411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2010: Nine Inch Nails
NINE INCH NAILS’ MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
Nine Inch Nails is a limb. It’s a part of me, sometimes taken for granted, but I could not function without it. Follow me as I reintroduce my soul to myself.
Little did the world know that on May 17th, 1965 that the seeds of an industrial rock revolution would be planted. Michael Trent Reznor was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania. He went by Trent early on to avoid confusion with his father of the same name. His parents separated so he was mainly raised by his grandparents. Being in a small town, Trent lived a normal Middle America band geek’s life. At five he started playing piano and music became his life. In school he’d pick up saxophone and tuba as a member of both the jazz and marching band. He was a little geekier than that as he did theatre too. He even won “Best in Drama” for his portrayal of Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar”. After graduating in ‘83, he enrolled in Allegheny College, a local school, for computer engineering.
At Allegheny, he joined a local band called Option 30. The little bit I’ve managed to hear and see was pretty entertaining. Footage and video are both out there, but it seemed like a typical 80’s new wave band. There’s even an embarrassingly great cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”. It wasn’t painful or anything, but just kind of “there”. After a year of playing with Option 30 and what he described in a Rolling Stone interview as a “desire to escape from Small Town, U.S.A., to dismiss the boundaries, to explore,” he dropped out of school and moved to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue music. He would then bounce around a few local bands The Innocent and then Exotic Birds. During his stint with Exotic Birds he even appeared as part of the fictional band The Problems in the 1987 film Light of Day starring the awesome Michael J. Fox. I remember watching this movie a few years back and looked for Trent to appear. If you blink you’ll miss him, but it’s still a pretty cool footnote.
To make ends meet Trent got a job at a local recording studio as a janitor. He asked permission to use the studio during down time to record demos and got it. Taking inspiration from Prince, Trent just decided to play all the instruments excepting the drumming. The demos went out and got a fair amount of positive responses. Trent would sign with TVT records and go right into mastering his craft. Most of the demo tracks would become a huge chunk of the 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine. Working with Adrian Sherwood and “Flood” Ellis, the album was produced. Trent added “Sin” and “Head Like a Hole”, two songs that he would find himself playing in heavy rotation for the next 20 years. Some demo tracks like “Purest Feeling” and “Maybe Just Once” are laughable now, but without them we’d of never gotten to hear what was to come.
The name he put on this work was Nine Inch Nails. He liked the name because it was easily abbreviated, but tons of rumors circulated. Over the years I’ve heard “It’s the length of nail they used to use for coffins,” “Freddy Kruger’s nail length”, or my favorite is that it references the “nine inch spikes” used to crucify Jesus Christ. I’m not sure if I buy the simple answer and I’m kind of surprised this question hasn’t been harped on more over the years. Then again, I appreciate the enigma of the name. To most fans the words “Nine Inch Nails” have only one meaning. The “N-I-backwards N” logo was inspired by the Talking Heads Remain in Light album and first appeared in the debut video “Down In It”. It’s been around in variation since.
The album would be one of the first independent releases to go platinum and MTV was airing “Down In It” and “Head Like a Hole” semi-regularly. So with that, NIN toured on the album in support of Peter Murphy, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Guns N’ Roses for a short while. In ‘91, the band was included on the first Lollapalooza tour which opened what seemed like a lot of ears to the band. Early on during this period you could have seen Trent Reznor with dreadlocks going apeshit on stage every night. This aggression also took shape in Trent destroying and smashing instruments and equipment on stage. You see a lot of artists do this kind of thing as an extra theatric, but I honestly believe that each word Reznor sings, even now, is felt every night. Sometimes you can hear pain in his voice that digs at the core and then sometimes you can hear a rage in him that could explode at any second. There really isn’t a forth wall at a Nine Inch Nails show. Trent tears that wall down and shares his inner demons, his inner spirit, and soul with his fans. This was apparent from the start.
The next NIN release was pretty damn big and it was only an EP. Coming off the road, Trent had the pressure of following up the debut and the result was the eight-song Broken. This is where Nine Inch Nails goes from the lighter, somewhat new wave- sounding industrial style to the harder edge “I’m going to rip off your arms and beat you with them” metal side of things. This short album gave us the songs “Wish”, “Last”, “Happiness In Slavery”, “Gave Up”, and “Suck”. These are five songs that I could not imagine never hearing. The painful desperation of “Gave Up”, the smooth “fuck you!” grooves of “Last”, the dirty sex of “Suck”, the intense scream-through-your-clinched teeth power of “Happiness in Slavery”, and the flat out masterpiece that is “Wish” are all things that I could not live without. The videos for this album were insane. In “Happiness in Slavery” we follow a man who finds gratification in being tortured to death. The performance video for “Gave Up” shows then band member Richard Patrick of Filter fame and a guest spot by a pretty young Marilyn Manson. This is cool and notable enough, but these videos were shot at the home where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s cult. The whole video package was presented in pretty much a snuff film. The widely shared “Broken” shows a guy getting kidnapped and tortured on really cheap home video equipment with the videos of the album being shown in between the torture segments. Unlike a lot of others who attempt to be “controversial”, the music still overshadowed it. This would be apparent as NIN would win Grammys for both “Happiness in Slavery” and “Wish”. Yes folks, a Grammy was awarded to a song with the words “fist fuck!” in it.
Trent would go on to live in and record at the Tate house, which he renamed Le Pig Studios, to work on a new album free of any record label restrictions. These sessions would become Nine Inch Nails’ highest selling and most famous album, The Downward Spiral. The album charted at #2 upon release in 1994. This album is a modern masterpiece. There is really no other way to put it. Rolling Stone knows what’s up as they included it in their “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Sure, it spawned the most popular song in “Closer”, but the entire work here is pretty damn untouchable. From the opening “Mr. Self Destruct” to the closing tones of the haunting yet beautiful “Hurt” you are in for a rollercoaster ride of extreme emotion. “March of the Pigs”, “Piggy”, “Mr. Self Destruct”, “The Becoming”, and every note of this album is perfection. Many remember the controversial “Closer” video directed by Mark Romanek, but for me I’ve always held “March of the Pigs” as one of my top two or three favorite videos of all time. All it was the band in a small white space rocking out in one take. Not to go off the deep end of fandom, but when he looks into the camera it’s as if he’s looking at you and doesn’t give a shit at all what you think of him. The concept is simple as can be, but the aggression and in your face attitude of Trent in this clip is just enthralling. To me their Woodstock ‘94 performance really sums up this era. Covered in mud, the band took the stage and unleashed a monstrous performance that’s still talked about today. The equipment was flying around, being smashed, the band was covered in mud, and Trent was just a mad man. It almost appeared as if he was running purely on adrenaline as he smashed the keys and howled the lyrics of hits like “Head Like a Hole”, “Happiness in Slavery”, and “Terrible Lie”.
With the Woodstock performance being seen by as many as 24 million people live and then who knows how many on shared tapes the cat was officially out of the bag. The “Self Destruct Tour” went all over the country and world as Reznor upped his game on visual performance and theatrics. Things got rough around this time. Reznor went through some hard times. He found himself struggling with addiction to alcohol and cocaine and he admitted to using heroin. This coupled with his perfectionism pretty much put things on the shelf for a few years. Outside of producing a couple soundtracks, which included “The Perfect Drug” from the Lost Highway soundtrack, Reznor pretty much laid low. Luckily, he would eventually get his shit together personally and musically.
It would be five years since the release of The Downward Spiral, but in 1999, 9/21/99 to be exact, Trent Reznor returned with his guns a-blazing and his heart on his sleeve. The 104 minute double-disc The Fragile debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and flat out kicked ass as it blew the minds of many, including mine. The first single, “Starfuckers Inc” came out and gave a stern chest poke to the current faces of music. At first, it was rumored to be about former friend at the time Marilyn Manson. Then once he appeared in the video, it was clear. In the video a super ego driven caricature version of Trent goes to a carnival where he throws balls at plates of current musical celebrities. It took blatant shots at Fred Durst, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Mariah Carrey, Michael Stipe, Manson himself, and a few others. To me, “Starfuckers” really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. It’s harder, brass, and somewhat like the Broken-era stuff. The Fragile is more of a grand scale composition, much more delicate and pardon the pun, fragile. It’s now known that the album was “based a lot out of fear,” as Reznor explained in an interview, “because I was afraid as fuck about what was happening to me. That’s why there aren’t a lot of lyrics on that record. I couldn’t fucking think. An unimaginable amount of effort went into that record in a very unfocused way.”
Still, the brain pickings of Reznor and the precise detail put in made for a spectacular album. It’s introspective, open and takes your soul to a place that’ll never return how it started. The anger is there in “The Wretched”, “No, You Don’t”, and “Starfuckers Inc.”, the simplistic beauty is there in “The Frail”, “La Mer”, and “Underneath it All”, the hopeless exploration of “The Great Below”, “Please”, and “Where Is Everybody?”, the love loss of “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally”, “The Day The World Went Away”, and “The Fragile”, and the grooves of “Into The Void”, “Even Deeper” and “The Big Come Down” paint a complete picture of where Trent Reznor was at this time in his life. He opened up and shared as much of himself as possible with this. Many people will cling to aspects of this album as something to relate to and share. A teenager at the time, I most certainly absorbed more of this album than any other. I wasn’t a depressed teenager and was fairly normal, but at that point in life things are changing all around you. Any emotion, good, bad, or confused I could find something to relate to, hold on to, and take heed from on this album. I know I’m not alone in that.
The Fragility Tour went from late ‘99 to mid 2000 and travelled the globe. On April 21st of 2000, I got to see this tour first hand. It was my first concert, first of the nine NIN shows I would go on to attend. After being mesmerized by this new Maynard James Keenan band called A Perfect Circle, NIN took the stage. This spoiled me. The performance was genuine, the atmosphere was amazing and the production was something that had to be seen to be believed. The DVD tour video All That Could Have Been shows a good example of what the show was like, but the live thrill of being there and it being your first concert is indescribable. After the tour, Trent went to rehab and got himself clean. He started working out, eating better, and just taking care of himself. This six year period of transition seemed to be the exact opposite of the gap between The Downward Spiral and Fragile as Trent got his shit together. To change things up, he moved from his New Orleans home to Los Angeles and got back into the studio.
In 2005, the fourth full length Nine Inch Nails album was released. With Teeth debuted at #1 and the reception was favorable, but it didn’t have the impact of the other releases. This album still packed a lot of punch. The David Fincher video for the ever so funky “Only” was getting heavy rotation on television and “The Hand That Feeds” was as popular as anything NIN released not named “Closer”. In my biasness, I would think that most of the tracks from this album could have been released as singles. The catchy hooks and appeal of “All The Love In The World”, “Love Is Not Enough” and “Getting Smaller” and the dramatic and passionate vibes of “Beside You In Time” as well as “Right Where It Belongs” could have done some good charting. The “Live: With Teeth” tour provided some great shows. The production was even more amazing than anything from the “Fragility” tours and a clean Trent provided many great moments that might not have happened otherwise. At this point, my love for the music of NIN took over my rationale. A friend and I paid, I believe $120 a pop, to see NIN play at Congress Theater in Chicago from a legal scalper. Worth every cent. We get there and the power goes out a song or two in and Trent in anger goes off stage. You’d think twenty minutes of nothing would result in a riot for a small club show like this, but the crowd was more than cool. After the sound guy replaced something that blew, they returned and gave a great show. Like I said, worth every cent. Being already a few hundred very scare dollars in, I joined “The Spiral” fan club. This allowed me to get concert tickets presale and I took advantage of it. By the time this tour was over, my NIN concert count was up to seven. At one point, I had to quit my dead end job of almost four years to be able to follow the band around for a few days. You only live once. These were travels, experiences, and stories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I would think around With Teeth is where Trent Reznor started to really embrace the internet as an outlet. Instead of including all the linar notes for the album, it simply had credits and a link for fans to go online and view and/or download a PDF poster of lyrics. Along with putting source files online of “The Hand That Feeds” and “Only” for fans to remix and share, “The Spiral” fan club was born. Nothing too revolutionary…yet. Only two years after the last release, in 2007 things in the world of NIN got pretty crazy. In light of the release of Year Zero a very interactive alternate reality game was unleashed. First it started with a hidden message on a t-shirt, then it moved on to special websites, phone numbers, videos, tracks leaked on “found flash drives”, and tons of themed theatrics brought a whole world of the Year Zero concept to life. The concept of the story and album was that in 2022 the government would evilly take over a reborn America. After major terrorist attacks, the government converts to a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. Everyone is under strict surveillance, the water is drugged, and those in revolt would be killed on the spot. In response the “resistance” was sent back to 2007 to warn us of what was to come. Trent went this idea more so as art, but the hype that was surrounding the game and release of the album was amazing and a lot of fun. This concept album would hit #2 on the charts and received a lot of praise. Its singles “Survivalism” and “Capital G” had a good amount of success. I personally believe many people sleep on this album. “The Good Solider”, “Me, I’m Not”, “God Given”, “The Great Destroyer”, “My Violent Heart”, and virtually the entire album blends so well together that it’s hard not to listen to this album as a whole. Maybe that’s why. To each their own. This would be the last Nine Inch Nails album released under a major label.
With NIN officially being independent of any record label’s control or input, Reznor wasted no time in putting new music out there. On March 2nd, 2008 Trent snuck up on us and slapped us with Ghosts I-IV, a 36 track instrumental album. The album was released on the internet for free as well as a special edition for $300. The works here play like an industrial jazz album. The entire thing was improvised over a ten week time period with friends Atticus Ross, Adrian Belew, Brian Viglione and others. To describe something like this would take hours. There are so many different music, styles, and stunning compositions in this collection. This album was nominated for two Grammys. One for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and for the box set packaging. This was the first time music released under a Creative Commons license was nominated for a Grammy. Similar to Ghosts, Trent quickly snuck out The Slip, the eighth major release. On May 5th, the album was put online for free with a message from Trent that simply said “this one’s on me.” The only single from the album, “Discipline” was released to radio by Trent himself virtually immediately after it was mastered down. This ten track album was almost like a highlight reel of past styles, but done in a completely fresh manner. The same raw aggression of the early releases was once again in our faces and this time free of cost and restriction. The “Lights in The Sky” tour would follow.
In February of 2009, Trent posted on a cryptic message on nin.com saying “I’ve been thinking for some time now it’s time to make NIN disappear for a while.” And just like that the final days were upon us. Reznor wasn’t too hidden about the fact that he’d still create music under the NIN brand as well as other creative avenues, but touring was done. NIN would go on to put on 78 more shows over an eight month stretch. The first US leg was a co-headlining amphitheatre tour with Jane’s Addiction. I had the pleasure of seeing them on May 29th at Charter One Pavilion in Chicago. The set was amazing and left me drained. At this point, I came to terms that this was my last time seeing NIN live. Trent was moving on and I took less than a second of time to decide to continue my support of his art. He didn’t want to keep playing past his prime. 20 years is a long time and as a greedy fan I wanted more, but it was perfectly understandable. Trent was going to get married and wanted to move on. Then after some thought about how things were ending, Reznor decided to finish up his NIN touring days with a small and exclusive club tour. They played a handful of dates in New York, Chicago, one in Toronto, and finished up with a few in LA. For me, this was a must. I managed to get tickets for the August 29th, 2009 show at the barely 4000 capacity Aragon Ballroom. I got everything I could ask for in a NIN show. The performance was amazing, the atmosphere was perfect, and by the end it felt like Trent left everything on stage. Worth every cent.
Why Nine Inch Nails Was Selected:
I’ve never met Trent Reznor. If I did, I wouldn’t know what to say to him other than a very nervous “Thank you”. That’s saying I could even manage to get that out of myself. Some people have The Beatles, the Rolling Stones or even Metallica as their favorite artist. For me, since I can remember, it’s always been Nine Inch Nails. The music that Trent Reznor has provided has opened up my soul and I do honestly think it’s made me a better version of myself. He revolutionized industrial rock music and had a huge part in bringing music from CD to something much more. Trent Reznor is more than just a musician with a spree of successful albums, radio singles, and tour sales. Trent Reznor is an artist and his art speaks volumes.