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Low Culture Essay: Jimmy Martin On Ministry’s With Sympathy
Jimmy Martin , March 21st, 2024 10:52

In this month’s Low Culture Essay, Jimmy Martin revisits Ministry’s much-maligned synth pop debut With Sympathy and asks, with the distance of 40 years, if it’s actually Al Jourgensen’s finest work

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us / An' foolish notion". These words, written by Robert Burns in the late 18th Century, are ever-green. What waster with a love of amplified racket gets to to see their own work at one step removed, as if through the eyes of others? Yet this is exactly what happened to Ministry's Al Jourgensen recently when he was dragged by some well-meaning friends to see a tribute band to himself. Moreover, this was the band With Sympathy, named after and exclusively performing an album that for nearly 40 years he'd viewed as a foolish blunder. He came face-to-face with a very personal nemesis. "There was no advance warning, there was no guestlist, there was no VIP, I just showed up… wasted," Jourgensen said with characteristic candour on a recent YouTube interview. "I was amazed. I watched 800 people on a Tuesday night in Echo Park really responding to this and went like 'Whoa, I don't get it'. So the next day, I went back and listened to the album and I hated it as much as ever! It brought back a flood of different emotions. But by the end of it, seeing that band made me realise that this is not something to be angry about for the rest of your life. This is OK, let it go”.

The ill-starred With Sympathy, Ministry's 1983 debut, can seem to be a confusing and even risible album for of those who know the band as sturm-und-drang industrial metal pioneers. The blistering triple whammy of albums from 1988's The Land Of Rape And Honey via 1989's The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste to 1992's Psalm 69 - The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs essentially rendered void the musical avenues from which they came, marking out a scorched-earth pathway straight to some intimidating new aural Armageddon. 

As a young fan who loved Ministry for this unholy triumvirate, stepping back in time via a copied C90 to the forbidden world of With Sympathy was an experience that provoked mirth and disbelief. It was impossible to square our spectral cult leader, he of the skeleton mic stand and Mad Max regalia, with this gauche synth pop meeting of Dave Gahan and Marc Almond. What was the story with Jourgensen's peculiar faux-English accent – "Well I walked back, from this faraway land"  he chirps on the Numan-ishly titled 'Effigy (I'm Not An)', "Walked right into a room with me mum and me dad".

We fans all knew that 'Work For Love' had been the 'hit' from this record but never saw it as a highlight, more a jaunty slice of upbeat and slightly unpalatable white-boy funk reminiscent of early Level 42. There was a track on here called 'Say You're Sorry', for God's sake. Could it be that Jourgensen, this supposedly fearsome iconoclast, had just been a bandwagon jumper all along? In May 1983, when With Sympathy was released by major label Arista, it was stepping into a world in which the pop charts were evolving at an intimidating rate. Thriller, Michael Jackson's world-conquering magnum opus of the previous year, was strafing the airwaves and the new horizons of MTV. 'Beat It' was the number one single in the US, with Eddie Van Halen's apocryphally speaker-igniting solo marking a rare burst of raunch onto the mostly sanitised realm of US pop radio.

In the UK, the number one single was Spandau Ballet's 'True', reflective of an era in which a vanguard of young, self-confident and not-unattractive bands had taken inspiration from the DIY sensibility of post-punk with an anything-goes attitude and a peacockish approach to style to herald a new pop orthodoxy. Therefore, it wouldn't be hard to see why Clive Davis, the titanic starmaker who ran Arista Records, would look at the 24-year-old Al Jourgensen, and think he would fit right in.

Born Alejandro Ramirez Casas in Cuba in 1958, Jourgensen was the type who'd always end up stumbling into some slightly daunting new adventure. In his late teens he spent time at teacher training college and playing in a covers band in Greeley, Colorado, a long-haired rocker who was happiest skinning up to Zeppelin, Skynyrd and Pink Floyd.

It was through his first serious girlfriend, an artist and stripper named Shannon who he met while dealing drugs to local fratboys, that he moved into the slipstreams of punk rock and alternative culture. When she was accepted at the Art Institute Of Chicago, he ended up moving there with her, and ended up helping the Institute set up a music department. This was a process that involved all sorts of tinkering with (and eventually becoming an instructor on) the electronic equipment that was being installed.

It was no surprise that this handsome, mercurial young fop would gravitate to an invigorating underground hub named Wax Trax! This record store had originally been set up in Denver in the mid-70s by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, a hip, sharp-tongued and openly gay couple who had moved from being enthralled by the alien lure of Bowie, Roxy and the Dolls to being on the ground level of the first wave of punk. After they moved Wax Trax! to Chicago in 1978 it quickly became a meeting place for adventurous weirdos and local musos of all stripes – a countercultural oasis where knowledgeable freaks behind the counter would advise on the wildest new sounds anyone in the Windy City could lay their hands on.

As a newly-shorn regular at punk clubs in the city, Jourgensen soon found himself in a new wave band called Special Effect, whose singer was future My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult mainstay Frankie Nardiello (AKA Grooivie Mann). He fell in with Wax Trax!, thrilled by the new sounds he was picking up from their racks, a tsunami of post-punk experimentation from across the Atlantic. Gang Of Four, Joy Division, Simple Minds, OMD, DAF and New Order were are all bands that Jourgensen cites as game changers, particularly noting the latter's 'Ceremony', as well as 'Haystack', a collaboration between Hook, Sumner and Morris and early Factory Records face Kevin Hewick.

Having moved on from Special Affect via a brief and fairly intense period playing guitar on an early tour by Divine (whose first 7" 'Born To Be Cheap' came out on Wax Trax!'s record label), Jourgensen made a demo based on his new influences. He did it for the kicks, little knowing that the double salvo of 'Cold Life' and 'I'm Falling' wouldn't just kick-start his career but that of the Wax Trax! label in general. "I played it for Jim [Nash] and he freaked out", Jourgensen recalled; "He said 'Holy shit, is this your new band?' and I said 'No, it's just something that I threw together'."

It's not hard to hear the fey, mildly self-conscious and slightly strangulated tones of Kevin Hewick, Andy McCluskey and Jim Kerr in Jourgensen's first forays into solo music, released on 12" in late 1981. Yet with the punk-funk groove, chilly synth textures and effortlessly catchy hooks of both these tunes, it was as if this ingénue was half-inching all the tastiest morsels he could find from what would become the MTV-dominating influx of music that soon became known as the 'second British invasion'. From this point, things moved very quickly indeed. Before anyone knew what was going on, Arista were interested in making this photogenic, talented and sparky character a star, and he was being romanced by talk of the major label's firepower making Ministry the next Joy Division. As Jourgensen himself has been keen to note, as someone living in a squat without electricity, forced to shovel out snow in the winter, he was hardly likely to argue over the finer points of navigating a life as a post-punk pariah on a major label.

It could be argued that the story beyond this point is a little predictable. Arista boss Clive Davis was on the phone suggesting lyrics and singing parts. Then the rough edges of Ministry's sound were diligently sanded away by a production job from Psychedelic Furs drummer Vince Ely (a character Jourgensen nevertheless speaks well of) and Ian Taylor. Session musicians were hired with no say from either Jourgensen or drummer Stephen 'Stevo' George (the only other official member of Ministry in this period). Much of the darker, heavier material being written was rejected outright. More bizarre still, the rough and incisive early instrumental B-side 'Primental' became the poppy melodrama 'I Wanted To Tell Her' with lyrics, guest contributions and vocal melodies that, according to Jourgensen, the core duo had no hand in.

What's perhaps more often misunderstood – particularly by those who've heard Jourgensen rubbishing With Sympathy through sheer embarrassment over the last forty years – was that it was no-one's idea of a commercial failure. Arista put their promotional muscle behind it, and the band landed numerous plum support slots with the like of Culture Club, Depeche Mode, A Flock Of Seagulls, Madness and The Police, who were inescapable themselves that summer of 1983 thanks to the Synchronicity album and the globe-consuming gloom of 'Every Breath You Take'.  With Sympathy made the Billboard Top 100 and ultimately sold more than 100,000 copies.

The video for 'Revenge' perhaps shows where things were starting to go awry with Clive Davis' grand plan. It may not have been unusual in 1983 for a band to emerge from the chrysalis of the punk rock underground as an MTV butterfly, but the wild-eyed freak in the camera eye –  reminiscent of no one so much as the punk rocker playing by Bill Paxton and dispatched by Arnie in the opening frames of The Terminator – is no David Sylvian or Billy Idol.

In The Lost Gospels, the autobiography that Jourgensen co-wrote with journalist Jon Wiederhorn, he says the video was made by "The Cure's video director, Julien Temple", which is just one of many claims that could use a little fact-checking in a book in which the more pedantic music nerd has to fight back a powerful urge to go through with a red pen (no other evidence exists of Temple directing this video or indeed any by The Cure). Yet despite all of this, and a mind doubtless being shot to ribbons by decades of enough heavyweight booze and substance abuse to make the Dohertys and Reeds of this world blush, it's clear that Jourgensen wasn't someone prone to compromising to become a millionaire. The With Sympathy campaign was barely underway before he was suing Arista for breach of contract. He also had to field bizarre phone calls from Tom Bailey of The Thompson Twins, another artist who had risen from cultish DIY origins to become a dazzling global superstar with Clive Davis' help. The mogul had apparently bent Bailey's ear asking him to encourage Jourgensen to drop proceedings, saying that was forgiven and he could still be a massive star. It was a hopeless mission – the wide-eyed, wild-haired dreamboat was not for turning.

For most musicians, this early brush with potential megastardom would be the most interesting and invigorating chapter of a career, but it says much for Jourgensen that things only got weirder and more intense from this moment onwards. For a while he paid his rent recording jingles and adverts, including a particularly jaunty number for Shasta Soda.

His fortunes then became tangled up with those of Wax Trax! as the label licensed records from Front 242 and KMFDM, bringing them to the US to support Ministry. Jourgensen subsequently collaborated with members of Front 242 on Revolting Cocks' malignant and magisterial Big Sexy Land, the first full-length LP Wax Trax! released. Together, they wrote the first few chapters of the evolution of the nascent EBM movement into the industrial music of the 90s. 

Jourgensen's star power eventually attracted the underground-friendly instincts of Seymour Stein, who signed Ministry to Sire. Soon he was in Wood Green, London at Southern Studios with electro-dub magus Adrian Sherwood, recording Twitch, a much harsher second album truer to his original vision for the band. Inspired by thrash supergroup S.O.D. and Texan mavericks Rigor Mortis, as well as The Jesus And Mary Chain and Big Black, Ministry began a journey into the void that would take them well into the next century.

As the 2020s loomed, something seemed to shift for Ministry fans. In the record shop I work at, the sugar-rush-addictive strains of With Sympathy seemed to constantly be on the stereo, chosen by young and old staff members alike. At Muscle Up, a London club devoted to Patrick Cowley, Hi-NRG and EBM, it wouldn't be unusual to hear three With Sympathy tunes on any one night. T-shirts bearing the New Romantic-era Ministry logo began to be seen on hipper characters around the world. Some wag even posted the Trump MAGA hat on Instagram with the slogan replaced by 'Make Ministry Synth pop Again'. And then, the tribute band that Jourgensen encountered, four decades on. 

Could it be that With Sympathy, this ugly duckling of a record, was actually the peak achievement of Al Jourgensen's storied career? That might be a stretch. It arguably tails off a little at the end and it's still a little tricky to truly embrace the lachrymose 'Say You're Sorry', plangent Roxy-ish saxophone and all. Yet the passing of time has only brought into focus his relentless savvy for a razor-sharp hook and a bittersweet exuberance, the elements that had horrified Ministry's industrial era fanbase. 'Effigy' and 'Revenge' now sound like towering widescreen sadbangers, replete with rich analogue synths and angst-ridden charisma. Even the previously eyebrow-raising 'Work For Love' to contemporary ears are less like Shakatak and more a sharp and edgy punk-funk floor-filler. The supposedly more edgy brave new world of the 90s led to some of the gaudier cultural moments of the 80s being chucked out with Thatcherite/Reaganite bathwater, something that now seems like a mistake. 

If the strange life of Al Jourgensen's synth pop albatross proves anything, it's that we're fools to write off the creative intensity of our younger selves as juvenilia. Whatever the vagaries of fashion, Al Jourgensen, granted a time machine few get the luxury of, would ultimately be back there staring his younger self full in the face, and not disliking what he saw: an iconoclast moving back from this faraway land, walking right into a room with me mum and me dad. 

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