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This is the story of how a janitor revolutionized modern rock.
After short-lived stints in Cleveland bands such as The Innocent, Exotic Birds (look for them as the house band in the Michael J. Fox-Joan Jett classic “Light of Day”) and Slam Bamboo, 22-year old keyboardist Trent Reznor applied for a job at Right Track Studios as a janitor and occasional assistant engineer. Trading his services for free graveyard shift recording sessions he would toil and tinker away in obsessive compulsive fashion to write, record and produce the demos that would become Pretty Hate Machine — modern rock’s equivalent of Rubber Soul; the one that would change it all.
With Reznor performing virtually every instrument, PHM is the singular vision of a 24-year old mad scientist creating, constructing and, in some cases deconstructing, in a vacuum. Debut records from now-veteran artists are fascinating case studies and this is no exception. Unburdened by the record label legal battles, public pressure, writer’s block, the addiction and depression that would shape later Nine Inch Nails albums, this is an artist creating solely for art’s sake.
The original demos (later referred to as Purest Feeling) caught the attention of several record companies and the “band” chose to sign to TVT — an odd and later much regretted move considering the label’s biggest release up to that point was a collection of TV theme songs. When unable to find the proper musicians to bring the noises in his head to life, Reznor once again relied on himself to play almost every note himself.
Trent Reznor can arguably be considered industrial music’s Christopher Columbus. Others had planted their flags firmly in the genre before Reznor — Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, all nigh-forgotten Leif Erikksons — but history remembers Nine Inch Nails as its founding father of record, and with good reason.
Growing up on a healthy diet of Bowie, Devo, Gary Numan and the Cure, Reznor synthesized all of these influences and delivered unto industrial music the one thing it was missing: musicality. That is not to say what came before was not musical; it was not easily digestible. It was all machine and no man. Pretty Hate Machine was exactly that — mechanical, angry but not without a sense of humanistic beauty. It has a soul. Reznor brought pop songcraft, structure and hooks to the automated chaos — something Wax Trax purists would give him shit for for years to come but well, fine. This is not a case of corporate America putting grunge fashion on the cover of the Style Section or Republican’s co-opting workingman anthems. Reznor’s new creations maintained all of the passion, vitriol and aggression of their ancestors.
The lyrics, stripped down and raw, provide the perfect counter point. “Don’t take it away from me/I need something to hold on to,” from “Terrible Lie” or “You make this all go away/I’m down to just one thing/And I’m starting to scare myself” from “Something I Can Never Have” are plaintive declarations that read more like diary entries than poetic musings or clever turns of phrase.
Released on October 20, 1989, Pretty Hate Machine would go on spend 113 weeks on the Billboard 200, become one of the first independently released records to be certified platinum and spawn an infestation of imitators that foolishly thought a keyboard, distortion pedal and 808 were enough.
On Pretty Hate Machine we can see the seedlings of Reznor’s genius taking root. Upon closer inspection, seemingly straightforward arrangements reveal layers upon layers of rhythms and counter-melodies. But this is not Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound: In Trent’s world each element occupies its own piece of sonic space. Yes, there is a wall. But you can also hear every brick.
Adam Freeman is the former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and Total Request Live. He is now the Creative Director of Thinkfactory Media. He tweets at @mradamfreeman.