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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (1994)

There was a deputy head who used to work at my secondary school who had quite the personal vendetta against me. This may sound like the typical gripe that a naughty teenager might have against an authority figure who gave them grief, but this guy was beyond the pale. He told me one day that he’d made it his mission to “break” me, and that he wanted nothing more than to make me cry – a bit unprofessional, I think you’ll agree.

He was a podgy, balding Scouser with a scabby beard and an alcoholic’s red nose, and seemed hell-bent on getting me expelled from school and trying to alienate me from other students in my year. On one occasion, for example, his game seemed to be to get one of the toughest lads in our year to see me as someone who’d got him in trouble, and so would mean hassle for me as a consequence. The lad had stolen one of the physics teacher’s pens. Though there was no proof, the deputy head called in the lad’s parents for a meeting and told them that I’d made a sworn statement that he’d stolen it. Luckily for me, the lad in question was my cousin, and during our childhoods we had been quite close. Though we were very different people in secondary school (he was in the football team and hung out with all the tough kids, whereas I was a geeky musician who used to hang around with grebo kids in the year above), he and his parents knew that the deputy head was lying. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall during this meeting, watching the deputy head as he squirmed through his lies. What sort of messed up game was this? And how many other times had he dropped my name in similar circumstances? Luckily, my uncle and aunt called him out on his bullshit, and my cousin kept the pen.

I once noticed a memo that had fallen off my English teacher’s desk from the deputy head who wanted a report on absolutely any infraction of the rules that they could get me on: chewing gum, uniform, forgetting my pen - anything. I made an effort from then on, not only to be a model student, but to do so in such an over-the-top way that the deputy head could be without any doubt as to what I was doing – I wanted to be untouchable on paper, but sticking it the deputy head while doing it. I never chewed gum, so that box was already ticked. I made sure that my uniform was immaculate, not just tidy, but immaculate: I swapped my shoes for the parade shoes I had for drill competitions in cadets: they were shined to a deep gloss and were fitted with metal segs that would click with each step; I made sure that my shirt and trousers were crisply ironed, even going as far as applying starch to the front and back creases of the trousers so that they made a sharp crease; I bought a new school tie and replaced all of the lost buttons on my blazer – there was no way in hell that they could criticise my uniform. Indeed, for the few weeks that I did that, my uniform was by far the smartest in school. I made sure that for each lesson I not only had enough stationery, but would taken enough stationary for anyone else in the class who needed it. I had a large box of pens, and a clear pencil case filled with pencils that I would place neatly on my desk in case a teacher wanted to make sure that I had my stationary. I made sure that I was overly enthusiastic in lessons, putting my hand up for every question and being inhumanly eager. I was also overly-polite, taking my cue from something like Oliver, where despite whatever the world throws at the lad, he is still chipper and respectful. Teachers knew what I was doing: some were amused, others reported me for things like ‘disruptive enthusiasm’ and ‘extreme politeness’ – it was silly and ridiculous, but this was the only way I knew how to fight.

There was a lad in my year who had been stealing coats from one of the cloakrooms in order to sell them. I was accused of doing this and was questioned by the deputy head and a guy who’d been employed as some sort of behaviour officer. He was ex-police, and seemed to think he was still on the force judging by his interrogation technique: and it was an interrogation. They had a lamp pointed at my face, and they played the role of good cop, bad cop. “Don’t bullshit me son, we know you took the coats,” was countered by the other with “look, it’s fine, if you just admit it, everything will be okay.” They kept me in that office for two hours, until at one point the deputy head told me that they had me on CCTV taking the coats. At that I grinned and asked if I could see the tape. After a few moments of awkward silence, the ex-policeman asked the deputy head to step outside. After a few heated words, the ex-policeman left, and the deputy head came back into his office. “Okay, you can go back to lesson, but I’ve got my eye on you.” On this, I stood up out of my chair only to be met with “I’m not finished with you, sit down!” I sat back down and stared up at his red face. I had clearly wound him up by not being guilty of stealing coats, and that is when he told me that he couldn’t figure me out, that he wanted me out of the school that he wanted to break me and reduce me to tears. I stared at my shoes as he went on his angry rant. I started to sniffle and covered my eyes. I then sat up grinning and bright eyed having convinced him for a moment that he’d brought me to tears, “It’s not going to happen, Sir,” I said and left his office.

A week or so later, I messed up. I was late up for school, and after making it onto the school bus after running at full speed, I realised that I had forgotten my technology folder. For most people, and in most schools, this wouldn’t have meant much, but I went to a pretty messed-up experimental school and once they wanted to get rid of you, any slight misdemeanour could tip the balance out of your favour. After being in graphics for about fifteen minutes, it became obvious that I didn’t have my workbook or folder with me. I tried to get out of trouble by claiming that I would be working on one of the Acorns so I didn’t think that I needed to bring it – we always had to bring our folders to every lesson, so the deputy head was called to bite my ear off. In front of about 90 other students, the deputy head screamed at the top of his lungs about three inches from my face with a good old fashioned bollocking that went out of fashion at about the time that Tom Brown left school. His eyes were bulging in his head, and I could smell the halitosis of his breath as he sprayed my face with his flecks of his disgusting spit. Throughout I was apologising with my calmest voice, explaining that I made a mistake and that I was sorry, but he continued shouting. When he finished he stood breathing heavily in front of me, and a quick glance around the room saw that everyone was sitting around staring in horror. I wiped the spit from my face and asked him if he’d finished. Everyone around the technology room laughed, and the deputy head leant to my ear and whispered “you little shit”.

He walked away, and I thought that was end of the situation. I stayed late after school for homework club until 7pm that evening in order to finish the coursework for a GNVQ in IT that I had been begrudgingly enrolled on. When I went to the car park afterwards to take the late bus home (the school put on buses at 5.40pm and 7pm), I found that the bus had left without me. This was all very odd. I went to the school reception and asked where the bus was, and was told that it had already left. The receptionist called the stewardess’s phone and it transpired that my name had been taken off the list because someone had told her that I’d been expelled from school. I assumed that someone had said this as some kind of prank – I was wrong. The receptionist called me a taxi. While waiting, I called home and spoke to my mum who snapped at me about being expelled – it was the first I’d heard of it, and it hit me like a kick in the gut

In the taxi home I stared out of the window with tears rolling down my face. He’d made me cry, but he’d never get to see it. On returning home, I ignored my mum, and went straight to my room. I put on ‘A Warm Place’ by Nine Inch Nails and curled up in a ball on my bed filled with anger and tears, allowing the song’s ambient tones to encase and soothe me.

As a bizarre twist to this story, my mum called the school the following day to appeal my case to the head, who told her that this was the first he’d heard about me being expelled... it was all very, very odd. Revisiting The Downward Spiral brought back a lot of memories that I hadn’t thought about in years, but therein lies the power of music.

After the trepidation of the opening drum beats, album-opener ‘Mr Self Destruct’ smashes The Downward Spiral wide open with brash authority. The beats and guitars are intense, and the vocals are almost distorted beyond comprehension. ‘Piggy’ is an amazing piece of laid-back industrial funk that turns into layers of complex instrumentation and drum blasts that could smash a hole through a brick wall. ‘Heresy’, in spite of its childish anti-Christian rhetoric, is an amazing piece of electro rock. The music is so good that even the screams of “God is dead, and no one cares” can be forgiven. ‘March of the Pigs’ is harsh and brutal in its ear-splitting intensity, Darkwave rhythms and tiny bursts of cheerful jazz piano - “doesn’t it make you feel better?”. ‘Closer’ still sounds fresh, with its tight electronic beats and sexy funk rhythms. This song showcases Trent Reznor’s uncanny talent to construct a song from intricate layers of music without it sounding crowded or clumsy. ‘Ruiner’ sounds like the theme to a dark reimagining of Knight Rider, no doubt directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Michael Knight, and Helena Bonham-Carter as the voice of KITT. ‘The Becoming’ brings to mind the clicking and crawling insects and broken machinery, but the softness of the vocals during the verse make it sound strangely subtle, that is of course until the whispered screams and jackhammer beats of the song’s outro. ‘I Do Not Want This’ is melodically stunning, with Reznor’s piano playing in the verse marking a stark contrast to the heavy metal guitar blasts of the chorus. ‘Big Man With a Gun’ is a weaker version of ‘The Ruiner’ and is easily skippable. ‘A Warm Place’ still makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. This is a jaw-droppingly stunning beautiful piece of music that creates the sensation of warmth and protection – amazing. ‘Eraser’ is too creepy to enjoy: the music is punctuated by layers of what sounds like buzzing insects, and the strange guitar work can only serve to make you feel itchy and paranoid – avoid listening to this song when walking home down dark streets at night - you will convince yourself that something horrible is following you. ‘Reptile’ emulates the sound of robotic creatures, but unlike ‘Eraser’ this song opens out as if filled with a burst of cleansing light. ‘The Downward Spiral’ is a strange musical interlude that turns the creepiness up a couple of notches from the levels it reached in ‘Eraser’. Album-closer ‘Hurt’ easily rates as one of the best songs ever written: it’s tender, honest, heartbreaking, raw and beautiful. The music fills you with strange chills that make even the most devout atheist sense something divine.

This album is without doubt a keeper. There are a few tracks near the end of the album that are easy to skip past, but with songs like ‘Piggy’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’, it is difficult for anyone with an essence of human feeling not to sense Reznor’s song-writing genius.

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Anonymous said...

sling this one in the bin. proto-emo gothic whining

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