On March 8th, 1994, Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, a landmark not just for Trent Reznor's career, but for hard, electronic-oriented music in general. Featuring harrowing and uncompromising tracks like "Mr. Self Destruct," "March of the Pigs," "Hurt" and "Closer," which managed the difficult feat of being addictively catchy while also being unbearably intense, the densely layered record has sold almost 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, and influenced just about every dark and edgy metal, hardcore and/or electronic act that came after it.
In 1992, NIN's heavily distorted Broken EP had signaled Reznor's move away from the clean and commercial sounds of 1989's Pretty Hate Machine; now, nearly two years later, it was clear that Reznor's artistic vision had evolved even further. "This time I wanted to make an album that went in 10 different directions, but was all united somehow," he told Guitar World in 1994. "I didn't want to box Nine Inch Nails into a corner, where everything would be faster and harder than the last record ... On this record, I was more concerned with mood, texture, restraint and subtlety, rather than getting punched in the face 400 times."
Most of the album was infamously written and recorded at Le Pig, Reznor's home studio at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, the same address where actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four other people were murdered by followers of Charles Manson. Reznor has insisted many times that he had rented the property before learning of its history. "The reason I was there is because it's a cool, nice house on this beautiful green mountainside that overlooks the whole city from the ocean to the downtown," he told Kerrang! in 1994. "It's really quiet and secluded, yet it's also five minutes from the Whisky …"
"If there was any sort of vibe then it was one of quiet, maybe sadness. But the nice thing about the house, which I feel had nothing to do with what happened there, was that I wouldn't leave it for weeks. The house was on its own, gated in, and once I realized I hated L.A., there was never any reason to leave. That perhaps added to the isolation and claustrophobia of the record."
Here are eight things you might not know about the album.
Recorded at a time when much of the rock world was looking back to Seventies punk and heavy rock for inspiration, Trent Reznor used David Bowie's moody and atmospheric 1977 masterpiece Low as a guiding light for The Downward Spiral. "I got into Bowie in the Scary Monsters era, then I picked up Low and instantly fell for it," he told Kerrang! "I related to it on a song-writing level, a mood level, and on a song-structure level … I like working within the framework of accessibility, and songs, of course, but I also like things that are more experimental and instrumental, maybe. You may still be expressing extreme emotions, but instead of loud guitars it's the silence of restraint. When you think it's going to explode and it doesn't, it's over."
Despite Reznor's reputation for perfectionism, and the fact that it took a year and a half to complete The Downward Spiral, most of his own vocal and guitar contributions to the album were recorded in a fairly off-the-cuff manner. "The music just flows out of Trent like no one else I've ever known," longtime NIN engineer and mixer Sean Beavan told Sound on Sound in 2012. "As with any great artist, there's a lot of procrastination, but while he's playing [video] games, his brain is still working and at any moment he could come up with something fantastic."
Beavan recalled that he and the other engineers working on the album always had been on their toes, in case Reznor suddenly felt a creative urge. "You had to make sure that one or two mics were always available for him to sing at any given moment," he said. "You captured the moment with him. It might seem that there wasn't a lot of thought behind what he was doing, yet he'd obviously been thinking about it for a long, long time and he would lay down maybe three tracks of the vocal without ever repeating himself. He'd always ad-lib stuff, and after you picked one of the takes he would never allow you to punch in anything less than an entire verse … To his way of thinking, whereas the rhythm should be perfect, the emotion should come from the voice and the guitar. So those things were largely performed in a single take."
The fact that The Downward Spiral was recorded at the same house were Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by followers of Charles Manson led many listeners to believe that the lyrics to several of the album's songs were written in reference to the killings. The word "Pig" had been written in blood on the door of the house by one of the killers, so therefore the song "Piggy" — with its chorus of "Nothing can stop me now" — was widely interpreted as being about a mass murderer and his "family." However, former NIN guitarist Richard Patrick (later of Filter) believes the song was actually about the dissolution of his friendship with Reznor.
"When a guy writes a song called 'Piggy' about you, there's obviously tension or some leftover shit," Patrick, who left NIN in 1993 during the recording of The Downward Spiral, told the Sacramento Bee in 2010. "My nickname was Piggy. He's writing songs about me … you know, I wish it hadn't been so complicated and so weird. I wish it would have been a little more fun. Maybe one of these days we'll talk and it'll be OK, but it doesn't feel like it's a friendship, that's for sure."
With its slamming industrial beats and glitched-out layers of sound, "Ruiner" is one of The Downward Spiral's most compelling tracks. But Reznor admitted to Guitar World in 1994 that he wasn't satisfied with how it came out. "There's always one song per record where you work and work and work, and it just takes a hell of a long time for the song to come together," he explained. "Then you get into the trap of saying, 'Well, I spent so much time on this, it's gotta be good. I've gotta make it work.' It's usually one part that's fucking the whole thing up. And that's usually the part that you think is really great. You'll hear a million playbacks of the song and say, "Man, that part is so fucking cool. Why is the song not happening?' Then finally someone hits the mute button for that part and the song's good. And you realize, 'Oh fuck, it's that part I love so much.'
"So on this record, 'Ruiner' was the hardest song to write. I still don't know if I got it right. I have such a bad vibe from that song now — from it sucking in so many different ways."
The infamous howl of "I want to fuck you like an animal!" has made "Closer" a favorite of strippers — and the bane of conservative pundits — for a quarter of a century. So it's kind of surprising to learn that Reznor originally had severe misgivings about including the line in the song. "Trent was actually worried that 'I wanna fuck you like an animal' sounded too trite, even though it was the thing that everyone would relate to," Beavan told Sound on Sound. "He was always so concerned about making 'real art' that he'd wrestle with the people-friendly aspects. Still, he obviously reconciled himself to that line, because we kept it."
The Downward Spiral contains a variety of non-musical samples, including audio snippets from the films Texas Chainsaw Massacre, THX-1138 and Robot Jox. "Big Man With a Gun" also includes a sample that's credited to Tommy Lee, though it had nothing to do with Lee's work with Mötley Crüe.
In Tommyland, his 2004 autobiography, Lee recalled bringing several porn stars (including a woman with a well-earned reputation as a "squirter") to A&M Studios — where Reznor was working at the time — as a "birthday present" for NIN bassist Danny Lohner. "I bring the girls across the hall into the Nine Inch Nails studio," Lee recalled, "lay them out on Trent's grand piano, say, 'Dudes, set up the mikes, get some grapes, roll the tape and have a seat. You're not gonna believe this.' The girls take the grapes and stick them in the squirter's pussy only to suck them out and stick more in."
Said "squirter"'s moans of pleasure were picked up by the studio mics, and subsequently appended to the beginning of "Big Man With a Gun." "They reversed it and fucked with the tone of it," Lee explained. "But if you listen closely you can hear her."
It's not uncommon for recording artists to lose perspective on their work, especially after months and months in the studio. When Reznor finally delivered the completed version of The Downward Spiral to Interscope Records in late 1993, he was happy with the finished product — but also completely convinced that it was entirely devoid of hit potential.
"When I handed the record into Interscope, I recall apologizing to them because I thought it had no commercial, 'single' potential," he told Alternative Press in 2004. "I loved the record, but I felt sorry for them having to try and sell it. As soon as [lnterscope president] Jimmy Iovine heard 'Closer,' he said it was a hit. That's when I knew he was crazy, and it goes to show what I know."
Indeed. Not only did the album reach No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — it was only kept off the top spot by Soundgarden's Superunknown, which had been released the same day — and go on to reach quadruple platinum status in the U.S., but "Closer" became a genuine radio hit (albeit in a censored version) in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia.
Country legend Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin–produced 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around featured new interpretations of country classics mixed with some stunning reworkings of contemporary material — the most stunning being Cash's moving cover of "Hurt," which received considerable airplay on both country and alternative radio stations, and earned the Country Music Association's coveted "Single of the Year" award in 2003. Though Reznor gave Rubin his blessing to have Cash cover "Hurt," he recalled to Alternative Press that "the idea sounded a bit gimmicky to me," and that Cash's interpretation of his song initially "sounded … weird to me."
"That song in particular was straight from my soul, and it felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. It was a good version, and I certainly wasn't cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else," he said. It wasn't until he saw Mark Romanek's video for Cash's version that everything clicked for him.
"I pop the video in, and ... wow. Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps ... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore. Then it all made sense to me. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Some-fucking-how that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure. Things felt even stranger when he passed away. The song's purpose shifted again. It's incredibly flattering as a writer to have your song chosen by someone who's a great writer and a great artist."