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”.