In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking our favorite songs of protest and dissent.
One was the outspoken voice of straight-edge hardcore. The other was a drug-addled miscreant whose debut album sounded like Depeche Mode Lite. Collaborators don’t come more ill-matched than Ian MacKaye and Al Jourgensen, but their mind-sets, it turned out, weren’t all that different. “We both decided that even though we had very different lifestyles, we had the same mentality,” Jourgensen told Pitchfork in 2008. “[MacKaye’s] statement was, ‘We’re going to the same place, except you’re taking a taxi, and I’m driving my own car.’”
In 1986, MacKaye was just a few years removed from his genre-defining work in Minor Threat and on the cusp of starting an even more influential band, Fugazi. Jourgensen was also undergoing a transition with his band, Ministry. Although it would come to define the sound of industrial rock, Ministry trafficked in decidedly fluffier electropop on its 1983 debut. By 1986’s Twitch, Jourgensen moved into darker, noisier territory. He wasn’t the guy who would release the game-changing The Land Of Rape And Honey a couple of years later, but he was well on his way.
Regardless of where they stood in their music careers in the mid-’80s, MacKaye and Jourgensen had personal predilections for aggressive music and reputations for stirring shit up. They crossed paths in a London studio while Jourgensen was living there and working on the music that would become Pailhead. He wrote about it in his memoir, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen:
I was a little nervous about working with Ian, who is this real straight-edge icon. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. I didn’t know how we’d get along. I had a stash of cocaine and heroin that I had been doing and I kind of couldn’t stop… I didn’t want Ian to know I was doing drugs because I had heard he was really pompous, so I told him I had a bladder problem. Then I’d go to the bathroom, shoot up or snort, and come out either sniffing or with blood trickling down my arm. After about the 10th time I came out of the bathroom with white circles under my nose, Ian said, “Dude, I know what you’re doing. It’s okay. Do what you have to do. Just don’t lie to me about it.” I thought that was so cool of him.
“I Will Refuse” became the first song they wrote, a collaboration that would eventually lead to the four-song Trait EP in 1988.
It’s also the best song they made together, a searing repudiation of unnamed forces of exploitation and misery. It begins at a simmer with Bill Rieflin’s bass anchoring a swirl of heavily delayed chatter from MacKaye and some processed percussion. (This was the golden age of the drum machine.) Some surprisingly jangly guitar eventually comes in as MacKaye sings, “Please don’t ask me / I will refuse,” before the song slithers back into the swirling intro for another 45 seconds. MacKaye finally barks, “Fucking ready!” The jangly guitar returns momentarily, then the song takes off at breakneck pace. Pummeling drums and heavily distorted guitars kick in, giving Rieflin’s four-note bass progression a serrated edge. “It was hardcore punk played by machines, and it sounded pretty fresh,” writes former Ministry member Chris Connelly in his memoir, Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible & Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock. (Connelly had done the original vocal track for the song, but notes, “It was an honor to be erased by Ian.”)
Lyrically, MacKaye offers only broad strokes, but that actually makes the song timeless. Although written in the twilight years of the Reagan administration, it feels just as attenuated to our current shitshow—Trait’s cover even had a funnel cloud descending on the U.S. Capitol. “It’s no wonder / The world is abused / Murder and weather / Is our only news.”
Well, MacKaye couldn’t have foreseen the rise of social media and a ruthless 24-hour news cycle kicking out a torrent of distracting fluff and fearmongering. “Murder and weather” sounds quaint 30 years later, but the point of “I Will Refuse” remains. Those three words have never sounded more charged than they do now.