Label of Love: Wax Trax!
Written by Grace George on 25th October 2019
Brought to you by record collector and DJ Grace George, Label of Love is a new series that tells short histories of music labels & their legacies. For this week’s Label of Love, Grace checks out the sounds of legendary US label Wax Trax!.
How do you introduce a label like Wax Trax! Records? The testament to its legacy is penned by a Discogs user:
“Wax Trax! – a label, a time, and a culture that can never be equalled. The leading light of electro-industrial music. Period.The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jim Nash & Dannie Flesher for opening the minds and moving the bodies of millions around this planet.”
Jim Nash & Dannie Flesher first opened Wax Trax! Records in Denver, Kansas in ‘74. One friend described the set-up as if ‘…they moved everything from their apartment, into the store.’ Being out & a gay couple in mid-west America wasn’t easy but they were unapologetic & proud, not caring what anyone thought and the same mind–set was applied to their store & later label. Both were carpenters, building the store themselves & their hand-built crates of glam-rock, old R&B, rockabilly, garage-rock, psych pre-dated punk-rock but almost predicted it. The Ramones performed in Denver ’77, first visiting Wax Trax! before their gig, coming out on stage post dig ‘raving’ about the record store to the audience, cementing Jim & Dannie firmly in the future of American punk sub-culture.
Wax Trax! packed up and moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1978. It became the source of industrial, new-wave & punk music America’s angry youth craved. Later punk & garage rock pioneers such as Dave Grohl (pre-Nirvana), members of Black Flag, Bauhaus, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails + their fans & compatriots spent their time drinking, smoking, digging, absorbing it all in. People would use it as a meet-up base, meet like-minded “misfits” pioneering LGBT+ rights & even form bands in the Wax Trax! store: “You would get an education, as well as a record.” It was here that the Jim & Dannie formed their label-defining relationship with Al Jourgensen, the lead singer of Ministry, one of the most successful groups for the future Wax Trax! label.
Jim & Dannie started the label potentially as a one off, putting out a punk-rock EP from short-lived local Chicago band Strike Under, followed by a Divine 7” single ‘Born to Be Cheap’. Wax Trax! started importing European records, and quickly realised there was a gap in the US market for the post-punk they loved, leading them to start licensing European bands; getting in touch directly with Belgian group Front 242 to release their first LP ‘Geography’ to the US. They wanted to influence music taste in Chicago & beyond, spread what they considered to be “good music” in comparison to the “crap” the radio played.
From ’86 onwards, the post-punk & industrial scene exploded, ascending from sub-culture into the mainstream but Wax Trax! embraced this success on their terms “pushing the political & comedic…” But as they hit the big-time, the toxic waste of the music industry seeped through the cracks. Like Factory Records in the UK, they didn’t have any contracts with their artists and relied on trust. Jim & Dannie cared for music, not crunching numbers & business models; their goodwill leading to their downfall. Eventually they signed a deal with TVT records after filing for bankruptcy in 1992. Jim sadly died in 1995 of an illness & Dannie dropped off the radar due to grief, eventually passing in 2010. Jim’s daughter Julia Nash now runs the label, putting out its first 12” in 20 years in 2014.
“As important as Chess Records was to Blues and Soul music, Chicago’s Wax Trax! Imprint was just as significant to the Punk Rock, New Wave and Industrial genres.” Richard Giraldi, Chicago Sun-Times. For more on this influential label, the nuclear documentary “Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records” is an essential – this piece could not have been written without it.
Industrial noise of Wax Trax!
Ministry – Cold Life Dub (1982)
Led by Al Jourgensen, Ministry became the biggest success story for Wax Trax! Records despite their relationship with major labels Arista & Sire. They started in the studio making post-punk & synth-pop for the dancefloor and descended into violent heavy metal in the 90’s.
KMFDM – Murder (1989)
Apparently heavily sampled from Tackheads ‘What’s My Mission Now’ one of the groups previously lauded on Label of Love for the On-U Sound research. One of the earliest European groups on the label, KMFDM was brought over from Germany to tour with Ministry in the 80’s. Industrial dub at its finest.
Revolting Cocks – We Shall Cleanse the World (1986)
If a group & an album could sum up Wax Trax! at its peak, perhaps this is the one? Controversial, laced with humour & a furious groove. Revolting Cocks was formed by Wax Trax! artists Al Jourgensen, Luc Van Acker and Richard 23.