Wax Trax: An Introduction
Rod Smith provides an overview of the influential indie that helped introduce a generation of Americans to industrial music.
As with other great works of art, the best labels permeate the world with a kind of lube that can help keep culture in motion for decades. So it was (and is) with Wax Trax! Records. While a huge chunk of the Chicago-based independent’s reputation hinges on its industrial assets – including releases by Ministry, Front 242, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult (as well as a slew of prominent first wave industrialists hooked on self-reinvention), the fruits of Wax Trax!’s 20-plus-year run wouldn’t be resonating nearly as hard or long if not for contributions from the likes of Autechre, Juno Reactor, The KLF, and Underworld. That its founders pursued the better part of their mission on a decidedly ad hoc basis makes the label’s lasting impact all the more unlikely.
“If you can’t dance to ‘Cold Life,’ you’re either a cripple or disinterested.”
Four years after opening their record shop of the same name, Jim Nash and Danny Flesher began Wax Trax! the label with a pirated edition of Brian Eno’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The imprint’s first release was strictly an in-house affair – a way for the shop to earn an extra layer of credibility. But quick, easy sales, along with their increasing involvement in bringing touring bands to town helped move Nash and Flesher toward elevating their expectations. The business and life partners dove into legitimacy two years later in 1981 with local punk exemplars Strike Under’s Immediate Action EP, followed by a Divine single: “Born to Be Cheap.”
Nash and Flesher might have ended up like dozens of other late-20th Century music retailers who started labels – a few releases to their credit, a few thousand copies of each in their garages, and any number of hard-earned lessons about the difficulty of maintaining a record label – if not for two things: 1) Lifelong Anglophiles, they’d learned all they could from the likes of Rough Trade, Mute, and Factory Records. And 2) The Wax Trax! retail outlet’s burgeoning destination status provided the perfect platform for their efforts.
All the label lacked was the music.
The first breakthrough came from their own backyard. After hearing a home-recorded demo for “I’m Falling,” Nash encouraged recovering new waver Al Jourgensen to further develop his ideas. The latter did just that, at Hedden West Studios with four other musicians and engineer Iain Burgess, a UK transplant who played a crucial role in shaping the city’s early punk sound. Jourgensen ended up calling his project “Ministry.” While “I’m Falling” generated enough interest in Ministry’s first single to keep people listening, B-side “Cold Life” ended up becoming Wax Trax!’s first hit. The EP sold 10,000 copies, won the love of countless DJs, and secured a couple overseas licensing deals.
Jourgensen, to his credit, knew he had a hit on his hand. “If you can’t dance to it,” he explained of the record in a 1982 Illinois Entertainer interview shortly after the record blew up, “you’re either a cripple or disinterested.” Nash and Flesher made a point of eschewing written contracts, so when Jourgensen signed with Arista and left for Boston to record With Sympathy, the label found itself with a decent pile of money, tons of momentum and nothing in the way of immediate follow-up.
The Endless Riddance EP provided Wax Trax! with the beginnings of what would soon become its reputation as a label devoted primarily to industrial dance music.
They found the solution in Belgium. After hearing Front 242’s “U-Men” single, Nash (who by way of gross generalization, tended to be the label’s visionary, while the more down-to-earth Flesher focused on nuts-and-bolts matters) went after the quartet with a vengeance. Released in 1983, the Endless Riddance EP provided Wax Trax! with its second club hit and the beginnings of what would soon become, for better or worse, its reputation as a label devoted primarily to industrial dance music.
Industrial music was hardly a new thing by 1983: its origins lay in mid-’70s London and Sheffield, with Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire as its first visible practitioners. The genre’s only constants were a position oriented more toward deprogramming and mobilization than toward punk’s simple confrontationalism, a marked preference for non-standard instrumentation (especially electronics and found percussion), and, often, a dancefloor-friendly m.o. Cabaret Voltaire had been a dance group pretty much from their inception, and while TG never abandoned the shock tactics that had UK tabloids calling them “wreckers of civilization,” the quartet also had a pronounced poppier side that manifested most prominently on the Giorgio Moroder tribute “Hot on the Heels of Love.”
By the early ’80s, it was as common for newer industrial artists to emphasize danceability from the start as it was for older ones to try their hand at it. Front 242 numbered among the former. With its detached, post-punk vocals and monolithic, Lego®-caterpillar bassline, “U-Men” might have passed for a typical dance rock single of the time, if not the rasping, squealing synths that lent it just enough extra abrasion to allow for genre reassignment. Given their strong instincts and well-honed sensibilities, Nash and Flesher would have probably embraced industrial music even if role models Rough Trade and Mute hadn’t already done so. (It didn’t take a degree in anthropology to recognize that the Reagan/Thatcher era signaled a bright time for dark music.)
It didn’t take a degree in anthropology to recognize that the Reagan/Thatcher era signaled a bright time for dark music.
Most importantly for our purposes, industrial dance music provided a handy zone of compromise for the more pragmatic Flesher, who saw club hits as paving stones on the road to prosperity, and idealist Nash, who perceived the label as a crucible for experimentation, instinct and intuition. As the shop and label’s popularity grew, Nash and Flesher set about systematically expanding their reach. Not content with the mutual distribution deal they’d wrought with Front 242’s Belgian label – Play It Again Sam – they licensed Minimal Compact’s “Next One Is Real” from Brussels-based Crammed Discs. Around the same time, Al Jourgensen returned to Chicago after delivering on half of a two-album contract and gave Wax Trax! what remains the closest thing Goths have to a national anthem: “Everyday (Is Halloween).”
Like “Cold Life,” “Everyday” played a crucial role in building the label’s profile overseas, as did 1985’s “The Nature of Love.” The latter marked Jourgensen’s first attempt at injecting industrial elements into Ministry’s sound. It was also Ministry’s final single for Wax Trax! (though Jourgensen continued to release the fruits of his many side projects through the label for years). Not that it mattered. By that point, the retail outlet had become a mecca for a certain type of music fan and the label’s stateside distribution network finally approached a state of adequacy rare among US indie labels.
“From what I could tell, they never had anything even vaguely resembling a business plan, but they made up for the lack with passion.”
Some distributors championed the label from (or near) the very start. “I think we started doing business with Wax Trax! right around the time of the Divine single,” Richard Eliof remembers. Now a dealer of mid-century modern furniture and music memorabilia, Eliof became one of the label’s most ardent (and effective) evangelists as the driving force at mid-sized distributor Twin City Imports. “Jim was the store’s buyer,” he continues, “so we had this strange symbiosis, buying and selling back and forth from each other. Thanks to our mutual love of ’50s furniture, Roxy Music, David Bowie, the electronic music of the time, art – so many things – we bonded from the start. Jim was like a big brother to me. He and Danny would fly me to Chicago. We’d hang out at the store, go to shows, stay up all night, feel awful the next day. I loved it. I learned so much from them. From what I could tell, they never had anything even vaguely resembling a business plan, but they made up for the lack with passion. They definitely had an aesthetic and a strong identity.”
Early on, that identity became a major selling point in itself. Wax Trax! had attained their foremost – if not only – goal: as with the bigger UK independents, the strength of the label’s brand transcended the appeal of any individual artist or combination of artists. People with only a passing interest in dance music, as well as those who normally cared only for the same, bought new releases on sight, confident that at the very least, they were getting something fresh and engaging. Generalist DJs championed the label, often going out of their way to find places for its less danceable releases.
Coil’s cover of Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love” is a prime example. The first ever AIDS benefit release, the track was far too slow for any approach to dancing not rooted in comedy. But the video provided more than enough spectacle to compensate. Directed by Coil founder and Throbbing Gristle alumnus Peter Christopherson, it features Coil’s John Balance, first as an AIDS victim in the final weeks of his life, then as a dead person being wheeled around by Christopherson, who was dressed as a hospital orderly. (Soft Cell veteran Marc Almond’s brief cameo as a smirking hospital visitor marks the only appearance of another human.) The video’s marriage of artful surreality and gut-wrenching realism helped make it the Museum of Modern Art’s first music video acquisition.
While “Tainted Love” was uncomfortably slow, “Motorslug” was hilariously fast. At roughly 180 BPM, the first document of J.G. Thirlwell (already notorious as Foetus) and ex-Swans drummer Roli Mosiman’s collaboration as Wiseblood encouraged dancing but was hell to mix into, though a dramatic cold/locked-groove ending made it easy enough to get out of.
With offices in the UK and Germany and relationships with any number of prominent European imprints by 1986, Wax Trax! appeared to be hurtling straight for Easy Street. Not only were Nash and Flesher regularly making spectacular licensing decisions, overseas artists were beginning to see the label as a viable first option. One such specimen was Chris Connelly, then a member of Fini Tribe, who visited the label’s London office to see about getting the Edinburgh-based dance band a deal. He succeeded, and eventually relocated to Chicago, where he served admirably in Wax Trax! mainstays Revolting Cocks, Ministry, and Pigface.
Connelly provides a detailed account of those times in his 2008 memoir Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible, and Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock. Though eventually various strains of excess would lead to acrimony and separation, the scene he became a part of was nothing if not lively. Jourgensen, his various collaborators (including long-time associates and sidemen Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin), and any number of the label’s other artists regularly holed up at Chicago Trax Studios for days on end, sometimes using both the space’s recording facilities simultaneously. The work was sometimes exceptional, per Pailhead (Jourgensen’s collaboration with Minor Threat founder Ian McKaye) and most Revolting Cocks releases, but just as often (especially if the facility’s staff were as loaded as the band) it wasn’t.
“It was all pretty much anti-house here. I know Al J. especially hated it, but he kind of hated a lot.”
Given their shared affinity for quarter-note kick drum parts and the letter “x,” it’d be perfectly reasonable to imagine at least some interaction between the Wax Trax! camp and the folks at Trax Records – or at least somebody involved with Chicago’s exploding house music scene. While countless clubs (including storied Chicago juice bar Medusa’s) found considerable success in making the two worlds collide, such was not the case.
“It was all pretty much anti-house here.” Connelly offers, “at least in Chicago. I know Al J. especially hated it, but he kind of hated a lot. Interestingly enough, Fini Tribe enjoyed some crossover with our ‘De Testimony’ single well before I came here. The club culture in the States was not into this sort of digital summer of love movement that was going on in the UK and Europe – different drugs – coke versus ecstasy.”
Hardly a pair to discriminate when it came to pharmaceuticals, Nash and Flesher wasted no time making sure the smiley vibe had at least some representation on Wax Trax!, initially through ex-Throbbing Gristle frontperson Genesis-P-Orridge’s Psychic TV and the mighty KLF. Coil’s “The Snow” ranks among both the label’s finest techno moments and the project’s most eloquent salutes to entheogens. Along with industrial culture godfather William S. Burroughs, weed got big (if telepathic) ups on Meat Beat Manifesto’s magisterial Storm the Studio. That album in particular exemplifies the extent of Nash and Flesher’s reach at the time: Here was a major independent release (not to mention one of the most brutal hip hop albums, ever) by a UK-based group, released worldwide on Wax Trax! – no licensing needed.
As the label’s apparent fortunes continued to climb with Front 242’s Front by Front topping 90,000 in sales, its cashflow slowed in ways that would eventually prove disastrous. Escalating popularity meant escalating costs in both manufacturing and promotion – not to mention bigger royalty checks for artists. Thanks in part to the failure of distributors to pay in a timely fashion, Nash and Flesher started taking money from themselves – an easy palliative in the short run and another factor contributing to Wax Trax!’s demise in the long.
“Dad and Dannie would need a loan for the label and just come and take it from store deposits,” Julia Nash, Jim’s daughter and the shop’s manager from 1987 on, says. “To complicate things further, I was told that I needed to purchase large amounts of Wax Trax! product each month. Granted, it was on extended terms, but they owed us a shitload of money and we never saw a dime of it.”
“I can definitely remember us owing them money,” says Eliof, “and poor Jim calling to try to get some of it. I felt awful.”
“Ultimately, anything that meant brushing up with the majors for anyone meant disaster in some form or another. They were like helicopters piloted by fat drunks.”
Also, while having an overseas presence eliminated the need to find licensees for homegrown releases, it also exacerbated the label’s financial troubles. With more distributors to deal with, Nash and Flesher found themselves with more distributors in arrears. The more popular the label’s artists became, the more precarious its situation – especially after the first wave of an extended corporate feeding frenzy left it minus Front 242.Would things have turned out differently if label and group had been in some kind of legally binding arrangement? After all, majors were flush at the time, and often paid handsomely for artist’s existing contracts.
“Who knows?” says Connelly. “Ultimately, anything that meant brushing up with the majors for anyone meant disaster in some form or another. They were like helicopters piloted by fat drunks. Not to say that the indies were any better, but people really started salivating when majors started sniffing. Then a few weeks in, you'd realize how desperately stupid and clueless they all were.”
“Wax Trax was a family,” says Nash, “and in a lot of ways ‘no contracts’ is why it worked during some of the key releases. The only time I recall my dad talking about corporate labels was when he was poking fun at them, joking around, trying to sound like a big label president by saying, ‘this baby’s got legs.’”
The label filed for bankruptcy in 1992. But it wasn’t dead. Flush with the success of Nine Inch Nails, TVT bought Wax Trax! Records, allowing Nash and Flesher to retain full creative control. They continued to release good-to-great music even after Nash’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1995. (Nash’s last signing was Underworld.) When TVT finally shut Wax Trax! down in 2001, Flesher retired.
Only after his death in 2010 did Julia Nash contact Metro Chicago owner Joe Shanahan about doing a label retrospective event – something the club owner first suggested 15 years earlier. With a lineup that included Front 242, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Connelly, and Luc Van Acker, as well as versions of Revolting Cocks and KMFDM (with Mona Mur) tickets for the Wax Trax! Retrospectacle sold out almost immediately. By all reports, the event left everybody involved – attendees, younger and older, included – feeling utterly blissed out.
Nash, meanwhile, is far from finished. A feature-length documentary is due next year, and she maintains the tribute site waxtraxchicago.com. “I think my dad and Dannie would be super-proud that people still find Wax Trax! relevant this many years after its last release. They created a playground, and people are still playing in it.”