Wax Americana: The Rise and Fall of a Underground-Defining Record Shop and Label

A new documentary, Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records traces the rise and fall of a Chicago institution — and with it, underground culture generally.

There is no separation of high and low culture, there is no innocence, and there is no underground. But as recently as the last years of the last decade of the last century, a galaxy of short-lived zines and labels threw disgusting parties when cities were cheap and “Hey man, will you listen to my demo?” was the equivalent of “Please like and subscribe.”

Wax Trax! Records, which began in Denver before relocating to Chicago in 1978, gave generations of punks and New Wave kids a reason to live. It was the point of entry for European acts, essentially stamping the visas of Front 242 and KMFDM, and helped shepherd the careers of Ministry, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and countless others.

Even in its earliest days, Wax Trax! was aggressively cool. Founded by partners in life and work Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, it got instant cred when the Ramones stopped in and proclaimed it the best record store they’d ever been to. Colorado native Jello Biafra went there when the Centennial State was but a proving ground for the next Eagles, saw a John Denver record with nails punched through the singer’s eyes, and knew he’d found something. Later, in Illinois, Wax Trax! clued Dave Grohl into the existence of a vast network of musicians and fans he had never known existed. And it was always firmly planted in Middle America, a lifeline for small-town misfits in the Bible Belt, founded by two men who’d met either at a cruising park or before a David Bowie concert in Topeka in 1972.

Now Nash’s daughter Julia has made a documentary with Mark Skillkorn called Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, chronicling the rise and fall of a truly independent operation until its decline in the face of industry vultures and its founders’ eventual deaths from complications of AIDS. In cooperation with House of Vans, they released a special-edition soundtrack on Record Store Day and will tour through six cities, stopping in San Francisco on Monday, April 22 for a screening, panel discussion, Q&A, and performances by Ministry (Wax Trax!-era only) and Thrill Kill Kult.

Consisting of at least 25 interviews with musicians and employees plus countless archival stills — snapshots, mostly — Industrial Accident is an easy-to-digest compendium of anecdotes from a crazy period that stops shy of outright hagiography. Before the scene grew too famous outside Chicagoland and major labels swooped in to steal bands who’d worked with Nash and Flesher under verbal contracts — if that — the source of the magic was the back-and-forth between shop and label. This was the gurgling underbelly of Reagan’s America: loud, brash, and anchored in a nexus of punk, post-punk, and industrial-ish music. Reportedly, unlike their spiritual brethren in Brixton, the Lower East Side, or L.A., Chicago punks actually danced.

Nash, who left his wife “because you don’t have a dick” but who remained friends with her for the rest of his life, was the kind of person who might punk a sex worker by opening the car door to reveal his cackling children in the backseat. From a Bauhaus show he and Flesher produced on Sept. 11, 1980, they vaulted to the front of the subculture at a time when Ministry could tour in support of Front 242 just because they were fans, something Wax Trax! basically brokered.

“You would get an education as well as a record,” someone says of the shop during those days, probably presenting punk clerks in the most positive possible light. Nash and Flesher would sign acts simply because they liked them, not because they’d ever move 50,000 units. In one of the film’s best sections, Al Jourgenson of Ministry relates the time they purchased a $60,000 Fairlight CMI, an early synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer made famous by Peter Gabriel. (It arrived boxed with a bottle of Champagne, which they drank warm out of plastic cups the manufacturer also provided.) No one knew how to work it properly, so the repetitive, hypnotic sound of the industrial supergroup Revolting Cocks owed itself to that ignorance. Nobody could get it to turn the page, so they could only lay down 32 bars at one time.

As there’s a German word for everything, En Esch of the band KMFDM (an acronym auf Deutsch meaning “No pity for the majority”) characterized the Wax Trax! vibe as “genius amateurs,” saying it was all about the attitude — with plenty of black humor. All the Satanic references were in jest, even if actual Satanists and the Pat Robertsons of the world saw otherwise.

The criticism against Wax Trax! acts was that its bands couldn’t play their instruments, something a 1987 Revolting Cocks show amply demonstrated. All the sounds were prerecorded, and while they had shirtless Revolting Pussies dancing on stage to keep things uproarious, somebody sliced his hand open with a razor blade and bled all over that expensive Fairlight — something that, at the height of the AIDS panic, was either terrifying, awesomely nihilistic, or grotesquely irresponsible.

Jourgenson and his ilk “thrived on chaos,” and the scene’s success proved to be its undoing at the hands of better-organized and more rapacious professionals. The shop moved from Lincoln Avenue to Damen Avenue, TVT Records bought them out, and Nash and later Flesher’s health declined.

Out of respect for the scene and what it meant to people, they had long worked on trust, but that didn’t last, either. While calling Nine Inch Nails a “terribly catalyst” for what happened at the hands of Interscope and Columbia Records, interviewees refrain from truly bashing anyone. You will not hear the word “sellout,” but you do read excerpts from some vitriolic formal business letters that must have been delicious to write. Industrial Accident acknowledges, but does not indulge, the rancor.

Nash succumbed to AIDS in 1995, while Flesher quietly moved back to Arkansas and died in 2010, almost a decade after TVT closed down the label. In 2011, Julia Nash threw a well-attended “Retrospectacle” party for Wax Trax!’s 33 1/3-year anniversary, reviving the label three years later after sifting through Flesher’s estate for vinyl and other treasures. Boxes and boxes were piled in a barn, slowly rotting in the same town that’s also the birthplace of Bill Clinton, a town with the most un-punk name imaginable: Hope.

House of Vans presents Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, Monday, April 22, 5:30-11:30 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St. Tickets on sale April 13, slimspresents.com

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