With 'Psalm 69,' Ministry Set the Bar for Depravity
Looking back at the drug-fueled work of vulgarity, 25 years after its release.by Cam Lindsay | 17 July 2017, 8:34am
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
"That was beyond the limits of good taste."
Censure like that wasn't something we heard much of from the crass, couch-bound music snobs and 1990s animated MTV stars Beavis and Butt-head. But in the show's second season, one band forced Beavis to air such discernment: Ministry.
The cartoon dude who called himself Cornholio and coined insults such as "fart knocker," "pecker wood," and "ass munch," was offended by one scene in Ministry's "Just One Fix" video, where a teen spews up some blood. It may have been new for him, but not for Ministry. In fact, this kind of reaction was business as usual.
Controversy was commonplace for the Chicago-based industrial-metal band. However, while sensitive types were crying foul, Ministry revelled in the attention by pushing extremes and concocting a sound that was both uncompromising and accessible. In 1992, they fulfilled their greatest achievement: an album bewilderingly titled Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs. And boy did they ever go beyond the limits of good taste in making it.
Ministry has always been a band that sought to piss off (and likely even on) everyone that stood in their way. Formed by Al Jourgensen back in 1981, originally they were your run-of-the-mill synth-pop act that managed a hit in 1984 with "(Every Day Is) Halloween" and, amazingly, toured with the Police. But Jourgensen spent the second half of the 80s evolving his music into something far more twisted and depraved.
Over the course of the band's next three albums – Twitch, The Land of Rape and Honey, and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste – he began unlocking his inner demons. With the help of co-producer Paul Barker, a cast of collaborators, and enough narcotics to kill a small country, Ministry's sound became a nihilistic blend of punk fury, clubbing adrenaline, and industrial experimentation, largely influenced by the boundary-pushing of his other projects: Revolting Cocks, Pailhead, 1000 Homo DJs, and Lard.
(Barker is an interesting character in Ministry's story. Between the years of 1988 and 2003, he was often considered the yin to Jourgensen's yang, but in his 2013 memoir, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, the author severely downplayed Barker's role in the band. "That's fucking horseshit," he writes. "He was never more than a mediocre bass player. I was just so doped up it took me seventeen years and a few solid ass-rapings to figure that one out.")
Ministry headed into their fifth album with a ton of money behind them, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Foolishly expecting it to go towards production, Sire gave them a sizeable budget of $750,000. But Jourgensen and Barker (credited as Hypo Luxa and Hermes Pan) had alternate plans; they cut costs by self-producing at Trax Studios, which they got for a discounted rate. Whatever money they saved in production was quickly gone thanks to a tremendous appetite for drugs.
"We were spending $1,000 a day," Jourgensen details in The Lost Gospels. "All the money went right into our arms and up our noses. I was shooting up, smoking crack, drinking Bushmills laced with acid. And this was a cycle I'd repeat ten times a day, at least. We were complete nihilists, but we didn't care because we had money. It didn't dawn on us that we had to make a record… Sire gave us three-quarters of a million dollars to make this breakthrough record, and we'd get crazy high and record hours of white noise – just walls of static that sounded like a radio stuck between stations – which is kind of what I had become."
At this point, Ministry was more divided than ever and practically functioned like two separate bands, regardless of Jourgensen and Barker acting as co-producers. Sessions were completely separate from one another. Jourgensen and guitarist Mike Scaccia would lay down tracks on their own while completely fucked up on everything they could get their hands on. And the Book Club – as Jourgensen called Barker, Chris Connelly, and Bill Rieflin, due to their insistence on not partaking in the heroin binges – were in the studio the other half of the day working independently.
"Mikey and I would go into the studio and record stuff all night, and then we'd leave," Jourgensen writes. "Then the Book Club would come in and add their parts. The next day we'd come in and erase 80 percent of what they'd done and continue what we were doing."
Eventually, Trax became what Jourgensen described as a "factory of degradation and debauchery." On the night of his 34th birthday, Jourgensen's friend, poet Lorri Jackson, died of a heroin overdose. Chicago newspapers blamed him, which raised suspicion with the police, but Jourgensen claims he had nothing to do with her death nor was he charged. The band relocated to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to finish the album at Shade Tree Studios, which belonged to Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen.
(Jourgensen later bought the studio from Nielsen for $666,666, and then moved the equipment down to Austin, Texas, before taking it all back up to Trax in Chicago after he was charged with possession of heroin in 1995. While recording 1999's Dark Side Of The Spoon, Jourgensen claims R. Kelly urinated in his grand piano while recording at Trax. Last year, he told The Quietus, "Not only did R. Kelly piss in my piano, he left Kentucky Fried Chicken underneath the fuckin' hood and broke one of the legs. He's a douchebag. I hate that fucking guy." Of course, Kelly would go on to buy Trax and rechristen it the Chocolate Factory.)
Immediately, Ministry knew they were making a different record from the previous ones. Guitars had become more pronounced since Rape and Honey, and from the outset they wanted to intensify that component of the music. The thunderous crash of lead track "N.W.O." and its sludgy, looped riff opened the floodgates for an ambush of mass destruction, underlined by "TV II" and its vulgar explosion of inhuman speed metal shredding. Ministry was now more a metal band than anything.
"We decided to approach this one by trying to make more of a guitar rockin' record and still maintain a Ministry record," Barker told Screamer back in 1992. "That, to us, was a challenge! We didn't compose on guitar. We did it through sequences and sound effects and 'sound montaged' it. With this record we wanted to start with guitar."
Credit for the guitar-heavy sound may go to Jourgensen and Barker as the decision-makers, but it was Scaccia that composed them. In his book, Jourgensen admits, "Mikey's thrash-based riffs saved most of [the album]. I just added my production and some movie samples to make it cool."
Sampling became a huge part of the finished album. Just as lawsuits were just being launched by Rick James against MC Hammer and U2 against Negativland, Ministry managed to nab clips from name films like The Man With The Golden Arm, Suspiria, Blue Velvet, and Apocalypse Now. Most effective, however, were the multiple excerpts from then-President George H. W. Bush that gave "N.W.O." it's purpose: "A new world order! We're not about to make that same mistake twice!"
The use of Bush on the album set an important tone for the new album. Although they didn't publicly identify as a political band, Ministry was not shying away from airing their grievances with the Bush administration and its Gulf War. And so a number of songs had a slant to them that was adopted as protest music.
"When you have a real right-wing shift in society as America did in the 80s, you get a much more entrenched underground," Jourgensen told the Chicago Tribune. "Some people get mellow with age, but what I see on CNN these days, I get more ticked off. We're a wake-up call to do something about what aggravates you. I hate to use a phrase like 'people power' because it sounds like some kind of half-time entertainment at a football game, but we're just trying to raise people from their TV-induced hypnosis."
Still, politics were best served up with the band's bleak and black sense of humour. The first song released from the album sessions sounded like a complete pisstake, and ironically became the biggest hit of their career. Featuring Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers on lead vocals, "Jesus Built My Hotrod" was an unexpected smash upon its release towards the end of 1991. Equal parts rockabilly and thrash, the song was a breakthrough for the band, finding its way onto MTV and college radio. That it was made from madness should come as no surprise.
"Gibby came in absolutely shitfaced. He couldn't even walk,'" Jourgensen recalls in The Lost Gospels. "We set him up with a stool, gave him a microphone and a fifth of Jack, and played the track. Gibby started babbling some incoherent nonsense, knocked over the whiskey, and fell off the stool. We propped him back up again and heard, "Bing, bang, dingy, dong, wah, wah, ling, a bong..." CRASH! Back on the floor. We went on like that for take after take, getting nothing but gibberish with a few discernible words. Finally Gibby passed out. He was gone. And that was it. But I knew there was something there. If only I could extract the magic, it would be like pulling a diamond ring out of a septic tank."
Once the song was done, they turned it in to Sire. The label allegedly hated it and demanded to know where all of their money went. Sales for the "Jesus Built My Hotrod" maxi-single were through the roof though. According to Jourgensen, sales reached 1.5 million and surpassed Madonna as the label's biggest-selling single of that calendar year. To no one's surprise, the label gave the band another $750,000 to finish the album.
With a hit single under their belt, Sire looked to capitalise, but the album failed to see its expected release in May 1992 because of trouble clearing spoken dialog by Beat writer William S. Burroughs for the track "Just One Fix." (That was later cleared up and the version would be released as an edit on the track's 12-inch single, with Burroughs starring in the video. Jourgensen became good friends with Burroughs after solving the old man's raccoon problem by suggesting he feed them methadone wafers. It worked like a charm and the two became drug buddies until Burroughs' death in 1997.)
Ministry's fifth album was finally released on July 14, 1992; it debuted at #27 on the Billboard 200 despite wide confusion over its name. The original title printed on the album's spine read, ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ, which translated as "head" and "69," but it is commonly known as Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs ( Psalm 69 for short), a reference to the 69th chapter of Aleister Crowley's 1912 work, The Book of Lies. The delay definitely worked out, as the timing couldn't have been better. Four days after it hit stores, Ministry joined the second annual Lollapalooza tour for what would become the greatest line-up of its eight years as a travelling festival.
Headlined by the sock-on-cock-wearing LA funkmeisters Red Hot Chili Peppers, the day began with Lush, Pearl Jam, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Soundgarden, and Ice Cube, with Ministry on second to last. As grunge's influence grew over the summer, by the time the two-month-long tour ended in September, Pearl Jam had moved into the Ice Cube's slot, while Soundgarden became the penultimate performer.
Going into it, no one in Ministry was enthused about attending alternative music's summer camp. But even as they were demoted on the bill by a couple of grunge bands, they quickly realised how beneficial the tour would be for them. They even had some fun, drinking Jim Rose's regurgitated stomach bile and blowing up their tour bus with fireworks. ("The firework shot toward the front of the bus, then bounced into a bunk and started a big green and orange fire," Jourgensen details in his book.)
"It was the first real commercial thing we had done since the [the early 80s], and we were all prepared to hate it," Jourgensen told the Los Angeles Times the following year. "By the second day, however, we were having a ball, partly because the guys in Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were just so great to us."
Ministry were clearly the most antagonistic act on the bill, but they became friendly with everyone – though Ice Cube put up a bit of a fight. After the rapper's posse stole all of Ministry's beer, Jourgensen got his revenge by approaching Cube right after his set completely naked. "I ran up to him, swung my hips, and started smacking him with my dick, trying to get him to put his hand on my cock," he remembers in Lost Gospels. "He freaked out. I think his head was about to explode. He ran down the hall as I chased after him, and then he locked himself in the dressing room." After a fight with some rednecks at a bar in Charlotte, however, the two sides became friends. "Cube had a new respect for me. He said, 'You guys are awesome. You didn't have to do that, and you stood up for me. You can come into my trailer and drink my beer and fuck my bitches any time.'"
They didn't end up needing Cube's beer. Instead, Ministry had more than their share of substances. "Shit got so out of hand that we booked hotel rooms for all the guys in the band and crew and then a separate room for all our drugs," Jourgensen recalls in Lost Gospels. "Our clean needles, cotton, spoons, heroin, coke, pills, acid, ecstasy – all that shit was stuffed into our drug packages, and it went into its own room so if we got busted, nobody would be able to pin the drugs on us."
The drugs, in combination with being fined $20,000 daily for exceeding the tour's 90-decibel rule, meant Ministry was haemorrhaging money faster on the road than they were in the studio. When they asked Sire rep Howie Klein for more tour support, he declined. "So I beat off into a Ziploc baggie and mailed it to Howie at Sire," writes Jourgensen. "I called him up the next day and asked, 'Did you get my package?' He's like, 'Yeah. What is that, some kind of drug? It smelled horrible.' I laughed my ass off and said, 'No, it's my sperm, and if we don't get our tour support, every member of the band and crew will be sending you body fluids every week.' We got our support back."
After Lollapalooza, Ministry would spend the next year reaching new levels of popularity. In the fall of 1992, they headlined an arena tour that included post-hardcore favourites Helmet and Brazilian groove metallers Sepultura; "N.W.O." was nominated for Best Metal Performance at the Grammy Awards; and Psalm 69 would go platinum in the U.S.
"I'm happy with [Psalm 69], yet I don't feel we have come close to making the perfect Ministry record," Jourgensen told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. He would prove himself wrong, as the band would hit a wall in the album's aftermath. The roll that began with Rape and Honey came to an abrupt halt following Psalm 69's promo cycle. It took them nearly four years to deliver a new album, and when it arrived, the sludge-ridden Filth Pig was met with an indifferent response by both fans and critics (the album's cover was by far the most memorable thing about it). As the years passed, Ministry was affiliated more with bad puns and Al Jourgensen's unhinged political commentary than any note of music they released. Barker left the band in 2003, and Jourgensen put the band on ice in 2008 for a few years.
Twenty-five years after its release, Psalm 69 remains a revelatory, thrilling, and visceral album. At the height of alternative rock when almost anything went, Ministry offered up this post-apocalyptic, doom-laden paragon that was darker and weirder than everything else around. Nine Inch Nails may have commercialised industrial rock two years later with The Downward Spiral, but Psalm 69 reared its uglier, fucked-up head first, influencing the likes of Marilyn Manson, Dillinger Escape Plan, Hatebreed, Korn, and Nachtmystium along the way.
And if that's not enough, well, it inspired Rammstein to write their jock jam "Du Hast," which is definitely something to be proud of.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.