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’.

Pixies, Debaser (1989)

Pixies-Doolittle

Artist: Pixies
Title: Debaser
Description: album track, Doolittle
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

Bam-thwok!

What an injection of East Coast American adrenaline the state of Massachusetts administered into the vein of that stereotypically English-Scottish-Australian roster of 4AD in the mid-80s. First, Throwing Muses, from Newport, Rhode Island, who’d decamped to Boston and were the label’s first American signing. Then, the small-“t” Pixies, who’d formed around the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Both bands, who bent rock to suit their own fiercely cerebral, idiosyncratic, cross-gender agendas, seemed perfectly suited to each other as labelmates, shared a taste in producers and often played on the same bill. (My college friend Rob and I saw them both at the Town & Country Club in May 1988, with Pixies supporting the Muses – and, if I remember correctly, fem-dance group The Cholmondeleys on first – and again in ’89, at which the order was reversed.)

But who were these bands? As 4AD completists it was inevitable that either Rob or I would purchase Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies’ debut mini-LP, without having heard a note. Indeed, Rob has pricked my memory: we visited the degree show at the Royal College of Art of photographer Simon Larbelestier in the summer of ’87 and the hairy-backed Victorian freak-show gentleman adopted for Pilgrim’s sleeve was displayed therein. Making this link to the RCA – where Rob was about to start his own MA – he invested in the album in suitably Pavlovian manner. My clear memory of first hearing the subsequent Surfer Rosa is in a large, roomy artist’s pad in Notting Hill, where Rob was house-sitting for one of his tutors in Easter ’88. Salad days.

The second time we saw the Pixies in London, they were promoting Doolittle.  Rob remembers the band members coming round “all hunched with cigarettes pinched between finger and thumb” down the side of the venue while we were in the queue. With our feet in the air and our heads in the ground, we worshipped the Buddha-like Black Francis and felt the potent pop thrill of singalong songs like Where Is My Mind?, Gigantic, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation and Debaser.

It’s painful to have to single one out, but it’s ideal that it’s not a single, as the Pixies have always either chosen the wrong tracks to be their singles, or simply produced too many suitable candidates on each LP for justice to be done. Debaser is a classic single that never was: adored by the faithful and treated as an old pal, and not in any way debased by Paul Rudd belting it out in the car in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a damning indictment of cultural disconnect between the parent generation and their children, and between men of a certain age and women. (His kids yawn in the back, while his wife treats his spirited singalong with amusement.)

Got me a movie, I want you to know …

Frank Black tears into this recording with its highbrow nonsense lyric as if these were his last two minutes and 52 seconds on earth, a sentiment in line with the apocalyptic fatalism that pervades much of Doolittle (“got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey … Now there’s a hole in the sky … Everything is gonna burn … Drive my car into the ocean … A big, big stone fall and break my crown”). Black’s hymn to debasement is short on detail (“Wanna grow up to be a duh-base-ah”), but long on beret-wearing film-school cool, making an explicit reference in those sliced-up eyeballs and the “chien Andalusia” to the silent 1929 Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali short Un Chien Andalou. Neither film nor song has a plot to speak of.

The BFI’s Museum Of The Moving Image opened on London’s South Bank in 1988; ill-fated, it would turn out, but fun to visit in those happy first years for its primitive interactivity, movie heirlooms and well-stocked bookshop. I feel sure I did so within its first year, and that’s when I saw Un Chien Andalou for the first time, transfixed by its darkly playful cut-up imagery in the little dedicated viewing booth for 21 minutes. I felt like staying for the next showing (it was on a loop), mentally prepared this time for the unannounced eyeball-slicing money sequence, in which the film cuts from Simone Mareuil’s eye about to be passed over by a straight razor to a cloud slicing into a full moon and then to a dead calf’s eye being bisected. It is one of the least forgettable moments in the history of the moving image. Who wouldn’t write a song about it?

Debaser doesn’t quite cleave to the quiet-LOUD, bam-THWOK mechanic of the stereotypical Pixies song, as after that neat, buttoned-up bass intro, it leaps into life, with a tambourine hurrying along the first verse, Black announcing to the world that he’s got him a movie. The chorus invites the rest of the band along to shout, “Chien!” and it’s a frantic evocation of Iberian canine declaration. Cobwebs are blown. Ears are syringed. Black’s vocal cords are ravaged for your listening pleasure. Kim Deal offers a characteristically dry spoken endorsement of the title (and she was so … quiet about it). And it sounds for all the world that he’s already grown up to be a duh-base-ah.

British producer Gil Norton does a bang-up job on Doolittle, taking the graphic sound of Surfer Rosa and giving it a fuel injection. He would remain an ally. The LP was their first hit. Monkey Gone To Heaven – a close contender for this entry – gained college radio traction in the States and consolidated the band there. But – unlike Samson in Gouge Away – success did not sap their strength. The animosity that precipitated their break-up and made frankly mercenary their cold-war reformation was nowhere to be seen in the late 80s and early 90s when they surfed that wave of adulation. I declined to see them play when they reformed, as I’d seen them the first time, when the band might still amble past you in the queue.

Thanks, Massachusetts. Thanks, Mr Dali and Mr Bunuel. Thanks, Rob.