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.

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.