It was shortly after midnight on a humid August morning when three figures dressed in black climbed over the gates of a prestigious Beverly Hills mansion and quietly made their way across the grounds with the intention of killing every living person on the property. Charles Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel were all members of a cult of hippies that had taken up residence at the abandoned Spahn Ranch, a rural facility that until recently had been a popular location for American westerns. Acting under orders from a failed musician and perpetual criminal called Charles Manson, who had cast his hypnotic spell over a group of disillusioned teenagers and counterculture rejects through a cocktail of psychedelic drugs and mind-expanding philosophy, the trio would take the lives of five strangers that night, one of whom, rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate, was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. ‘I pictured myself tasting her blood,’ Atkins would later reveal in her memoir Child of Satan, Child of God.
After pleading for her life and that of her unborn baby, twenty-six-year-old Tate was stabbed a total of sixteen times before Atkins smeared the word ‘pig’ across the front door in her victim’s blood. The following evening in another neighbourhood of Los Angeles members of Manson’s so-called Family would claim two more lives and with a city in panic the police were determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. The trial that would follow transformed Charles Manson into a larger than life pop culture figure and the epitome of pure evil, while the slaughter of Tate and the media circus that came afterwards was documented in Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller Helter Skelter. The events that took place at 10050 Cielo Drive on 8 August 1969 would bring the free love of the sixties to a shocking conclusion and has since become immortalised in the pages of history as the Manson Family murders.
Trent Reznor would also be twenty-six when he took up residency in the Los Angeles mansion more than two decades later, having relocated from Cleveland to the City of Angels with the intention of transforming the house into a recording studio. Dubbing his new base of operations Pig after Atkins’ infamous inscription, it was here where he would develop material for his acclaimed one-man project Nine Inch Nails. On 22 September 1992 he released an eight-track EP entitled Broken that would bring him to the attention of the early nineties alternative rock crowd and as its success brought further accolades he retreated to his new home in Benedict Canyon to commence work on his second full-length album, one that would document his slow descent into madness. Working from a musical palette that drew inspiration from artists as diverse as Prince and Joy Division, multi-instrumentalist Reznor would come face-to-face with his own demons as he created his harrowing masterpiece The Downward Spiral.
For Reznor, who had begun to feel isolated and alone within the music industry, the horrifying events that had taken place in his home twenty-four years earlier still haunted its rooms and hallways, with the foreboding sense of an unseen evil feeling forever present. ‘We got the Helter Skelter book to see if it was the same place and there was the same bedroom, front door, pool,’ Reznor told Entertainment Weekly. ‘Little sounds would make me jump at first but after a while it was just like home. The house didn’t feel terrifying so much as sad. Peacefully sad. But that could just be my own insanity.’ With the gruesome murders committed at the hands of the Manson Family having become a regular fixture of the news throughout the seventies it was understandable how living in the same house could prove to be a disturbing experience and his very presence at 10050 Cielo Drive would incite a certain level of criticism and hostility.
I’m in this place where a weird part of history occurred
The Manson Family murders have become something of a morbid curiosity for many people and while Charles Manson is known the world over, most people would be unable to name the victims. Society has become obsessed with serial killers and mass murderers and the influence that Manson had over his followers has made him the most dangerous and fascinating of them all. ‘While I was working on The Downward Spiral I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister,’ explained Reznor in an interview with Rolling Stone. ‘It was a random thing, a brief encounter. And she said, ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said, ‘No, it’s just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I’m in this place where a weird part of history occurred.’ I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to support. When she was talking to me I realised for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’ I thought, ‘Fuck Charles Manson!’’
While Nine Inch Nails was ostensibly Reznor working as a solo artist, usually only collaborating as a group during live performances, the conception of The Downward Spiral would be achieved with the assistance of Mark Ellis who, under his professional name Flood, had worked as an engineer for Depeche Mode and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Having already contributed to the making of both Broken and Reznor’s debut Pretty Hate Machine, Flood was the obvious choice for helping to capture his despair on tape and with his work on U2’s experimental record Zooropa having come to an end, he relocated from Ireland to Los Angeles to join Reznor. Unlike his first album, which had been created through an abundance of samples, The Downward Spiral would consist of various live instruments and participation from one of his touring musicians, Chris Vrenna. Yet despite the raw aggressive sound that Broken had displayed, Reznor was determined to avoid making an album that rested comfortably in one genre and knew that he had to avoid restraint when it came to expressing himself artistically.
Ever since he had first conceived Nine Inch Nails in the late eighties, Reznor had used the project as a way to unburden his inner torment and unleash his anger and frustration in the form of music. Yet the intensity of both Pretty Hate Machine and Broken would pale in comparison to the sadness and misery that he felt as he began composing material for The Downward Spiral. ‘The self-destruct button was pressed when I first started writing,’ he confessed to the Guardian. ‘There was a sense that I couldn’t fit in anywhere, I couldn’t relate to people; I felt alone, I felt angry about it. And part of me is still that. I felt like I was heading down into something that wasn’t going to have a good ending. That ended up being addiction; its claws were in me but it hadn’t fully revealed itself.’
Conceptually, The Downward Spiral would explore themes of self-destruction through addiction and lost hope and this would perhaps be best personified with the album’s opening song Mr. Self Destruct. Through these lyrics Reznor introduced a narrator who abuses himself with self-manipulation and a nihilistic approach to sex and drug use. This lack of hope and an unwillingness to find the strength to survive would be carried through other compositions like Piggy and I Do Not Want This, while Atkins ‘pig’ statement would become a recurring motif throughout the album. Much like with Pink Floyd’s 1979 classic The Wall, The Downward Spiral would chronicle the psychological and emotional collapse of its protagonist, yet while The Wall’s Pink would create a fantasy world in which he becomes a Hitler-esque dictator, Reznor would push himself further and further into the abyss until it felt like he could never return.
‘Instead of punching the wall and having my hand hurt I could write it down. Strangely things came out of that seemed to have catharsis,’ he told Uncut. ‘I decided to keep doing that. When I wrote The Downward Spiral in 1993 I was five or six years into that experiment and it still worked. The record was exploring a narrative about someone who systematically examines every aspect of their life and then destroys it on a path to trying to find some other solution. I’d started with that theme and fitted songs into the storyline, dealing with religion and sex and drugs and the record ended with some sort of conclusion that could have been suicide, but certainly wasn’t a positive place. I wrote the album about somebody who follows this path who was an extension of me. But it was in my head. I hadn’t actually lived it. Then later I lived it. I didn’t realise the record was a premonition.’
While much of the album would deal with the concept of self-abuse and depression there would be one song which expressed a desire for violence against other people. Conceived as a commentary on the misogyny of gangsta rap while also pushing the narrator further into despair, Big Man with a Gun would return to the album’s overall theme of ‘nothing can stop me now’ as Reznor makes comparisons between guns and his penis. ‘I was messing around with that riff and I was wondering if it could serve as the basis for a short song,’ he told French magazine Rock & Folk. ‘Just a riff, nothing else. I knew what to express in this song. But the few sentences I wrote were so stupid that I had to hide them somewhere. I was like, ‘Shit, I am a complete moron!’ One day I took them back out. It’s not really a song, it’s rather a turning point on the album.’
One individual who would help to guide Reznor through the development of the album’s writing was Rick Rubin, an acclaimed producer who, despite only being two years older than Reznor, was already a ten-year veteran of the industry. Having co-founded the legendary Def Jam alongside Russell Simmons while still in his teens, Rubin had spent the eighties producing revered albums for Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and Slayer before forming American Records a few years later. ‘I was completely bummed out,’ recalled Reznor on how he had slowly become disillusioned with the material he was creating. ‘Rick asked me what my motivation for doing this record was and I told him the truth…just to get it fucking done! And he said, ‘That’s the stupidest fucking reason for doing an album I’ve ever heard. Don’t do it. Don’t do it until you make music that it’s a crime not to let other people hear. I started thinking about it and I realised he was right.’
The Downward Spiral album was a record all about beating everybody up
One of the most important songs to emerge from the sessions would be one that would receive further exposure a decade later after country legend Johnny Cash recorded it as his swan song shortly before his death. Hurt would be a dark exploration of feelings of worthlessness and believing that one causes nothing but pain to everyone around them. ‘I wrote that after I thought the record was finished,’ he revealed. ‘It happened in a day or so and I hadn’t planned on it being on the record or on making a song as gentle or delicate as that. I was uneasy about putting it on the album because that song felt like I was saying I needed help. I wouldn’t admit that to myself but when I wrote it I felt like I was sitting in a pile of rubble and there was a hint of regret and remorse. Hurt was the first inclination for me that I could use a hand here. The Downward Spiral album was a record all about beating everybody up and then Hurt was like a coda saying maybe I shouldn’t have done that. But to make the song sound impenetrable because I thought it was a little too vulnerable I tried to layer it in noise.’
While Pretty Hate Machine may have explored dark subject matters such as depression and abuse it had been created in a relatively tame environment but The Downward Spiral would see Reznor embracing the debauchery lifestyle that the public have come to associate with rock stars. With the freedom to work in his own studio away from the scrutinising eyes of his record label, Reznor would regularly indulge in all manner of drug-induced sexual shenanigans. Recently he had taken a newly signed band under his wing called Marilyn Manson and while simultaneously recording his own album was acting as producer on their debut Portrait of an American Family. Having abandoned their earlier sessions with producer Roli Mosimann, Reznor had been tasked with reworking the album and having grown close to their eponymous frontman since their first meeting a few years earlier, hw would invite Manson to Pig to both perfect their album and share in their mutual love of rock ‘n’ roll excess.
One evening they invited two young women back to the house and proceeded to play a game in which they would ply their guests with tequila while secretly drinking water themselves. With one of them having passed out, they decided to continue the entertainment with the remaining girl. ‘I said, ‘Why don’t we play Guess Who’s Touching You? We’ll put a blindfold on you and try to figure out whose hands are on you?’ detailed Manson in his book The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. ‘So we started squeezing her nipples and prodding her genitals and what-have-you. We were laughing because we were both drunk, though not really as drunk as she was. In the background a Ween album was playing, ‘Push the little daisies and make ‘em come up…’ as me and Trent poked our fingers into the birth cavity of a bizarre fish lady in search of some caviar. But what we ended up finding was a mysterious nodule, maybe it was white fuzz or a piece of corn that she had on the outer region of her rectum.’
But it wouldn’t just be at his home studio that Reznor would participate in all manner of sex games in the name of entertainment, as the sessions would eventually relocate to A&M Studios in Hollywood where he would cross paths with a member of one of rock’s most notorious groups. Tommy Lee had just turned nineteen when Mötley Crüe released their first album in the autumn of 1981 and by the time that he walked into Reznor’s studio twelve years later his band were recording their sixth album and their first without their long-time frontman Vince Neil. Reznor and Lee were already acquaintances through the latter’s friendship with Nine Inch Nails’ touring bassist Danny Lohner. As documented in their own memoir The Dirt, Mötley Crüe had gained a reputation throughout the eighties as an excessive act that took their love of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to such dangerous extremes that Neil had been responsible for the death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle due to driving under the influence and bassist Nikki Sixx had momentarily died following a drug overdose in the hallway of a Los Angeles hotel.
While by the end of the decade they had embraced sobriety, Lee’s taste for beautiful women was legendary and when he appeared at Reznor’s studio he was accompanied by several young women who, minutes later, would provide orgasmic noises that would be sampled by Reznor for Big Man with a Gun. ‘I bring the girls across the hall into the Nine Inch Nails studio, lay them out on Trent’s piano and say, ‘Dude, set up the mikes, get some grapes, roll the tape and have a seat. You’re not gonna believe this,’’ stated Lee in Tommyland. ‘The girls take grapes and stick them in the squirter’s pussy, only to suck them out and stick more in. Soon enough, here we go, I can tell it’s squirt time again. This time Ol’ Faithful hits the wall and everyone freaks. And that was just the appetiser course because the girls keep playing with her and fifteen or twenty minutes later she’s screaming again, which is the cue for the spew.’
Despite the perverse behind-the-scenes escapades that Reznor and his rock star friends would indulge in, his primary focus was still to bring his dark concept of self-destruction to fruition and while both Flood and Vrenna would be integral to its creation, another important participant was Charlie Clouser. While he would later gain acclaim as a film composer through his work on the Saw franchise, in 1993 Clouser was a struggling musician who had been invited to Los Angeles by Australian composer Cameron Allan. Initially approached to create sound effects for the controversial music video to the Nine Inch Nails track Happiness in Slavery, in which a businessman stripes naked and appears aroused as a machine probes his skin and tears apart his flesh, Clouser would soon become good friends with Reznor and was brought on board to contribute to the sessions. Aside from his work on The Downward Spiral he would also be recruited to assist with the re-recording of Portrait of an American Family.
‘I think what first sucked me into Trent’s world was, at the time, this would have been about ’92 when I started working with him, I was doing a lot of drum and synth programming for hard rock and industrial acts like Prong and White Zombie,’ Clouser told Loudwire. ‘Originally, the first thing I did for Trent was programming drum reinforcements on Marilyn Manson’s first record. He was busy with three or four things at once; preparing for a tour, finishing The Downward Spiral. Of course, he already had Chris Vrenna, who’s an excellent programmer and wiz behind all this gear but comes to things from a slightly different angle. So I think it as a love of early-nineties high tech music technology and my abilities on that kind of stuff that was the first thing that attracted Trent to maybe bringing me into his loop.’
While the sessions for The Downward Spiral may have been marred with drug abuse and perverse sex games, for Reznor the album had finally allowed him to express his inner pain and sadness in a way that he felt was uncompromising. Rubin’s advice had spoken to him; this album had to be a statement, it had to be bleeding with his misery. ‘With this record I had something I wanted to stay,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘I wanted to make a record that worked as a theme through the whole thing, one of self-examination and self-discovery and self-destruction at the same time, but what could end up being a healthy process, of shedding some blankets of blindness that you surround yourself with. And I address some ugly things and some desperate moments on the record, looking at the consolation in perhaps the wrong things; through religion, through sex, through drugs. It was things that I’ve dealt with and still deal with at times. I think I kick into self-destruction mode once in a while.’
The greatest surprise with The Downward Spiral…just how much it would resonate with the public
The greatest surprise with The Downward Spiral wouldn’t be that he survived it but just how much it would resonate with the public. While Nine Inch Nails had always been critically acclaimed, just three years earlier the band had almost been driven from the stage when they opened for Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row, at a time when the world still had a vague interest in hair metal. But when The Downward Spiral was released on 8 March 1994, just two weeks after the March of the Pigs single, it would make its debut on the Billboard charts at no. 2. Suddenly Nine Inch Nails became en-vogue, were name-dropped in Hollywood movies like Clueless and were even invited to play a second Woodstock festival to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original legendary event.
But to Reznor the sudden success was unexpected and to a certain extent even unwanted. ‘I wanted this album to be very out-of-fashion, not at all mainstream and here it is at no. 2 on the Billboard,’ he told Rock Sound. ‘It’s really very disturbing, it bothers me because it was not the function of the record. But eventually I looked at it in a very detached way, I just find it surprising that so many people are concerned with our music.’ In a later interview with Rolling Stone he added, ‘If you’d asked me years ago when I’d started I’d have said, ‘No, I’m not mainstream.’ But that’s a blanket of protection you wear to avoid saying something that could be perceived negatively. Yeah, I think my music is mainstream. You can’t sell that many records and still think you’re in the underground. I’m not saying you can’t have that underground or alternative element to it but the underground has infiltrated, to some degree, into the mainstream.’
Around the same time that The Downward Spiral was released the house at 10050 Cielo Drive was finally demolished, a quarter of a century after Charles Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel committed one of the most horrific acts in American history within its four walls. Reznor, meanwhile, had reluctantly become a rock ‘n’ roll star and the nightmare that he had documented with the album finally became a reality. ‘I was thrust into a place where I felt I had to be larger than life,’ confessed Reznor to Mojo fifteen years later. ‘What happened internally is, being insecure in general and having social anxiety, I became pretty lost. I made the mistake in 1994 of packing up all my stuff, putting it in storage and having, literally, no home…There was the sensationalism in the press too because it was extreme music and it wasn’t behind a manufactured character like Marilyn Manson. There was no mask, it was just me.’