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.

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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.