Nine Inch Nails, Something I Can Never Have (1989)

NINpretty-hate-machine

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: Something I Can Never Have
Description: album track, Pretty Hate Machine
Label: TVT
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1994

I saw Natural Born Killers on its release in 1994 in downtown San Francisco. It seemed like the right country to be in at the time for a movie so steeped in American mythology: serial killers, tabloid TV, rolling news, video-paparazzo, guns, rednecks, prison, peyote, Rodney Dangerfield and, via its patchwork soundtrack, Patsy Cline, Patti Smith and Tha Dogg Pound. The soundtrack album, produced – or more accurately, curated and spliced – by Trent Reznor, belatedly introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, an act that had already gone overground thanks to MTV, Lollapalooza, an early Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy and, that very year, a defining appearance at Woodstock ’94. Because of my tardily circuitous route in, they – or he – first crossed my radar with the haunting lament Something I Can Never Have. I got hold of the debut album from which it came, Pretty Hate Machine, forthwith, and founding nothing else like it thereon.

The high-pitched, jackhammer-driven, no-prisoners industrial hubbubs that had made Reznor an alt-rock demigod in the early 90s seemed fairly tame to me, although they stirred something primal down there. Then again, I was old enough to remember Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke. None of which is to do down the success or raw bleeding power of Nine Inch Nails, whose unit-shifting impact owed much to an apparent existential holw in Reznor’s adolescent audience. It demanded filling. Industrial’s rise was concurrent with that of grunge, and both groundswell movements benefited from a record industry still geared up for the aggressive exploitation of the new thing. In the early 90s it was entirely feasible to be a multimillion-selling artist and still really fucking fed up. Pretty Hate Machine is no harder to listen to than Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar (which Reznor co-produced) – hell, some of it really is synthpop with a frown – but both provided a vital lever for disaffected American teens who were as desperate to piss off Mom and Dad as any teen before or after them. This was rock theatre, and I’m all for that. (Plus, NIN remind me of Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke …)

Something I Can Never Have would be a soul classic – classical soul, in fact – in any era, regardless of socio-cultural context. The bombast and thunderstorms are stripped away, leaving just Reznor to lay his emotional cards on the table, a former high-school musical prodigy from the cornfields of Pennsylvania raised by his grandparents but suckled by TV for maximum disconnectedness, here he is in his mid-20s, a driven and hardworking self-starter (“Back then I couldn’t do the things that I can do now”) with an outlet for a lifetime of frustration.

I still recall the taste of your tears
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore
Scraping through my head ’till I don’t want to sleep anymore

To which lost love he is broadcasting, we do not know, but her absence is making his heart grow devil horns.

I’m down to just one thing
And I’m starting to scare myself

Like every pop singer ever, he just wants something he can never have, and it speaks to us. Not all pop music can be Love Train. Some of it must be a howl of pain, a chorus of disapproval, a rumble from the jungle, a classic cry for help ie. “This thing is slowly taking me apart, grey would be the color if I had a heart.” The only fundamental difference between this and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little,” is the strategic and artistically justified deployment of the F-bomb in the third verse, to whit:

Everywhere I look you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be

Purists might argue that it’s unnecessary in a song that’s so elegantly arranged to convey melancholy and heartbreak, but as Mickey says to Mallory in Natural Born Killers before fading under the lilting synth intro of this very ballad, “Let me tell you somethin’, this is the 1990s, alright? In this day and age, a man has to have choices, man has to have a little bit of variety.” Within seconds, she is screaming obscenities at him: “Why’d you pick me up? Why’d you take me out of my fuckin’ house and kill my parents with me? Ain’t you committed to me? Where are we fuckin’ goin’?” I genuinely considered putting forward the soundtrack edit of this song to be committed to The 143, with the dialogue so tastefully interlaced into it, but it’s only four minutes long, and the album original is closer to six. Less is not more in this case. More is.

For an act so revered for making some noise, Something I Can Never Have appreciates the sound of near-silence. The repetitive piano motif is redolent of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, but it’s laid so low it never needles your ears. It’s not until one and a half minutes in that the song moves to the factory floor, where the whoosh, thud and crack of a satanic mill provide an unexpected rhythm to the tribute “You make this all go away.” At which, it does, and we’re back with just Trent, prodding at the keys with one hand and showing us what’s under his ribcage with the other. It’s like he’s had some kind of episode, but subdued it, pushed it back down, put it off for later.

That he’s technically limited as a singer adds to the rawness and vulnerability of the performance. He’s hiding behind nothing, fully exposed, deal with him. The snarl at the end of “something I can never have” is a defence mechanism. Reznor’s most famous song, not yet written for The Downward Spiral and neither yet claimed as the epitaph of a dying old man dressed as a mortician, is Hurt, but the hurt was always there.

If you’re not acquainted with the Natural Born Killers soundtrack album, remedy that. It’s like a jukebox being kicked for 75 minutes, hopping from L7 to Lard to Nusrat Fhati Ali Khan to Duane Eddy to the Cowboy Junkies, punctuated with rattlesnakes, Robert Downey Jr and Native American chanting. And Something I Can Never Have is on it.

That’s where we’re fuckin’ goin’.

The Eagles, Hotel California (1976)

EaglesHotelC

Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Label: Asylum
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994

Such a lovely place …

I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.

It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Crowded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).

Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.

I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.

If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.

Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!

That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might’ve taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …

Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally, that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?

There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon.

And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”

And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?

For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.