HippyDave vs Music, Part #1

This week I was tagged by a friend in a meme that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook for a while now: “Post seven songs in seven days that made you fall in love with music”. This sort of thing can be interesting and fun to do, but rather than post it on Facebook and see it vanish into the ether – the web equivalent of pissing in the wind, if ever there was one – I thought I’d blog about my seven chosen songs here and post links back to Facebook. At least that way I’ll know where it is if I ever want to go back and find it again :-). I’m going to try and pick a few unusual songs, too: thanks to my retrospective piece for Echoes and Dust, every man and his dog have heard about how Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights changed my life, so I’m going to pick some of the more obscure songs that introduced me to new types of music, or to some of the more obscure bands whose music had a powerful effect on me.

Anyway, here’s my first offering: Mr. Self Destruct by Nine Inch Nails, from their 1994 album The Downward Spiral. Back in ’94 I was only vaguely aware of Nine Inch Nails – I’d heard a song on the radio that I really rather liked: it was vaguely dancey but had the raw aggression and fuck-you attitude of the kind of metal I had been into, so in that sense it combined two elements I enjoyed and fused them into something quite new and intriguing. I came to realise that the song I’d heard was Head Like A Hole (from NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine), but that wasn’t until after I’d picked up on The Downward Spiral and really got into them.

Back in the early 90s, me and various of my mates used to love catching the train up to Birmingham and trawling through the various (very well-stocked) record shops – especially the independents, but also the huge local branch of HMV – picking up all kinds of stuff almost on a whim, blowing our pocket money and student grants on our drug of choice: music. It was on one of those trips that we wandered into one of the indie stores (the excellently named Tempest records, which sadly closed in 2010) and although they were playing interesting stuff upstairs, downstairs they were blasting out the newly arrived The Downward Spiral. I was descending the stairs into the basement just as the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, which was the opening track of the album, gave way to an explosion of guitars and clattering drums, and I was instantly smitten. So much so that I didn’t only leave the store with a copy of The Downward Spiral, but also with a copy of everything else that the store had under the NIN card in the CD rack: the Broken and Fixed EPs, and the band’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine, as well as a CD single of Head Like A Hole. I was absolutely delighted, upon getting my haul back home, that Head Like A Hole was the song I had vaguely remembered hearing before :-).

1994 was a tricky year for me. I had dropped out of technical college, despite finishing all of my computing qualification except the final programming project, and was actually on the dole for about eight months. My grandmother was also gravely ill and I found myself spending an increasing amount of time living with her and acting as her carer, as my mum was still working nights as a nurse and couldn’t be awake in the day to look after her. In short, I was having a fairly miserable time and was actively angry and upset a lot of the time: the stereotypical “angry young man”. The trip to Birmingham I’m referring to took place shortly after my grandmother passed away, and I freely admit to being a bit of a basket case at the time – but in that typically British way, where all the hurt and hopelessness went largely unexpressed and sat in my brain, affecting the way I viewed the world. My mates – old friends from school, and newer friends from technical college, were a great comfort to me at the time. As was my primary escape, music.

The Downward Spiral fascinated me, most likely because I felt I was on a ‘downward spiral’ of my own, where every perceived injustice, whether personal or general, ate away at me. I’m not one for self-pity, to be honest – I get angry with myself when I go full Eeyore, and tend to over-compensate by throwing myself into projects in an attempt to snap myself out of it – but 1994 was hard. Everything seemed to be a struggle, and music was my escape as it had rarely been before. I bought far more music than I could really afford, and probably went to more gigs that year than in all my previous years combined. Looking back, a lot of my favourite records that year were pretty dark – Marillion‘s Brave (the tale of an emotionally scarred young girl who had been sexually abused by her stepdad), Tori Amos‘ pretty but grimly defiant Under The Pink, Dream Theater‘s dark and turbulent Awake, and The Prodigy‘s viscerally angry Music For The Jilted Generation were the other albums I played the most that year. These were all healing records, though: it’s commonly held that listening to dark music allows you to exorcise your own demons, and I think that’s very true. These records all unburdened me of a particular kind of pent-up pressure that was building up in me, and consequently they all became records I was especially fond of (all of those are records I would cite as Desert Island Discs).

The Downward Spiral felt so personally applicable to how I was feeling, though, that it seemed written for me; it felt like my thoughts nailed down and expressed by someone with the musical talent I simply have never had. Putting emotions aside, I was also hugely impressed by the sound of the record: it’s not just a bellow of rage, there are periods of glacial calm, a surrender to the heads-down primal scream of the heavier tracks. Instrumentally, too, it’s a lot more complex and interesting than it is frequently given credit for. Trent Reznor (NIN mainman) apparently suffered with his own demons whilst making the album, and it really shows. Its power remains undimmed to this day, and I still love it, even though I think Trent did top it a few years later with 1999’s The Fragile, which to these ears is very much conceptually The Downward Spiral‘s natural sequel. That said, I doubt he could have written The Fragile without writing The Downward Spiral first.

My first hearing of Mr. Self Destruct stays with me, however much I came to love the rest of the album. Objectively it’s not the best or my favourite song from the album… but every time I hear the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, for a few seconds I am that unhappy, cynical 22 year old descending the stairs of Tempest in Birmingham, and I am blown away all over again.

I am the needle in your vein
and I control you
I am the high you can’t sustain
and I control you
I am the pusher I’m a whore
and I control you
I am the need you have for more
and I control you
I am the bullet in the gun
and I control you
I am the truth from which you run
and I control you
I am the silencing machine
and I control you
I am the end of all your dreams
and I control you
I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down I use you up
Mr. Self-destruct

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