“From the project’s start in mid-2000, Greatest Fits has taken one year to execute. This makes it the quickest-ever Ministry LP!!!”
—Warner Brother’s press release for Greatest Fits
What’s that immortal Marx line about history’s cyclical trajectory towards farce? It was a nicely condensed aphorism that both issued a stern warning against ignoring the footsteps once you’ve reached the end of the trail and reminded cultural and political travelers on the path that if they forgot about the struggle, they would most likely end up insignificant motes in the dustbin of history.
That was it, right? Or was it the line about how everyone’s famous for 15 minutes?
Whatever it was, it hopefully doesn’t apply to Ministry, the prodigal sons of smack-infused industrial metal whose recent best-of release, Greatest Fits, shares a serendipitous birth with another albeit more egregious Second Coming—that of the nearly-illiterate Yalie/Texan who has ascended to the highest rank of American politics, President Dubya.
It was a bracing turn of the ‘90s when Ministry’s seminal Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs—most notably, the breakneck threat of “N.W.O.”—burst on to the musical collective unconscious in the midst of the reign of George Bush the Former, whose own speech heralding the coming era of global American domination ran concurrent with his demonization of all things foreign in the form of Saddam Hussein—a thug who happened to be on the CIA’s payroll before he decided to go solo. Bush’s condemnation of the uncivilized Other—“What we are looking at is good and evil/Right and wrong”—blurred the order of things while simultaneously declaring “a new world order”, and Ministry quickly picked up on the blunder and tabbed Bush’s misleading slogan as the sampled centerpiece of “N.W.O.”
George the Former’s political hypocrisy—most political hypocrisy, actually—didn’t pass unnoticed by Ministry’s twin architects/programmers, guitarist-vocalist Al Jourgensen and bassist Paul Barker, whose video for “N.W.O.” summarily located the Los Angeles riots of 1992 as a metaphorical uprising against all things American-imperialist. It was an energizing tug-of-war, a form of insurrection that hasn’t been really felt in popular music since the election of Bill Clinton anesthetized a nation into dotcom money-grubbing and overall political apathy.
Psalm 69 didn’t stop there. It swiped a couple at religion, addiction, television, and more. “Connect the goddamn dots!” Jourgensen screamed at the top of his lungs in “TV II”, a frenzied, if truncated, condemnation of the idiot box. “You’re lying through your teeth!” It was a cathartic howl that found its more radio-friendly cousin in Eddie Vedder’s “Jeremy” growl, and both indeed made their way into MTV’s rotation before the Boy Band scourge made its saccharine way back onto the musical landscape to make the world safe for consumers again.
Ministry went on in the early ‘90s to take their rightful place in what I would loosely term the protest music of the time. Laugh if you want, but it’s no easy task upstaging the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Lollapalooza, especially if they’re wearing flame-thrower hats. But Ministry made it happen—although the tiny skulls all over the mic stands might have had something to do with it. That’s kinda how much the nation—to steal the title of one of Ministry’s hallmark songs—was “Burning Inside”.
Ah, the good old days.
So just like the return of the evil Joker spurred the aging Bruce Wayne to take his Viagra and make it happen in Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, the spawn of George the Former’s ascendancy to Commander-in-Chief has given monstrous birth to this capable Ministry retrospective as well as…a cameo in a Steven Spielberg film?
Here’s where Marx comes in.
Forget that Spielberg’s A.I. might have been the usual technically precise, thought-provoking exercise we expected and heavily anticipated from the late Stanley Kubrick, whose Full Metal Jacket is sampled in Greatest Fits’ “Thieves”—that’s not the type of farce I’m speaking of. But Ministry’s appearance in that film’s most overwrought, think-Lite scene is a disturbing conflation of sensibilities, namely the band’s aforementioned criticisms of American consumer and political culture and Spielberg/Dreamworks’ commerce-is-God presence. It’s a tough conundrum to tackle—I was scratching my head for quite a while when AOL unleashed its pre-release A.I. promotion featuring the band’s cameo, trying to figure out whether or not the movie’s superficial grappling with Big Issues had suckered Ministry into a collaboration, or whether they had just dropped their guard and—as everything Spielbergian is wont to do—grabbed a marketing opportunity by its throat.
Which might explain why their collection’s first track, “What About Us?”, is taken from A.I.—or it might not. The idea releases a host of interesting corporate conspiracy theory possibilities:
- Is Greatest Fits just a promotional tool for Ministry’s new song and Spielberg’s film?
- If it isn’t, then why does the track list run in chronological order, all except for the foregrounded “What About Us?”
- And where would this new song go anyway, since the A.I. soundtrack consists of only John Williams’ score?
Regardless, most listeners are used to seeing the group grab other things by the throat, and Greatest Fits doesn’t really disappoint, although it’s somewhat short. “What About Us?” is standard Ministry, albeit a bit light in the beats, and Jourgensen’s coarse vocals are both buried low and fed through some awful digital effect. The collection also skips over the band’s pre-industrial dance phase, which is a good thing, I guess, if you weren’t one of those late-night clubbers who used to bounce to “Revenge” or “Work for Love” from their wannabe-Eurodisco album, With Sympathy.
But everything else the band is best known for is here, including the most popular songs from Psalm 69 and The Land of Rape and Honey, Ministry’s best offerings. Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes’ frenetic hootenanny on “Jesus Built My Hotrod” is the album’s lightest moment, but Greatest Fits goes about its ear-shattering business with “The Land of Rape and Honey”, “N.W.O.”, “Stigmata”, a new track called “Supernaut”, and more. It’s a fairly representative retrospective, a pretty convenient collection for a band not known for convenience.
And although they might not slam Dubya as hard as they did his muddling father, Ministry still have teeth, even if they are on the Dreamworks’ payroll. So let’s look past Greatest Fits to their next original release, and then we’ll see whether or not the conspiracy makes sense. Something tells me the band is probably comfortable with our discomfort anyway.
An aside. I’ll give any reader five bucks if s/he can find The Land of Rape and Honey on family-friendly Amazon. There’s another conspiracy theory for you late-nighters out there!