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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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”.