“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.