Tales from the Turntable: A deep dive into one of the darkest albums in music history 

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Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral” is one of the band’s most loved albums. Since its release in the 1990s, the album has garnered millions of listens and saves, rendering it some of the band’s best work. Photo by Spotify

Welcome back to Tales from the Turntable! We’re continuing the spooky theme as we quickly approach Halloween. This week we’ll be exploring the story of one of the darkest yet most beloved albums in rock and metal, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral.” 

This record has achieved legendary status, and almost 30 years later it’s still lauded as one of the best albums of the 1990s. The album is atmospheric, anthemic, full of anger and considered as some of Nine Inch Nails’ best work.  

Like the rest of their discography, the story of this record begins with Trent Reznor, the multi-instrumentalist and principal songwriter for the band. After the surprising success of his first record, 1989’s “Pretty Hate Machine,” Reznor had become a surprising star in the music industry. However, rising tensions between Reznor and Nine Inch Nails’ record label, TVT Records, caused the band to part ways with TVT and sign to Interscope Records. Eventually, they started their own label under Interscope.  

It was during this tumultuous time that Reznor relocated to 10050 Cielo Drive, Los Angeles, where he would construct a home recording studio and record the next two Nine Inch Nails projects: “Broken” and later, “The Downward Spiral.” Though this house may seem like an average Los Angeles home, it has a dark and brutally tragic history. 

10050 Cielo Drive became infamous after director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate rented the home in early 1969. Their stay at the home would unfortunately not last long, as on Aug. 8, 1969, Tate and several others would be murdered by Charles Manson and his cult.  

Then one day I met [Tate’s] sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time that whole thing kind of slapped me in the face…I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’

Trent Reznor

The story of this notorious murder could be the subject of its own Tales from the Turntable; Manson had been inspired by the Beatles song, “Helter Skelter,” to commit this atrocity, citing its seemingly violence-endorsing sound and lyrical content. Manson went so far as to call the Beatles the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” In reality, Paul McCartney had written the song about a ride at a local carnival.  

The studio was dubbed “Pig,” or “Le Pig,” in reference to the word “pig” being written in blood on the front door of the house shortly after the murders were committed. It had also been used by shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, whose name was ironically taken from Charles Manson. 

Reznor later abandoned the house after a run-in with one of Tate’s sisters. “Then one day I met [Tate’s] sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time that whole thing kind of slapped me in the face,” the musician told a Rolling Stone interviewer. “…I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’” The house was quickly vacated, and demolished just months after the release of “The Downward Spiral.” 

One can only imagine the heaviness Reznor felt while living in the house. Combined with his depression and notoriously vicious drug abuse, it’s no surprise that “The Downward Spiral” quickly became Nine Inch Nails’ most aggressive record. Self-hatred and isolation are key themes in this album, and from front to back it’s one of the band’s most captivating and abrasive albums in their discography. Famously, Johnny Cash covered the closing track, “Hurt,” which surpassed the original version in popularity almost immediately, especially in the wake of Cash’s passing just two years later. 

Fortunately, Reznor was able to get clean in 2001 with the help of fellow rockstar David Bowie. “The Downward Spiral” will forever be a lament to some of the darkest experiences a person can go through.  

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