
No Devotion* (Revolting Cocks cover, first live performance since 1988)
Supernaut (Black Sabbath cover, first live performance since 2004)
The Land of Rape and Honey
(Everyday Is) Halloween* (Acoustic)
* = with Chris Connelly
DOCUMENTARY SCREENING / MEMORABILIA