The Joup Friday Album: NIN – Pretty Hate Machine

NINI really like Nine Inch Nails. A lot. I always have and probably always will – I don’t think there’s a bad album in Trent Reznor’s oeuvre; sure there’s a few I like less than others, but overall all of the man and his collaborators’ work is impressively conceptualized, composed and executed. That said, I am fairly certain that nothing Mr. Reznor will ever do will have the same impact on me that his first album under the NINs moniker did. Nothing.

It was the summer between Sophomore and Junior year of high school. My five main friends were my friends because we were all within skateboarding distance of one another. Around this time one of our group acquired his driver’s license and this unlocked the possibility of crossing social worlds. Suddenly I was a part of a much bigger social scene than I’d ever been before. We began to go to parties, both at the houses of our peers (when their parents were foolish enough to go away for a weekend) and in the massive forest preserves that surrounded the South Chicago suburbs where we lived. We began to buy beer (remember the speeding ticket, hair spray and pencil eraser trick? Or more aptly, remember when moustachioed and mulleted convenience store clerks just didn’t care?) and take high rides. Because of all this the car became a major new venue for us to listen to our ever-widening selection of music we excavated from all the new friends, older siblings and record store clerks who deigned us cool enough to talk to. It was in this way that I first heard and fell in love with NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine.

I remember the circumstances exactly. The sky was gray-going-on-black to the East but ever so slowly breaking with dying light from the West. There were four of us; we were stoned and had just left an arcade/mini golf place in Crestwood, IL called Hollywood Park where we’d been clumsily looking for girls to be afraid to talk to. I was sitting in the passenger side swivel bucket seat of my then-friend Steve’s parents’ maroon upholstered conversion van. Steve’s parents were rich and entirely too trusting of their son; they would go away for the weekend and Steve would steal their prized ride so we could drive all over the south side in search of adventure. This was one of those weekends. It had rained a lot in the days that surrounded this event and the sky was scarred from it. In keeping with the sinister view outside Steve popped in a gnarly black plastic cassette the likes of which I’d never seen before; he said it was a new album that he’d snagged from his older brother. As we slowly tooled out of the Hollywood parking lot the opening strains of the most wonderfully dark and traumatic music began and just like that I was somewhere else.

The music that emanated from the half a dozen or speakers in the van made my high skip and stutter with those first few songs, eventual Goth Club dance floor anthems Head Like A Hole, Terrible Lie and Down In It. Then Sanctified came on with its slow, hypnotic bass line and that amazing chant-like break that comes in around 3:20 and I literally went somewhere so unbelievably visual in my head that, although I have never known how to draw it, paint it or put it into words, I still go there every time I reach that point in the album. Sanctified eventually snaps back to the drone of the bass and then deteriorates into the beautiful Something I Can Never Have. I was so moved I began to cry. Not racking sobs, but a few paltry tears. The slowed down CHUG CHUG CHUG of the drum machine came in on the chorus and sounded to me like some massive industrial machine that was ripping the very fabric of the sky to darkened, tumultuous shreds. Awed I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was music that would be with me for the rest of my life. I think I bought the album the next day and I’ve owned it in one format or another ever since.

And I still have that black cassette.


In retrospect I believe it was Pretty Hate Machine  that first triggered the synesthesia which makes music so compulsively addictive to me to this day. What’s more, even as the album and Reznor eventually made their way into the pop culture vernacular they have always remained, in my head, completely my own. PHM is a lot like Richard Kelley’s film Donnie Darko* – both are such extremely personal pieces of art to me that I almost never consume them with other people present. No offense to my wife or my friends and family, but the presence of others waters down the experience, an experience that although dependent on external stimulus, is so intensely internal** that I almost averted this post in favor of something less ‘sacred’ at the last minute.

But I didn’t, so dig in and relive one of the greatest records ever made. Oh, and tag Tommy!

* Not the director’s cut which is grand as well, but doesn’t hold the same spell over me.

**Author’s Note: In writing this piece, especially the final paragraphs, I believe I finally realized what it is that makes people like me recoil a bit when music we love becomes widespread popular. I spoke in the opening paragraph about my bias for some NIN records over others. That comment is really only relevant to one release, 1994’s The Downward Spiral. I feel this way about that album – which is a masterpiece in its own right –  because Spiral was the record where suddenly everyone in my high school LOVED “Nails!” as I so often heard them referred to in those days when it seemed one could not go a day without hearing Closer somewhere in public, whether pumping from the kicker boxes of modified, bass-heavy car stereos, on Empty-V or, on one mind-numbing occasion, sung by a gaggle of drunken cheerleaders in a Taco Bell parking lot. When this territoriality weakens your bond with a piece of music like this the issue is not that a little-known artist or group you’ve bonded strongly with is suddenly successful – you want them to be recognized – but one of suddenly having to share your bond with others. The teenage music snob I was at the time resented the idea that anyone else could possibly like the music more than my friends and I because it was so entwined in our own experiences. When you internalize something in the way many of us do it becomes hard to conceive of it as existing anywhere outside that personal world comprised of your thoughts, dreams, friends and experiences. I’m not so much like that anymore – maybe a little on occasion – but it’s something that has always fascinated me about music and our relationship to it, so I had to put those thoughts down in order to chronicle them at the very least, for myself.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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