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15 things you didn’t know about Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine

Trent Reznor 1991
(Image credit: Larry Busacca/WireImage)

Trent Reznor is a musical genius. Steering Nine Inch Nails for more than three decades now, his unique take on heavy music has traversed Hollywood, snuff films and, inadvertently, a country trap song featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.

But before all that, there was Pretty Hate Machine. Released on October 20, 1989, NIN’s debut album isn’t exactly musical revolution spilling off a disc – it’s a first go, and what a first go it is. Here are 15 things about PHM that might just make you go, ‘Fuck me, really?’ 

1. PHM’s embryonic demos were recorded for free, in the small hours. Working as a handyman and assistant engineer at Cleveland, Ohio’s Right Track Studio, Trent would finish his shift at 2am, start beavering away at PHM, and only make himself scarce when the studio’s owner returned at 8am.

2. Those demos were a whole lot more eighties than the finished article. Collected under the name Purest Feeling, they’re much more Day-Glo and upbeat, but do feature some tricks Trent would end up perfecting on later releases, such as his love for panning.

3. Legendary producer Flood was supposed to oversee the entire album, but PHM ended up crediting four people: Flood, Keith LeBlanc, Adrian Sherwood and John Fryer. Flood only produced Head Like A Hole and Terrible Lie; he had a fairly decent excuse, though, given he was busy recording Depeche Mode’s classic album, Violator.

4.  Every drum beat on PHM is sampled from Trent’s record collection, from bands such as Front 242 and 80s art-poppers Scritti Politti. "Every drum fill on Terrible Lie is lifted intact from somewhere,” he said. “There are six other songs playing through that cut, recorded on tape, in and out, depending on where they worked."

5. Pretty Hate Machine  is the only NIN album to feature slap bass, on Sanctified.

6. Minstry’s Al Jourgensen drugged Trent and shaved his eyebrows off while recording a Queen cover. Trent roped him in to produce a B-side for PHM: a version of Get Down, Make Love. While recording, Al set a rule. A simple rule. Power through the night, and if you fall asleep, you get your head shaven. High on coke and not exactly a betting man, Al laced Trent’s drink with Rohypnol and made deft work of Mr. Reznor, shaving his head, eyebrow and, well, not quite another full eyebrow before he woke up screaming.

7. Trent’s record label at the time, TVT, were not happy bunnies when they heard the final version of Pretty Hate Machine. They’d signed him on the strength and direction of the demos, and as John Fryer noted:  “Someone from the record company came in, and because the demos were more synthy and not as industrial as the album, he listened to it and his mouth dropped open, and he said, 'You've ruined this record.'”

8. That’s What I Get wasn’t even supposed to feature on the record. “It was supposed to be a B-side or something like that,” said Trent. “Lyrically, it didn‘t fit the flow of the record.”

9. A one-star review from the St. Petersburg Times slammed PHM for ripping off industrial icons Skinny Puppy (which, to be fair, it did). Of Down In It, the first NIN song ever written, which Trent has since admitted is a blatant copy of Skinny Puppy’s industrial anthem Dig It, the review claimed: ‘Reznor might feel in need of some creative assistance’.

10. Pretty Hate Machine is the only triple Platinum-certified album to feature a song that’s almost certainly about fisting: Sin.

11. Trent insisted the band play Dance Party USA, a Top Of The Pops-style TV show, to promote the record. He was joking, but the request was taken seriously and NIN ended up playing. Well, miming.  

12. You can hear the whole album covered by classical musicians, or in 8-bit bleep-bloops, if you fancy. The String Quartet Tribute to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine and Pretty Eight Machine, respectively. Just in case you were curious.

13. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, used Pretty Hate Machine as fodder for his writing process. “I just discovered Nine Inch Nails when I was writing Fight Club, and somebody had given me a bootleg tape of The Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine,” he said.

14. Trent is still a grumpy bear regarding TVT’s promotion of the record. NIN and the label famously fell out after Pretty Hate Machine’s release, resulting in NIN moving to Interscope. In the liner notes for the album’s 2010 reissue, Trent lists the usual thank yous; they’re parried by a couple of curt fuck yous to TVT and Steve Gottlieb, the label’s founder.

15. Despite popular belief, Nine Inch Nails didn’t ‘become’ a one-man project. It always has been – Trent played pretty much everything on Pretty Hate Machine. “Some people mistake it for egotism,” he said in 1990. “I’m not out to say I played every part and I edited every piece of tape, but it just works out that way.”