It seems like a bad joke, taking a pioneering figure of straight-edge culture and teaming him with one of the most notorious drug users in history.
But we got one of the greatest EPs in existence, so it all worked out.
By 1986, Al Jourgensen had branched out the Ministry sound from it's initial synthpop/darkwave leanings, and into electronic body music territory (as pioneered by acts like Front 242 and Cabaret Voltaire). Supposedly, discovering hardcore punk around this time also helped change the course of Ministry's musical output.
The first song recorded by the two was the immense 'I Will Refuse.' Although the music had been written long before MacKaye appeared (an earlier version with Ministry associate/member Chris Connolly on vocals had been earmarked as a possible Revolting Cocks song), he (supposedly) wrote the lyrics and recorded the vocals in an hour.
Song wise, it's a slab of industrial punk that wouldn't sound out of place on Ministry's 1989 record 'The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste.' The rolling bassline is forceful, memorable and has enough weight to carry the whole song. Combined with the Gang of Four sounding chords, the listener would be forgiven they were listening to some off kilter Foetus track. When the chorus begins, listen to the sound of the drums crashing in. That's how payoffs should sound.
B-side 'No Bunny', according to ex manager Patty Jourgensen, is "about a conversation between me and Adrienne (their daughter) during the ride home from picking Ian up at the airport. Adrienne...was claiming there was a bunny in the road and I kept on telling her there was “no bunny” and that it wasn’t “funny.”
MacKaye uses this as a starting point to rail against conformity and following the leader. Musically, it's a sinister number which always threatens to blow up in sheer anger like 'I Will Refuse' but always keeps itself in check. The use of feedback and another looping bassline provides a nice continuity from the A-side, by both being a mirror image and a different interpretation.
With the single being an indie hit, Jourgensen and his ever supportive label Wax Trax got in touch with MacKaye about recording some follow up stuff. The end result was 'Trait.'
'Man Should Surrender' is another winner. Although often accused as being little more than a re-write of 'Wardance' by Killing Joke, it's much more than that. Sounding like the basis for what Fugazi did later on, MacKaye rants about the destruction of the planet, while Jourgensen screams out the chorus with righteous indignation. I even like the little bike horn that can be heard towards the end!
'Anthem' is another post punk workout, with Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin leaving their marks with a looping bassline and controlled, yet hammering drums respectively. The staccato guitar riff is sharp and angular. Lyrically, MacKaye subverts the word "anthem" (implying togetherness and conformity) to harangue the listener to take charge of their own life, ending with the line "don't wanna be a pailhead no more."
'Don't Stand in Line' grooves like a bastard, with the guitar acting as noise for the first 30 odd seconds before turning into a riff. While the lyrics are what you imagine them to be about, MacKaye's delivery here is the most impassioned on the 12'. The chorus, with the oddly melodic guitar line, doesn't quite sit right but it works in a weird, misshapen way.
Opening with a deranged phone call, 'Ballad' deals with a lack of communication and how our consumerist society steps in to fill the void with such people (predating the Amazon Alexa by 30 years). Musically, it's the most restrained song on here, with it's chiming guitar line and sturdy bass running through it. It ends the 12' on a somewhat inconclusive note, but it's a song that grows with each listen.
It was during these later recordings that the straight-edge MacKaye realised that him and the Ministry guys weren't destined to be best friends, mainly down to the chemical based lifestyle of the band (unsurprisingly). Famously, MacKaye told Jourgensen "you can't put my name anywhere on the cover. I'm not going to be involved with any promotional stuff and I will never play with you. That's it." Often painted as MacKaye disowning the project, he insists it was nothing of the sort. But it's hard not to see it as a dismissal.
One wonders if this was MacKaye's way of preserving his (supposedly unwanted) status as a pivotal straight edger. Remember, the underground in the late 1980's was a divided place. On one hand, you had the straight edgers and their rigid moral and dress codes (who would have looked to MacKaye as a figure head). On the other hand, you had bands (like Jourgensen's Revolting Cocks) whose seemed to relish finding out how many drugs they could take and still stagger onstage in a wedding dress and a cow's head.
With MacKaye forming Fugazi immediately afterwards, and Jourgensen taking Ministry closer to alternative rock/thrash metal (while indulging his hardcore leanings with former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra in Lard), Pailhead has acquired somewhat mythical status among Ministry fans: one of the many quality side projects from Jourgensen's purple patch and a moment where two wildly differing characters could collaborate and produce such astonishing results.
Over the years, Jourgensen has hinted that another Pailhead record could be done. Considering his and MacKaye's paths have never crossed again, it's highly unlikely to happen. And let's hope it remains that way. Some things should be left as a moment in time.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.