In Autumn 1988 I started working at the Record Co-Op in the Stamp Student Union building at the University of Maryland. I had dropped out of college, was a few months away from re-starting at community college, and more than a year from actually going to the University of Maryland. Still, working on campus in a record store was my dream job. I envisioned -- somewhat correctly -- that my daily retail life would be spent selling students the best new college rock -- (what they called this sort of music then) -- and that I would be sort of a taste-maker in the shop. The deal-breaker -- the cut that could clear the store sometimes -- was "Stigmata", the 1988 breakthrough single from Ministry. It goes without saying that in Autumn 1988, "Stigmata" was just too abrasive for some techno fans. For others, it was the welcomed stab of genuine danger that this kind of music desperately needed.
But, truly, the word "breakthrough" is probably the wrong term as Ministry already had a fan-base in 1988. Earlier singles and albums had given the band the sort of recognition that placed them among bands like Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, and Erasure. Sure, Ministry had an edge even then but their spark of genuine danger wasn't apparent right away. All that being said, rarities from the early years of the band are now collected on the new compilation Trax! Rarities. Out today via Cleopatra Records, the collection highlights the best material from the very beginnings of the career of Al Jourgensen and Ministry. Poised somewhere between what's on releases like Twitch and sides on Wax Trax!, the songs here retain a certain edge despite the bits that sound a tiny bit dated.
What's here -- live cuts, demos, spin-off project numbers -- presents a robust picture of the full genius of Al Jourensen. If material like "Love Change" sounds like early Depeche Mode, stuff like "Game is Over" is more interesting. Hints of late-period Killing Joke pop up here. If Jourgensen is not quite the industrial godfather he would become later, he's at least nudging himself down darker paths than some of his peers in this era. If a remake of "Same Old Scene" reveals Jourgensen to have been beholden to the usual stylistic tropes of the new wave of the early Eighties, there's something here in this Roxy Music cover that hints at a fuller potential. The previously-unreleased "I See Red" sounds remarkably like what Reznor would do on the first Nine Inch Nails release, Reznor himself totally in debt to what Jourgensen was doing in that time period. Certainly closer to industrial styles than anything groups like A Flock of Seagulls or Erasure were doing then, Jourgensen's Ministry was a group that was inching towards the outer edges of the alternative scene. Far closer to that revolutionary stuff is the spin-off project stuff here on Trax! Rarities. "Don't Stand in Line (Dub Mix)" by Pailhead throbs with techno promise, while a Revolting Cocks cover of "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John is the blueprint for so much of what would come later. In 1988, Jourgensen perfected the industrial crossover, clearly, and yet the move was not an attempt to generate sales as much as it was to get asses onto the dance-floor even as the material got harder and harder and harder. While the majority of Trax! Rarities offers up various windows into the genesis of the early Ministry sound, stuff like Revolting Cocks' "Drums Along the Carbide" shines a light on what Jourgensen would unleash later, the fury of the beat sublime.
Wax! Rarities by Ministry is an essential peek into the mind of Al Jourgensen. His reputation climbing as the years progress, Jourgensen essentially created a genre starting in 1988, even after he had had some real successes earlier in more traditional areas. If the new wave on this compilation is not as dangerous as that techno stuff, it's at least inventive and forward-thinking. For that reason, this compilation is a must-purchase for fans of Jourgensen's various projects, and even casual students of alternative and industrial music in America's recent past.
[Photo: Brian Shanley]