Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax Records
Reviewed by Jeff Thiessen
(with additional input from Ian MacKaye and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult)
It can be argued the best pop music is born out of a good idea, and has the proper sense to follow through on it. Wax Trax! records was also born out of a good idea, but follow-through was never the point, or rather could've have been. Instead, co-owners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher only really aspired to unconditionally nurture this grotesque abomination into whatever mutant form it happened to grow into.
This bastard child wasn't originally an unorthodox eighties record label, it was a record store Nash and Flesher opened in 1978. They operated within that age-old partnership potion for success: Nash was the wild/free spirit who only could be bothered to worry about the music and Flesher was the one connected to all that, but also had the business sense required to keep it moving forward. That same year they moved from Denver, Colorado to Chicago and that's where Wax Trax! planted its black anarchy flag.
For all intents and purposes, the label seemed to carry the distinct feel of a sarcastic sendup of the traditional record store model, a joint that looked the part of other places that sold vinyl but also managed to enthusiastically forfeit every component that made those a safe-house for suburban kids setting up shop to blow through their weekly allowance. Wax Trax! quickly became the unofficial breeding ground for almost all types of weirdos, excitedly combing through the racks filled with new wave, industrial, and punk rock albums. There was an understood sonic aesthetic I suppose but Nash and Flesher always came off as experienced conceptualists, gifted at somehow finding acts with just the right mixture of raw and cooked.
That shop essentially was the groundwork for the label which started up in 1981 after Nash and Flesher closed up shop in Chicago and lasted a hell of a lot longer than anybody could've reasonably predicted, albeit being bought out by TVT in 1992, but still lasting until post-Napster 2001.
It's quite a bizarrely inspiring story, one that absolutely deserves, maybe even needs to be told...and now we have that story in documentary form with the recently released film Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records. It was conceived and created by Nash's daughter Julia, who got the idea for this film after driving to Arkansas to retrieve some forgotten label mementos from Flesher's house. Her obvious connection to the label/her father really could've ended up being a concrete strength or a detriment to the finished product. When I got the screener and saw her name on it, I was both nervous and thrilled with the knowledge Jim's offspring spearheaded this project. Now that I've seen Industrial Accident four or five times now, I couldn't imagine a Wax Trax! documentary being any more interesting and faithful to a label that took such pride in being impossible to classify in relation to anything else going on in indie music around this time.
In some ways, Industrial Accident does subscribe to fairly conventional documentary structures. It doesn't get more linear than this. There's also a lot of live footage, (all welcomed and almost perfectly cherry-picked), particularly from the label's early years. And naturally, we get a lot of interview clips, not only from the bands and people involved with the label, but from fringe musicians who were barely tied into the Wax Trax! scene (Trent Reznor, Jello Biafra, Steve Albini, Ian MacKaye, more with him later). Having said that, what ultimately makes Industrial Accident such a wonderful music doc isn't just that it was made with love, but how it makes such a concerted effort to go out of its way to connect the development of Wax Trax!'s music to that exact same passion so wonderfully apparent in Danny and Jim's bond. You could be forgiven if you weren't aware they were more than just business partners, but they were in a very deep and intimate relationship, beginning with Wax Trax! in the womb, and following it into the tomb. As Industrial Accident hits about the halfway point, we begin to see the label's evolution and eventual decline in complete sync with its creator's ungovernable bond This arc never feels intentional- there wasn't a second at any point in the film when the parallels felt exploitative or forced as a way to add artificial emotionality to a label that seemingly took a perverse pride in stamping all its releases with a militant aversion to anything resembling vulnerability or fragility. That can fairly be viewed as a fault with the music on Wax Trax! but not with Industrial Accident. There are checks and balances that might catch some longtime label fans off-guard, and this is one of the most prominent strengths of this film.
Somehow, even with these significantly different landing spots, nothing ever gets compartmentalized, and this is we begin to appreciate how Julia Nash's vantage point becomes so incredibly useful. It's unfair to say Wax Trax! was the glue holding Danny and Jim together, but I don't think it's a stretch to say Industrial Accident has allowed us to fairly presume they took a lot of the skittish thrills of their relationship and allowed those same highs to be channeled into the label. Somehow, this worked as they seemed to simultaneously wobble into an extremely cohesive vision of their record label without any imaginable criteria as to what type of bands should be brought on board, other than a dollop of mascara and a healthy dose of nihilistic danceability.
It's a beautifully unique approach to the accepted narrative, but of course, even with all that attitude, and effortless counter-culture mugging that so many outsiders defined the label by, at the end of the day, it still came down to the music. This was glitched out, futuristic music that set out to bash up their present alternative ‘80’s scene for no real gain on their part. Industrial Accident has no real problem giving us a guided tour of this collective effort that really has been the only one that allowed itself to ensure their followers feel dirty and empowered, while also finding cute ways to nudge them to the dance floor. It never overstays its welcome, but still manages to connect a very stirring oral history peppered throughout with an incredibly well designed aural snapshot into the sounds that somehow managed to confuse and bond thousands of people at the same time.
Everything in Industrial Accident was perfectly engaging, but I did finish the documentary wondering how some of the more alien acts (even for Wax Trax! standards) came to fruition, specifically the collaborations that made exactly zero sense on paper. One of those that leapt to mind was the Pailhead project that featured Al Jourgensen and his Revolting Cocks cronies with Ian Mackaye. Yes, it is an actual thing and it seems to be the kind of one-off project that only had a chance of existing on Wax Trax! or not at all. I did a bit of looking into it and couldn't really dig up enough context to adequately summarize how this thing was birthed into our world. Ian did appear in the film but just barely touched on this mutant pairing, so I just decided to reach out to the founder and front-man of Minor Threat/Fugazi. I was fortunate enough to gain some real insight as to this completely unholy union broke out of a doomed incubation chamber and grew legs:
"I was staying at a studio in London, I used to stay in the house upstairs. One day I was having a cup of tea with a girl who worked at the studio, and she told me this guy named Al Jourgensen was also working in the studio, which I thought was weird, since I only knew of him through Ministry and we used to sell his records in our store, they were kind of like a college dance band. Not my world at all. But she ended up introducing us, and Al tells me he's getting into hardcore, which also surprised me. He was a really sweet guy though, very charming. And he went on to tell me he was working with a project named Revolting Cocks, which I had sort of heard of, and I should come check it out. So I did, I had nothing else really going on at that time, and when I showed up he said 'I have this song for you, would you maybe want to do vocals on it?' I wasn't really sure, ‘cause I don't do cameos at all as you probably know, But he caught me at a good time, as my band Embraced broke up a few months back, and Fugazi wasn't quite a band yet. Typically I would say ‘no,’ but he gave me a cassette of the song, and I thought 'this is actually a pretty good song, you know, good riff'. At that time Al was pretty conflicted about the two labels he was on, so we had a big sit down and talked a long time about business and that's what the lyrics of 'I Will Refuse' ended up being about.”
“At that point, I thought if anything, it would just turn up as a track on a Revolting Cocks record. But then, I get a call saying Jim and Danny loved the track and wanted me to record it as a B-side or whatever. So they flew me to Chicago, and the name Pailhead. I can tell you about the name, because Al mentioned his daughter was named Adrian, and when he told me the name I laughed since Al was so extreme around this time, and I joked I would've expected a name like 'Pailhead.' That's how it came about, but I said just keep my name out of it, I don't want to do any promotions... just if you get a dollar, toss me a quarter. But I liked them all, Jim, Danny, and Al were just good people, I had a really nice time with all them. It definitely was a weird crossover thing happening though, like we would start working at 10 PM and at 4, I would have to leave, but they would keep working. Some of them spent a lot of time in closets (laughs). But that's essentially how the EP was made. Really, he caught me at the perfect time, I just had nothing else going on! I don't really have regrets about things... I mean there's some things I find irritating, like I told Al, I don't ever want to sign the songs live. Then way later, before the Cocks toured, Al called me and asked me to play a couple songs and I just said 'no, I told you.' Then they toured and they had a roadie who was bald and he would get up and sing those songs. So I actually had arguments with people who said they saw me sing those songs! I don't think Al was doing that to annoy me, but I'm not sure. And now I assume the songs are still being sold somewhere, and the only thing I said was 'if you make a dollar, I want a quarter' and I ain't seen any quarters in the last couple years. But that's the way it goes, I don't care."
There you have it, the story behind one of the most unlikely collaborations we will ever see in our lifetimes. And when it comes down to it, perhaps Industrial Accident's biggest strength is understanding how this type of story is basically a microcosm for the entire working aesthetic of Wax Trax! - none of this should work, and it doesn't really make sense to anybody with any connection to popular ‘80’s music, but boy, is it a blast so let's actively try to not figure it out and hope tomorrow is as much fun as today. That seemed to be what propelled Jim and Danny's relationship into a roaring journey of luxuriant rapture, and that's precisely what allowed them to unleash Wax Trax! into the world, giving thousands of outcasts a valuable lesson in the process: sometimes what you need is tucked away behind ideas of what you think you might want.
A few days back, I also spoke to Franke Nardiello, also known as Groovie Mann, founder and frontman of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, one of the label's flagship acts around peak Wax Trax! years. He has one specific bit in the film where he sort of laughs off how seriously people took the band's quasi-Satanism. I wanted to explore that a little more so I asked him about Thrill Kill's winky narrative they seemed to enjoy so much. Like Ian's story, Franke seemed to accidentally convey the exact secret ingredient that separated Wax Trax! from pretty much every other label operating around that time:
"I just did what I felt with art and words. I didn't even think about shock value. That's not my style. Some need that shocking outrage to get noticed or join into being part of the scene. But if you create your own world and live in it instead of appealing to the ego goals of the masses, you may last longer and not burn out because you have the value of your own music that some may like! It's a creative journey into anywhere!"
Sometimes these things write themselves.
See more about Industrial Accident here
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