Released on October 20th, 1989, Nine Inch Nails' milestone debut Pretty Hate Machine helped launch the underground industrial-dance-music scene into the mainstream, leading to a decade-long obsession with the genre that Trent Reznor and his cohorts never truly intended to break big. The poetic thrill of the singer and composer's personal journal entries set to throbbing, hard-hitting beats was accessible, exciting and more far-reaching than perhaps anyone thought possible at the time. It also set the stage for even more emotional and abrasive music, videos and live performances to come, which would come to define NIN as one of the most revolutionary rock acts of their generation. Yet, NIN's resounding first shot was marked by strange twists and turns. Read on to discover some lesser-known and straight-up weird stories from around Pretty Hate Machine's making and release.
"Before I did the record, we went on tour with Skinny Puppy. That was the first time I played these songs live. It was a somewhat bad experience," Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor recalled in a 1990 interview with now-defunct Keyboard magazine. Noting that he felt "restricted by the arrangement," he went back in to rewrite and deconstruct the compositions, unknowingly creating the masterpiece that would expose him to huge audiences. He continued, "In the back of my mind, I was keeping the aggressiveness that I knew would translate well live, but I wasn't thinking of the instrumental arrangement. That's where the challenge was in putting a new band together after the record was over, and discovering that there was no real drum part on this song, no real keyboard part on that one."
Nine Inch Nails are nothing if not a full-on visceral experience, from the hard-pounding dance beats to the gut punch of their lyrics to the artful shock and awe of the band's visuals. Such results came about, in part, through an intentional rejection of "technique" and training for a more emotional form of creativity. In the same Keyboard interview referenced above, Reznor revealed, "Over the past five or six years, I've kind of abandoned technique and tried to approach music more from a by-ear method or by impulse rather than by theory." While technically stunning throughout his body of work, Reznor consciously aimed to make music from his heart rather than with his head for PHM, and it shows.
When it came time to re-issue the record in 2010, visual artist Rob Sheridan took on a huge undertaking in recreating the iconic abstract cover, which Reznor wanted updated so as to tone down the heavy late-Eighties neon aesthetic. That would have been hard enough to do had the original artwork not been missing. "The first bump in the road was that no one had the original artwork," Sheridan recalled to Sleevage.com. "We left no stone unturned — we even reached out to the original designer, Gary Talpas, but he had given all his materials to Nothing Records long ago. Our best guess is that those materials were lost somewhere in Trent's split with his old management."
Ultimately, Sheridan had to resort to a difficult and painstaking approach to reconstructing and reinventing the Pretty Hate Machine art in which he scanned a picture of the OG cover and digitally painted the image in very high resolution. "The same way I'd approach an illustration," he claimed, continuing, "I used a meticulous set of masks to recreate the 'interlaced' horizontal line effect of the original cover. After a lot of trial-and-error, I eventually finished with a new version of the original artwork, created in a very different way, but retaining the same spirit."
Pretty Hate Machine opener "Head Like a Hole" has been covered by everyone from AFI and Korn to Zac Brown Band and Miley Cyrus, but perhaps the most inspired and imaginative take has been by revered Akron, Ohio, post-punks Devo, who flipped Reznor's scathing anti-capitalist/conformist screed into something way jauntier when they were tapped to provide two separate tracks for Jackie Chan action film Supercop in 1996. Hear the "Whip It" superstars' awesomely quirky rendition above.
While Reznor has never been shy about talking about his formative experiences in the underground industrial-music scene and the influence that bands such as Ministry and Skinny Puppy had on him, he still couldn't avoid early criticism that insisted he was nothing but an unoriginal retread. A particularly vitriolic review from the St. Petersburg Times in January 1990 made the hugely premature claim that "It's guys like Reznor who give industrial music a bad name." We have to wonder if Jean Carey still holds those views all this time later.
6. The same art collective that made Ministry's "Stigmata" video handled 'Pretty Hate Machine' videos
Reznor chose the Chicago-based H Gun Corp. art collective behind Minstry's raw, unnerving clip for "Stigmata" to handle the visuals for "Head Like a Hole" and "Down In It" because he loathed the commercialism of the music videos being played on MTV at the time. "I hate MTV, I hated the videos that are on MTV," he says in the video interview above. "Someone said, 'Name your five favorite videos,' and I can't name two that are good … When you try to talk a record label into spending x amount of thousand of dollars, which is quite a bit, for a piece of art that the main outlet for that art won't show it, like MTV, if there's anything remotely different or unusual or maybe disturbing, it won't make it. It's gotta be mindless and dumb."
Sometimes you have to suck it up and get the job done, and Nine Inch Nails did just that to promote the video for "Down in It" and discuss the approach of the then-forthcoming clip for "Head Like a Hole." See the nostalgic throwback footage below.
While he's often talked about Pretty Hate Machine as his way of taking harsher sounds and putting accessible lyrics and melodies to them, Reznor also wanted to create something that would strike him like one of his childhood favorites, The Wall, did. He says in the vintage interview above, "I tried to make the kind of album I liked growing up. For me, I liked the Pink Floyd The Wall album at one point because when I was depressed or whatever, that was like a friend or someone I could relate to at that time. Tried to make that type of record more than a record that was like, 'I like to bang my head to this,' and if you can do that, great! But I think it's a nicer compliment to hear, 'Hey, you've helped me out.'"
MTV's '120 Minutes' Christmas special wasn't even the most unlikely TV appearance that NIN made while promoting Pretty Hate Machine. Real 'heads already know, but it always bears repeating: Nine Inch Nails were on Dance Party USA. Yes, that show. Just watch.
"Down in It" not only stands as Nine Inch Nails' breakthrough debut single, but its video also led to one of the strangest incidents in the band's twisted history. During the making of the clip, a camera rigged to balloons for an aerial shot got out of Reznor and the film crew's hands, eventually landing nearly 300 miles away in a field where a farmer would find it, watch the footage on it and then turn the "evidence" in to the cops. The result was a year-long investigation in which Michigan state police and even the FBI tried to solve the puzzling case of the apparent on-screen murder they saw in the video. Reznor's chalk-white appearance to play up his role as the dead guy was apparently a little too convincing, and authorities were certain they had a real-life snuff film on their hands before the band blew up, leading the investigation to do the same.