In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
For a short period from the mid-’80s to the beginning of the ’90s, a storefront on the North Side of Chicago—just steps away from where John Dillinger met his end—was ground zero for a musical movement. Wax Trax! Records was the city’s premier record store, but more importantly, its namesake label fomented the rise of industrial music, which would burn brightly but briefly in the music world. Members of the label’s bands could usually be found behind the counter, looking hungover, reeking of cigarettes, and wearing a lot of black.
I can’t remember when my sister Melissa took me there for the first time, but I wasn’t more than 14 years old. Melissa is 13 years my senior and by no means hip when it comes to music—even back in 1990—so it’s a little shocking to me that she knew about Wax Trax! My memory of the place is a little blurry, but I remember giant subway posters hanging from the high ceilings, intimidating people, and “Do You Fear (For Your Child)” playing over the store’s speakers.
It was the third song from I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits, the 1988 debut of Wax Trax! band My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Everything about it unsettled my young mind: the creepy kid reciting “Who Killed Cock Robin” at the beginning of the song, the way the repetition of “Do you fear for your child?” sounded less like a question and more like a warning, the unsettling samples (the screaming, the kid saying “It was straight outta hell!”), the album’s title, and the fact that the Chicago band was called My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. For a kid with a protective family—and a mom who eyed his growing interest in “alternative” music with distrust—this was a slightly terrifying window to the dark side. Naturally, I was engrossed.
The industrial scene came out of the collision of dance music, punk, and metal, though TKK never strayed far from the dance floor. For all of its darkness, “Do You Fear” is a club song, all synthesized beats, bass, and keys that wouldn’t necessarily sound out of place in a New Order song. But the production, the samples, and especially the vocals—Groovie Mann (known as Frank Nardiello to the DMV) howling about soldiers “dancing on rotting empires,” the Bomb Gang Girls singing “Do you fear for your child?”—make it a different beast from the other dance music of the era.
In the years that followed my first visit to Wax Trax!, industrial became my genre of choice, and TKK gave way to the darker musical paths of Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and others. I was genuinely scared to see any of these bands live. Twenty years later, they all seem pretty harmless—except I still wouldn’t want to cross Al Jourgensen—but the music still has a sense of menace that I’ll always appreciate.