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.

Advertisements

Sanctified

“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”.