Nine Inch Nails’ played as part of the 1991 Lollapalooza tour [July-August], from New Orleans to Orlando, as with their legendary Woodstock performance in 1994, it proved to be a watershed series of events. Emerging on-stage covered in their [then] trademark corn-starch, other groups appeared too clean and too keen to entertain, NIN’s appearance alone placed them as a band apart, bringing Reznor’s private war and their internal conflicts to the stage. ICE-T played guitar with them for Head Like A Hole and at the end the band trashed all of their equipment. Their performance massively increased their profile amongst major record labels and audiences.
Coming-off the road in September 1991, Reznor said the band were “imploding”. The theatrical element of the band members’ on-stage ‘violence’ of bumping, tackling and body-slamming into one another had become increasingly real and “negative”, where blood was spilt and equipment trashed, a mode of behaviour more or less replicated by the audience Reznor had goaded into the same frenzied state. It was the purposeful aggression which added pressure to the standard tour routine of shows, generic hotel rooms, waking up just to travel all day and do the same thing the next night. Nine Inch Nails did not tour again until March, 1994.
By 1992 Pretty Hate Machine had sold 350,000 copies, more than many of Reznor’s industrial peers, and a significant achievement for an alternative band’s debut album. Reznor explained to Musician magazine in 1994 that his early success was already soured by ongoing business issues: “I got everything I wanted in my life… except I don’t really have a life right now. I don’t have any real friends, any relationships that mean anything to me, and I’ve turned myself into this music-creation-performance machine. When I got off the road after the Pretty Hate Machine and Lollapalooza tours, I didn’t write a note of music and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it anymore, to be honest with you. But we had this horrible fucking lawsuit hanging over our heads in order to get off our old label, TVT.”
Fast forward a few years and Trent Reznor hit the road again, revitalized following the critical reception of The Downward Spiral released in April of 1994, Nine Inch Nails entered the stage of Woodstock in that same year like returning heroes. It was with album track, “March Of The Pigs” that Reznor coined perhaps the ultimate festival anthem, its portent of self-abasement, of filth and glorious degradation, would be fulfilled by their performance at Woodstock 1994.
Beginning as a trashy, thrashy, moshing anthem, March Of The Pigs’ 269bpm drumming in ⅞ time signature is off-kilter, yet taut and precise, being the fastest song NIN ever recorded and perhaps the most explosive. The song is an example of shock as musical spectacle, bursts of guitar employed as a weapon – it pushes, shoves and surges like massed bodies in a crowd driven into a helix wave – every instrument caught-up in the fast, mad thrusting motion, expressed in the repetitive stabbing of synth notes.
The song is a fantastic paranoiac mess, as the narrator sees himself surrounded by pig-figures coming at him from every direction as both gullible victims and demanding aggressors. Reznor barks orders in broken syntax callings for the pigs to: “Please/greed/feed.” There is no time to think, question or hesitate; the song barrels headlong into the vortex of the drums and guitars hammering out broken steps, like some twisted game show, the emphasis is upon forced entertainment and instant gratification. The circus call of ‘step right up…’ becomes the same invitation to ‘come and see’ of Mr Self Destruct’s Fantastically Inevitable Car-Crash.
After the punishing, almost monotone force of Broken, Reznor said he wanted to avoid repeating himself. March Of The Pigs takes the listener at the same kind of hard angles; jolted by a flurry of punches to the face. But this intensity is completely defused by the jazzy-schtick piano break where Reznor interrupts the song with a sour, sarcastic refrain — stopping everything — just to ask the audience if they now feel ‘entertained’. Without waiting for an answer, the song jumps back into its frenzy. As a warped partner of the song Piggy, March seems to progress the idea of separation, falling into the rock-star-mode of purposeful distancing and isolationism.
A 1995 article from Newsday magazine entitled The Casualties of MOSHING: Nights of Nine Inch Nails and Broken Bones describes the mosh-pit in anthropological terms of physical primitivism, while noting the cathartic possibilities offered. Moshing is: “An activity very remotely resembling dancing, it originated in the slam-dancing of the punk-rock ’70s – It’s fun, it draws a crowd, it’s a great release for the pent-up anxiety and angst of adolescence – and it’s dangerous.”
The author gives a vivid account a NIN gig at New York’s Nassau Coliseum in 1995: “From the upper mezzanine the fans looked like a roiling, rumbling sea, or a giant, porous trampoline for the surfers, who rolled and lolled along a rippling surface, limp as rag dolls, flipped and flopped by hundreds of hands. A pair of legs would kick up and disappear into the surging mob.” There is also a sense of mutual survival, people catching and throwing one another back into the relative safety of the group’s inner ring; to the jostling crush of equally absurd and obscene postures like the distorted bodily architecture of pornography. This is surrounded by the outer ring, a circle running away with itself into seemingly perpetual motion, until the song stops.
[READ MORE IN MY BOOK – INTO THE NEVER]
From the imaginary stage Reznor sees the ‘pigs’, his audience, adopt a purely physical system that is both disciplined and wild, in keeping with the music, marshalling themselves into the mosh-pit state, the collective noun for pigs, a ‘drift’ or a ‘drove’, is reflective of these herd-like wave motions. The song itself uses chaos to enforce a new kind of order, the uniformity of the rhythmic march is deconstructed into an [organised] riot, that drives the orbital bodies on the floor pursuing their own momentum to become one continuous flow resembling the group behaviours of herd animals or a murmuration of birds, themselves suggestive of the wider spiral patterns found throughout nature.
March of the Pigs continues the anthropomorphism of Piggy; across the album Reznor uses imagery of herd and hive animals, the narrator referring to beings outside of themselves, possibly humans, as pigs, reptiles, flies and sheep. The connotation of sheep is obvious: faithful followers shepherded into organised belief systems, such as religion, conforming to societal expectations. An early reference to pigs appears in the song Last from Broken, with the line “pigs we get what we deserve” meeting with the line from PHM of bowing in supplication as a mark of servitude, these behaviours are seen as crimes of weakness.
In March… the emphasis on bodies and movement suggests a herd mentality of animals guided into a flow of bodies, which through gullibility, ignorance or willful following they are complicit in, so pigs become active participants in their own execution. The contradiction being: if the pigs at the gig poggo to the beat they are slaves; equally, if they deviate and break from the herd they exile themselves as freaks amongst outsiders. This situation could also be applied to the private citizen or audience member enmeshed in systems of mass behaviour. From his role as front of house mixer for NIN and engineer on The Downward Spiral, Sean Beavan was positive about the benefits of the live experience: “Every night I saw the catharsis of the audience – ‘someone feels like me’ they are all together, it makes people feel better.” Reznor’s song suggests that while gigs might prove beneficial emotional exercise, no new knowledge is gained, the pigs remain hungry, always wanting more.
March has a Fight Club-like energy of people venting their buried frustrations, but performed en-masse, caught up in the flow this is the same madness of crowds as the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg that roused a nation to war, and in sport crowds where collective euphoria projected through the team overrides individual thought, spectators and players are absorbed into a collective. This comparison has been made in explorations of third way alternative politics, where a silent majority becomes activated through mass presence. This effect is explored in David Bowie’s Fashion , expressing fears of the goon squad via a glam stomp, later aped by Marilyn Manson in songs such as The Dope Show  suggesting that in the rush of the performance the audience also become the stars, creating a shared equality.
During a break in the band’s 1994 Woodstock performance of March Of The Pigs, Reznor unambiguously addressed the crowd as: “All you miserable muddy fuckheads” followed by the phrase: “doesn’t it make you feel better?” In interview he alluded to developing fan fear and feeling alienated in his role as the supposed leader of the crowds watching his shows, telling Musician magazine in 1994: “You’re meaning what you’re singing and looking down at these subhuman things going, ‘Take a shit on my head, spit on me, anything’. That fucks up anybody after a while.”
Needless to say the anthropomorphism of March serves to drag humanity down into the mud by emphasising the baser instincts in our animal drives of hunger-violence-sex; the innate biting, pushing, sucking behaviours we condemn as animalistic are in fact all too human. Reznor strips away the layers of civilising illusion that humans are innately superior, to show that while we are capable of choice and can achieve group unity, we remain motivated by self-preservation and personal desires. Reznor would echo the misanthropic tone of March… in a 2018 Guardian interview: “We’re just animals that, left to our own devices, will kill each other. We’re only out for ourselves anyway. This illusion that we’re more than that is nothing but that: an illusion.”
The meeting of piggish bodies and moshing aligns with the song’s imagery emphasising raw physicality, smell, taste, suggestive of appetite, obsession into the decadent excess of addiction. There is a lustful, phallic image of shedding skin or layers, perhaps the superficiality and false security of our most strongly held beliefs, less a transformation, more exposing the authentic and potentially ugly core and breaking with self-image, Reznor told Circus magazine in 1994: “When you peel back the skin sometimes you find that what you see is not always the person you thought you were.” This relatable fear of exposure and vulnerability is also expressed in Nirvana’s song Lithium, where Kurt Cobain addresses feelings of ugliness as inadequacy, but recognises they might be shared in common with the listener.
March has also been interpreted as an attack on the negative aspects of musical fame, with attention and scrutiny of the media, obsessive fans and hangers-on, enforcing the image of the persona onto the person, demanding exposure to the point of pure exploitation where Trent Reznor, as the idol of Nine Inch Nails, must make a spectacle of himself. There common aspects here between the music industry and factory-farming, whether art or pigs, both are sold as product, for pleasure experience, with artists sometimes herded like animals to meet demand. Perhaps this indicates why the amorphous Pink character of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, resonated so much with Reznor. Pink embodies of vulnerability being used and swallowed-up into the music industry machine, a globule of being, raw protozoa, like fleshy pig as potential victim, he is a martyr to the needs, wants and desires of others, projected onto him, they all march at him constantly demanding and wanting more.
In March the narrator frequently refers to his desire to watch a system be torn down into collapse, it is hard to know whether this is aimed directly at the still-hated Steve Gottlieb and TVT, or simply the music industry at large for their exploitation of artists. Certainly Reznor would later provide his own industrial revolution, founding Nothing records, establishing his own online distribution, as well as producing creative commons licensed music in The Slip album  His resistance to the expectations of ‘being in a band’ was present in the destructive live performances of Nine Inch Nails as a band unit smashing their equipment, and attacking each other, effectively sabotaging their music for the sake of performance, subverting the whole idea of being a beast of burden, made to entertain and to satisfy the audience.
In his Rolling Stone review of The Downward Spiral, Jonathan Gold noted the album’s exploration of: “The power of the suffering over the guilty and the consumer over the consumed.” This relationship hinges on control and status. The pig victim is bound to the slaughterhouse; its operatives rely on their bodies as food-source and for employment; and the machines that require material for processing; as the pigs are the fans bound to the artist and their work, to feed upon and adore; as the artist needs their audience to feed their own hunger for success and artistic achievement, all run through the mill of the music industry.
When asked by NME in 1994 about his repeated references to pigs, Reznor said: “I guess I just used that word generically, as a metaphor for people I don’t like, or myself, or things don‘t like.” By including himself in this, Reznor offered the painful realisation that in wearing the masks of our respective roles we are all pigs now, sometimes equally muddy, thwarted and flawed, bound to one another in the march as both spectacle and spectator, and once it stops no-one will sleep soundly and nothing will ever be alright.
Do you feel better now?
[the above is an edited extract from my book about NIN and The Downward Spiral, Into The Never]