[WHAT A FANTASTIC DEATH ABYSS!] David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and the Great Beyond

I remember once mishearing a line from the David Bowie song Heart’s Filthy Lesson, mistaking ‘abyss’ for ‘exit’. It is a powerful and fascinating slip of the ear, and until I checked the lyric sheet years later, that was how it stayed lodged in my brain. But this incidental perhaps betrays a deeper connection that goes back and forth between Bowie’s album from 1995, 1. Outside and Trent Reznor’s The Downward Spiral – two records that would spark a deep and productive friendship. 


Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall Reznor has frequently stated that he drew on Bowie’s 1977 album Low as a key influence for The Downward Spiral. It displays so many of Low’s studio innovations: non-standard structures of shorter, poppier songs and experimental instrumental tracks that seem to start and finish at random, Spiral would also reflect Bowie’s emphasis on  deployment of mood and textures over straight hooks and choruses.

The Downward Spiral Nine Inch Nails

Reznor underlined his interest in contrasting dynamics speaking to Kerrang in April 1994 about Bowie’s Low and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, two ‘Berlin’ records, which sit alongside Bowie’s “Heroes” in detached manic style and expressionist-style album covers: “You may still be expressing extreme emotions, but instead of loud guitars it’s the silence of restraint. When you think it’s going to explode and it doesn’t, it’s over.” It is this use of dramatic tension that so surprises and unsettles the listener and exemplifies the shock and awe, twists and turns that drive the album.

This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral


All of this gave Reznor inspiration and the creative confidence to know that like Bowie he could meet his musical vision within the major label system and still achieve critical success without falling into ‘commercial suicide’. But there was also a deeper connection between the emotional tone of Low and Reznor’s own mindset in the early 90s.

[Iggy and Bowie born in the same year, 1947]

Reznor told Mojo in 2005 that he admired and no doubt identified with Bowie himself through Low’s: “Feeling of coldness and desperation, and the daring of the song structure” tracks that seemed to start and end randomly without trying to please the listener.

[LISTEN – Bowie struggling to keep it together in the city – Low is paranoid, hysteric but also disciplined]

Beyond Berlin

But Bowie’s influence on The Downward Spiral goes far beyond Low. In a Studio Q interview from 2013 Reznor explains that the first Bowie record he listened to was actually Scary Monsters [1980]: “Bowie’s coldest scariest, and most seductive record, even though it wasn’t friendly” from this he worked backwards to discover Hunky dory [1971]. These two records would also inform Nine Inch Nails’ music, through Monster’s use of paranoia, railing against totalitarianism and self-destructive urges [cocaine];  and Bowie’s interest in Nietzschean philosophy of the Superman [Übermensch] and fears of creeping insanity [Bewlay Brothers]. The ‘Berlin trilogy’ albums would be represented in the sonic power of force and restraint also employed on Iggy Pop’s solo records of that time [The Idiot and Lust For Life], co-written and produced with Bowie; Iggy’s tracks, Mass Production and Nightclubbing being proto-NIN songs throbbing with an industrial [and industrialised] grind and the sheen of weary, misanthropic sleaze [along with the sampled kick drum that opens Closer, taken from the intro to Nightclubbing].

[LISTEN – Deep in it, Iggy fights his way through a mechanised dirge, powerful but restrained, the song is an endurance test that breaks into elegiac outro]

In Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists list, published in 2010, Nine Inch Nails appeared at number 94, with the entry written by Bowie. He sets NIN and Trent Reznor’s work somewhere between the poetry of Baudelaire and the music of Velvet Underground. The Downward Spiral uses nihilistic emotional force suggestive of the death of romance, while crafting songs that mask hooks with noise, feedback and experimentation with subverted classical forms of the screeching and droning viola; all damaged hearts wearing their abrasive wounds. 

Trent Reznor Rolling Stone Nine Inch Nails

The shrieking of nothing is killing

With the song Heart’s Filthy Lesson, the conflation of ‘exit’ and ‘abyss’ echoes Reznor’s spiral concept where endings, as in self-erasure or death, also mark entrances such as spiritual rebirth from a place of decay; facing-up to “becoming” and the prosect of suicide.

[LISTEN – Bowie and 1.Outside – falling apart in real-time the decadent artist comes face to face with their own decay – see the sepia decline of Closer in this video]

1. Outside is perhaps Bowie’s darkest album, wearing the skin of goth hyperbole, along with Low, it is also his most avant-garde, centring around a convoluted murder-mystery “art crime” plot that works more like a film script turned into an album. Bowie’s concept-heavy approach struggles to sustain its own narrative, and was a largely abstract performance rather than charting personal struggles, as by 1995 Bowie was financially secure, sober and happily married. 

[LISTEN – Closer, still provocative after all these years – click the link to compare with Bowies HFL video!]

Heart’s Filthy Lesson, has some of NIN’s grit and grind, with buzzing, itch-driven guitars, and a disjointed structure, but it also marked a significant shift in Bowie’s greater aesthetic, as with many of his albums, particularly Diamond dogs [1974] he created characters that inhabited the visual and imaginary world he built around his music. He wore a new gothic influence on his sleeves, somewhat self-consciously creating a new mask of black T-shirts and eyeliner, and extending this to style of his videos which explored body horror and decay through sepia tones. Bowie said he wanted to critique the idea of establishment absolutes [religion, morality etc.] arguing that it was chaos and paganistic urges [the Chthonic drives of Camille Paglia’s writing – see below] that defined human nature and therefore determined its situation, not some higher power or external authority. 

This Way, Or No Way…

Both albums plunge into an impossible space of nihilistic escapism, that suggests either the helix-cage of purgatorial descent, or self-erasure [of the human] through the death of empathetic affect, in favour of post-human solipsistic retreat. It is the crushing and repressive atmosphere of their respective ‘characters’ being held to an invisible situation of impending doom that unite them in a shared struggle. 

Triptych Manic Street Preachers

In the excellent book on Welsh band, Manic Street Preachers, Daniel Lukes sees 1. Outside as an expression of “sick masculinity” seen through the prism of the 90s art world, particularly the YBAs [Young British Artists]  re-presentation of their own life experiences as source material, and the exploitation of real-life murders and the body-snatching of sharks and cows. On Spiral Reznor worked to a similar principle, for a man whose life was his art, there is much of his own feelings and mental struggle invested in the album. Bowie wore the decadent attitudes of the YBAs on 1. Outside, particularly with songs titles like The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty). As with the controversy-baiting arrest of schlock and snuff films, the lines between the ‘borrowing’ of the real and the ‘forcing’ of the fake had become jaded to the point where assumed authenticity was used to mask insincerity such that meaning no longer seemed to matter, Bowie was playing on this and pushing ironic detachment to an extreme.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

[The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Hirst, 1991]

Bowie’s album chimed with one of his great influences, Scott Walker, whose alien in the city album, Tilt, was released May 1995 a few months before Bowie’s album, and also Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway [1974] which offers something of the innocent abroad, in New York, entering into a world of corruption. These are all traits in common with Reznor’s narrator having gone off the deep end of alienation to retreat into himself, losing his own humanity in the process. 

Bowie and Reznor tour

In 1995, Reznor was invited by David Bowie to do a joint tour together, Bowie found that their seemingly opposite styles were a source of attraction, seeing Reznor as a direct, largely solo, minimalist; and his own music as band-driven orchestration born from collaborative jamming.  They agreed on an initial 6-week stint, aiming to perform together on each other’s songs, merging towards a shared sensibility. Audiences and critics were divided. At that time Reznor’s career was in the ascendant, whereas Bowie struggled to draw new audiences with his new music, as he resisted compromising himself by serving-up ‘the hits’ for the audience’s sake. The artists’ co-headline status expressed their mutual appreciation through their on-stage dynamic. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2016, Reznor praised Bowie’s artistic fearlessness, as he explained his tour setlist to him : “You know, I’m not going to play what anybody wants me to play. I just finished a strange new album [1. Outside]. And we’re going to play some select cuts from a lot of Berlin trilogy–type things, and the new album. That’s not what people are going to want to see, but that’s what I need to do.”

Speaking to the Hartford Courant in 1995, Bowie said of Reznor: “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there. I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.” The New York Times noted the interesting contrast between Reznor the “explosive introvert” and Bowie the “detached outsider”. Even though they emerged from opposite historical ends of music and popular culture – both artists presided over a persona of general strangeness and alienation. 

To promote the tour, Bowie and Reznor appeared in several interviews together, these display their united front of mutual appreciation and the warmth between the two men. They would go on to share a common artistic and personal journey through Reznor’s later challenge with addiction recovery. Where Bowie fled America in 1976, after losing himself in a blizzard of cocaine and paranoia, he ditched his Thin White Duke persona and made his exodus from LA [“The most vile pisspot in the world”] for Europe. Reznor would make an inverse move, leaving Cleveland and shedding his earlier PHM sound along with many ties to the industrial genre, finally settling in LA for the recording of Broken and The Downward Spiral during 1992-1993. Reznor would quickly come to hate the city itself, finding it as fake and full of exploitation as Bowie had done.

Strung out in heaven’s high

Bowie’s revelation for change came after seeing himself in the 1975 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor. It portrayed an emaciated and distant Bowie, visibly losing his grip on reality. Bowie became ‘the Passenger’ of Iggy Pop’s later track, a detached observer chauffeured from place to place, dehydrated from cocaine and subsisting on a diet of milk and green peppers. Speaking to camera about the experience of fame, he mentions the frightening acceleration of going from being unknown to famous, seemingly overnight, though a process that had in fact taken years. In the documentary, Bowie notes a fly that has landed in his carton of milk, and observes that like the drowning insect, he too had gorged himself on the excesses of success to the point that both touring and decadence became a stale exercise of numbing tedium. 

Iggy Pop and Bowie in Berlin

Reznor too would experience this sudden shock of having publicity and touring demands thrust upon him. The sales explosion of The Downward Spiral selling millions of copies demanded frenzied activity from Interscope to capitalise on the album’s success, as demand increased tours were extended bringing him to the crest of a new and perilous wave that he had always aspired to, but that now seemed largely out of his control. Speaking of the 1995 Outside tour, he said: “I was a mess, quite honestly. This was the peak of Nine Inch Nails’ newfound rocket ship of fame. It distorted my personality and became overwhelming […] My way of dealing with life was to numb myself with drugs and alcohol, because it made me feel better and more equipped to deal with everything. My career was skyrocketing, but the scaffolding that was holding me up as a person was starting to collapse.” Pressure slowly ticked away at Reznor to work towards a follow-up album, and for this to meet, if not exceed, the commercial and critical impact of The Downward Spiral. Forcing him from one vortex of driven creativity to another, the new world of media attention, growing NIN-mania and music industry expectation.

In part because of this increasingly demanding process, Reznor, as Bowie had, would struggle with addiction from the mid-90s onwards. But Bowie proved a further inspiration in getting clean, showing that recovery was possible, and that without drugs he could still record great music. Reznor explained: “[Bowie] said some things that weren’t scolding, but pieces of wisdom that stuck with me: ‘You know, there is a better way here, and it doesn’t have to end in despair or in death, in the bottom.’” Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Reznor referred to him as a ‘mentor’, recounting that Bowie’s example was both a personal and artistic inspiration.

With 1. Outside, Bowie seemed to have come full circle, completing a reflexive cycle between artist, influence and protege,  as if revisiting the bold experimentation and confrontational art sound of Low, by virtue of Reznor’s praise. While The Downward Spiral’s success showed that there remained an audience for transgressive music that veered between experimentation in avant-garde textures, pop sensibilities and even non-music for Bowie to confidently pursue his new project. 

Ashes to ashes

Bowie and Trent shared a close friendship and mutual respect, the two artists influencing and collaborating with one another throughout their careers. Reznor remixed Bowie tracks and would appear in the video for Bowie’s single I’m Afraid Of Americans [1997], later performing the track as a modern protest song at several live shows. One journalist compared the relationship to a two-way Oedipus complex – the father feeding off the son and the son wishing to kill; to consume and to become, the father. This is perhaps unfair, Reznor offered  a development of Bowie’s creative spark that encouraged the breaking of musical and genre conventions, and it was his artistic resolve that gave him the courage to produce a ground-breaking album, which in turn encouraged Bowie to reassess his own value of as a contemporary artist.

Reznor would remember Bowie following his death by performing the track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, from his final album Blackstar [2016], while on tour, also recording a studio version. The song is as much about looking forwards as reflecting upon death, fearlessly; not reflecting or wallowing in the past, but embracing and dealing with the present. And this is perhaps Bowie’s key influence upon Reznor, who, while failing to match Bowie’s breathless run of 70s albums, has committed himself to recovery and regaining control of his life, reinventing Nine Inch Nails with every album, and that is perhaps the greatest tribute he could have paid to his friend and mentor. 


I love to reflect on Bowie from a quote when he was interviewed circa. 1997, around the time of the Earthling album, where he argues that the making of great art demands full immersion in a space somewhere between challenge and doubt

Bowie Love Is Lost Pierrot  Puppet

“Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” 

This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral


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