With industrial music enjoying an upswing in popularity over the past few years — evidenced by rising bands like Youth Code, 3Teeth, HIDE and many more (even Code Orange have shown their love for the genre) — it's no wonder folks are starting to look to the past to see what inspired those mechanical beats and heavy-as-hell sounds.
So the timing couldn't be any more perfect for Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records — a new documentary on the influential underground record store and label. The doc examines some of the most relevant aspects of what went down in the early days of punk, post-punk, new wave and industrial, and how Wax Trax! was at the forefront and helped launch the careers of bands including Ministry, Front 242, KMFDM — tastemaking artists that inspired an underground movement that would eventually result in massive mainstream successes like Nine Inch Nails.
Through interviews with such notable artists as Dave Grohl, Jello Biafra, Al Jourgensen, Trent Reznor, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and many more, the history of Wax Trax! takes on new life through the pieced-together narrative formed from the memories of those who were there.
The story of Wax Trax! centers on late founders Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher (Nash passed in 1995, Flesher in 2010), whose unique and passionate dedication to discovering — and fostering an accepting atmosphere for — new progressive, and subversive, music kick-started an industrial juggernaut: from Wax Trax!'s first physical store established in Denver in the mid-1970s, through their 1978 move to Chicago and the label's eventual sale to TVT Records in 1992.
Throughout April, Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records will be screened at select cities across the U.S. These special events will also feature a panel discussion and performances by Ministry (doing a Wax Trax! era set) and Cold Cave. See dates here — and read on to discover ten things you may not have known about the famed label and record store.
Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, previously carpenters and cabinet makers, weren't just record collectors with a dream: they were lovers and partners, an openly gay couple in the mid-1970s when homosexuality had been decriminalized only a decade or so earlier.
Their friend and photographer Patty Heffley recalls, "Jim and Dannie were an amazing couple … they fit together like glue. What Jim had, Dannie didn't, and what Dannie had, Jim didn't." Close friend Bill Maney confirms, "You definitely got the sense that they really loved each other, but they had some amazing ways of showing it which included beating the shit out of each other."
"Being an out gay couple at that time and where they lived, in Kansas and Denver, was a big deal," explains store employee Steve Knutson, "And they didn't apologize for it, they didn't hide from it, they didn't give a shit … they didn't care what anybody thought."
That attitude helped shape the breezy, no-fucks-given attitude that made Wax Trax! the haven it became for punks, freaks, glam rockers and other societal outcasts later on in its run as a store and label.
"The music, the record store: it was all about misfits," continues Heffley. "The whole scene from David Bowie on was about misfits, people who didn't belong anywhere else. They all ended up at Wax Trax! Records."
When the Ramones played Denver in 1977, the first place they visited when they got to town was Wax Trax! Knutson, who worked at the store during the rise of punk, sent a fan letter to the band's manager Danny Fields, to which they responded and requested Knutson pick them up and take them directly to the store.
Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra recalls seeing the group's show later that evening: "The Ramones came in just raving about Wax Trax!, saying it was the best record store they had ever seen ... and then, they blew the roof off the place."
The Nirvana drummer, Foo Fighters front man, and all-around rock hero cites his first visit to Wax Trax! (after it relocated to Chicago) as the "first record store that had everything." He recalls, "I was so blown away that this entire genre of music existed without anybody really knowing. This was underground shit, and it was this network of bands and labels and fanzines that communicated with each other off the radar of any sort of commercial scene."
Grohl was still very young when he first experienced his first run-in with Wax Trax!, but it left an indelible mark. "Nobody knew that this was happening – I had no idea this was happening," he admits. "I loved rock music and I was a shitty little vandal kid, but I had never heard something that made me wanna fucking like, break shit."
Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, the Wax Trax! owners, booked one of Bauhaus' first U.S. shows in 1980 at Chicago venue Space Place. "They were most personable, and they took us to their apartment," recalls Bauhaus bassist David J. of the experience. "For all of us, our impression was that we had entered into some kind of very camp, kind of gay enclave." The then-fledgling band had released their most recognizable track and inimitable goth anthem "Bela Lugosi's Dead" just one year prior to their stay with the record store and label founders.
Later in 1983, Belgian electronic act Front 242 joined the ranks of bands introduced to America via the Wax Trax! spearheads. "The 'Endless Riddance' 12-inch was imported by a label or a shop in the states called Wax Trax!," explains Front 242's Richard 23, "but we didn't know that of course. I didn't even know that 12-inches were imported in America until we received one day a fax saying 'Hey, we love your 12-inch ... we'd love to license it for the states."
The pairing between the band and label coincided with Front 242's attempt to move past the post-punk moniker they'd been slapped with previously and further into the realm of early electronic body music. For the label, it was their first time working with someone outside of the local Chicago scene. Jim Nash said in an interview at the time, "There is a lot of people out there that will respond to this music, but there's no exposure for it. A major label is not interested in a record unless it's going to sell at least 50,000 copies – they wouldn't even consider signing them ... We feel that there is a big market out there for that type of stuff."
Before Al Jourgensen even named his project Ministry — and before they even heard one note of music — Jim and Dannie agreed to let him record and release music via Wax Trax! Their faith in Uncle Al proved fruitful, and the first release under the name Ministry ended up being 1981's "I'm Falling / Cold Life." A touring band was assembled quickly after and Ministry became the label's hallmark act, which launched Jourgensen into more than three decades of abject creativity – or depravity — depending on your particular tastes
The Revolting Cocks' signature sound actually came from a lack of knowledge on how to use the Fairlight sampler, a very expensive piece of equipment that went for $60,000 at the time, purchased for Al Jourgensen by his label Sire Records in 1983. "We thought the stuff sounded pretty cool," says the Ministry front man of his early collaborations with Front 242 that would become RevCo. "We didn't know what we were doing on the Fairlight, and it's just real repetitive and drone-y because nobody knew how to edit beats."
Front 242 percussionist and backing vocalist Richard 23 echoes that sentiment, admitting "The flavor of the music of Revolting Cocks – something very repetitive – [is] because that's all we could do."
Fun fact: Revolting Cocks' debut album Big Sexy Land was the first full-length ever put out by Wax Trax! Records, and the cover featured relatives of label/record store owner Dannie Flesher taken in the 1940s on a bridge in Arkansas. "We didn't want it to be, like, a fashion contest," remembers Jourgensen of the art direction.
Divine, the campy drag queen who was already a gay icon for her role as John Waters' muse and lead actor in films such as Pink Flamingoes and Female Trouble, became the second artist to record and release a single on Wax Trax! with 1980's "Born to Be Cheap."
8. Wax Trax! helped bring together Al Jourgensen and Ian MacKaye in an insane, unlikely and amazing collaboration
"I Will Refuse" from the Pailhead EP Trait was the first song Fugazi founder Ian MacKaye wrote with Al Jourgensen, jotting down the lyrics as he was inspired by Jourgensen's irritation with being on a major record label. "He was so frustrated," remembers MacKaye, "just furious about it, and I was just saying [shrugs] 'I will refuse … I won't get involved,'" and thus the song was born. Months went by before he heard from Jourgensen again, but the Wax Trax! superstar had something bigger in mind for the collaboration.
The pairing worked so well, Jourgensen decided he didn't want to put the track on the new Revolting Cocks record, so he asked MacKaye to come back and collaborate again but for a new project, and thus Pailhead was born. The short-lived side project eventually recorded three singles together in 1987 and 1988.
Steve Albini, an early follower of the store and label, says, "That Strike Under 12-inch ['Immediate Action,' the label's first ever release], which is just an astonishing record, that's a brilliant snapshot of the Chicago punk scene. There was like, a dance number on there which sort of owned up to the fact that in Chicago, punks would go to the dance clubs."
One of the downfalls with the label was its lack of contractual duty placed upon the artist; there wasn't even a verbal agreement between Jim and Dannie and the artists whose albums they released — everything was based on trust and friendship. When Nine Inch Nails became a huge mainstream success, bigger labels swooped in and offered big contracts and more money to some of the biggest Wax Trax! artists like Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and Al Jourgensen's side projects in order to cash in on the market for industrial.
"Nine Inch Nails ended up being kind of a terrible catalyst in a lot of ways," admits Reznor — who was an uncredited guest on Jourgensen's Wax Trax! side project 1000 Homo DJs' insane Sabbath cover "Supernaut." "Major labels started coming in, TVT, [they] would have seen that as an opportunity of 'let me just scoop up all this other shit' without any respect for the artistry behind it or what it means or what was good about it, what resonated with culture. It was just an asset."
TVT went on to purchase Wax Trax outright in 1992, eventually folding the label altogether in 2001. Today, Wax Trax! Records lives on, though, as Jim Nash's daughter Julia re-established the brand in 2014. Find out more by visiting www.waxtraxchicago.com.