Nine Inch Nails
produced a genre benchmark of sonic soundscapes with their second album. Tommy
Udo uncovers the story behind the album and what it all really meant.
decade on, you can listen to ‘The Downward Spiral’ and still discover things
that you never heard before. It’s almost as if the album has kept on growing
and changing, updating itself between plays. In this way it’s like a great
novel in that it creates its own world, a dark and complicated one like
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Melville’s Moby Dick or Kafka’s The
Trial. A visit there is an uncomfortable and disturbing experience. It will not
make you feel happy or comforted. Yet hidden in the shadows are great truths
about the creator of the work and about you, the reader or listener to the
‘Nevermind’ is the obvious choice on those critics lists for the
album-of-the-decade and I’m not about to dispute the greatness of that
particular album, but it’s already an album of its time, fixed forever in the
post-Gulf War early 90s and increasingly it sounds retro, inspiring waves of
nostalgia and visions of plaid shirts and smelly ripped Levis. ‘The Downward
Spiral’, though, is the thinking wo/man’s choice. It isn’t fixed in the same
timezone as its contemporaries; it sounds timeless, detached from its era.
Downward Spiral’ is not, properly speaking a ‘metal’ album, or even a ‘rock’
album. Its ancestors are the great statements of despair like Leonard Cohen’s
‘Songs From a Room’, David Bowie’s ‘Low’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or even Neil
Young’s ‘Tonight’s the Night’. The package itself – the gorgeous, enigmatic
paintings by Russell Mills on the cover, best known for his cover designs for
vaguely avant garde artists including Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Harold Budd and
Robert Fripp – was more evocative of cutting edge UK post punk innovators like
My Bloody Valentine.
Trent’s runaway success, the debut
‘Pretty Hate Machine’, recorded in ’89, was essentially an electronic work in
the manner of Gary Numan or Depeche Mode, with Reznor as the auteur creating
all the songs and sounds in the studio. An abrasive follow up, the ‘Broken’ EP
introduced distorted guitars and a hard rock sensibility. By the time he released
‘The Downward Spiral’ in ’94, the ‘mainstream’ of hard rock – under the
influence of everyone from RATM and Nirvana to post-‘black album’ Metallica –
was moving towards Trent Reznor rather than the other way around.
Reznor planned to move to New Orleans, a city that he had fallen in love with
while touring with ‘Pretty Hate Machine’, though after a properly deal fell
through he ended up moving to LA instead. He wanted a property where he could
set up a recording studio to work on his next album.
‘The Downward Spiral’ was one of the first
albums to be recorded entirely using state of the art digital technology
whereby sounds were recorded and stored on hard disc. They could then be
digitally altered – adding effects, reverb or taking such effects off and
cleaning the sound up where necessary – rather than just putting the band in
the studio, recording the instruments and mixing it together. As a pioneer of
the technology, there were no established rules. As Alan Moulder who mixed the
album told the Apple website: “I first got into the audio manipulation side
when working on ‘The Downward Spiral’ with Nine Inch Nails. Trent had a four-channel ProTools 2 set
up… I was so impressed with what he was doing that I bought the same set up as
I got back. Although he is considered more of an artist, I think Trent is an absolute genius producer. I
learned a lot from him.”
The beauty of digital record is that it can
really be done anywhere. The location Trent wanted had to be sufficiently
isolated but large enough to accommodate the gear and any collaborators like
producer Flood and his main collaborator/assistant drummer Chris Vrenna, whose
job was to sift through hundreds of videos for samples to be used on the album.
He found a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, a ranch style bungalow on Cielo Drive. It’s a beautiful, picturesque
location, set in the real super-rich Los Angeles populated by movie executives,
actresses and musicians. The house he rented at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills had had some famous tenants in the
past. Actress Candice Bergen had lived here in the late 60s with then boyfriend
Terry Melcher, a well known record producer and son of 50s icon of apple pie
American virginity Doris Day. After they moved out, the maverick Polish film
director Roman Polanski, flush with success after his Satanic horror classic
Rosemary’s Baby and his beautiful young wife actress Sharon Tate moved in.
One sultry night in August ’69 while the
heavily pregnant Sharon and her friends were turning in for the night, a group
of hippies broke in. One of them, a rangy giant Texan with an acid gleam in his
eye told them “I am the devil, here to do the devil’s work”. Charles ‘Tex’ Watson was accompanied by two
dead-eyed hippie girls and in the space of an hour Sharon watched as her friends Abagail
Folger, Jay Sebring and Voytek Frykowski were slaughtered in front of her. Then
they killed Sharon, ripping the unborn baby boy from her womb. She was alive to see this.
Then they wrote in her blood the words ‘Pig’ and ‘Healter Skelter’ (sic) on the
walls and on the door.
Trent had moved into the house made
famous by the Charles Manson murders.
“It’s a coincidence,” he told Rolling Stone at
the time. “When I found out what it was, it was even cooler. But it’s a cool
house anyway and on top of that has a very interesting story behind it. The
whole thing of living out here, I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t go on a
press campaign saying ‘I live in Sharon Tate’s house, - I’m really spooky’.”
The first night that he slept in the house he
admits that he was terrified, hearing noises everywhere, doors banging. It is a
quiet area, deceptively so for LA. As one of the killers said of her journey up
the hill to murder the inhabitants: “It was so quiet that you could hear the
rattle of an ice in cocktail glasses all the way down the canyon.”
Although he never actively exploited it, the
location for the recording of ‘The Downward Spiral’ seems likely to have been
very deliberately chosen. Knowing where it was recorded had to add some sort of
atmosphere of malevolence to the album before the listener had even removed it
from the jewel case.
Manson’s cache as an anti-establishment outlaw
figure was rising in the post punk climate. Artists as diverse as Evan Dando of
The Lemonheads and Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses were dropping hints that they
admired the cult leader by covering his songs and wearing Manson t-shirts
onstage. With so few symbols retaining the power to shock, Manson was still
enough to send a chill through the heart of Americans who remembered the
appalling scene at the Tate house in early August of ’69.
“I’m not personally infatuated with serial
killers. I find them mildly interesting at best. I have a curiosity about that,
but by no means do I wish to glamourise them. From living in that house I’ve
met every person in the world you can imagine who’s obsessed with that whole
thing and it’s given me more of a perspective on it,” Trent told Vox magazine
But two years later, he admitted to Rolling
Stone that he had in fact chosen the location for the bad vibes but regretted
this after meeting with Sharon Tate’s sister Doris: “She said: ‘Are you
exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the
whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, ‘No, it’s just sort of my
own interest in American folklore. I’m in this place where a weird part of
history occurred’. I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then.
She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to
support. When she was talking to me, I realised for the first time, ‘What if it
was my sister?’ I thought, ‘Fuck Charlie Manson’. I don’t want to be looked at
as a guy who supports serial killer bullshit. I went home and cried that night.
It made me see there’s another side to things, you know? It’s one thing to go
around with you dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn’t matter. But
when you understand the repercussions that are felt… that’s what sobered me up:
realising that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of
morality and the whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don’t
Nevertheless, at the time they were recording
in the house, Vrenna and Reznor nicknamed the studio ‘le pig’, alluding to the
word ‘pig’ scrawled on the wall in Sharon Tate’s blood by killer Susan Atkins.
One of the strongest tracks on the album was also ‘March of the Pigs’, though
Reznor denied that there was any connection between this and Manson.
He told Musician: “I had ‘Piggy’ written long
before it was ever known that I would be in that house. ‘March of the Pigs’ has
nothing to do with the Tate murders or anything like that, I’m not going to say
what it is about, but it’s not about that. Yeah, the name of the studio being
‘Pig’, that was a definite bad taste joke. It was written on the front door at
one time, I’ll admit to that.”
Although the original house was demolished soon
after Reznor’s departure, he took the door as a souvenir that he installed in
his next home in New Orleans. When I questioned him about this he said:
“It’s a door. It opens and closes.”
While the location is perceived to have added a
certain ‘something’ to the atmosphere of dread, horror and rage bubbling away
under the surface of ‘The Downward Spiral’, you feel that had they recorded the
record in Disneyland they would have got the same results.
Reznor and Vrenna had fallen out after an
intense period sharing a house and touring. Vrenna had actually quit as Nine
Inch Nails touring drummer before their seminal Lollapalooza tour and joined
KMFDM instead. Yet they managed to salvage both a professional and personal
relationship and Vrenna moved into the Tate house to work on the record. Trent and Flood had also burned each
other out recording ‘Broken’, but that relationship too was salvaged enough for
Flood to come in and work on ‘The Downward Spiral’. Although Reznor has a
reputation for feuding, he has a less publicised one of making up afterwards.
Reznor had been listening to a lot David Bowie
and the influence of ‘Hunky Dory’, the ’71 album where he attempted to redefine
the way that songs were written, had percolated through. Bowie had tried to break away from the
traditional verse/chorus/middle eighth/repeat structure of songwriting on that
album, something that greatly appealed to Reznor.
He told Australia’s Hot Metal magazine: “I hate retro
thinking and I hate trends towards bringing back stuff that’s dead and gone,
but at the same time it really impressed me how much depth was in those [Bowie] albums in comparison with today’s
music. My challenge was to try and make a record that’s more of an album and
less a collection of songs.”
While ‘The Downward Spiral’ was not planned as
a concept album, there are linking themes and recurring motifs in the songs. As
he told Raygun: “It is personal experiences, but it’s wrapped up in the highly
pretentious idea of a record with some sort of theme or flow to ‘em, and it was
meant to be. It’s become a kind of dated 70s concept, but some of the records
that influenced me a lot on this album, like [David Bowie’s] ‘Low’ and even
‘The Wall’ – I’m sure I’m ripping off Pink Floyd, in fact, I know I am ripping
them off! There’s records, although they may appear dated today, that try to do
things that are more exciting to me than, ‘Here’s my video track and here’s my
dance song and here’s my power ballad’. All that kind of disposability. It was
just me bored, trying to come up with something that I kind of wanted to set
the parameters to work within, to focus more.”
Reznor’s intense disillusion and hatred of the
music business stemmed from his relationship with TVT Records CEO Steve
TVT – short for TeeVee Toons – is now one of America’s biggest independent labels with
artists ranging from Snoop Dogg and Naughty By Nature to Sevendust as well as
movie soundtracks like ‘Traffic’, was then a small and relatively unknown
concern. The charismatic founder Gottlieb made a pile of money licensing an
album called ‘Televisions Greatest Hits’ which included theme songs from well
loved 60s TV shows like Mission Impossible, The Twilight Zone, Batman and
Gilligan’s Island. Despite initial enthusiasm, relations between artist and
label were strained from the beginning, even before the release of ‘Pretty Hate
Reznor told Industrial Nation: “[Gottlieb]
called me up and says, ‘I think your record is an abortion. I think you’ll be
lucky if you sell 20,000 copies of it. You ruined it by making sounds not
friendly to the radio. These are good songs, but you’ve ruined them’. Oh, to
hear that at a stage when I didn’t know what I had created… I was too close to
it. At that point, I felt like I had fucked up. I spent a couple of days
thinking about it, and I thought, well, I made this record and I like it. Sorry
he didn’t like it, but fuck him, that’s the record.”
When ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ became a mega
seller, Reznor felt vindicated and the rift between band and TVT became
unbridgeable. Reznor and producer Flood recorded the ‘Broken’ EP in secret, a
record calculated to confuse and repel anyone thought they loved Nine Inch
Nails after hearing ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and being captivated by its pop side.
It was a massive ‘fuck you’ to Gottlieb who eventually signed a deal with Jimmy
Iovine’s company Interscope allowing future Nine Inch Nails releases to come
out on that label. Reznor, furious at being ‘sold on’ like human chattel, was
placated by having his own imprint – Nothing Records – and a guarantee of the
artistic control he enjoyed on the making of ‘The Downward Spiral’.
In the early to mid 90s, Reznor was a ‘star’.
He was on the cover of magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone and following the
release of ‘The Downward Spiral’ he would be featured on Time magazine’s cover
as one of the most influential figures of his generation. He appeared regularly
on MTV. He got recognised on the street. People wanted his opinion about
seemingly trivial and profoundly important matters. He was a celebrity: as he
later said, “after you sell 100,000 records, you don’t have to wait in a queue
to get into a club any more”.
Reznor transcended genres and tribes. He
appealed to the goths because of his emaciated, pale demeanour and his plumbing
depths of misery and sadness; he appealed to the metalheads and the fledgling
nu-metalheads who loved the abrasive guitars and in your face beats; he
appealed to ‘cyberpunk’ types who read Mondo 2000 and Wired because it seemed
that he was orchestrating the bleak future world of frazzled tech depicted by
William Gibson in Neuromancer. Vomit-inducing as the term seems today, he was a
true ‘generation x’ icon.
The expectations for ‘The Downward Spiral’ were
almost crippling. ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and ‘Broken’ had – in a sense – been
produced in secret. But the constant pressure from fans, admirers and other
bands asking when the new album was out, how it was going, what it would be
like, what the songs would be, what colour the cover would be, started to take
The album was more of a struggle to make than
he realised it would be. The original intention had been to make the album
quickly. Reznor cited the example of Nirvana who had gone into the studio and
made ‘Nevermind’ in two weeks. But the process was different for him and soon
his new record company Interscope were expressing ‘concern’ at the time that
the album seemed to be taking to make.
Reznor and Marilyn Manson had started to hang
out together. Trent was determined that he would sign Manson to Nothing records. But aside
from the music, the two also shared an interest in LA’s seamier side. As Manson
recalled in The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, much of their time together was
spent hunting groupies, indulging in strange sex and getting wasted. The
stories of depravity that emerged from the sessions are legendary and not always
repeatable for reasons of legality and taste. Suffice to say that Reznor even
looked debauched, like some mildly bloated Byronic figure, or Jim Morrison
after the booze and drugs had started to ravage his looks.
But Reznor survived. He later told Spin: “I
just wanted to kill myself. I hated music. I was like, ‘I just want to get back
on the road because I hate sitting in a room just scraping my fucking soul’.
Exploring areas of your brain that you don’t want to go to, that’s painful. You
write something down and you go, ‘Fuck, I can’t say that. I don’t want people
to know that’. It’s so naked and honest that you’re scared to let it out.
You’re giving part of your soul away, exposing part of yourself. I avoid that.
I hate that feeling of sending a tape out to someone: ‘Here’s my new song. I
just cut my soul open. Check it out. Criticise it’.”
Reznor wanted to finish the album, get the hell
out of LA and back on the road.
“That’s the stupidest fucking reason for doing
an album I’ve ever heard,” Rick Rubin told Trent when they ran into each other.
“Don’t do it. Don’t do it until you make music that it’s a crime not to let
other people hear.”
Somehow shaken by Rubin’s advice, Reznor
knuckled under and – taking time out to work with Manson – delivered the finished
album almost a year after he had started work. The flurry of writing and
recording produced 16 songs and some leftovers that would crop up on b-sides,
or would be reworked as material for remixes for NIN as well as other artists.
The songs were like frontline reports from the battlefield of Trent Reznor’s
psyche. That they were classic songs of negativity, angst, despair and hatred
would come as no surprise. But Reznor’s voice – previously heard only through a
bank of distortion and FX screaming in mute nostril agony – was transformed,
seductive and even sweet. From the deceptively quiet intro to ‘Mr Self
Destruct’ through the piano melody on ‘March of the Pigs’ to the grandiose
almost-pop of ‘Closer’, to the tenderness in the hate-ballad ‘Piggy’, it was
clear that ‘…Spiral’ was an album with light and shade, with blended colours
rather than just blocks of bold primary hues. There was enough of the cyber
jackbeat on ‘Heresy’ and the intense title track itself that connected Reznor
to his earlier work and still had him filed under ‘Industrial’. But the truth
is that he wasn’t so much part of a different genre as an entirely new game
Attempting to recreate the same sense of
‘masterpiece’ about ‘The Fragile’, Reznor made a great album that could only be
listened to in small doses: in ‘The Downward Spiral’ he made some-thing
magnificent that took you on a journey all the way to the heart of darkness.