A good friend of mine works live sound gigs for various artists--mostly country and sometimes rock acts--but he's rarely lucky enough to work for artists whose music he would purchase and enjoy on his own. He's definitely not a big country fan and is more of a rock and roll dude. He's not much into Nine Inch Nails (NIN), either, but he saw them perform recently and told me it was the best rock show he had ever seen.
Wait a minute. Nine Inch Nails? The one-man electro-industrial band with a revolving door of hired hands? The angry young man (now 40-something) with his synthesizer, his drum machine, his metal riffs, his atmospheric noise, his whiny teen-angst diary lyrics and his suicidal tendencies that were big in the 90s? Yep. That guy.
Despite Tipper Gore's best efforts, I bought Trent Reznor's first two NIN records about a quarter-century ago in actual record stores, still enjoy revisiting them once in a great while and have admired his more recent film scores, but I stopped listening to NIN a long time ago. Like many of us, Reznor is no longer quite so young and in general seems a lot less angry. We have that in common too. Now he could be called the well-adjusted middle-aged husband and father who is still quite creative but considerably less suicidal...NIN guy. Still, this was one hell of a compliment.
Best. Rock. Show. Ever? High praise indeed. Deserving of investigation, I thought. A few days after his declaration, my buddy sent me this article about the intricate light and video production on the new NIN tour and how it's "a decade ahead of its time," citing the column as evidence in his still adamant proclamation on this apparent pinnacle of rock shows. I remained intrigued and typed Nine Inch Nails into my iTunes window for the first time in years, finding the same two records I'd once owned on actual compact discs. It's been fun to get re-acquainted with them.
I picked up Pretty Hate Machine in 1989 and Broken in 1992 but never had another NIN record. Between those two records (and the ages of 13 and 16), I discovered punk rock, and not long after Broken came out, I was too interested in whatever Fugazi and Jawbreaker and other indie bands were doing to bother much with NIN, my favorite grunge and metal bands or anything else that was spinning on commercial radio.
Still, there was a brief period in those intervening years when I was involved in local theatre, had parts in a couple of plays and hung out with other teenage actor-wannabes. Through these kids I discovered bands like Depeche Mode and NIN, and for a while they held my attention. Reznor's music sounded innovative and unique when I first heard it.
Sure, bands like Skinny Puppy, Ministry and the Butthole Surfers were already around, blazing industrial and electronic noise-rock trails, but they were barely on my radar in 1989, and plenty of other underground bands I'd never heard of were creatively melding electronic and industrial music with elements of rock and metal to create heavy, dark new music that sounded dangerous, even threatening, but NIN pushed the genre into the mainstream before I turned my back on the radio.
Years later I drove another friend--a talented musician and audio engineer--to the airport early one morning because he was headed to New Orleans to intern with Mr. Reznor. I don't think the internship lasted very long, but I never heard much about what it was like or why it didn't work out. Both my friend and Reznor had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but a lot of artists are unfairly tagged with that label. It's easy to pass on a rumor without knowing someone or having any personal interaction. Both are still doing pretty well in the music business.
After reading (in the article linked to above) about NIN's new live show, with it's multiple translucent video screens, complex, choreographed lighting system, custom software and hardware to run it all on and innovations on all sorts of technological levels, I have a couple different reactions. At first, it sounds like a very entertaining show, and I respect Reznor for wanting his audience to get their money's worth. I should have checked it out. I trust my friend's opinion too, and it makes me wish I'd gone with him, but it hadn't really occurred to me to go see NIN in a hockey arena.
There are very few bands that get me fired up enough to watch them on a jumbotron from the opposite end of a stadium after buying crazy-expensive tickets and Budweisers that cost as much as a twelve-pack, but it sounds like NIN should have made the short list, even though I'd been mostly oblivious to their output for 21 years. But...I've always preferred a more intimate connection with a band. I like to stand up near a stage and feel like some actual interaction is happening.
Of course that's impossible with bands as huge as Iron Maiden or NIN because too many people want to see them, and little club shows never happen. Thus, my point--whining about smaller venues, audience participation, a real connection and communication between the people on and off stage--is mostly irrelevant here. After all, Maiden manages some pretty good audience interaction on some of the world's biggest stages, but they are exceptional.
Enough about Maiden. Historically I have always preferred smaller-scale, even minimalist rock shows. What does a rock show need? Is anything really necessary besides musicians, instruments and sound equipment? The best shows I can remember had little else: just extreme focus between well-practiced bandmates that manage to elevate previously recorded material to great heights, solely with unspoken communication, dynamic intensity and a desire to put the song before all other considerations.
The best live rock act I have ever seen was Fugazi. I only saw them twice, but they made an incredible impression. Maybe someday we'll all be lucky enough to see them reunite. I don't think a band needs a fancy light show, a bunch of video walls and jumbotrons, pyrotechnics, 3D landscaped backgrounds or giant laser-eyed monsters, but I guess there's a time and a place for each of those things. It's all part of how a band chooses to express itself.
As much as I tend to prefer the simplicity of a band on stage without distractions, there are always exceptions. Maybe I'll catch NIN on their next pass through town and see what the Greatest Rock Show of All Time is like. Sounds hard to live up to, doesn't it?
Remember the wee 3" CD that came with the deluxe edition of Broken? It was tough to find a player that could spin that one, but Broken sounded heavy as hell, darker than Pretty Hate Machine, and it still does. I'm not sure why I lost interest after that record. Maybe it was partially due to my silly teenage policy of rejecting almost any popular radio music after discovering underground rock.
Maybe I was less into electronic instruments and more focused on guitars and real drum kits. Maybe I was distancing myself from the obsessed theatre kids I had once hung out with and the goth kids who looked like vampires with panty hose for sleeves. Probably it was some combination of all those factors, but all of a sudden I'm curious about Mr. Reznor's discography between 1992 and 2013 and will likely give those 21 years of music a bit of a listen after wrapping up this post and checking out this. I doubt I'll be converted into a super-fan, but I may well have missed something pretty good, somewhere in there.