The first two Ministry albums I heard were With Sympathy and Filth Pig. I can’t remember which one I got first, but they sounded completely different not just from each other, but from what I expected Ministry to sound like. I expected something like Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails.
How did Ministry begin with such pop roots and emerge as a heavy metal band? Jourgensen has claimed he was forced by the record company and his producers to create a pop album. Others have speculated that he discovered hardcore punk later in life and was converted.
“The singer has been accused of punk posturing on the video for ‘Stigmata,’ which has him decked out in skinhead garb and wallowing in a pile of trash,” the Phoenix Times wrote in 1988, following the release of The Land of Rape and Honey.
Neither version of the story is true. And while skipping straight from “Revenge” to “No W” would be quite a shock, there’s actually a steady progression in the sound over the years. This evolution has been a fascination of mine for a long time, and may be the thing I like most about his work.
On their own, most of Ministry’s albums aren’t great. There’s a forgettable synthpop album, a poppy EBM album that’s OK if you like that sort of thing, two rather confused industrial rock albums with a few good tracks, one excellent alternative metal album, a below average sludge metal album and a bunch of above average speed metal albums.
But considered as a whole — as a single continuum instead of several discrete works — Jourgensen’s albums are much more interesting.
His authorized biography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen by Jon Wiederhorn, provides some insight into how all of this came to be, but it’s often at odds with contemporaneous interviews he gave. I’m not interested in proving whether Jourgensen is being entirely truthful in his account of what transpired at Arista records, but in gaining more understanding in how and why Jourgensen’s music changed over the years.
Early Years: Rain Slayer and Soundscapes
Jourgensen was born Alejandro Ramirez Casas in Cuba in 1958. His family relocated to Chicago when he was young, and he says he grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. “By far Ministry’s biggest influences are Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top,” he said in Lost Gospels.
They moved again to Breckenridge, Colorado when he was 14 years old, after he was busted at school for doing drugs, his step-father said in Lost Gospels. He went to college in Greeley, Colorado, where he started his first band, Rain Slayer, which mostly covered songs by bands like Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was there that Shannon, his girlfriend at the time, turned him on to punk and post-punk. “She made me put away my Stones and Zeppelin records, kicking and screaming, and had me listen to crazy English shit like Public Image LTD, Bauhaus, Throbbing Gristle, and Joy Division as well as Krautrock like Can, Faust, Neu!, and Kraftwerk,” he said.
During this period he saw The Ramones live in Denver at a show also attended by Jello Biafra and Wax Trax owners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, but they didn’t know each other at the time. “The Ramones were a real inspiration for anyone who did anything with punk rock,” Jourgensen said Lost Gospels. “The thing about them was they weren’t just fast, loud, and simple; they had melodies as strong as any pop group.”
After getting busted for selling cocaine, Jourgensen returned to Chicago with Shannon. He says that he enrolled at the Art institute of Chicago, which had a bunch of synthesizers and computers that he started using to create “Eraserhead meets Throbbing Gristle-style soundscapes” for Shannon’s spoken word pieces.
Before Ministry: Special Affect and The Carmichaels
Shannon kept dragging Jourgensen to punk clubs where he says he was beat-up often for looking like a hippie, but eventually he felt inspired to join a post-punk band called Special Affect, which consisted of Jourgensen on guitar, Frankie Nardiello (aka Groovy Man of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult) on vocals, Marty Sorenson on bass and Harry Rushakoff (of Concrete Blonde) on drums.
According to Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter’s Guide to Underground Rock, Jourgensen auditioned for the band by jamming along to a Led Zeppelin album. The band almost didn’t let him join because they thought he was a hippie. But as you can see from the video above, he eventually changed his image to fit in more with the new wave scene of the day.
Special Affect’s Too Much Soft Living EP has been re-issued as a
According to a 1982 article in Illinois Entertainer, Special Affect relocated to San Francisco in the early 80s on the recommendation of their management. Jourgensen told the Entertainer that the band was going broke in San Francisco and they ended up breaking up and moving back to Chicago. It was a huge let down. As the Entertainer put it, “As heroes they’d left Chicago; the return, however, was with tails between legs.” In Lost Gospels, Jourgensen says that the band broke-up because he and Rushakoff got in a fight on stage.
“I didn’t really care, because I wasn’t really into what we were doing,” he said. “To me it sounded like the crazy, wanker English music that Shannon blasted all the time. I don’t even think she liked it. She just wanted to push boundaries and have me try all this different stuff, even if she wasn’t into it.”
But as we’ll soon see, the early Ministry songs continued along exactly the same lines as Special Affect, so he must have had at least some affection for this “crazy, wanker English music.”
After returning to Chicago, he started another band called The Carmichaels that played one show before splitting up. He also played guitar for Divine, who released a single on Wax Trax in 1981, but Jourgensen says he didn’t last long. This probably isn’t him on guitar in this video, but it’s the right song and period:
Before With Sympathy
Jourgensen told the Entertainer that after returning to Chicago after Special Affect he bought a synthesizer (an ARP Omni) because he couldn’t play loud guitar in his apartment and then bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and just started making his own solo tracks. The first two tracks he recorded were “Overkill” (above) and “I’m Falling” (below), according to Jello Biafra in Lost Gospels. Wax Trax owner Jim Nash heard the demos and signed Jourgensen to the label and paid for studio time to record professional versions of the tracks with a full band. Jourgensen said he never wanted to be the singer for Ministry — “I wanted to be Jimmy Page, not Robert Plant” is a constant refrain for him — but ended up not liking any of the singers he auditioned for the band. According to the Entertainer, Jourgensen considered Ministry of Fear and Ministry of Funk as band names, but settled on just plain “Ministry.”
Wax Trax pressed a few 7″s of “Overkill,” with “I’m Falling” as the b-side, but never released it, according to Biafra. The “I’m Falling” single was released in 1981. But “Cold Life” (below), which also appeared on the 12″, proved to be a bigger hit, so it was re-released as a “Cold Life” single with “I’m Falling” and a track called “Primental” as b-sides. All of these tracks, except “Primental” were re-released on the Early Trax collection (“Primental” is now available on 12 Inch Singles (Extended Edition) and Trax! Box collectiom.
“Overkill” and “I’m Falling” are dark post-punk in the same vein as early Killing Joke. But “Cold Life” is a tough one to categorize, as it does have some odder sounds that fit more with the later Wax Trax recordings, but the funky bass lines may be out of place even on With Sympathy. But it’s definitely a pop song. “Cold Life” was a minor club hit, charting on the Billboard Dance/Disco chart, and this success may explain some of the shift in Jourgensen’s sound from post-punk to dance pop.
Jourgensen told Melody Maker in 1982 that he was influenced by “American black music” at the time, and he told the Illinois Entertainer that Chic was the only uptempo music that made him want to dance. The Entertainer noted that early Ministry bass player Lamont Welton is black. He also mentioned the Cure to Entertainer, describing Ministry as a sort of blend of Chic and The Cure – of both Ministry of Funk and Ministry of Fear.
Not long before being signed to Arista, Ministry started touring the midwest. You can find two whole concerts from this period one from Detroit and one from Chicago. The With Sympathy tracks performed in these concerts sound pretty much like what was released, but they do have a slight bit of the punk influence in them.
The Detroit show features some unreleased tracks. Some, like “What is the Reason?” and “America,” help bridge the gap between Special Affect and With Sympathy era Ministry–they’re faster and a bit more aggressive than the Sympathy tracks. The Trax! Box collection includes several recordings of these songs from the Detroit show.
Jourgensen already had the affected English accent as early as “Overkill,” but it sounds a bit more Johnny Rotten than Robert Smith. Jourgensen told Melody Maker that he loved all things English and was thinking about moving there even though he’d never been. He cited D.A.F, Simple Minds (who did a number of more experimental releases on Arista before becoming famous), Roxy Music, and David Bowie as influences.
About the accent he told Entertainer:
“There’s 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 they’re into and were raised on. You can’t understand a word they’re 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? It’s a double standard. You emulate your heroes – even the 10-year-old listening to Robert Plant.
But even as late as 1986, he was affecting the accent on stage, even when he wasn’t singing. Listen to the end of this “live version of “Everyday is Halloween.”
With Sympathy Era
Jourgensen has claimed that he was pressured by the label to make a synthpop album. The way he put it in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune has become his typical telling: “Basically, it was like trying to write an album with a gun to your head in 1986. That whole album. . . . I loathe it. Always did. Always will. It’s not even my material, as far as I’m concerned.”
But interviews Jourgensen gave at the time indicate that he was happy with Arista, loved UK pop music and wanted to make a hit record. Arista originally turned Ministry down for sounding “too dark,” but Jourgensen told The Entertainer that he wanted to have a number one hit, so it sounds likely that he was a very willing collaborator in turning With Sympathy into a very poppy album. He told Matter in 1983:
They seem to like what I’m doing a lot. After an initial bit of not knowing what to do with us, I think they know now, and that’s to give us a lot of money and treat us nice. As long as they keep sending checks, I’m all smiles.
“I got the feeling that Al was trying to do and be what was expected of him,” his ex-wife Patty Marsh told The Unofficial Ministry site in 2013.
In an interview with Terminal in 1984, Jourgensen was perhaps more honest about what happened: “I figured I gave them my best pop shot on the first album (With Sympathy) and that’s all I wanted to to. That’s IT! I payed by their rules the first time and it didn’t get me anywhere, so then I wanted to play it by mine and they said no. So I said fine. It was amicable.”
Jourgensen did, however, tell Matter in 1983 that although he was happy with the material he was putting out, he was more into DAF and Birthday Party, and found Cabaret Voltaire’s music interesting. But he dismissed hardcore punk, saying it wasn’t danceable enough for him.
Jourgensen, who turned 50 in 2008, and released a new album in 2013, told both Melody Maker and Matter that he didn’t want to be making music in his 50s, saying that he was “not going to be one of those Pete Townsend types.” He said he’d rather become an actor than a musician. This was the start of a long tradition of saying the end of Ministry is nigh.
This period is also where his problems with addiction started to come to the center. He told Illinois Entertainer that he wouldn’t become a junkie. In the second Melody Maker interview Jourgensen described himself as an alcoholic, blaming the stress of working in the music business. In Lost Gospels he says he tried heroin for the first time during this period due to the stress of working with Arista.
(Above: “Same Old Madness,” which didn’t end up on the album but had an official video)
Jourgensen also wrote a songs for Iggy Pop (“Fire Engine“) and for Suicide’s Alan Vega’s solo album Saturn Strip (“Saturn Drive).” He says these were songs that Arista didn’t like, so he gave them to other artists to perform.
It was during this period that Jourgensen started some of his most important collaborations, and these may provide some clues to the later transformations we see in his music.
Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin, who later become staple members of Ministry, were in Seattle-based band The Blackouts with Barker’s brother Roland (who later worked with the Revolting Cocks). Both Ministry and The Blackouts had been on the European label Situation 2, and Jourgensen’s now ex-wife Patty Marsh managed The Blackouts. Jourgensen ended up producing a Blackouts EP, which was released on Wax Trax. Here’s a Blackouts track that Jourgensen produced, it has a Bauhaus-esque goth rock sound, not unlike “Overkill”-era Ministry:
Jourgensen also formed Revolting Cocks after recording With Sympathy. According to Luc Van Acker in Lost Gospels, Jourgensen discovered Front 242 while working as a DJ and got them signed to Wax Trax. The band ended up opening for Ministry on a post-With Sympathy tour. Singer Richard 23 hit it off with Jourgensen and introduced him to Van Acker. The three decided to start a new band, but the group wouldn’t record anything until after the release of Twitch. Still, Jourgensen’s interest in Front 242 and DAF gives an indication of what sort of music he’d be do next. In the interview with Terminal in 1984 he referred to Front 242 as “the best band in the whole fucking world” and said he and Marsh, who was then Ministry’s live keyboard player, were sick of being a pop group.
Also, he wrote a jingle for a Shasta commercial:
Second Wax Trax Era
Jourgensen may have been sick of being in a pop group, but he kept the false English accent and general pop sensibilities on both “All Day” and “(Every day is) Halloween,” which sounds more angsty than angry, with Jourgensen complaining about being abused for looking weird — a common theme for Jourgensen in interviews in those days.
He may have started out as a hippie outsider to the new wave scene, but by the early 80s he was sporting a Boy George-style androgynous look on the Phil Donahue show in the early 80s. “We were told the topic was going to be music business related, and about the new music that had taken over the clubs,” Marsh said in 2013 about the the appearance. “What it actually turned out to be was a ‘punks are people too’ defense which we would have had no part in had we known.”
But it wouldn’t be surprising if Jourgensen had a sincere interest in the subject matter. “I started out in Chicago working in all these real square, establishment record store in the suburbs, and I got fired for being like a weirdo,” he told Matter in 1983. And the Entertainer made special note of Jourgensen’s style in 1982: “He’s spotted around town, behind record counters at high noon in black nail polish which harmonizes with black five oclock shadow and like-hued wardrobe.”
Curiously, although Jourgensen made frequent references to David Bowie in his early 80s interviews, he didn’t mention Bowie once in Last Gospels. But Bowie’s changing looks and styles are a good template for Jourgensen’s own transformations, and a good reference point for his more glam fashion sense in the early 80s.
“The Nature of Love” (below), another track from this period, inched Ministry sound further towards the Chicago industrial sound and prefigures the sound of the first couple My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult albums. But Jourgensen told Alternative Press in 1990 that the song was meant to be a joke, making fun of sample driven music. In interviews after the release of The Land of Rape and Honey, Jourgensen said he hated the sample driven dance music coming out of the Chicago house scene in the 80s.
Jourgensen has said that 1988’s Land of Rape and Honey featured tracks that he recorded back in the With Sympathy days but were too aggressive for Arista. But if Jourgensen had wanted to record some more aggressive, experimental work, surely he could have done it during his brief return to Wax Trax in 1984. But “All Day” and “Halloween” would have fit in reasonable well on With Sympathy. There’s not a huge difference between the sounds of “Cold Life,” “Work for Love” and “Halloween” — they all could have fit on the same album together.
He promised that the next Ministry album would be more “aggressive,” saying that it would sound more like the Wax Trax releases he did before With Sympathy. But the thing is, the Wax Trax Ministry was always mainstream. Even the Twitch stuff wasn’t necessarily subversive for the period. As S. Alexander Reed points out in-Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, Depeche Mode released a song called “Pipeline” in 1983 that was more “industrial” than much of what Wax Trax put out in the early 80s. And with the exception of “Fire Engine,” the other known rejected tracks from With Sympathy — “Same Old Madness,” “America,” and “Saturn Strip” — aren’t any more aggressive than what was ultimately released.
Why then the hate for the old music? “The thing is, he hates the people who like his music,” Van Acker said in Lost Gospels. “That’s the problem. He loves the music he made, but he hates the people because it doesn’t match. He went on to become Mr. Metal, and now he hates all his metal fans because he’s gone on to a different evolution again.”
At any rate, Jourgensen was soon signed to another label. In Lost Gospels Jourgensen says one of the conditions for signing with Sire records was that they “bail out” Wax Trax, for which they made him co-owner. I’m not sure it was common knowledge that Jourgensen had a financial stake in the company, but the Terminal article does refer to Jourgensen as a co-owner of Wax Trax.
Twitch, Keith LeBlanc, and Revolting Cocks
Twitch represented a full shift from pure pop days of With Sympathy into the industrial dance style that came to define Wax Trax. This is much weirder and noiser than Jourgensen’s previous efforts, but still rooted in pop music and fake English accents. It even includes a remix of “All Day,” which first appeared as a b-side for “Halloween.”
Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc produced the album, which proved… educational for Jourgensen. According to LeBlanc:
Yeah. Then he came to London and all [he] wanted to do was to pick Adrian’s brain. So Adrian kept mixing these tracks I had done for him. And Al kept saying: ‘No, it’s crap, man, I don’t like that’ … A month later Al was in the same studio getting the same exact sound … and Adrian realized [that Al] had really done a number on him. As a result, a lot of the tracks I did for Al, he didn’t want. He just said: ‘I don’t want ’em, keep ’em’.
So when I came back to London, Adrian said: ‘Well, look man, all these tracks you’ve done for Al – he doesn’t want ’em, what do you wanna do?’. I said let’s re-work them. And part of those were on Major Malfunction.
Actually, the keyboard player on [the track] ‘Move’ is Al Jourgensen. I called him up and said: ‘How do you want me to list you on the record?’. He goes: ‘just call me Dog’. So I called him Dog, right? About two years later he calls me up, very upset that I had called him Dog on the record, and why didn’t I list his proper name?
The album mentioned is LeBlanc’s Major Malfunction, a precursor to LeBlanc’s Tackhead project. And it does sound a lot like Twitch. Jourgensen, however, has a completely different memory of the event. He says in Lost Gospels that he paid Sherwood to teach him to produce. But he does take credit for the Major Malfunction material:
Tackhead was basically shit that I wrote that was recorded with Adrian Sherwood [during the sessions for Twitch]. I didn’t want to put [that material] on Twitch, because on the second side of that album I wanted to go in more of a noise direction. I wound up having all of these songs done, and I traded Sherwood five [of those] songs for three [others] … [plus] an ounce of speed and some engineering lessons. Then Gary Clail did his shit over what I had already done, and took my vocals off. So, I had the original Tackhead tracks with me singing, which are basically Ministry tracks, because I wrote them. Keith LeBlanc and Doug Wimbish … guys from the Sugarhill Gang … are on those. It’s really a cool thing.
Some of this material apparently also ended up on Barmy Army’s The English Disease album as well.
Van Acker sort of corroborates LeBlanc’s version of the story — at least the part about Jourgensen being less than forthcoming about his appropriation of Sherwood’s production techniques:
I was in London at Southern Studios when Al was mixing Ministry with Adrian Sherwood, and Al would go to the toilet and copy down the studio settings Adrian used for his effects on toilet paper and put them in his trousers. When we got back to the hotel Al would take all this toilet paper out of his trousers and shout numbers at me, like “37, 43,” and I would take notes. But Al would not remember what those numbers were for anymore. I still have this notebook full of the numbers of Adrian’s settings. Al was an absolute big fan of Adrian Sherwood, and they were really good friends.
Jourgensen took the “blame the producer” route with this one as well, telling Rockopool in 1988 that Sherwood’s influence on the album made less of his own. “I’m not saying he took over — but it was still a collaboration,” he says.
Jourgen’s look continued to evolve during this period as well. Van Acker recalls that he had a huge mohawk while recording Twitch. This live video from the Twitch tour is particularly interesting because of how stripped down Jourgensen’s look is here. He’s shed the goth and new wave looks of the early days but hasn’t taken on the full blown biker look he later adopted. He also has a notable absence of tattoos in this video.
This is also the period in which Revolting Cocks, released its first album and the “You Often Forget” single. The RevCo material was heavier than Twitch — an EBM album with fewer of the pop touches that made Twitch easily digestible — but still didn’t really prepare fans for what was coming.
Land of Rape and Honey and Beyond
This is the first appearance I’ve seen of facial hair on Jourgensen, and it accompanies the general shift towards a more macho appearance, though here he has more of a punk look than the biker look that would become his standard later. “Stigmata” was the first track on Land of Rape and Honey, and it must have come as quite a shock to fans of With Sympathy and even Twitch. This is the beginning of the modern version of Ministry, and the first version to include Paul Barker.
But only the first three tracks have metal guitar — the rest of the music seems like slightly heavier versions of the EBM-influenced material from Twitch. In fact, “Abortive” was originally recorded by Adrien Sherwood for Twitch.
I think we’ve established that Jourgensen’s early pop work was a combination of ambition and earnest appreciation for English pop, and that the shift to industrial dance was influenced in large part by an interest in Front 242 and DAF. But why the guitars? A number of answers have been floated, but the explanation he gave to various publications when the album came out is straight forward: he was sick of electronic music. By 1988, everyone was doing it, and he wanted to do something different.
Chris Connelly, formerly of Revolting Cocks, has a different theory. In his memoir he wrote, as quoted by Reed, that Steve Albini and Big Black had a big influence on Jourgensen before Land was released:
[Big Black] threw down a gauntlet of piously heterosexual indie rock to WaxTrax!’s gay dance club overtones, and it had a trickle down effect that never went away, at least that’s the way I read it (one thing is for certain, Albini and Al: not about to go fishing together). Al had something to prove.
Steve Albini agrees with this version of history, quipping “I’m pretty embarrassed that Ministry keeps putting out our records” to Jim DeRogatis.
Indeed, “Stigmata” does seem to “borrow” the drums of Big Black’s “Racer X.”
Reed also points to the Young Gods as a possible influence. The band did a few releases on Wax Trax, and were likely signed by Jourgensen, who invited them to tour with Ministry. Their first Wax Trax single, “Envoyé!” prefigures the Land and Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste material.
Land is also the first album recorded with Paul Barker and Bill Rieflen, and though Jourgensen now claims their contributions to Ministry’s sound were minimal at best, it’s hard to discount the possibility that they might have pushed Ministry in a heavier direction.
Mind is best seen as a bridge between Land era Ministry and the speed metal band that we know today. Scaccia joined Ministry for the Mind tour and became a full member for the recording of Psalm 69, Ministry’s most popular — and probably best — album. Scaccia’s influence can be felt through the rest of the Ministry catalog, even when he’s absent. After a detour into sludge metal with Filth Big, the band’s evolution more or less stops with Dark Side of the Spoon, having settled into a consistent speed metal formula for the duration of their carer.
Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen by Jon Wiederhorn
Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed
This piece originally appeared on Intonarumoron