The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails destroyed the rock world while building a mystery.
I was 10 years old when Pretty Hate Machine came out. The year was 1989. The top songs of the year were Look Away by Chicago, My Prerogative by Bobby Brown, Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison, and Straight Up by Paula Abdul. I don't hate all that music, but I wouldn't try and convince anyone that these songs held up as being cool or critically important. You'd have to get down the chart to number 58 with Tears for Fears Sowing the Seeds of Love before I'd start making a serious argument. Love Song by The Cure comes in at 68. Guns N' Roses was probably the biggest band in the world between Appetite for Destruction and G N' R Lies, but I'll get to them in a minute. It's important to note the world that Nine Inch Nails was invading in 1989 with their underground album recorded in off times at a Cleveland recording studio where Trent Reznor worked.
As decades end and new ones begin, there's a grey area in music. Some of those late 80s bands still sound like 1984, and some sound the way 1992 ultimately would. 10,000 Maniacs released Blind Man's Zoo in 1989, but they're definitely a 90s band when it's all said and done. Tesla releases The Great Radio Controversy, and all due respect, that band is distinctly an 80s band. The idea that music just follows the 10-year decade plan is largely a creation of fans and media, but it also seems like a clean, easy way to talk about music. Pretty Hate Machine is one of those albums that is almost a perfect blend of 80s and 90s. It has a lot of the dance-pop sensibility, but with a taste of the 90s angst, that's coming soon to a radio station near you.
I didn't own Pretty Hate Machine right away, because I was 10 and didn't know about it. It's also worth noting that in these pre-internet days almost nobody knew about debut albums until something happened and a single vaulted it into being noteworthy. Even Nirvana's Nevermind which went nuclear in 1991 took a few months. It was released in September, 14 days after "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but it took three or four months for it to really explode. Pretty Hate Machine was released in October of 1989. It didn't achieve gold status of 500,000 copies until March 1992.
Anyway, somewhere around 1991, my friends were listening to this band called "Nine Inch Nails," and I couldn't bear the thought of not being in on this. So, at some point, I bought the tape and listened to it on my lengthy school bus rides in far suburban Cleveland.
It would be far cooler if I told you that I loved this record and that I could see all Trent Reznor's genius trying to burst through, but I'd be lying. I loved "Head Like a Hole," and liked the rest of it just o.k. But the kids I respected at school for their music tastes loved it, so I nodded my head like I was in on it. I wasn't really, at least not yet.
I was coming off of the end of the glam band era. I had graduated from Bon Jovi's New Jersey and Poison's "Open up and say Ah..." to the grittier, more dangerous Guns N' Roses. As good as "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" was in the moment, and no matter how high Jon Bon Jovi could scream on "I'll be There For You," it's all just in vain, once you discover GNR.
As an aside, and I know I'm a broken record on this, but I don't really believe in guilty pleasures. I have pleasures and I won't feel guilty about them. I'm too old to feel guilty for musical pleasure. That said, I legitimately no longer like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." I'd turn it off if it was on the radio. However, I would never turn off the Bon Jovi harmonies with Richie Sambora, even to this day.
Skipping back to Guns N' Roses.
For me, Guns N' Roses is an important band to this story, even though we're talking about Nine Inch Nails. What drew me to Nine Inch Nails was the dangerous name and the mysterious frontman. My thirst for dangerous bands started with Guns N' Roses.
That was a band that oozed danger. Their lead singer was named Axl and their guitarist was named Slash. Slash never seemed to show his eyes behind a hat and a cigarette. They seemed to be deathly allergic to wearing shirts. Appetite for Destruction had a dangerous-looking album cover with five skeletal depictions of the band members. The artwork inside the album was even crazier featuring violence and nudity that would have titillated any young kid, you know if they could sneak it by their parents. Guns N' Roses created a thirst for this type of danger in music for me and millions of others out there.
That danger radar went off when I heard the band name Nine Inch Nails for the first time.
As it turned out, Nine Inch Nails opened up for Guns N' Roses in 1991 on the Illusion tour.
It didn't go well.
In an interview with Q Magazine, Trent Reznor recounted the tour, saying...
"It was only a couple of shows and they were some of the worst performances we ever had in front of the most hostile, moronic audiences I've ever experienced."
"They were there to rock. What they didn't want was some homo-looking dudes playing noisy synths and they made that very clear to us."
That seems about right as a story-telling device. There was no feud between GNR and Nine Inch Nails. They opened for GNR because Axl loved the band. It's a tale as old as the modern music industry that mutual artistic respect doesn't necessarily jive with fans buying it. I didn't see this situation personally, but I do have my own experiences with wild mismatches. Flaming Lips opened for Tool in 1994 at Nautica, and even in those early years, Tool fans were a bit hostile. At the old Richfield Coliseum, also in 1994, my friends and I saw Rush fans bitch up a storm about Primus opening with their too-weird-to-be prog rock.
We didn't know it then, but Guns N' Roses would be winding down for a very long and acrimonious break after the Illusions albums. Their band and the genre of rock they helped to redefine would soon be on the way out. Nine Inch Nails was a part of the future as we would come to find out, but not until the albums started to catch up to what the band had become as a live experience.
Those live shows portrayed a very different band than the one I heard on that cassette tape. Where the album had clean lines and glossy production, the live shows were gritty, loud, and chaotic. Pretty Hate Machine sounds like it could be played in any dance club. Pretty Hate Machine Live would scare the living shit out of the type of person who would go to a dance club.
No song proves it more than Terrible Lie. The album version of that song features a subtle almost-spoken word voice saying "Hey God." But check out a live version from the 90s and you'll see a menacing Trent Reznor convulsing over a mic stand gripping it like your parents white-knuckled in the passenger seat of the car when you were learning to drive. When the "Hey God" part comes up, the lights could concuss you as the band screams the part behind a menacing Trent Reznor.
The band that everyone saw at Lollapalooza 1991 was very different than the one on all those CDs and cassette tapes. The synth dance sounds were still there, but they were supplemented with live vocals and dynamics that made it feel like a much more organic thing.
I know it's laughable to call Nine Inch Nails organic-sounding, but that's the line I think they straddle when they're at their best. Yes, there are all kinds of electronic bleeps and bloops, but there's also a mix of warm colors. For those who are old enough to remember, I think of Pretty Hate Machine as having a sheen on it like old episodes of Happy Days. The best version of Nine Inch Nails that appeared later had a warmer, more organic production feel kind of like Three's Company episodes. No, I'm not talking about the tone of Jack, Janet, and Crissy's dialogue, just how the camera captured the scenes.
Until right this second I had no idea that I was going to be comparing a Nine Inch Nails album to Three's Company, but that's what I did, so I'm going to go with it. That's right, folks. We're discussing Nine Inch Nails' 1994 album The Downward Spiral. For this week, it is The Album of Record.
Further Down the Spiral
In life, there are concerts you miss and concerts you hit. Some of the concerts you hit feel like misses, but most of them are somewhere in between. What the hell am I talking about?
I went with my friend Isaac to see Nine Inch Nails on their Further Down the Spiral tour in January of 1995 in the CSU Convocation Center. It's now called the Wolstein Center, but it's the basketball arena on the campus of Cleveland State University. Just a few months earlier the band played a much smaller outdoor venue called Nautica in the party area near the river in Cleveland called The Flats. I missed that show and wished I hadn't. Let's just say Cleveland in August outdoors is preferable to Cleveland in January anywhere. Those are the breaks.
Nine Inch Nails was rolling into town with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and a little-known band called Pop Will Eat Itself. We had a bigger group of people drive down together, and Isaac and I had two tickets away from everyone else. We got inside the arena and soon split up, but I'll get back to this later. This is called foreshadowing.
Jim Rose Circus
If you don't remember the Jim Rose Circus, just know that it freaked everyone out on Lollapalooza. It featured performers like Lizardman, who was completely tattooed and had split his tongue down the middle so that it looked like a snake. And don't forget the Amazing Mister Lifto who would hang heavy objects like cinder blocks from his nipple piercings and his junk. You might think that a "genital lift" is some kind of Hollywood procedure that old rich people get for their saggy balls, but no. It's a stunt where a dude straps heavy weights to his junk. How else would you warm up a crowd that wants nothing more than to see Nine Inch Nails?
Isaac and I were 15 and sitting in the second to last row as far away from the action as you could be for all practical purposes. It was an awesome spectacle to see Jim Rose's Circus, but I think we were pretty happy to be really far away for that.
Pop Will Eat Itself
Next up was a British band called Pop Will Eat Itself. It was a fun set and I fell in love with a song called Ich Bin Ein Auslander which is German for "I'm a foreigner." I bought the record later that week and then regretted it mostly, but that's kind of the point. As it turns out, Pop Will Eat Itself was signed to Trent Reznor's new label Nothing Records.
In 1992, as part of acrimonious dealings with his first record company, TVT Records, Trent Reznor was quote - slave traded - to Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records. Despite his hesitancy, Trent Reznor found a nice home at Interscope and they even gave him his own sub-label underneath the Interscope umbrella. Technically, Reznor founded Nothing Records with then-manager John Malm Jr.
Fast-forward to 2004 and things didn't end all that well. Malm sued Reznor for $2 million in deferred commissions. In the suit, Malm says Reznor "reneged on every single contract he and Malm ever entered into." Ouch. Reznor countersued accusing Malm of signing him to a management contract that was unlawful and immoral because it gave Malm 20% of his gross earnings rather than his net earnings. For those who are confused by that last sentence, the IRS taxes you on your gross earnings. You pay your mortgage and credit card bills with your net earnings.
The MTV News Headline from May of 2004? "Ex-manager says Trent Reznor Stabbed Him in the Back "with a nine inch nail."
"Trent Reznor's complete lack of loyalty and integrity is astounding," Malm said in a statement. "After 20 years of my professional and personal friendship and support, through some of his darkest hours and at great expense to me, he has decided that everyone in the world is to blame for his problems except himself. It's time for him to take some responsibility for his actions."
It keeps going talking about how Reznor's excessive personal spending and refusal to release an album and tour caused him to run out of money, but none of that is important. The only way lawsuits like this can take place is if there was a success. People don't argue about splitting up small amounts of money, right?
In addition to Pop Will Eat Itself, Nothing had dealings with Marilyn Manson, and Reznor's soundtrack work from movies like Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway, among other things. But Reznor's power to sign bands and take them on tour was on full display that night in Cleveland.
After Pop Will Eat Itself was finished, the lights went down and the crowd was greeted with the impossibly loud and gritty opening notes of Pinion from the Broken EP. As the song slowed down to a crawl, bright flashing lights back-lit the stage where a huge somewhat see-through curtain was obscuring everything but the shadows of the performers coming on stage. Finally, like a rock god, Trent Reznor's shadow appears center stage.
This part might be weird to talk about now, but remember I was 15 years old and a freshman in high school. I had this weird iconic hero-worship thing going for Trent Reznor at the time. In my world, he was like a goth-star James Bond where boys wanted to be him and girls wanted to make out with him.
I was an awkward not-quite-jock and not-quite cool enough to be part of the scene. But the girls I loved most at that time of my life dyed their hair black and wore cute little choker necklaces to go along with their Doc Martens. For those of you who are old enough to remember, think Neve Campbell in Wild Things. Or Fairuza Balk in The Craft. And the girls I knew from school who wore clothes like that were obsessed with Trent Reznor as a sex symbol.
I have never been much for hero worship, and I wouldn't say that Trent Reznor was my hero or anything like that. But have you ever had this feeling at a rock concert or at a sporting event or something? That guy. He's actually right there on that stage. He's in my hometown. I had that weird feeling a few years ago with Chvrches too when Lauren Mayberry walked onstage. It wasn't like a creepy thing because I'm no longer 15 and amped up to 11 with puberty, but it was a kind of starstruckedness. I just kept thinking, "There she is. The woman who sings all the beautiful songs. She's right there!"
My wife and I went to see Taylor Swift a few years back and all the screaming girls? That's why they're screaming, I think, but that's what happened when the curtain finally dropped and Trent Reznor and his bandmates appeared to pound everyone over the head with Mr. Self Destruct.
Next up was Sin from Pretty Hate Machine, but I can't spend even a minute talking about it because of what they played next.
March of the Pigs
Trent Reznor screamed something at the audience and all of a sudden the spastic drum beat of March of the Pigs was enveloping the entire arena. Whenever the lights would get bright enough you could see that the entire floor of the arena had turned into mayhem. From front to back and side to side it was one gigantic mosh pit. It looked like the computer-generated zombies from World War Z all crawling on top of each other as if the stage was the wall they needed to get over.
That song is great, but the real genius was played out on that tour on nights like the one I saw. From the frenzy, the song descends into an anti-chorus with Trent Reznor leading the crowd in a "doesn't it make you feel better." Pause. Pause. Cheering. And then the drums come right back in and ignite the mosh pit once again. It's like when you're driving in a thunderstorm and it's loud with the rain pouring down your windshield and then you go under a bridge and for that split second the chaos is gone only to reappear as you get one inch back into the rain. That's March of the Pigs live.
After that, Nine Inch Nails broke into the other pig song, Piggy. It's a haunting, jaunty song. Part of the mystique of The Downward Spiral was that Trent Reznor recorded it in a pretty famous house. It was the Sharon Tate mansion where Charles Manson's "family" killed Tate and several other people in August of 1969. Manson scrawled the word "pig" on the front door in blood. Articles and talk about the band didn't have a hard time noticing that there were two "pig" songs on The Downward Spiral with March of the Pigs and Piggy. As it turns out, these songs really didn't have anything to do with the Tate murders.
Reznor claims that they looked at many houses to record the album in and he only found out it was the Manson murder house much later. Richard Patrick, who was a Nine Inch Nails guitarist and ultimately left the band to found Filter is so vain he thinks the song is about him. And it could be.
Patrick left the band during the recording of The Downward Spiral. Patrick tells his story in a 2013 interview with Intravenous Magazine.
"One evening the day before some studio time with Trent I took a girlfriend to a Skinny Puppy gig. I was watching the soundcheck and Ogre was on the mic shouting "WHITE PIGGY" over and over, I found it really funny. When I got back to the studio and we were setting up, I keep doing an impersonation of Ogre and after a few minutes Trent shouted to me "Hey Piggy, shut up and play some chords man!", and the name stuck after that".
Now, whoever the song is about, it's not flattering.
In the first verse:
Black and blue and broken bones you left me here I'm all alone
My little piggy needed something new
In the second verse:
Hey pig there's a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand
What am I supposed to do I lost my shit because of you
To this day, Reptile might be my favorite song on The Downward Spiral. Prior to seeing them play it live, it hadn't really made a mark. Only after seeing and hearing it live did I get the full appreciation for what a powerful foot-stomping song it is. It's also the longest song on the album. For comparison's sake, the NIN wiki says "Reptile" has a slower tempo of 64 beats per minute. This is like a song's miles per hour speed, except measured in beats per minute.
Outkast's amazing "Hey Ya!" is 159 beats per minute.
Ice Ice Baby is 116 beats per minute.
Enter Sandman by Metallica is 123.
March of the Pigs? 269 (nice.)
Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You is 68 beats per minute.
Reptile in all its deliberate heaviness comes in four beats per minute slower than I Will Always Love You.
In addition to the speed, the sounds are remarkable, especially live. There's a loud horn-sounding note that hits two tones throughout the song. It sounds kind of like Godzilla trying to sing. It's the noise right after Trent sings "Give it."
Not a lot of uplift here in the NIN catalog. The chorus for Reptile?
Oh my beautiful liar
Oh my previous whore
My disease my infection
I am so impure
Not sure how that would go over today if he were writing it fresh and new, but let's not go down that road. This was a time and place. It happened. I loved this song for all the sonic reasons and the shock value of the lyrics probably helped, but I don't want to judge myself or Trent Reznor for lyrics from over 25 years ago, ya know?
To say Isaac and I enjoyed the show would be the understatement of a lifetime, but it almost got ruined after the show. Remember how I told you that he and I were separated from the friends we went with to the show? Well, turns out that their seats to the side of the stage ended up being an obstructed view thanks to the large stage rigging that NIN brought on tour with them.
So, when they arrived at their seats, there were some security guards there checking tickets and handing out bracelets for the pit. Not only did we have the worst seats in the house and our friends had much better seats, they ended up getting the very best seats possible for a bunch of teenagers. They got to spend the entire night moshing 10-20 feet away from Trent Reznor and the rest of Nine Inch Nails.
Ultimately, their good fortune didn’t have any impact on our reality, but the jealousy I felt almost destroyed me. I had post-FOMO-syndrome in the worst way, but I would just have to get over it, wouldn’t I?
In the end, I can say I saw NIN in the Downward Spiral era. I can say I saw the band at their most mysterious and dangerous as they were taking over the music world. Sure, I wasn’t at one of the shows where they were too weird and the audience showered them in beer bottles. I heard tons of stories like that from Bostonians who claimed to have been there when NIN played The Rat in Kenmore Square and were booed out of the place.
Regardless, this was one of the most pleasant trips down memory lane so far. When I think of the friendships, the excitement to see the band, replete with the pit in my stomach in anticipation, the electricity of the lights going down, the late-night trip to eat crappy food at Denny’s on the way home. The cute girls who were with us and talking to us seemingly for no other reason than we liked the right band…
Just all of it.
P.S. Closer and Hurt
I can’t finish an essay about The Downward Spiral without discussing these two songs. I don’t have a lot to say about them, to be honest, but they need attention. So, let me give you my bar room philosophy on these two. The kids might call these hot takes, but I say all this stuff out of love.
I thought I was too cool for Closer when it became a big hit. It was the biggest hit of the album and probably the biggest hit of the band’s career, certainly to that point. It’s a fine song, but it ended up being blown up due to the lyrics, “I want to fuck you like an animal.” For me in that moment of time, I wasn’t shocked by these lyrics. At the ripe age of 15, I was already getting experimental with harder death metal bands. It wouldn’t be long until my obsession with the band Acid Bath would begin. They’ll get an essay. But I was living in a world where I knew that Cannibal Corpse existed. I won’t quote the song titles here, but if you feel like being shocked for real, go check out the tracklisting for The Bleeding by Cannibal Corpse. Suffice to say I wasn’t shocked by the lyrics or video for Closer. I’m not saying I’m “right.” I’m just telling you who I was as a snotty teenager.
Anyway, I think Closer is a good song, but once you get past the curse words, it’s no Reptile or March of the Pigs or Hurt.
Speaking of which, Hurt is one of the most incredible songs I’ve ever heard in my life. Seeing it performed live is among the musical highlights of my life. I would love to be able to parachute back to that moment in time and relive it over and over. Just check out the video of it live from 1995 with all the imagery. The snake was insane live by the way. So what’s the hot take? O.K. here we go.
I don’t like the Johnny Cash version. The video was heartbreaking and it’s effective at being incredibly moving as a total package, but musically, I’m not here for it. I prefer the original with Trent Reznor. In many ways, I think the song has changed hands in the eyes of many, and it’s dumb, but it kind of ruined it for me. I’ve never been a fan of Johnny Cash anyway, so the idea that he’s the one who took ownership of the song bugs me. It’s all just no longer for me.
No matter how refined I get as a music fan and critic, I can sometimes still let the petty shine right through. When it comes to Hurt, I’m a bit precious and petty about the NIN version being the one of note.
This was one of the most rewarding essays so far just because the revisiting of these songs was so rich for me. I hope when you toss it on next, you don’t let it just sit in the background, but you allow it to drag you down memory lane wherever it takes you.
For me, I go back to that live show with Isaac and all the feelings I had as a teenager trying on different personalities and experiencing new things on the way to becoming something resembling the adult who still exists today.
As we head into Thanksgiving this week, I just wanted to take a minute to thank everyone for subscribing and reading. Thanks to all those who’ve sent me notes and feedback. This is a very personal project and when I get notes and messages from you about your personal memories, it means the world to me.
I’m going to take next week off, I think, so don’t expect anything on Black Friday. Thankfully, my family will be traveling for Thanksgiving so we can see some folks we haven’t seen in far too long.
I hope you have an awesome holiday and I’ll be back soon with more of my bullshit.
Good stuff. This really encapsulates what the experience was like discovering Nine Inch Nails in the early 90s before Closer made them a cool band. Nine Inch Nails were terrifying in all of the best ways. I loved everything about this band. Still do.
As for PHM, it's funny. My first NIN purchase not PHM, but the Head Like a Hole maxi-single (remember when those were a thing?).
It had several version of Head Like A Hole, several versions of Terrible Lie, several versions of Down In It. I listened to it on repeat SO many times. I then bought Pretty Hate Machine, and like you, I didn't love it. It was so synth-y and poppy. Like you said, it was almost vibrant and bright. It was catchy. It had a sheen to it. I can't remember if I could hear the power of the songs that were buried under that gloss, but it didn't click with me. And I really think it's one of those things where you need to hear those songs live before you get it. Now I love PHM and can listen to it and hear the power of those songs underneath all the window dressing.
As for Downward Spiral....it's complicated. Of the pre-Ghosts albums, it's the one I've listened to the least I'm sure. Yes, this includes With Teeth and Year Zero. I was all in on the Broken EP, and I think I wanted more of that. I know I didn't immediately fall in love with Downward Spiral. I had the same reaction to Closer that you did. And yes, 14 year old me was really annoyed with all the popular kids in school suddenly singing the lyrics of one of my favorite bands in the halls of the school. The same band these kids used to make fun of. It annoyed me.
Today, I have grown to appreciate this album a LOT. I love how you can now hear all the pre-cursors to The Fragile (and gosh, if I was doing a column like this, that would be the album I would write about. I could do 10,000 words on The Fragile no problem), which is one of the most important albums in my life. I mean, songs like The Becoming and A Warm Place could fit in on The Fragile easily. It just took me a while to get to that point with the Downward Spiral. That's just how it works with music sometimes.
Oh, and finally, my favorite March of the Pigs thing.....the time signature. It's essentially a song in 7/8 with 4/4 sections mixed in. But if you want to get technical about it, it's in 29/8 time, which is just hilarious to think about. Again, it's an ultra-nerdy thing and it's even questionably true. Most people would just call it a 7/8 song. But I've always appreciated that aspect about that song. It's just so perfectly weird.