Written by Cary Baker
Originally published in the September 1982 issue of Illinois Entertainer, volume 2, number 103.
Theres a new sound lurking in the Chicago underground sending a current so strong the entire nation has succumbed to its infectious rhythms. The group is Ministry, one of Chicagos leading club draws inside of eight months, and recipient of national airplay, club play, and reviews for their 12-inch EP, Cold Life / Im Falling / Primental. Newly-aligned with platinum producer/engineer Ian Taylor, and sporting a new national management pact with Lookout Management (Cars, Devo, Joni Mitchell), Arista Records decided they were the label that can take them to the top. Cary Baker followed Ministrys Al Jourgensen from the cold of January through the dog days of August, documenting the band determined to conquer one nation under a groove (page 29). Brian Shanley photographed and designed the cover.Ministry Ordained by Dance (page 29)
Item: Al Jourgensen is first of four to touch ground in Chicago in the wake of Special Affects nightmarish (and conclusive) San Francisco relocation. Hes spotted around town, behind record counters at high noon in black nail polish which harmonizes with black five oclock shadow and like-hued wardrobe. He talks a lot about funk, techno-anything and of ungodly hours in the recording studio.
Item: On the brink of the winter that quick-froze Chicago, Ministry premieres live at (now-demised) Misfits on January 1, 1982. Theres a Tuxedomoon opening slot a week later, something Club 950 on a minus-75-degree winter night, and more sessions at ungodly hours.
Item: Ministrys 12-inch EP on Wax Trax! Records (Cold Life / Im Falling / Primental) enters Billboard Disco / Dance charts with super-bullet, tops the Rockpool national dance club report, explodes at college and free-form radio and garners rave reviews. A New York / Boston tour follows. And another. More reviews. Say, relates an anonymous New York scene follower, are there any other bands out of Chicago? Presto, the Second City is the next Hoboken, the next Athens, Georgia. Item: Wax Trax! is now a full-fledged label in the backroom of the Lincoln Avenue store, much the way Rhino, 110, Twin-Tone, and WASP began. By now, the band has declined one major label offer despite widespread moratoriums on signings. All the others are immediately intrigued. It is at this juncture that we join Ministrys Al Jourgensen, relaxing in his Lake View apartment.
I want #1, affirms Al Jourgensen, Ministrys outspoken, oft-controversial mastermind. WLS!
As Man of the Hour on Clark Street and along certain stretches of Bleecker Street and Boylston Street, we wish him every success. But does he feel that Ministrys musical outlook as the record buying public knows it glacial, graystone, Cockney-affected paeans of street life will play in Peoria? Or, closer to home, Schaumburg?
Everybody is striving to have a #1 record. I dont care who they are The Effegies to Bad Brains anyone. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either a fool or theyre lying.
The stuff were working on will definitely be a little bit risqué for some people, through the music is hummable and and melodic. Its not just a bunch of noise. It has hook-lines and catch-phrases. Our lyrics are autobiographical biting and cynical because thats the type of person I am. Theres Work For Love (recorded at Cars Ric Ocaseks 48-track Syncro-Sound studio in Boston, produced by Roy Thmas Bakers understudy Ian Taylor), which could be a hit. But even thats cynical in its way. Its a song about a gigolo. As I said, its all autobiographical, he laughs.
The autobiographical tales of Al Jourgensen might take on a seamier bent than the real story. He paints a fairly bacchanalian picture of Ministrys recent video session: Though it will be less spicy on the screen than we did it, the taping was like a stag party lesbians, gays 34 minutes of madness never mind the song! But for every 34 minutes of abandon, the band members woodshed for months.
The Ministry story begins about a year ago. Special Affect, the first of Chicagos real blitz / doom bands, had headed to San Francisco at the advisement of their management. They were going to be the next breakout act in the Bayside city thats recently given us the Dead Kennedys, Romeo Void, Flipper, and No Sisters. Unfortunately, four volatile Chicago personalities couldnt address themselves to day-to-day management in a steamy stomping ground that, like any city, demands daily pocket money. We all had high hopes for the band. But personality conflicts and musical differences came down, and some people came back to Chicago. I stayed out there and tried to make a go of it as Special Affect. But we were slowly going bankrupt living out there, and I guess we just blew it off and came back here, he recollects.
As heroes theyd left Chicago; the return, however, was with tails between legs. Jourgensen, for one, was not certain that he wanted to be a public figure for a while. I didnt want to show my face around here, he admits. There were rumors, and rather than being bothered by going out and having some brat tugging on your shirt asking, Man, what happened? I just unplugged myself from the whole thing.
I just sat in my apartment. The only thing I did was buy an ARP Omni because I couldnt play, say, electric guitar real loud in my apartment. Later, I moved out of that apartment and into another and started going out a little and circulating. My next purchase was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I just sat in this new apartment making tapes with me playing all the instruments. I bought a rhythm box, too, and came up with Im Falling. I had no plans to do anything with it. It was just kind of fun to sit in your apartment and be able to play tapes for your friends and say, Hey, I played all the instruments isnt that cool? And look, I did it in my living room.
One of Als living room guests was Jim Nash, owner of the nationally-known Wax Trax! record retail outlet on Lincoln Avenue, whod launched a namesake label on which hes released odd records by Divine, Strike Under, and Strange Circuits. Nash thought there might be some potential in the tapes and urged Al to hone it in the studio. Very quietly, Al borrowed cars to get out to Hedden West Recording Studios, just slightly off the Clark Street axis and a good distance from the nearest Sushi bar or Siouxsie import. One of his earliest contacts was engineer Iain Burgess, an English-born Chicagoan whod given an other-wordly treatment to local band Sport of Kings. SOK nearly became Als backup band, in fact, but somewhere the twain failed to meet. Instead, Steven George (a/k/a Stevo), who according to Al, probably played in every band ever invented in Chicago, was the first to join the fold. Preston, a member of the Book of Holy Lies, sat in on the trumpet in lieu of a horn section. A black bassist named Lamont was next. And Jay ORourke from B.B. Spin co-produced Im Falling. But there were still no plans to be a band.
We started jamming and it came out to be a song. Thats the way I work in the studio. Most songs I write and bring in there metamorphosize about 75% in the studio. I like that fresh approach rather than having everything so pinpointed and detailed that its stale, Al says. He took his completed tapes down to Wax Trax!, who reportedly, went wild over them.
Nash estimates Wax Trax! has sold 10,000 copies so far (a very respectable sum) through a national network of distributors, and probably could have charted even higher if wed approached the entire country at once. It started in the East, the Midwest, and is only now going West.
Though hell lose Ministry to a major label next time out, he says calmly, We had a verbal; what can we do? We dont want to hold them back. I feel weve done a lot. Weve learned so much that were geared on that level now. Unfortunately, I havent yet heard anything else out of this towns talent pool so far that Id want to associate myself with.
By the time hed completed the sessions, Al had bandied about a number of band names. The Silly Carmichaels actually drew a crowd of 290 to their debut at Club 950. But soon it was the Not So Silly Carmichaels, the Carmichaels, Fallen Pillar, Ministry of Fear, and P. Funk-esque alter ego Ministry of Funk. Finally, plain Ministry seemed to stick, combining the doom / gloom chromosomes of Fear and the dance feel of Funk. In quest of an up-to-the-minute definition of funk, we ask Al to give us the state-of-the-funk address. Is it James Brown? James White? Gang of Four?
No, no, no, he retorts, Its Chic, yknow, Le Freak. To me, Chic is the best band ever. As far as Im concerned, theirs is the only kind of upbeat music on the radio that made me move. It certainly isnt hard-core punk; maybe Im too over the hill or whatever, but you cant dance to that. It was just loud trash. It was good for when it happened, but now its just retreading and pointless to me. I dont care how many enemies that makes me.
In all fairness, we mention, Ministrys Cold Life doesnt exactly sound like the soulmate of Le Freak. And what happens when funk meets doom / gloom?
Its intelligent music, Al says of the latter, It really involves a mood. It just takes over. Youll be in a great mood, and all of the sudden youll be entranced with the hypnotic effect
But doesnt dwelling on any one mood get old?
How can you tell if youre hypnotized?
I think the Cure is a good example of that. Chic and the Cure, of course, have different concepts. At one time, I was considering splitting up the bands and getting two sets of people Ministry of Fear and Ministry of Funk. However, I found some people who were into both types of music so we consolidated. We also found that the synthesizer can handle so much of the workload of a song without having to have all these people up there when youre touring. Wed originally envisioned a huge horn section, but eventually we did more tapes and it involved plain economics to get rid of those people and start concentrating on the synths.
Al Jourgensen talks like a man whos achieved precisely what he set out to do. But just as often, youll catch him conceding Ministry stumbled upon its share of serendipitous turns, accidental groove thangs and found art.
I knew what I wanted when we entered the studio, he says, but a good producer is the translator of what Im thinking of. Iain Burgess knew how to do it. Ian Taylor, our current producer, can translate. But so many bands go into the studio and dont know what they want out of the sound. All they know is that theyre in the studio and thats great. These people seem to expect the engineer, whos working a thousand projects a week, to turn the knobs and think for them. What you have to do is give a lot of pre-thought before you go in. I didnt go in with a blank face and say, Okay, Mr. Engineer, take it away. Youll do this, this and this.
It is necessary, however, to have that outside influence, because obviously youre so wrapped up in the songs, he adds, so there has to be a co-operation formed. It cant just be, Mail in the tapes and let them mix it. Some artists are perfectly happy doing that, but thats not the way this band operates. At the center of their appeal, it might seem, is that Ministry doesnt sound like a Chicago band whatever it is that a Chicago band is presumed to sound like (a plethora or powerpop, female singers and the REO/Survivor Heartland Beat). In fact, its been leveled that theyve aped the British techno-funk sound, going so far as to affect a U.K. accent. Case in point: Cold loif. You decide.
Theres no British accent, Al assures, But consider this: What would you say, for instance, to the Shakin Pyramids from Scotland doing an Elvis Presley song, which is the type of music theyre into and were raised on. You cant understand a word theyre saying off stage. They get on stage and (Al does a short imitation of a Scotsman imitating Elvis look out Rick Saucedo!) How come they never catch any grief? Its a double standard. You emulate your heroes even the 10-year-old listening to Robert Plant.
If Ministry is concededly not a stereotypical Chicago band, how did they stand up to the supreme test a series of New York appearances? Al is proud to say that he band has kept a nearly even ratio of live appearances between the two cities. Until our last two or three Chicago shows, we actually had a much better following there than we had here, he says.
The first East Coast jaunt was as opening act for British JEM artists Medium Medium from England (who gave the world the dance hit, Hungry So Lonely). It was the dead of winter 82, the season that could have, and in many cases did, silence live music. Nonetheless, the Medium Medium / Ministry revue made it from Minneapolis to Boston, Sure it was cold, but it was something that had to be done, Al says.
Enroute, however, Medium Mediums van skidded down a Pennsylvania highway, totaling both the vehicle and the equipment inside.
They called me up, told me what happened, and I said, No problem, Al recalls. The two groups shared a van, equipment, roadies, and motel rooms. There was about six inches of snow, but we got along great. Theyre real great people and helped us out as much as we helped them. Were different musically, but compatible in that people could dance to both bands.
The close quarters, added effort and consequent exposure had its payoff. Within months, Ministry had a record on the national dance charts with a super-bullet. The original 12-inch release of Cold Life b/w Im Falling was taken out of its halftone-heavy gray and peach cover portraying Chicagos Union Station in all its after-hours pallor. A third cut, the instrumental Primental, was added to the package and the cover redesigned in a die-cut red and yellow motif.
And insofar as Ministrys disc is concerned, Al hesitates none in saying, If you cant dance to it, youre either a cripple or disinterested.
Though Chicago will remain home, the band is days, perhaps hours, shy of consummating a co-management deal with a major national firm. Founding manager Pete Katsis, who doubles as an agent at Prestige Artists, will remain co-manager as well, but the coastal connection will lend their muscle and leverage, with a decided orientation toward recording under proper conditions.
Although time will tell whether the chemistry turns out turns out to be right, some may allege that Ministry bypassed some of the dues-paying of some of the bands who pound the pavement weekend after weekend on the club circuit, sometimes for years and years. Al hardly takes a sympathetic view of this grass-roots approach.
I think they should get out of the rut, he says, when music gets to that extent, you might as well get a day job, because its the same thing. Instead of a 9-to-5 job, you have a 5-to-9 job. I feel sorry for them. I feel they should definitely stop. No offense to the clubs, but they should stop, get a job, and rethink their objectives.
Al and his fellow Ministers are not without their own day jobs. Al, himself, can be found manning the counter of a North Side collectible record store, DJ-ing at Club 950 on Saturday nights as touring permits.
That day job is essential to what I do at night, he says. First of all, royalties dont come in beforehand. Every penny we make as a band goes back into the band. In my case, I do the ordering for the store so I get to talk to the distributors and find out how my record is doing. I write it, play it, put it out, sell it, then go to the club at night and play it for the people to hear its my own self-perpetuating cycle.
We mention that the sight of Al bedecked in PM regalia (makeup, headband, kerchiefs, nail polish) is perhaps the slightest bit of sobering at 1 PM on those occasions we see him behind the counter.
Well, he replies, throwing up his hands, at least they cant accuse me of just being a weekender.
Al Jourgensen is the groups acknowledged prime minister, but runs a benevolent dictatorship.
If push comes to shove, there is a certain point where the buck stops, he says, but theres plenty of room to work within the framework that the buck has never had to stop.
How did he set upon findings his compatriots?
Bob (Roberts) came up to me and told me he was the best keyboard player in the world. Thats exactly what he said, and that kind of cockiness I can definitely use, he says.
Ive got a long musical backgground playing keyboard for 15 years, Bob echoes. You live in a Polish neighborhood and they give you an accordion when youre about eight months old. Ive been a synth player for less than a year.
Bob, for the record, never played in a band prior to Ministry. Im fresh, he assures.
Steven (George), the human drum machine, is what keeps us human, Al continues. Any drum machine and I dont care if its a Linn or a custom-made private thing like Kraftwerk is still a machine, and theres not the sweat or the energy of a live drummer. Id rather have a drummer f*ck up a couple of times. At least that brings us down to earth. Were not trying to be Orchestral Manouvres in the Dark (OMD) or Human Leagure. Were a f*ckin human rock band.
Finally, theres the unique instance of second synthesist John Davis, whod never played an instrument in his life. I got him because he has great cheekbones and happens to like the same music that I do. He was willing to work and save up for the equipment that was needed.
With one of Depeche Modes members in the same situation, we ask Al what this is indicative of band members who never played or sang in a band before.
It means that you can get by on instinct now, which is better than being so technically-trained that youre just jaded. John keeps getting better. He is a keyboard player now.
This leaves Al flexible as the frontman, third synthesist, occasional guitarist (with Stevos drums, the sole remnants of rocks roots in Ministry). And there are those who remember Special Affect, who would contend that Al copped his moves and voice from that groups Frankie Nardiello.
Not anymore, he muses. Wait til you hear the new stuff. Im Freddie Mercury now! It comes full circle when one stops to consider that Ministrys signed/sealed producer, Ian Taylor, engineered many of Queens sessions as Roy Thomas Bakers right-hand man.
Ministry has already turned down one major label offer, which seemed to picque the interest of practically every other label in the U.S. Tuts, on July 31, was overrun with A&R men.
At press time, we learned that Arista, a label that previously pronounced Ministry as too dark, became the groups new vinyl home to the tune of a reported six-figure, two-LP deal. Work For Love is due as a 12-inch at the end of September, to be followed by another dance slab in November and an LP in January. Psychedelic Furs drummer, Vince Ely, a long-time friend of Jourgensens, got so involved in Ministry projects that when it came down to whether to return to England for Furs rehearsals or remain with Ministry, he opted to stay. He joins the group as percussionist and fourth synthesist, and will have a hand in production.
A few things are for sure, Al says in conclusion. Its a fairly safe proposition. Im not going to turn into a junkie or move away or have a girl ruin my life. I dont want to do anything else. Everyone senses that stability they dont want to push something thats going to blow up in their face. Does that mean its going to be Ministry til the death? Maybe not, he shrugs. But it will be Al Jourgensen in the music business til the death.
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