DOCUMENTARY SPINS TALE OF WAX TRAX’S ROOTS
Wax Trax rocks 40: A new documentary traces the famed label’s Mile High roots
As the famed record store marks 40 years in Denver, a new documentary is spotlighting the Denver origin story of Chicago’s Wax Trax! It’s playing at the Denver Film Festival.
It’s a rain-spattered Saturday afternoon, and while Denver’s Wax Trax Records isn’t exactly quiet — a clerk pricing discs at the front counter is whistling along to the mariachi refrains of Calexico over the stereo — the corner record store is nearly devoid of people.
A lone shopper flips through 45s toward the back, yet the rows of waist-high bins brimming with shrink-wrapped CDs that fill the bulk of the shop’s floorspace draw scant attention. When a young woman does walk in, it’s to buy an Operation Ivy patch for her jacket.
Walk two doors down, though, to Wax Trax’s vinyl annex, and it’s a different scene altogether. A dozen people navigate the sharp angles of the overstuffed shop, pawing through records new and used, sliding 12-inch discs out of their sleeves to scan for scuffs and scratches. Some approach the counter with small stacks to purchase. The door creaks open and closed as a few leave, and more come in.
What goes around certainly has come around for Dave Stidman and Duane Davis, a pair of former social workers who bought Wax Trax 40 years ago this week, at a time when vinyl firmly ruled the music-retail roost — and now is once again keeping
“In some ways, we’re just a record store. But back then, we were part of what helped people define who they wanted to be.” Duane Davis, Wax Trax co-owner
their Capitol Hill store alive.
“We have a lot of inertia going for us,” says Davis, with a grin, of his and Stidman’s ability to weather the storms, online and otherwise, that have battered independent record stores since the late 1990s.
Now, as Stidman and Davis celebrate their milestone, a new documentary is spotlighting the Denver origin story of Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records, the retail store and genre-defining record label that helped popularize industrial-flavored acts KMFDM, Ministry, Front 242, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and more in the 1980s and early ’90s.
“Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records” screens Friday and Saturday nights at the Denver Film Festival.
The film traces the path of Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, an openly gay couple at a time that wasn’t the norm, who opened Wax Trax’s original Denver location in 1975, sold it to Stidman and Davis three years later and moved to Chicago. There, they operated the similarly named retail store and record label into the ‘90s. (Look to the perky exclamation point — Wax Trax vs. Wax Trax! — to tell the difference between the Denver and Chicago iterations.)
“You probably don’t need someone like me to tell you that Duane and Dave have created an amazing legacy of their own,” Julia Nash, Jim Nash’s daughter and director of “Industrial Accident,” wrote in an email. “The fact that they have been able to thrive in Denver for 40 years is not only a testament to them, but also speaks to how solid the counterculture community remains in Denver.”
And it’s a tribute to Wax Trax’s local roots that the Denver premiere is something special; in addition to the filmmakers, the panel after Friday night’s screening will feature Dead Kennedys legend — and Boulder native — Jello Biafra, Groovie Mann of Thrill Kill Kult and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, who chose Denver to make his first appearance promoting the film because of his own deep Colorado ties.
“Defining moment of my life”
Jourgensen, now 60, graduated from Frisco’s Summit High School in 1976, stumbled through a bit of college in Greeley and Boulder, and received his baptism-by-punk via an early Ramones performance at Denver’s long-gone Ebbets Field nightclub.
“I didn’t know if I was a redneck or a punk rocker yet,” Jourgensen says of that night in 1977. “I mean, I’d been shooting pool in Silverthorne earlier that day. But I came away convinced. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That was the defining moment of my life and my career, right there at Ebbets Field.”
At that same show: Wax Trax’s Flesher and Nash, along with a young Eric Boucher, who hadn’t yet adopted his stage persona of Jello Biafra. Jourgensen didn’t know any of them yet, and never visited the Denver Wax Trax store under its original ownership. (He says he “tries to make a pilgrimage” to the current store whenever he’s in town with Ministry, which, incidentally, plays the Fillmore Auditorium on Nov. 24.)
Biafra, though, was aware of the original store, which Nash and Flesher opened at 1409 Ogden St. under the still-to-be- tweaked name Wax Tracks. He’d seen an ad for the shop in Boulder’s Colorado Daily newspaper that featured an image of a Yardbirds record.
“I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t another store pumping Firefall and Scientology-fueled jazz crap. This could be good,’ ” Biafra recalls.
When he started frequenting the Ogden Street store, though, Biafra found something more exciting than the Yardbirds: a healthy selection of vinyl singles imported from the U.K.’s burgeoning punk scene. Plus the shop supported Denver’s underground music scene, catering to local musicians and helping put on live shows.
Biafra says Wax Trax may have been the first U.S. outlet to carry the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” single, and it’s where he heard The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” for the first time.
“Oh, my God, this is good,” Biafra recalls thinking as the 45 spun in the store. “What is this?”
“A communications center”
In 1978, Nash and Flesher moved Wax Trax to the corner of East 13th Avenue and Washington Street, where it remains to this day, its windows darkened edge-to-edge by taped-up flyers and concert posters. A few months later, betting that Chicago would offer greater opportunity, they sold the Denver store to Davis and Stidman, a pair of record collectors who, at the time, were doing social work for Jefferson County. (“Dave talked to me because I was the only person who knew who the 13th Floor Elevators were,” Davis says.)
They paid about $20,000 for the record shop, Davis believes.
“They wanted to sell to somebody who would carry on the tradition that they’d started, and they agreed that we could be those people,” Stidman says. Davis adds: “When they sold us the business, they were selling us the store’s reputation. What we bought was the name.”
That deal came with just $100 in inventory, so Stidman and Davis worked to build the store back up. Though their own tastes had centered on the ’50s and ’60s rock they grew up on, they, like Flesher and Nash, were excited by what they were hearing coming out of England. They scoured the weekly British music papers — the New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds — for ideas, and began ordering punk, post-punk and new wave titles.
It helped, too, that Denver’s Rainbow Music Hall was bringing somewhat edgier bands like Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joe Jackson, Pretenders and The Cure to Denver.
“We were the place people already associated with those bands, so their labels started to pay attention,” Davis says. “One of the ingredients in our success was that focus on independent music, and, in particular, import music from England. We became a communications center, an information center, for this kind of music, and the people that were interested in it.”
Skinheads and dive bars
Visiting Wax Trax at that time, on pre-gentrified Capitol Hill, was a much dicier proposition. Davis and Stidman remember bullet-pierced windows, vacant storefronts and characters fencing stolen goods across the way. Then there were the skinheads, who harassed people on the street — and in the store.
The blocks around Wax Trax were filled with dives like the 3.2 bar Malfunction Junction, liquor stores and a shop actually called Bad TV Repair. Shootings were a whole lot more routine.
“Capitol Hill was a lot tougher then,” Stidman says.
Marilyn Megenity, owner of Denver’s Mercury Cafe, fondly recalls when her venue was near Wax Trax in the ’80s, and brought in punk and hardcore acts like Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and Bad Brains.
“We had so much fun because music promoters were not really hip to the great music in the ’80s,” she says. “All kinds of bands and agents were cold-calling me to see if they could do a show. If I didn’t know who the band was, I just called Wax Trax across the street and I’d say, ‘Should I book this band?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’ ”
In the pre-internet 1980s and early ’90s, independent record stores really did serve a community function, offering sanctuary to like-minded listeners and a place to learn about and discuss the music they weren’t seeing on MTV or hearing on commercial FM. This was a time when seemingly basic information — like, say, the release date of the next Minutemen album — wasn’t just a click away.
The plastic dividers in Wax Trax’s bins, still bearing handwritten lists of the corresponding artists’ discographies, remain a testament to that, even as shoppers can now just hit up Discogs on their phones.
“In some ways, we’re just a record store,” Davis says. “But back then, we were part of what helped people define who they wanted to be.”
“This might be it”
Wax Trax’s commercial heyday in the early-to-mid-’90s saw Stidman and Davis operating three different storefronts in their building on the south side of 13th and one, Across the Trax, on the north side of the street. On top of that, Wax Trax’s Boulder outpost for a brief time consisted of two separate stores on University Hill.
By the late ‘90s, though, financial fortunes began to turn for Wax Trax, like so many chain and indie stores alike, first as big-box retailers like Best Buy undercut music stores by offering below-cost CDs as loss-leaders to get shoppers in their doors in hopes of selling them refrigerators and home computers.
Then came Napster. The exTalking plosion in online filesharing wrought by that renegade network and successors Kazaa and LimeWire kept more and more of Wax Trax’s CD shoppers at bay.
The owners began consolidating their Denver locations, ultimately squeezing into the two current storefronts, and they closed shop in Boulder. “That scared us,” Davis says of the decision to leave Boulder. “If you can’t have a record store in the middle of the hip part of a college town and not be making money, that’s bad.”
By 2003, Davis and Stidman — who’d wisely purchased the building that now houses the remaining Wax Trax storefronts in the mid-’80s — had to borrow money just to cover their property tax bill.
“Down, down, down,” Stidman says of Wax Trax’s retail outlook at the time. “There was a point we realized the building was worth more than what we were doing here as a business.”
That inertia, though, would save them. “Dave and I are such slow movers, by the time we decided this might be it, the vinyl revival was just starting to get going,” Davis says.
Stidman adds: “We were always close to the bone. Keep putting money back into the business. That’s the secret. That, and buying this building.”
Vinyl has been a lifeline for stores like Wax Trax and, while sales are growing nationally, the format still represents a smaller slice of the music-industry pie than CDs. But for those who collect vinyl albums and 7-inch singles, Wax Trax remains a haven.
“This is just a tremendous place for Denver,” says Bob Sorrentino, a Westminster record collector who checks the 45 boxes and vinyl bins at Wax Trax about once week. “I’m walking out empty handed today, but that’s not usually the case.”
While shipments of CDs to record stores fell 6 percent in 2017 to $1.1 billion, according to year-end figures from the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl rose 10 percent to $395 million. Overall, physical music sales fell 4 percent in 2017 to $1.5 billion, still only a fraction of the $7 billion in digital-music revenue.
Vinyl’s rise remains dwarfed by the existing CD market, even if that format is believed to be in its death spiral. Labels shipped 15.6 million vinyl records last year — but more than five times as many CDs.
At Wax Trax, vinyl now accounts for 85 percent to 90 percent of the store’s gross sales. That’s left Davis and Stidman going round and round about what to do with their CD-filled, but customer-light, flagship store. Move the new vinyl out of the annex into that space? Or is that too confusing, since used vinyl would still be two doors down? Just keep the status quo in the event of an unlikely CD revival?
They can’t decide. It’s the common trap they fall into. And, they believe, it’s a big part of why Wax Trax is still in business.
“Dave and I will get together and say, ‘Let’s diversify our product line,’ ” Davis says, “and we’ll just scratch our heads and say, ‘Let’s just buy some more records.’ ”
Co-owner Dave Stidman checks out new arrivals at Wax Trax on Oct. 31.
Employee Gabriel Albelo sorts albums.
Owner Duane Davis works among boxes of unshelved inventory in his basement office.
Wax Trax is at the corner of East 13th Avenue and Washington Street.
Customers look through the collection at Wax Trax on Oct. 31.
A now-retired cash register in the basement of Wax Trax.