NIN’s ongoing gambit of sample-collage as a technique for arranging pop songs was the key to its divergence from hardcore industrial music, and eventually removed all barriers from a mass audience’s acceptance: only when armed with the repetitious “hook” of an easily-understood rhyming lyric, or a bright and colourful lead melody, or a funky rhythmic dance groove – really, any trope recognizable to a straightforward pop music audience – does Reznor juxtapose layer upon layer of non-melodic noise over his songs. From the somewhat ham-fisted Purest Feeling demo tracks’ usage of randomly-tuned TV voices (perhaps in emulation of Pink Floyd’s similar background hotel noises on The Wall), to the epic found-sound extravaganza of The Fragile and, later, the laptop-birthed brutalism of Year Zero, NIN always props up its noise-constructivist approach to music composition with a catchy, inviting pop melody or beat. On “Kinda I Want To”, NIN would temper the unabashedly sweet aftertaste of Reznor’s songwriting with a harsher, noisier element of chaos.
There were precedents for this in contemporary American popular music. Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad (name-dropped by Reznor as conscious sources of inspiration for the soundscape of Year Zero), particularly their production work on the seminal 1988 Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had used a similar approach to creating noisy grooves and hooks as a base for rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav, so that their lyrical messages calling the masses to revolutionary arms would have an undeniably strong foundation of powerful, gritty realism. Reznor credited Public Enemy, among others in the Pretty Hate Machine liner notes, for “ideas and sounds (with all due respect)” – but of all the names on this list, it is only in the case of Public Enemy that an ethos, rather than a specific noise or set of words, carried into the mix of influences. David Bowie and Brian Eno also sowed some early seeds in their collaborative musical efforts to ruthlessly refashion the sound sources for rock music, starting with Iggy Pop’s 1977 LP The Idiot (which Reznor took as his source for the infamously filthy kick drum sample that opens “Closer”). Along with their Krautrock forebears – bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can – these landmark experiments eventually bore fruit in NIN’s radical transformation of the parameters for rock music as a mass-market musical art form.
The juxtaposition of noise and gloss carried all the way through to Pretty Hate Machine‘s title and artwork, acting almost as a manifesto for the fledgling NIN; designer Gary Talpas slathered a “pretty” layer of neon-bright colours (not to mention that eye-catching symmetrical band logo) atop a distorted, ugly image of machinery, suggesting a beating human heart with all its repressed hatred running underneath. The 1988 versions of “Kinda I Want To” don’t quite get the aggression component right, with an acoustic guitar sticking out from under the chorus hook and Trent’s lower-key approach to lead vocals making the overall result just a little more sultry than Satanic. The original demos also had a different middle bridge section, with an echoed refrain of “why does it have to be this way?” This part put yet another hook on top of an already-sugary pile of catchy pop sweetness, gilding the lily somewhat. However, the ambiguous final line “I’ll take my chance tonight” (included in the album’s liner notes, but only sung in the earlier versions) ends the piece on a slightly uneasy note, neatly suiting the lyrical theme of a flirtation with moral disaster.
By stripping some of the pop gloss away, and introducing the Bomb Squad’s rhythmic approach of disparate loops, Reznor almost completely transformed the song. A swirling, stereo-panned loop of synthesized growls joined by an indiscernible vocal sample – later appropriated by Peter Christopherson of Coil in the interstitial art videos he created for NIN’s first “home video” release, Closure – served as an ominous introduction. On the original vinyl release, this was also the first noise one would hear on playing side two of the Pretty Hate Machine LP, although this placement was revised in the two-disc 2010 remastered vinyl version. Nowhere in the subsequently unfolding track (with its tried-and-true pop structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, contrasting middle section, verse, and final chorus, repeatedly building to a climactic ending) does this sparse-sounding opening motif return, until the very final moments – the opening vocal sample once again breaks through the densely layered mix, and it cross-fades into the following track, “Sin”. The layers of cross-cutting samples create a violently noisy texture, stubbornly refusing to still into a natural sound-stage of instrumentation across the stereo picture. The effect on headphones is somewhat disorienting and claustrophobic.
Other production choices, like the spiraling delay effects on Reznor’s lead vocals, only add to the chaos – a barely-discernible loop of “Down In It” even makes a subliminal reprise, just past two minutes into the song, panning back and forth from left to right over the abrasive guitar solo. These revisions to the template established by Reznor’s early demos, particularly the shift to a percussive loop-based foundation for groove (rather than the sequencer-and-live-drums pattern slavishly followed on Purest Feeling), not to mention a much more aggressive guitar sound, helped establish NIN as something far more interesting than mere synth-pop. Pretty Hate Machine was an altogether compelling, bizarre, and unfamiliar gesture in the American pop music landscape circa 1989. Reznor’s record label at the time hated it, and thought that the record was dead on arrival. Label head Steve Gottleib, his hopes for the slick and straightforward pop record Reznor had demonstrated capable of producing utterly dashed, called Pretty Hate Machine “an abortion” when he heard the finished product. This was a man who had made his bones in the music business by repackaging TV jingles on compilation albums, and Pretty Hate Machine was a million miles from that enterprise – but it eventually proved its commercial viability by touching a nerve in the American public consciousness.
NIN played “Kinda I Want To” in its live shows from 1988 to 1989, but dropped the song prior to Hate ’90, its first headlining tour; it has never re-appeared on setlists since then. Live band drummer Jerome Dillon put the kibosh on any chance of a modern-day NIN reviving it in a 2005 online chat with fans, though he was perhaps being tongue-in-cheek about its unsuitability for modern rock audiences’ tastes. Much has changed since then, however, and the song’s vastly underestimated lyrical sincerity, vulnerability and emotional nakedness, combined with its harsh musical bluster, would be an interesting starting point for revitalization in 2013.