Sex Dwarf / Memorabilia

“Sex Dwarf” original version by Soft Cell
“Sex Dwarf” banned music video (remixed version from Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing)
“Sex Dwarf” performed by Soft Cell on The Old Grey Whistle Test
NIN playing “Sex Dwarf” live in 1988 & the aborted studio cover, 1994
“Memorabilia” original version by Soft Cell
“Memorabilia” remix from Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing by Soft Cell with Cindy Ecstacy
NIN recording “Memorabilia” in the studio, 1994
“Memorabilia” NIN cover version from Closer to God

In another first for this blog, we will chronicle two non-Reznor compositions that were covered by Nine Inch Nails and originally performed by the same artist: Soft Cell. As a band, Soft Cell were an important and yet under-regarded influence on Nine Inch Nails. “Mr. Self Destruct” on The Downward Spiral pilfered its title from the opening track of Soft Cell’s 1984 record-industry-suicide-note This Last Night in Sodom; in constructing his own dark masterwork, Reznor must have referred back to their catalogue for inspiration (the banned “Sex Dwarf” music video, at least, surely served as a reference point for the “Closer” and “Wish” clips) — and so with a tip of the hat to Marc Almond and David Ball, NIN recorded their early song “Memorabilia”, sometimes credited as the first-ever techno single and originally released in 1981.

NIN fans received a huge surprise when an official Closure deluxe DVD edition was leaked online by its compilers in late 2006. It was completed in 2004 but rejected by Interscope Records after years of delays for unknown reasons (Reznor suggested in an fan Q&A that the record label was more interested in pushing the latest Pussycat Dolls video), but thanks to the leak, fans now have access to a comprehensive bonus feature prepared for the deluxe edition called “Appendage”. This revealed that around the time they were recording “Memorabilia” in the studio, Reznor & co. also attempted a second Soft Cell tune, “Sex Dwarf”, from their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Both tracks also appear on the 1982 remix EP Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, which is probably the version Reznor had in mind while arranging the NIN cover of “Memorabilia” (he ignores the extra words from the original single version). Even more mind-blowing was the revelation, hidden away on an easter-egg clip no one could have anticipated, of NIN performing “Sex Dwarf” at one of those pre-Pretty Hate Machine shows in 1988 when they were opening for Skinny Puppy. For students of the band, this was a moment where puzzle pieces fell into place; of course the fledgling NIN would have padded their hastily-rehearsed set with a cover or two — this made perfect sense. But it was still something of a shock to see the sweat-drenched Reznor tackling the sexually confrontational lyrics onstage, a skinny twenty-three-year-old ball of nervous energy clad in his logo-inscribed leather jacket from the “Down In It” video. In retrospect, it was probably the lineage of “Sex Dwarf” as part of the old-old-school NIN repertoire that prompted the choice to record it and “Memorabilia” years later.

Although “Sex Dwarf” was likely never completed in the studio, the clip from “Appendage” proves that it got as far as having a polished-sounding backing track in 1994, with guitar overdubs by Danny Lohner. Yet another Erotic Cabaret track, “Seedy Films”, was on the pre-show playlist during NIN concerts on the Live: With Teeth tour and Reznor discussed the track when he played it on BBC Radio One’s Rock Show in 2005. Of the LP, Reznor stated:

[It] always just seemed like a cool-sounding record to me; I’ve always thought Marc Almond is a genius, and Soft Cell, I thought… I mean, they’ve been quite a big influence to me: just the tone, the way he could describe a situation that seemed desperate but vulnerable, and incredibly… seedy. He’s unmatched. I really like the records towards the end of the band’s lifespan, like “The Art of Falling Apart”, that was a great sound of a band going crazy[…]

The gritty, realistic use of BDSM topics in Almond’s lyrics was particularly liberating and inspiring for a generation of British fans, and Reznor would eventually tap Almond’s technique of drawing upon such imagery to project a facade of chaotic aggression amidst deep-rooted personal vulnerability. Reznor cultivated an aura of sexual depravity around his band, which fed into NIN’s reputation as a hard-partying touring act in the 1990s. With ripped fishnets and dog collars being a de rigeur part of the band’s regular stage costumes at this time, the Self Destruct tour’s over-the-top sadomasochistic image became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Goofy backstage antics from the band and its crew, egged on by an endless parade of freakish star-fuckers and hangers-on (extensively documented on Closure), not to mention their outrageous opening acts Marilyn Manson and The Jim Rose Circus, bled into the stage show and finally into the post-tour lives of all concerned participants. It seemed, well, like an erotic Cabaret that couldn’t stop.

Likely soon after The Downward Spiral was finished, Reznor went back into the studio with the Self Destruct-era live band, plus engineers John Van Eaton, Sean Beavan and Brian Pollack, to record some fresh remixes and other non-album tracks for release on Closer to God and Further Down the Spiral. This session produced “Memorabilia”, a free-form jam with live guitars and indistinct voices pulled into delay boxes and manipulated in stuttering loops. One of these was the repeated sample of Robin Finck asking an anonymous phone sex worker “what do your nipples look like?” Introducing the song after a blast of noise and distorted synth drums, this throwaway question was brilliantly transformed into the introductory hook for a song about a character who indulges in serial sexual encounters so casual and forgettable that the only evidence that they ever happened are themselves throwaways. Some of the complete Finck conversation, more or less a prank call, emerged on the “Appendage” reel. It’s full of the debauched running gags that the touring band delighted in — notice Finck’s sly reference to “wristwatch Crisco” from Frank Zappa’s “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes” (seemingly part of the Self Destruct pre-show ritual, Reznor sings along to this track in the backstage warmup scenes of Closure). It’s fun to see Finck and the rest of the band reacting with glee to the playback of the phone sex call while a silent “seedy film” plays on the screen behind them, one that could have fit in with Marc Almond’s imagined backstreet playground. The dialogue that fades in and out throughout the finished track seems to be sampled from a conversation between two other anonymous freaks — credited as “Sugar and his friend” in the liner notes.

Providing a de facto B-side to the sexed-out “Closer” single, “Memorabilia” worked fairly well in its original context, but to many uninitiated fans it seemed like a strange choice. After all, Soft Cell was the band famous for that ubiquitous pop hit “Tainted Love”, which is still how most people remember them today — though it would have been far too obvious for NIN to choose that song as a tribute (mind you, this didn’t stop Marilyn Manson from doing exactly that some years later). Only afterwards did the full story emerge: Reznor craftily curated “Memorabilia” as part of an ongoing expansion of NIN’s song catalogue into exploration of other interesting bands’ music (although, to this day, the band has not performed “Memorabilia” in concert). With the “Appendage” fragments in hand, “Sex Dwarf” also joins that rank. One need only look to the spinning reel-to-reel tape situated behind Marc Almond during Soft Cell’s performance on legendary British TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test to see just how closely Reznor was paying attention when he put together the first incarnation of Nine Inch Nails.

Album review: Hesitation Marks

“Presence in absence” is one of the enigmatic phrases that artist Russell Mills used in describing what he intended to suggest with his mixed-media works, thirty of them, specially commissioned to illuminate the new Nine Inch Nails album. It’s also an apt description of the music on Hesitation Marks, which his art accompanies (and whose title he suggested); a fitful and restless collection of songs, with the indefinable quality that belongs to works dealing with the there-and-yet-not-there. Mills elaborates:

[The artworks] are a cross between the forensic and a pathology of the personal in which only fragments remain, in which minimal clues can suggest events that may have occurred. They attempt to harness the chaos of a situation, of now, of the personal trauma, of the human condition, into a form that is coherent, a form that accommodates the mess without disguising it as something else.

This description could just as well apply to the songs that composer and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has written and co-produced for Hesitation Marks, which reflect his matured persona as a calmer, more assured individual while still confronting the dark personal past that inspires his songwriting for NIN. Each piece of music is a fractured and beautiful collage of noise, with the hallmarks of classic Reznor production techniques abundantly on display (deployed with his co-producers Atticus Ross and Alan Moulder lending their help, as they have for myriad Reznor-led projects). The album feels haunting and unnerving, exercising notable restraint for showing and then hiding its layers, building and releasing tension in the listener for its 62 minutes. On top of all that, it boasts insanely catchy pop song hooks with dance beats galore. This is undeniably the most exciting and rewarding album NIN has released in a long time, and without a doubt the most elegant sonic portrait of Reznor’s riveting inner battles since the exquisitely raw With Teeth.

Opening track “The Eater of Dreams” consists of ominous noises building one upon another. Unlike previous NIN album openers, many of which are also short vocal-less pieces that steadily build in intensity from silence, there is practically no recognizable instrumentation — only vaguely discernible snippets of voice distorted beyond recognition. It is a puzzling and disorienting opener, which leads perfectly into the emotional space of disillusionment and detachment framing the epic journey to follow.

The story proper kicks off with “Copy of A”, which debuted as the first song in the first spectacular show of NIN’s 2013 tour at Fuji Rock festival, Japan (under a fierce, awe-inspiring lightning storm). It is a delicately-constructed précis of the album to follow: all the elaborate vocal arrangements over unconventional song structures, all of the relentlessly driving percussive forces, primarily electronic… all of the album’s spirit is rendered here, in just over five minutes. Reznor’s reading of his bleak lyric is one of restrained horror; skittering vocal treatments and a driving beat indicate a situation that has spiraled out of control, where the protagonist feels he is doomed to follow a path he had no part in authorizing or initiating, and feels powerless to change. Crucially, this mindset is also the first step in the realization of a recovering addict — an inkling that one must eventually relinquish control over his or her life to a higher power.

Next in sequence comes the album’s first single, “Came Back Haunted”, which made a significant impact via the disjointed and indefinable music video directed by master filmmaker and sometime Reznor collaborator David Lynch. The dark minor-key stabs of guitar riffs subtly recall the recurring NIN motif of The Downward Spiral (reprised in several of that album’s songs, including the title track), and the self-reference is apt. The accompanying lyrics do not tell of a reluctant Reznor returning to the limelight after having shelved NIN for close to four years, as many have reported, but of a man attempting in vain to leave behind his life of addiction while refusing help. Most addicts simply don’t have enough strength to quit on their own, however, and relapse horribly as a result — this is the haunted past Reznor will refer to again and again on the album. All of the lies to himself and others he opines for are those entailed by hubris: he is fighting a losing battle to try and thwart his addict’s life alone. Reznor’s protagonist shouting “I don’t believe” is a twisted challenge to an authority he will soon have to place trust in, or else die. To escape its deathly grip he must find a way to “stop” his consumption in a way that involves more than his own force of will. Curiously, this is something of a precursor to the message of the lyrics from previous NIN single “Discipline” off The Slip, but with the added wrinkle of having been “haunted” by the failure of a previous attempt.

“Find My Way”, which also made its debut on the 2013 NIN tour of music festivals, is a moody prayer for guidance, featuring Reznor’s trademark solitary piano set in a blasted, distant landscape of ruined dreams and lost moments. The vocal’s gentle, sombre tone belies its underlying regret and grief for “all those things inside of me” that represent the persistent, ghostly past self, which tarnishes hope for solace in a new relationship. The mantra “dear Lord, hear my prayer” is a humble, vulnerable moment in the face of an unfathomable darkness that threatens to close in, unless the solace of a reassuring higher power can allay it. The final moments feature a sly, uncharacteristic guitar lick repeated on the left of the stereo mix — the first appearance of longtime NIN guest guitarist Adrian Belew on the album. They indicate perhaps a glimmer of redemption at hand for the protagonist.

“All Time Low” is unsettling in its glossy, impenetrable musicality (I can hear more of Belew’s distorted lead guitar set far back in the mix, amid the layers of other guitars and synths) when contrasted against the lyric portrayal of morbid fixation, self-abuse and co-dependency. The lyrics, full of shame for having willfully allowed the grip of addiction to gain a toehold, then encouraging a romantic partner to partake — a denial of every principle that the cleaned-up Reznor would hold — sound positively seductive and even triumphant when scored this way. The slippery electric bass line comes courtesy of ace session player Pino Palladino, who makes his auspicious debut with NIN, appearing all over this album. The music twists and turns though a psychedelic segment of arpeggiated synths, not fully grounded in a single temporal moment any longer as the protagonist’s ego becomes untethered.

“Disappointed” is my favourite of the new songs; NIN played it a few times on the 2013 festival dates and what immediately struck me, even more than the inviting groove, was its thrillingly bitter lyric — a dialogue that seems to pit Reznor against his inner critic (or possibly those in the world around him). Taking directly from the Ghosts I-IV playbook of bowed and plucked string instruments layered over top of a harsh electronic rasp, the studio version delivers even more ear candy than did the unusual sight of Josh Eustis playing a two-string erhu in live performances (played on the album by Autolux’s Eugene Goreshter). It makes more sense sequenced where it is on the album, instead of the second slot in the show — right after another brand new song, no less. The relentless grind of guitar noises from the song’s first half abruptly drop out in the extended outro, where bowed string instruments take over momentarily before being swallowed again in the morass of orchestration, which crests and falls and then starts to build again before falling mute.

“Everything” is a dance-rock rave-up, with soaring major-key harmonies overlaying a Reznor rant about getting locked in a frightening dry-out period, surrounded by piles of noisy guitar clatter. In terms of melodic immediacy, it has few parallels in the NIN catalogue. This is exactly the kind of track that divides Reznor’s audience along lines of pro-and-con, lovers and haters. The surface construction seems so obvious, so accessible and rooted in genuine pop hooks, that those who deny themselves these pleasures may dismiss it. Reznor would surely not have bothered to include it on the album if he didn’t think at least some fans would dub it the “worst NIN song ever”, which of course they immediately did. Yet the song leads down a very dark path, into harrowing ego-death and seclusion, with eventual redemption and rebirth. Reznor implies the harrowing physiological process of cleaning out one’s body of addictive substances by the “walls [that] dissolve” and “hands [beginning] to shake”. His final cry of “I am home, I believe” is the conclusion of having quelled the inner demons, thanks to the higher power summoned for its assistance. Yet Reznor’s voice is not without ambiguous emotion: what has this deal cost him?

With all the recent revelations of America’s surveillance-state wiretapping disaster, “Satellite” couldn’t be more timely. It’s a frightening parallel: the recovering addict’s need to constantly monitor their own actions, conflated with the state’s mission to spy on the activities of those whom it deems threatening. This metaphor casts the observant ego as a mere iceberg-tip hovering above the vast, uncontrolled id. Won in a hard-fought battle to maintain control, the sobriety Reznor found in the dark and lost corner he backed himself into can never be taken for granted, or allowed to slip, which doubtless must feel claustrophobic and oppressive sometimes. Throwing paranoid fantasies in along with the real-life horror for good measure plays on his addled brain struggling to ground itself. This song says all of that, with the added sheen of a funky electro track dressed with futuristic space-pop hooks. It is a catchy slice of danceable pop with a dark edge, and Reznor’s gift for countermelody beautifully ends the song on a cascade of interlocking vocal and guitar layers that fade out gradually to silence.

Whereas Reznor’s voice sometimes sounds more exposed and vulnerable on this album than it has for years, he also uses various lo-fi tactics to contrast this clarity and presence with some grittier, more distant and indistinct vocal textures. Perhaps the best use of this gambit is in “Various Methods of Escape”, where his singing (sounding like it may have been amplified through the end of a resonating plastic tube) during the verses throws the blisteringly clear chorus into sharp relief. Just when it feels like the track could escalate into the stratosphere, it all spirals into a tense and moody middle section before shifting back into gear at exactly the perfect moment. This is the kind of track that will be perfect for the live band to reproduce at high-octane energy levels on tour. Ironically, the subject matter appears to be Reznor giving up the stage persona that made Nine Inch Nails a phenomenon; “I’ve got to let go” is a plea to release the addicting power of performing with the band which, if allowed to rule Reznor’s life, can threaten his sanity.

The relentless tempo of “Running” underscores the creepy lyric, which describes a stalking presence (likely the addictive personality Reznor has by now accepted as his constant companion, even as a sober individual) and it looms large. It’s yet another highlight of the album, with delectable electronic textures under a fine melody. The breathless, syncopated line “I’m running out—”, repeated over and over during the claustrophobic breakdown towards the song’s end, brings to mind a trance state induced by meditation. Any escape this provides is only momentary, however. The concluding line, in a falsetto beautifully sung but also damning and taunting, is “I never get away”.

The last four songs crossfade into each other, a climactic suite that never lets up in intensity until the final note. “I Would for You” castigates the protagonist for buying into a false perception of reality that plainly contradicts the facts. “I only have myself to blame” he repeats, before pleading to change into another person unafflicted by his catalogue of shame. This suggests that reconciling the past with present is too painful, given new surroundings but remaining the same person inside. Wretched and remorseful, the chorus vocals give way to an instrumental solo, ending on a passage of distorted vibrato guitars overlaying a solitary piano, which dissolves into the infinite-delayed synth noises underpinning the next song.

“It’s getting harder to tell the two of you apart”, Reznor sings in warbly falsetto, then in counterpoint harmony, mediating a protracted and violent argument between opposing aspects of his protagonist’s mind on “In Two”. This breaks through the jaw-dropping robotic pre-chorus vocal, snarling through a tense bed of programmed drums and massive synthesized bass. Reaching a desperate point of resignation, the narrative plunges into near-silence for the quiet bridging segment where a chant of “I just don’t know anymore” builds into a flurry of whirling guitars, with a pulse of plucked bass and strings that finally breaks into the synthesized drum and Belew-led monster guitar finale.

“While I’m Still Here” cuts in suddenly, bringing closure to the saga with an explicit acknowledgement of mortality. Reznor has never before confronted death with this much clarity and focus in his songwriting. “Wish it didn’t have to end this way” he intones over the minimal drum loop, his protagonist letting go of paths not taken. With solitary life at its nadir, the protagonist places his faith in love. A frail, brittle guitar lick — courtesy ofLindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, a new face on the NIN guest list — and then, finally, a double-tracked baritone saxophone solo (another NIN first) have the last word. The closest cousin to this track might be the two closing songs from Year Zero, but the sentiment is far more personal and even romantic: “stay with me, hold me near… while I’m still here.”

As focus pulls away from the scene, “Black Noise” consumes all. It’s an abstract construction, pulling the loop from the previous song into a dissonant stack of chords orchestrated on swarming synths and abused string instruments, plucked, twisted and scraped, howling into the void and then just as soon silenced. Rather than the cathartic endings of previous NIN outings, which practically demand a pause for reflection on what you just heard, it only leaves you wanting to hear more… or to start the album from the top, all over again.


Thank you for taking the time to read my review of Hesitation Marks. If this intrigued you enough to want to listen for yourself, please order it at the NIN webstore (no, I can’t get you a copy, so don’t ask) — and it would do me lot of good if you could please tell someone you know about this blog. Share it, like it on Facebook, whatever. In case you don’t know, this blog’s goal is to examine the NIN catalogue in depth, song-by-song, and regular updates on that front will resume shortly. I hope to see you then.

—Botley Smith, August 25, 2013

PS: At first, I incorrectly identified Lindsay Buckingham as the guitarist on “Find My Way”. This has been corrected now that I’ve seen the liner notes!

The Only Time

“The Only Time” demo from Purest Feeling
“The Only Time” live in 1988
“The Only Time” original album version, 1989
“The Only Time” live in 1990
“The Only Time” live at Woodstock, 1994
“The Only Time” live compilation video from Closure
“The Only Time” remastered version, 2010

It has been several weeks since I updated this blog (except for a much-needed addition to “Sanctified” that addresses its exciting 2013 revival). I pondered what to address next, and whether to jump ahead in time and tackle a more recent track, or continue to follow this relatively-chronological order of topics. Having settled on the latter (for now), I could have decided to talk about the music of this song, and how it evolved from the Prince-like electronic funk of early versions into the amped-up guitar-based live workouts of the Self Destruct glory days… but instead, what’s more interesting to talk about is the four-letter word it contains.

That literally show-stopping line “the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car” (made complete on the album version and the 1990 live arrangement with faux-backup singers disappearing into an amazed oh-no-he-didn’t, shut-your-mouth silence) marks the first entrance of profane language into NIN’s canon. In the ultra-conservative environment of pop music around the end of the twentieth century, combining Satan and that dreaded F-word into one line of a catchy jingle for getting drunk and laid was something of a revolutionary act. The band’s ultimate success with MTV and other giant American media outlets was definitely bizarre compared to what was going on around them, and somehow it blossomed in spite of Reznor’s refusal to abide by the list of words deemed unfit for mass consumption by the “moral watchdogs” controlling the national broadcast rules. Of course, NIN’s singles were judiciously bleeped or re-edited for radio and television, and the more controversial videos obscured for daytime play. But Reznor and his contemporaries made their point and made it well: by simply refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of these rules and playing to the hypocrisy of the critical response by goading them on to hysteria.

It’s hard to imagine now, in the internet-tablet-for-every-child era, but back in the Reagan-dominated 1980s and even well into the 90s there were incredibly influential lobbyists petitioning state judiciaries to demand that record labels and stores that sold music be made to enforce and police their artists’ freedom of expression, all in the name of “saving” children and under-18 adolescents (who, through absolutely no fault of most artists themselves, were admittedly major targets for mass media and its advertisers). At a Time Warner shareholders’ meeting, well-meaning but brutally stupid right-wing organizer C. Delores Tucker quoted profane NIN lyrics from The Downward Spiral, citing them as a reason for its executives to sell off their controlling share of Interscope (which they later did; Universal Music would absorb control of the label and Reznor’s Nothing Records subsidiary). Apparently, Mrs. Tucker thought that NIN was a gangsta rap group, and she fought to get Reznor’s music out of the hands of his younger fans (oh, and one last fun fact: in a defamation lawsuit, she actually blamed Tupac Shakur’s lyrics that dissed her for killing her sex life).

Reznor countered this unfair crusade by using every available opportunity he had (at least until the expiry of his Nothing Records label in the mid-2000s) to shout “FUCK”, either literally or figuratively, at such widespread brainless cultural cleanse and subverting it from within the record industry as much as possible. Though his contemporaries in the industrial music scene were extending their middle fingers as well, none of them had the broad platform that Reznor enjoyed to bring the dialogue to a broader community than the already-converted choir singing along at Revolting Cocks shows. This was cursing as a rite of communion, a ritualistic damnation of the false “decency” that a massive American bloc of right-wing Christian power structures held as sacred. It was with perfect timing, in the face of this uptight atmosphere, that Reznor championed an obscure Florida rock band and shock artist, both called Marilyn Manson, by giving them a Nothing label deal and producing all of their best work right in the middle of NIN’s ascendant popularity. But where Reznor was gifted, in a way that Manson never quite matched, was an ability to colloquially and familiarly slip curse words into his use of language without it ever seeming like a premeditated assault.

Fantastic artist and erstwhile NIN humour columnist Meathead once composed a classic tongue-in-cheek treatise advising Reznor on “Proper ‘Fuck’ Placement” in his lyrics and stage performances, where additional colourful metaphors often intruded on the accepted text of songs evermore as Reznor descended into drunken bacchanalia. This onstage debauchery reached its nadir when Reznor was unable to do anything more sophisticated in response to malfunctioning equipment and physical indisposition than repeatedly scream “fuck” into terminally abused microphones at the Fragility shows in Japan and Australia. This childish behaviour also surfaced in more fun moments, like Reznor’s on-air interview with an Australian TV show (where the broadcast “standards and practices” rules were more relaxed) letting loose an almost dadaist stream of rapid-fire curses, or the moment in that Woodstock ’94 show when, just before covering Joy Division’s “Dead Souls”, Reznor realizes he can swear on live national television and does so with a somewhat terrified aplomb.

Of course, NIN reached its first real zenith of pop culture relevancy with that performance, capturing a huge national audience at one of those Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moments, which are hardly possible anymore in today’s fractured digital media landscape; it was a mass-media saturation point unique to the 1994 cable TV era. This eye-catching moment bolstered another naughty-word riddled phenom, the hit “Closer” radio single and music video. It should come as no surprise that a short excerpt of the drum-and-synth break from “The Only Time”, with its celebration of sexual decadence as an escape from a spiritual void, was added to the bridge of every live performance of “Closer” from the Live: With Teeth shows in 2005 on into each performance of the song since then. Long may its drunken-cat bent synth notes grace the stage!

Finally, Reznor chose to revise the sizzling synthesized noise at the very end of the song, which segues into “Ringfinger” (just as a similar, more-distorted sawtooth buzz would later bridge “Wish” and “Last” on Broken), for the 2010 reissue of Pretty Hate Machine. On the original album version, it is mixed in the centre of the stereo image, but in remastering Reznor chose to make it pan across from far to the listener’s right to their left. Subtle, to be sure, but especially on headphones it makes for a more interesting use of the audio space, which is a feature that will be crucial in NIN song arrangements to come.

That’s What I Get

“That’s What I Get” demo from Purest Feeling bootleg
“That’s What I Get” live at Irving Plaza, 1988
“That’s What I Get” original album version
“That’s What I Get” live in 1989 – “fuck yeah” version
“That’s What I Get” live in 1990

If the key to Pretty Hate Machine‘s success as a collection of songs lies in its intense blast of industrial-caliber emotions, the twin engines driving that machine are heartbreak and betrayal. As a young man, barely in his twenties at the dawn of Nine Inch Nails, many of Reznor’s earliest songs were motivated by the turbulent drama of personal relationships. Except for a series of private attempts at politically-motivated lyric writing (reportedly influenced heavily by the Clash, and too embarrassingly bad to even make the jump from written word to recording), the domain of most songs in NIN’s first years was in Reznor’s own painful romantic situations. Whether or not these songs stand up to critical scrutiny today (and parts of them certainly do not, viz. the infamously clumsy couplet-and-a-bit “how can you turn me into this/ after you just taught me how to kiss/ you”, routinely trotted out as a classic example of Reznor’s fumbling lyrical prowess), the songs undeniably resonated with a massive audience.

For proof, one need only consult videos from the band’s very first promotional tour in 1989. Reznor reflected back on these days as being the first time when he realized that his songs were making an impact on popular culture – people he’d never met were shouting his words back at him with powerful conviction. During performances of “That’s What I Get” captured on this tour, the audience can be heard singing along almost louder than Reznor’s own amplified voice. In the video clip linked above, he realizes this after the first chorus – and responds with a hearty “fuck yeah!” back at the slam-dancing crowd. Once Reznor found that his audience was actually paying attention to the uncomfortably candid diary-entry nature of his writing, it would slightly change the slant of NIN’s direction and focus. It was almost by luck, but with some strange collision of circumstance, Reznor found an artistic outlet to transmute emotional pain into a lucrative career. This opened up a whole world of exciting possibilities.

On Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor used aggressive sound design combined with hooky, rhyme-filled lyrics and danceable synthesizer grooves. “That’s What I Get” is another textbook example of this technique. It employs hard-edged, distorted noises – like those of a mortar explosion, or a metallic crash impact – punctuating the spaces between raw, naked vocal lines. The tinny, bare drum patterns Reznor foregrounded on his demos are demoted to background textures (the chorus uses a very common stock drum machine pattern, mixed on the right of the stereo image). Other synthesizer noises add melodic layers over top of one another in a stew of tense, never-quite-resolved harmonic patterns. With no more than one keyboard player on stage at this time, Reznor put most of these sequences onto NIN’s backing tape and chose only the most crucial of them to actually play live – or rather, for the rotating lineup of NIN keyboardists to play live. Reznor explained that this minimal approach to live reproduction made for a more exciting visual spectacle than watching a row of people standing behind keyboards did, and on that count he was absolutely right.

Guitars, a hallmark of the bombastic live NIN show, are entirely absent from the album version of this song. Richard Patrick, later to become front man of Filter, added a few simple, sustained chords to the arrangement when he was in the live band, but this contributed little to the already-rich mixture; it seems to have been something he simply chose to do, rather than stand onstage not playing and pouting. Patrick, being a very close friend and confidant of Reznor’s during the touring cycle for Pretty Hate Machine (they apparently would start to make out with each other in the middle of press interviews when on tour, just to make people uncomfortable) would later give himself credit for steering NIN away from this kind of material towards more aggressive, rock-oriented songwriting. As we will soon discover, it was Reznor’s own roots as an adolescent fan of arena rock that laid the groundwork for this eventual shift. After a few appearances on NIN’s 1991 European tour, during which the band’s amped-up aggression made it seem somewhat out of place, “That’s What I Get” was dropped and never returned to the setlist.

Kinda I Want To

“Kinda I Want To” demo from Purest Feeling bootleg
“Kinda I Want To” unreleased demo version 2
“Kinda I Want To” original album version
“Kinda I Want To” promotional 1989 tour performance

NIN’s ongoing gambit of sample-collage as a technique for arranging pop songs was the key to its divergence from hardcore industrial music, and eventually removed all barriers from a mass audience’s acceptance: only when armed with the repetitious “hook” of an easily-understood rhyming lyric, or a bright and colourful lead melody, or a funky rhythmic dance groove – really, any trope recognizable to a straightforward pop music audience – does Reznor juxtapose layer upon layer of non-melodic noise over his songs. From the somewhat ham-fisted Purest Feeling demo tracks’ usage of randomly-tuned TV voices (perhaps in emulation of Pink Floyd’s similar background hotel noises on The Wall), to the epic found-sound extravaganza of The Fragile and, later, the laptop-birthed brutalism of Year Zero, NIN always props up its noise-constructivist approach to music composition with a catchy, inviting pop melody or beat. On “Kinda I Want To”, NIN would temper the unabashedly sweet aftertaste of Reznor’s songwriting with a harsher, noisier element of chaos.

There were precedents for this in contemporary American popular music. Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad (name-dropped by Reznor as conscious sources of inspiration for the soundscape of Year Zero), particularly their production work on the seminal 1988 Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had used a similar approach to creating noisy grooves and hooks as a base for rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav, so that their lyrical messages calling the masses to revolutionary arms would have an undeniably strong foundation of powerful, gritty realism. Reznor credited Public Enemy, among others in the Pretty Hate Machine liner notes, for “ideas and sounds (with all due respect)” – but of all the names on this list, it is only in the case of Public Enemy that an ethos, rather than a specific noise or set of words, carried into the mix of influences. David Bowie and Brian Eno also sowed some early seeds in their collaborative musical efforts to ruthlessly refashion the sound sources for rock music, starting with Iggy Pop’s 1977 LP The Idiot (which Reznor took as his source for the infamously filthy kick drum sample that opens “Closer”). Along with their Krautrock forebears – bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can – these landmark experiments eventually bore fruit in NIN’s radical transformation of the parameters for rock music as a mass-market musical art form.

The juxtaposition of noise and gloss carried all the way through to Pretty Hate Machine‘s title and artwork, acting almost as a manifesto for the fledgling NIN; designer Gary Talpas slathered a “pretty” layer of neon-bright colours (not to mention that eye-catching symmetrical band logo) atop a distorted, ugly image of machinery, suggesting a beating human heart with all its repressed hatred running underneath. The 1988 versions of “Kinda I Want To” don’t quite get the aggression component right, with an acoustic guitar sticking out from under the chorus hook and Trent’s lower-key approach to lead vocals making the overall result just a little more sultry than Satanic. The original demos also had a different middle bridge section, with an echoed refrain of “why does it have to be this way?” This part put yet another hook on top of an already-sugary pile of catchy pop sweetness, gilding the lily somewhat. However, the ambiguous final line “I’ll take my chance tonight” (included in the album’s liner notes, but only sung in the earlier versions) ends the piece on a slightly uneasy note, neatly suiting the lyrical theme of a flirtation with moral disaster.

By stripping some of the pop gloss away, and introducing the Bomb Squad’s rhythmic approach of disparate loops, Reznor almost completely transformed the song. A swirling, stereo-panned loop of synthesized growls joined by an indiscernible vocal sample – later appropriated by Peter Christopherson of Coil in the interstitial art videos he created for NIN’s first “home video” release, Closure – served as an ominous introduction. On the original vinyl release, this was also the first noise one would hear on playing side two of the Pretty Hate Machine LP, although this placement was revised in the two-disc 2010 remastered vinyl version. Nowhere in the subsequently unfolding track (with its tried-and-true pop structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, contrasting middle section, verse, and final chorus, repeatedly building to a climactic ending) does this sparse-sounding opening motif return, until the very final moments – the opening vocal sample once again breaks through the densely layered mix, and it cross-fades into the following track, “Sin”. The layers of cross-cutting samples create a violently noisy texture, stubbornly refusing to still into a natural sound-stage of instrumentation across the stereo picture. The effect on headphones is somewhat disorienting and claustrophobic.

Other production choices, like the spiraling delay effects on Reznor’s lead vocals, only add to the chaos – a barely-discernible loop of “Down In It” even makes a subliminal reprise, just past two minutes into the song, panning back and forth from left to right over the abrasive guitar solo. These revisions to the template established by Reznor’s early demos, particularly the shift to a percussive loop-based foundation for groove (rather than the sequencer-and-live-drums pattern slavishly followed on Purest Feeling), not to mention a much more aggressive guitar sound, helped establish NIN as something far more interesting than mere synth-pop. Pretty Hate Machine was an altogether compelling, bizarre, and unfamiliar gesture in the American pop music landscape circa 1989. Reznor’s record label at the time hated it, and thought that the record was dead on arrival. Label head Steve Gottleib, his hopes for the slick and straightforward pop record Reznor had demonstrated capable of producing utterly dashed, called Pretty Hate Machine “an abortion” when he heard the finished product. This was a man who had made his bones in the music business by repackaging TV jingles on compilation albums, and Pretty Hate Machine was a million miles from that enterprise – but it eventually proved its commercial viability by touching a nerve in the American public consciousness.

NIN played “Kinda I Want To” in its live shows from 1988 to 1989, but dropped the song prior to Hate ’90, its first headlining tour; it has never re-appeared on setlists since then. Live band drummer Jerome Dillon put the kibosh on any chance of a modern-day NIN reviving it in a 2005 online chat with fans, though he was perhaps being tongue-in-cheek about its unsuitability for modern rock audiences’ tastes. Much has changed since then, however, and the song’s vastly underestimated lyrical sincerity, vulnerability and emotional nakedness, combined with its harsh musical bluster, would be an interesting starting point for revitalization in 2013.


“Sanctified”, first ever live performance
“Sanctified” unreleased demo with introduction music (from Purest Feeling bootleg)
“Sanctified” live at Irving Plaza, New York City 1988
“Sanctified” unreleased demo version 2
“Sanctified” original album version
“Sanctified” live on the Hate ’90 tour
“Sanctified” live on the Dissonance tour, 1995
“Sanctified” live from the Night of Nothing, 1996
“Sanctified”, remastered 2010 with no “Midnight Express” monologue
“Sanctified” alternate mix from Rock Band 3
“Sanctified” live from Fuji Rock, Japan, 2013
“Sanctified” live from Los Angeles, 2013

Characterized in latter-day NIN lyrics as an unending struggle to the death, a man-versus-himself conflict that persists throughout all possible changes in outward circumstances, Trent Reznor’s real-life struggle with addiction would come to define the thematic bulk of his songwriting catalogue. There are many recurring conflicts explored throughout the NIN song canon, but the deathly allure of addiction vs. a life of clarity is without doubt the most tortured out of all the recurring tropes: of ego vs. godhead, sex vs. virtue, individual vs. authority, vitality & presence vs. decay & obscurity/irrelevance, the battle with addiction surely stands out even if only for its deeply dramatic arc. Through the evasive yet thinly-veiled metaphor of a personal relationship, Reznor enacts the struggle against his inner demon (generally personified as a female entity) that all but devours after seducing its fragile male ego counterpart.

The album version of “Sanctified” opens with a pair of arpeggiated synth chords forming a noodly melodic introduction, courtesy of Reznor’s EMAX keyboard (all of Reznor’s synth patches on Pretty Hate Machine originated either on this strange piece of gear, a Moog Prodigy or a Prophet Vs, as it was only those, and a Macintosh Plus computer sequencer called Performer controlling an Oberheim Xpander that were yet in Reznor’s fledgling toolkit). Early live performances dropped this keyboard line in favour of noodly guitar improvisation, which certainly suited the more aggressive nature of the live shows, but there remains something very charming about the more mysterious, alluring album intro. It is ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme, with its otherworldly, “exotic” modality, and ending on a dreamy upward pitch bend. Reznor took his musical education from a Western tradition that casts major and minor keys as poles-apart points on an emotional spectrum, and treats any composition with a sense of belonging outside of those modes as emotionally ambiguous. Such it is with “Sanctified” and many subsequent NIN tracks, their droning pedal-point harmony based on a single unchanging root note.

In the album version’s middle section, there is another keyboard solo that mirrors the feminized Vox Humana synth from the introduction in a distinctly lower, male register. With the sparse harmony and reverberant (almost ecclesiastical) texture, this bridge melody to my mind always evoked plainsong or some other form of ritualized Medieval chant, slightly sinister given the song’s dark context. The sense of dreadful ceremony is enhanced with the use of a barely distinguishable monologue sampled from the film Midnight Express. It turns out that this movie has several NIN connections: its director Alan Parker also helmed the cinematic adaptation of Reznor’s early favourite The Wall and screenwriter Oliver Stone later turned in a treatise on media sensationalization called Natural Born Killers soundtracked with a heavy dose of NIN’s music. Unfortunately, probably for copyright restrictions, the 2010 remastered version of Pretty Hate Machine expunged this sample from the mix (which leads to some confusion as to the source for the remaster, see this review at the NIN Hotline for some suppositions on my part about that).

During many live versions Reznor improvised vocal melodies over top of the bridge section, and in the 1996 “Night of Nothing” showcase at Irving Plaza in New York City he added the lyric “please God, save me”, repeated over and over. On the earliest existing video of “Sanctified”, a live performance taken from the 1988 Skinny Puppy tour (see the previous entry on “Down In It” for verification; it is not from 1989, as the video caption states), Reznor’s percussive electric guitar strumming closely matches the album take, only with a slightly beefed-up tone. This approach was later discarded, as soon-to-be-hired “pro” guitar players like Richard Patrick and Robin Finck would bring their own gear into live band rehearsals, thus adding a different flavour to the arrangement by using largely atonal, droning slides and bends. There is even evidence that Reznor tried to put this kind of texture into the album cut, but at the last minute kept mostly his own original work in the final mix (Patrick is credited with “drone guitar” on the ending of the piece, which blends into the background synth wash, rather than contributing any of the trippy solos that he, Finck, and later in 1996 Kevin McMahon would perform onstage to introduce the first verse).

By way of contrast to most other guitar players, Reznor uses the guitar primarily as a percussive instrument in arranging his music. His melodic capabilities on string instruments (pushed to their absolute limits on The Fragile, which is not saying much considering that a fan was able to tab out charts for the entire album that were posted on The NIN Hotline less than two months after its release date) were admittedly not that great, but his command of right-handed strumming technique, and precise manipulation of the instrument’s natural noise with stomp pedals and electronic processing remains a characteristic sound of his to the present day. Those stylistic elements are all here, on a track as early as “Sanctified”, present at the very beginning of NIN’s career.

One of Trent’s key influences in the making of Pretty Hate Machine was Gary Numan, and nowhere better than here is the early synth-pop star’s influence felt, as well as (on earlier iterations of the song) that of Depeche Mode. A cursory comparison of those two artists’ most immediately contemporary work would indicate that Reznor was listening very closely indeed. In a strange loop of mutual influence, Numan turned the plaintive refrain of “Sanctified” into an anthemic, heavy chorus (“Purified, sanctified, sacrificed/This is what you are”) for the title track on his album Pure. It’s no mere coincidence, either, as Numan calls NIN “the best band in the world“. Not a bad endorsement, for what started as the project of an American studio engineer originally trying to replicate the paranoid grooves from Telekon using just his computer and a couple of keyboards.

UPDATE: In 2013, NIN opened its first live show in four years at the outdoor Fuji Rock festival in Japan (mid-torrential downpour) by performing a brand new song followed immediately and quite unexpectedly by a radically reworked arrangement of “Sanctified”. This 2013 re-arrangement closely meshed with the feel of new material debuted from the as-yet unreleased Hesitation Marks album, tossing the rulebook out the window for latter-day NIN performing older material; its closest precedent is Reznor’s 2006 stripped-down live radio sessions with Peter Murphy, which radically transformed the canonical arrangements of songs even moreso than NIN’s Still recordings or the low-key all-acoustic Bridge School benefit performances Reznor also gave in 2006. Newly-added live band member and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Eustis (best known from bands Puscifer and Telefon Tel Aviv) added an electric bassline throughout that brings a much more vulnerable, human feel to the track against the icy electronic sequencers and synths. It works extremely well, particularly the manual delay effects, which Reznor uses to echo his ascending melodic vocal (recycled from, of all things, “Discipline” off of The Slip).

Later on in the tour, during the Tension 2013 arena leg, the band expanded again with the addition of dedicated bass player Pino Palladino (a thirty-plus years veteran of the music industry with an amazing resume) and backing singers Sharlotte Gibson & Lisa Fischer. Midway through this jaunt, the re-arranged “Sanctified” reappeared, with Palladino revamping and embellishing the bass part (as he did for all of the songs during this tour) and the additional singers joining in on the chorus and outro refrains, further strengthening the “unholy” gospel feel. It also interpolates the synthesizer solo melody from “Sunspots” off [i]With Teeth[/i], just for added fanatical trainspotter satisfaction.

Down In It

This is the first in what I hope to be an extended series of in-depth analyses of Nine Inch Nails songs. Today’s announcement of upcoming dates for NIN’s first full North American arena tour since 2008 and the release of NIN’s fantastic new single “Came Back Haunted” prompted me to finish this first one off and release it for you all. Enjoy!

“Dig It” by Skinny Puppy
“Down In It (Demo)” from Head Like a Hole maxi-single
“Down In It” unreleased demo (from Purest Feeling bootleg)
“Down In It” unreleased demo (‘Big Whole Mix’ from Demos & Remixes bootleg)
“Down In It” unreleased demo version 3
“Down In It” (official music video)
“Down In It” police investigation segment on Hard Copy
“Down In It (Singe)” remix from single
“Down In It (Shred)” alternate music video
“Down In It” performance on Dance Party USA
“Down In It” live from Woodstock ’94
“Down In It” live montage from Closure: Self Destruct
“Down In It” live from Dissonance tour, 1995
“Down In It” live from ‘Nights of Nothing’, 1996
“Down In It” live in Europe, 2000
“Down In It” live in Buenos Aires, 2008

Introduced by Trent Reznor onstage in Summer 2000 simply as “the very first song we ever did”, this is ground zero for what would become the international phenomenon of Nine Inch Nails. Reznor prepared several iterations of the song as demos, working on his own, before recording a live-off-the-floor rehearsal tape in 1988 at Right Track Studios in Cleveland, where he was employed. That whole performance emerged on bootleg CDs under the name Purest Feeling after NIN became famous, but the earlier solo demos, perhaps designed to be ear-catching enough to attract a record label deal, are quite different from the Purest Feeling arrangement — which is likely close to how NIN performed it onstage in its earliest shows with Reznor on guitar, Chris Vrenna on keyboards and sampler, and Ron Musarra on drums. This lineup toured in October and November of 1988 opening for Skinny Puppy, according to research compiled by the excellent NIN Hotline historian.

While often compared (and sometimes accused of being, to put it charitably, artistically indebted) to Skinny Puppy’s song “Dig It”, the earlier unreleased versions of the song prove that Reznor tried many approaches before hitting on the aggressive Skinny Puppy-like style that would become part of NIN’s trademark sound. These early shows as the opening band to his idols were Reznor’s first fumbling attempts to put NIN on its own feet and make a serious foray into creating music that would stand up alongside that of his peers. Clearly, NIN was a little out of its depth, with only Reznor’s limited guitar ability carrying the “rock” component of the show while Vrenna stood onstage directly in front of the tape machine playing back the pre-recorded sequenced elements, which consistently locked Nine Inch Nails together into its unique groove as a live band.

Compared to this bizarre, dark Depeche Mode-esque spectacle, the song (positioned as the last track on the Purest Feeling set) would soon evolve into something almost unrecognizable. The officially-released demo from the “Head Like a Hole” maxi-single is essentially indistinguishable from the final product on Pretty Hate Machine, except for a few added synthesizer patches, and stuttering vocal loops thrown in (probably by co-producers Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc) for added texture. Yet it is the missing link between the bedroom demos of a guy using a sampler to set his diary entries to music, and the bombastic stage shows that would follow in the twenty years beyond.

As it is ostensibly ripped from Reznor’s own diary entries, like many of the songs on Pretty Hate Machine, the song seems perversely blunt in presenting a self-assessment of its protagonist’s mental state. The first verse, with the clipped cadence of a slurred rap, is occasionally derided from some quarters as being embarrassingly juvenile. From these humble beginnings, however, all the way through the very latest NIN release (“Came Back Haunted“), Reznor’s song lyrics consistently address the allure and threat of addictive narcotics through veiled metaphor.

The second verse enters in medias res as the lead vocal interrupts the last line of the chorus with “shut up!” This imperative is not directed at a particular target. It may possibly be a reference to David Bowie’s manic, tortured plea against Robert Fripp’s wailing guitar over the ending of “It’s No Game Part 1” from the opening of Scary Monsters (which Reznor later sampled, backwards and pitched-up, for “Pinion”). This verse dramatizes an argument, but the source of the conflict is persistently ambiguous; it may be either external or internal. Who, or what, is “she”? Is it the same as “you”? Could it be the allure of addiction, which threatens to lead many a NIN song protagonist into their own downward spiral?

The “Down In It” music video, directed by Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes, does little to illuminate its protagonist’s plight. He appears to be in an anguished state, pursued by two darkly-clad tormentors (actually Vrenna and newly-added live guitarist Richard Patrick). Having reached the top of an abandoned building, the camera pursues him over the edge. Along with the grainy 8mm cinematography, the deathly-pale pallor on Reznor’s face added to the illusion of realism in his fallen state (the limbs-akimbo pose said to be a deliberate re-creation of Bowie’s Lodger album cover). Amusingly, the kamikaze attempts at aerial photography ended in a bizarre police investigation (into whether this film was actually documenting a real murder) as a result of unmoored cameras floating away by balloon into unsuspecting quarters.

This attempt to blur the line between fantasy music video and ‘snuff’ documentary would rear its head again with NIN’s infamous Broken movie, but here it extends merely to the cinéma vérité camera work and Reznor’s makeup application in the video, which actually amounted to little more than some corn starch. That choice may also have started what would soon become a recurring pre-show ritual, whereby the band members doused themselves head-to-toe in corn starch as a tactic to make their mostly-black outfits pop under stage lighting (later becoming slimy and corpse-like with the copious addition of sweat and bottled water doused on top, before melting away completely: two complete costume changes built into the act without anyone needing to leave the stage). This became a fixture of the Nine Inch Nails tour rider through the Fragility era, which specifically requested two boxes of the starch be present in the backstage area at every show. Apparently, they had tried to use flour on previous tours as a backup substitute, but it turned to ‘pancake batter’ under the heat.

The “Down In It” single, packaged with a number of remixes, duly received the catalogue number Halo 01, and was performed at just about every subsequent tour from 1989 until 2009. During the Self Destruct tour era from 1994 to 1995, this song became a moment of choreographed chaos, an excuse for Reznor to ‘go ape’ and smash just about everything in his path onstage. It is one of the few aggressive songs that survived the cull after that tour and remained in the re-imagined set that the band performed during its co-headlining tour with David Bowie, Dissonance. It was last aired in the four-piece configuration of NIN during its Wave Goodbye shows in 2009; no word yet if it will make it to the 2013 Tension set-list. My bets are on “yes”.