"The Story Behind the Song; HEAD LIKE A HOLE"
SYNTH FAGGOT, that was how NINE INCH NAILS mainman TRENT REZNOR attempted
to describe himself to a bewildered press when he first appeared
supporting Guns'N'Roses and playing a commercial version of what has
become cumbersomely known as industrial music. CATHI UNSWORTH unravels
the story behind Reznor's first major hit, "Head Like a Hole."
In February 1991, Trent Reznor was a wanted man. Not just by the press
who were quick to thrill to the aural assault of Nine Inch Nails' debut
album, *Pretty Hate Machine*, but also by the FBI. The first of Reznor's
controversial videos, "Down in It," had depicted the corpse of Reznor
lying in a Chicago street, which the singer had filmed using a camera in
a weather balloon. When the balloon got loose, it drifted 200 miles
into a farmer's field and was promptly handed over to the police. Once
they developed the film inside the balloon they were convinced it was a
snuff movie, with verification from a coroner who was convinced that the
cornflower on Reznor's face was a sign of decomposition. The NIN mainman
had to go to the Chicago police offices to prove he was actually alive.
It was an audacious start for a one-man operation that was to go on
to provoke, challenge and outrage audiences here and in the States with
the relentless self-examination of his music and a flair for visuals that
incorporated enough realistic depiction of sadomasochistic sex, torture
and death to keep him off MTV for life.
Nine Inch Nails first arrived in the UK supporting Guns'N'Roses in
August 1991. A four-man live show that at the time featured Richard
Patrick, James Woolley and Jeff Ward, NIN was, however, indisputably
Reznor's operation. Brought up in the challenging industrial forefathers
of Throbbing Gristle, Test Dept and Skinny Puppy, Reznor went on to
collaborate with the Godfather of technogore, Al Jourgensen, on the disco
inferno version of Black Sabbath's "Supernaut" that was released under
the moniker 1000 Homo DJs, and which was played live with Big Al's
Always possessed with more pop sensibility than his contemporaries, when
Reznor released NIN's first album, *Pretty Hate Machine*, it was just
that. Despite the raging bleakness and violence of his lyrics, Reznor's
songs demonstrated an unnerving flair for catchy, left-hook choruses that
were more redolent of British electro pioneers Depeche Mode or Nitzer
Ebb--read faggot to the multitudes of hairy Americans.
And indeed, "synth-faggot" is how Reznor described himself on his
debut UK tour. Displaying healthy levels of perverse provocation, he
relished the idea of supporting Guns'N'Roses at the time.
"It was kind of funny," Trent told *Rage* magazine back then. "Axl
phoned me while I was listening to the new Pet Shop Boys album and I was
trying to turn it down so he wouldn't hear. And he said, 'Hey, was that
the Pet Shop Boys? I just got that! Man, I like that, but I'm too
embarassed to tell anyone.' I said, 'Me, too'."
It seemed that baiting the conservative G'N'R audience was a turn on
for this fledgling art terrorist.
"No pain, no gain," he stated, "and this will be the ultimate test of
that. Here we are on the biggest-ever tour and you've never heard of
us. We're some synth faggot band opening for a heavy rock band. I have
to go out with that attitude."
It was an attitude that crystallised forever on "Head Like a Hole."
Despite the interest that greeted *Pretty Hate Machine* and all the
attendant tales of Reznor's FBI record, it wasn't until the September
release of the single that Nine Inch Nails stepped out of the shadow of
Al Jourgensen's projects into their own patch of limelight.
"Head Like a Hole" shuddered with menace, from the precision beats
that fired it through Reznor's buried vocal warnings to the inflammatory
chorus that raged, "Head like a hole/Black as your soul/I'd rather
die/Than give you control."
Lyrically, the song was double-edged. The theme of
dominance/submission was not restricted to describing a personal
relationship, it was also used in the wider context of America's
indifference to the underclass it had deliberately created. Only, set as
it was like a jewel in a metal forged from Metallica's black steel, Nitzer
Ebb's icy platinum and Jourgensen's patent fool's gold, the message was
the crowning of a thrilling, inventive and original mind in motion. Reznor,
we felt, could tell us things without insulting our intelligence.
"The fact that this single is being played on (Radio One's) Simon
Bates' show makes them instantly more important than Front 242 or Skinny
Puppy," said the inkie press, trumpeting "Head Like a Hole" as Single of
the Week. "It's a bit like having (Porno for Pyro's) Perry Farrell
presenting children's TV. This record is evil."
"The buzz in this little subgenre is getting bigger," Reznor told
*Spin* magazine, "I think people look at Nine Inch Nails as the pop
forefront of that, that doorway into the more legitimate or obscure
At the same time, the darkness inherent in NIN's music, and Reznor's
angular, spooked-out appearance of black hair, ripped fishnets and
leather, seemed to be attracting another kind of attention.
"We've run into weird Devil-cult shit in places like Salt Lake City
or Tulsa," he revealed. "It's weird when you play a show and there's a
disproportionate mumber of people backstage talking about how they're
witches and how we should visit 'this old abandoned church where satanic
cults hang out'."
Despite Reznor's baffled amusement at certain fans taking him for a
warlock, he has since gone on to explore America's most infamous death
cult by recording the band's second album, *The Downward Spiral*, in the
house where the Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate, and enthusing over its
unique ambience. Reznor has continued to push the envelope of extremity
both musically and personally.
"The theme for the record revealed itself to be things which were
really bothering me, like not having my religious outlook together and not
being able to fit into a neat little hole in society," he said in 1991.
"Nothing staggeringly new, just teenage angst, but trying to do it with
That Reznor's musical vision would always come before all other
relationships was something he found to be a double-edged sword.
"Normality is something I've defiantly looked for in the past," he
admitted to *Deadline* magazine. "Back in '88/'89, I decided that music
was what I wanted to do and though I was scared at first to really try in
case I sucked, I threw myself into it whole-heartedly.
"My whole life became music and it kind of threw me off balance,
because I liked it more than I thought I would. I also cut off all
social connections, like the friends I'd had for more than two months, a
stable home, and a bed that I actually recognised. I lost the sense of
who I was. Bascially, it's just music that I want to do."
"Head Like a Hole" had scorched its way into a generation's
consciousness, along with the spidery figure of Reznor, a black-clad wild
card in the social pack. Having overcome his initial loathing of the
industry machine that *Pretty Hate Machine* set in motion, Trent Reznor
has learned how to do things his way.
How big his FBI file is by now is another story...
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is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously
located at SUS.