How Al Jourgensen Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ministry’s Poppy Debut, ‘With Sympathy’ - 15 minutes read

It took a conspiracy to get Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen to come around to his band’s debut album, the proudly commercial, synth-pop juggernaut With Sympathy. The vocalist has spent the past four decades separating himself from the LP, since he alleges his label at the time, Arista, and its founder, Clive Davis, pressured him into constructing a surefire Billboard hit. He has felt so embarrassed by the whole thing that he left the label and has charged fans $1,000 just for him to autograph copies of the record. Now for the first time in decades, he’ll be performing songs from With Sympathy again at this weekend’s Cruel World festival in Pasadena. He just needed a nudge.

“The guys in the band know I don’t like this record,” Jourgensen tells Rolling Stone on a Zoom from his Los Angeles home. He’s sitting outside, wearing a witchy wide-brimmed hat and mirrored Lennon sunglasses even though he’s in the shade. “They came up with all these new versions of all the old songs and then sprung them on me one night on the bus while I was on ‘shrooms. I actually wound up going, ‘Hey, that’s not bad.'”

Jourgensen’s psychotropic revelation led to talks with Cruel World and now he acknowledges mixed emotions about revisiting the material — which Ministry will perform alongside songs from the group’s second LP, Twitch — on Saturday. He says he’s finally ready.

“The reasons I don’t like that record are not really so much for the music as much as the surrounding dynamic of it,” he says. “It’s literally a label-appointed producer, label-appointed engineer, label-appointed background vocalist, label-appointed lyrics, label-appointed looks or management-appointed looks. I had to sue to get off this label as soon as that record came out. I was so unhappy.”

With disco drums, glassy synthesizers, and Jourgensen’s fey British accent, With Sympathy became an easy hit when it came out in May 1983. Lead track “Effigy (I’m Not An)” has an icy cool about it that still resonates (it was featured in an episode of Euphoria’s second season), while the singles “Work for Love” and “I Wanted to Tell Her” have a funky club feel that could fit easily between Duran Duran and Bronski Beat songs on an Eighties pop playlist. Rolling Stone recently rated the album’s “Revenge” the 42nd best song of 1983, likely much to Jourgensen’s chagrin. It was so commercial that at the time, Ministry opened for the Police, Culture Club, and Madness, and the album was Ministry’s bestselling LP until 1992’s Psalm 69. Jourgensen was so unhappy, he spent years trying to expiate the success.

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The new versions of the songs, however, will sound more like the Ministry that achieved fame in the late Eighties and early Nineties, leaning into rigid rhythms and crushing guitar. The only With Sympathy redux song they’ve performed live so far, “Revenge,” features chugging metal guitars and Jourgensen’s now-guttural vocals replacing his once slight croon. The changes in the rest of the songs, which will require two keyboardists, three backup singers, and an orchestral string trio, are even more dramatic. For Jourgensen, who’s planning on sunsetting Ministry’s career with recordings of these new versions of the songs and another album with his estranged bandmate, Paul Barker, later this year, it’s a full-circle moment.

“You’ll be able to recognize the songs, but we’ve certainly put the stamp on it of Ministry 2.0,” Jourgensen says during a rare interview about the album that lasts about the time it takes to play With Sympathy. “It’s not your grandpa’s Ministry.”

So what makes the new versions of the With Sympathy songs special? We turned them into arena-rock songs. People at Cruel World are going to freak out. I feel empowered, and it’s very cathartic for me to finally be able to own these songs instead of run from them. This Cruel World thing is going to be literally a public exorcism.


What was your state of mind around the making of With Sympathy?I was living in a squat where literally I had a hole in my roof. I had plugged stolen cables into a building that actually had power. And somebody offers me a record contract, I’m like, “Hell yeah, man. This sure beats a kick in the balls.”

If you’d had your way, what would With Sympathy have sounded like in 1983? Would it have been more like “Every Day Is Halloween”?Yeah, I think so. It would have been a lot more keyboard-oriented. I was going through my keyboard phase because everybody was. As a matter of fact, Arista turned down “Halloween” and “All Day” and a bunch of other songs because Clive Davis pretty much wanted to write my songs. I mean, basically they wanted to make me a whiter shade of Milli Vanilli.

What do you mean? On “Work for Love,” I was recording in London, and Clive Davis would call from New York and read me lyrics over a landline phone. And I’d have to jot them down and sing those, and he’d accept those. He rejected all these songs that I had done already. He wanted things like “Say You’re Sorry.” He would just call up on a whim and say, “I want you to do this.” And after living in a squat, shoveling snow out of my living room, I was like, “OK, man, whatever you want.”

So all the song credits should say, “By Clive Davis”? No, not all of them. But even the versions I had of things like “Revenge” and “Effigy” were cleaned up by the appointed engineer, producer, and Clive and made more palatable to a pop audience. Basically, I think they signed me for having high cheekbones and being a skinny little white guy that was playing pop and funk.

What do you think they wanted you to be?The flavor of the month that year was the Psychedelic Furs. So they appointed [the Furs’ drummer] Vince Ely as producer of [With Sympathy]. And Vince is a great guy and all that, but he’d never produced before. It was all about the look of it.

And damn it, they made me cut my hair, and that pissed me off the most. I’m an old hippie, so it’s like Samson losing his hair. I felt powerless, naked, vulnerable. It was horrible.

Bob Roberts, who played keys on With Sympathy, gave an interview a few years ago where he said you “certainly seemed to be into it at the time, more so than anyone else.” But he added that the record didn’t really reflect how you sounded onstage. He wasn’t in London fielding the calls from Clive Davis, OK? And yes, he’s right: It did not capture us at the time because we did a lot of varied material that eventually got rejected. I really don’t know what he’s talking about because he wasn’t there. Maybe the band and him couldn’t twist my arm on things, but Clive Davis on the phone can certainly twist your arm. You pretty much do as told.

Was Clive Davis scary back then? When you’re 21, 22 years old and you’re just coming out of a squat and now you’re living in London and fancy hotels, I’m recording at AIR Studios, George Martin’s place, with Queen’s engineer, I’m like, “Whoa.” Of course, it’s overwhelming. So you go along with everything.

Derick Smith*

The credits for With Sympathy say you not only wrote “Should Have Known Better” but recorded every instrument yourself. Is that wrong? That one’s all mine. And yeah, there’s some real pop flavor to a lot of that stuff that I was writing back then. I’d just found keyboards and fell in love with them, and so a lot of the stuff I was doing was getting away from my roots.

Before that, I was in a metal cover band, oddly enough, called Slayer. It came before Slayer, back in ’78. And by ’79, ’80, I was in Special Affect, which is very Gang of Four-ish. And then keyboards came out, and I started writing poppier stuff. But all that stuff like “Every Day Is Halloween” was written in ’81, ’82.

What were you listening to around the time you wrote With Sympathy? My taste is completely wacko, off the charts. I listened to everything from Yma Sumac to Gang of Four to Thelonious Monk, and then into Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks. Then Killing Joke came out, and that sealed the deal for me. It was just like, “No, I’m throwing out the synthesizers, and I’m going to do a lot more guitar.”

I found an interview with you from 1982 where you said, “Chic is the best band ever as far as I’m concerned.” Oh yeah, absolutely. I still feel that way. But like I said, I’m all over the map. There’s only two types of music: There’s good and there’s shit. I was hoping I was listening to the good shit.

You also described Ministry’s music by saying, “If you can’t dance to it, you’re either a cripple or disinterested.“ Well, back then I was DJ’ing as well, so that was important to me. You had to make people dance and buy drinks, otherwise you’re out of here. So at the time, that was a much more important factor in my songwriting than it is today.

When is the last time you listened to With Sympathy? About 40 years ago. I still haven’t. I’ve listened to the songs my band ambushed me with on the bus but the actual original versions, no. I burned those tapes on a barbecue. We had to start from scratch on doing this show because we had no stems, no guide to go by. I didn’t even know what songs were on the album, to be honest.

I was going to ask what you thought of your vocals on the album. I’ve listened to some songs but not the whole album. I was singing in this high-key register that I couldn’t pull off now at gunpoint. It just sounds so naïve to me.

On “Effigy,” you had a British affectation, singing about “me mom and me dad.” What was that about? Well, I was living there. You’re obviously influenced by your environment, so I don’t feel bad about that. That’s how I spoke on an everyday basis when I was living there. By the time I was done with Twitch, I’d lived there two years.

“Effigy” was used in an episode of Euphoria a few years back. What do you think about how it appeals a new audience? Do you still ask fans to donate $1,000 to charity to sign it? I’m happy to sign it now because I’m ready to own it. I’m ready to stop that haunting me.

You left Arista after With Sympathy. What happened?I literally had to go to court and sue to leave. They offered me a lot of money to stay, and I was just like, no, no, no, no, because I couldn’t look into a mirror anymore. I didn’t feel like I was myself anymore.

What strikes you when you look at the photo of yourself in the album art for With Sympathy? What strikes me is anger that my management was in literally cahoots with Arista. The record company basically said, “You need to cut your hair.” Then they took me to some place on Melrose here, flew me out, and picked out a bunch of sharkskin suits.

It makes me angry at the exploitation aspect of it. I just wasn’t down with the program: that particular photo shoot and that particular “Revenge” video, which is done by the guy that did all the Cure videos, because that was the flavor of the month.

Ministry’s drummer at the time, Stevo, is the only other person in the photo. When’s the last time you spoke with him? About 35 years. And I haven’t talked to Bob Roberts in 40 years. Just went our separate ways and I decided to just forge my own path. I’ve been known to do that with Ministry.

Yeah, you’ve had a lot of band members. Right after Filth Pig, I took a couple of years off to live with Timothy Leary and just do acid. I was sick of it. I was sick of Paul Barker, and now I’m working with Paul Barker again on our final album.

How did you two patch things up? Well, we realized it was both of our ex-wives suing each other instead of us. He just moved close to me here. I have a recording studio in my house, so we’re going to start the final album together in June. We’re best buddies now. We should have always been, but literally it was two other people suing each other in our names. It was really bizarre.

Have you and Paul Barker talked about the final album? Yeah, I just heard some of his ideas. What Ministry is doing now is kind of like arena rock — it’s just much more simple and guttural — where Barker is much more ethereal and it’s more like a Brian Eno–type. So the two styles combined is what makes Ministry “Ministry.” What he played me the other day was just extraordinary.

Will Paul be joining Ministry’s live band again?He’ll be on the last tour, without a doubt.

So the plan is to do Cruel World, rerecord some of the With Sympathy songs and then do the final album with Paul Barker. Which songs from With Sympathy will you never play again? “Say You’re Sorry,” “She’s Got a Cause” — yuck, just drips with just fakeness, sugarcoated pop. Those are the two that stand out right away. I’m sure I could come up with more, but I think there’s some solid ideas on there. I just think it was just sanitized so much that it was almost beyond recognition.

Have you run into Clive Davis at all in the past four decades? Hell no. I don’t go to his [Grammy] parties and stuff. Trust me.

You’re cool with Paul Barker now, are you sure you and Clive — No, Clive and I aren’t going to happen.

When do you plan on rerecording the With Sympathy songs you like? As soon as we’re done with Cruel World, I go right in the studio. And most of these songs are already done because we had to rerecord them just to know how we were going to sound. So they basically just need to be mixed. It’s just going to take me a couple of weeks. Then we shop it to the highest bidder, whoever wants it. And then at that point, I start working with Barker.

Derick Smith*

Since you’re planning Ministry’s final album, how are you seeing the end of the band? I’m 65 now. I was hoping to retire at 65, but two years of Covid made it so I can’t afford that yet. So I’ll do another couple years, and then that’s it. There’s no point in touring. And touring gets harder as you’re older anyways, and I don’t really want to do the whole casino circuit.

All I really want to do is film scoring. I get to stay at my house, and I work out of my house. And so I’m just trying to wrap everything up with a nice little bow, exorcise all demons, and put Ministry to bed.

Your recent film score was for something related to Killers of the Flower Moon.Yes, it’s called Long Knife. It follows up on Killers of the Flower Moon. Leo DiCaprio is narrating the documentary of this. His dad is executive producer, and I think Scorsese might be involved in this as well. It will come out next year.

Other than composing film scores, what does the Ministry retirement plan look like? That’s it. If I’m not scoring, it’ll just be activism. Everyone knows my views are pretty left. I’m not divulging my medical records, so there might be underlying reasons why it’s also time to go. I’ll just put it at that.


In the interview you gave from 1982, you said: “A few things are for sure. It’s a fairly safe proposition. I’m not going to turn into a junkie or move away or have a girl ruin my life. I don’t want to do anything else. It will be Al Jourgensen and the music business till the death.” What do you think of that now? As far as being a junkie, yeah, I blew that one. But everything I’ve done in my life has been ass backwards. I was born premature, yellow, completely jaundiced with liver failure, and 60 percent hearing loss. So what do I become, a drunken producer? It’s been 22 years since I touched any of that shit, coke or heroin or pills or any of that shit. I don’t touch that stuff. I watch people do it in front of me and just never relapsed either, never.

So yeah, I’ve lived a pretty backward life. Everything that I wasn’t supposed to do, I did. Everything I was supposed to do, I didn’t. I’m just as confused as anyone else is on this planet and just wondering why I’m even here. So when do I get my next assignment in the universe? When do I get a new planet to go to? Because I think they keep sending me back to this one on purpose just to piss me off, but here I am.

Source: Rolling Stone

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