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21 Years Ago: Nine Inch Nails Play Woodstock ’94

Brian Rasic, Getty Images

When the Who tore it up at the original Woodstock in 1969, Pete Townshend‘s open contempt for the peace and love sentiment prevailing at the time was palpable in the explosiveness of the band’s performance. Twenty-five years later, Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor would make no bones about his disdain and mistrust for the corporate presence behind the 1994 reboot of the Woodstock brand. As he admitted to Rolling Stone before the show, and to MTV immediately afterwards, Reznor only agreed to perform at the festival because the fee the band was paid would be enough to subsidize the overhead costs for the remainder of its touring schedule.

The NIN live production, he explained further on the Canadian talk show Q in 2013, had already grown to such a scale that touring was a money-losing proposition. Seizing on an opportunity to reap a large sum of money in one shot, Reznor, none-too-sold on what seemed to him like a “corny” event contrived by Pepsi, hoped that the performance would “fly under the radar” and that the band would slip by unscathed by any potential damage to its reputation. Of course, as we now know, history took a different turn. Reznor had, in fact, drastically underestimated the impact that Woodstock would have on the band’s visibility.

Instead of flying under the radar, Nine Inch Nails’ Woodstock appearance seared itself into the public’s consciousness almost instantaneously. This was, perhaps, the case thanks in part to the image — broadcast live on pay-per-view into millions of homes — of the band performing while covered head-to-toe in mud, a dramatic visual that still retains its power today. Not unlike 1969, heavy rains had turned the Woodstock ’94 grounds more or less into one giant mud bath. And when NIN took the North Stage on the second night with the stuff caked onto their faces and bodies, they resembled demonic shadow figures — perfectly fitting for the malevolent tone of the music they were about to unleash on the crowd.

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As it turns out, the mud element resulted from a happy accident. In line with the roughhousing buffoonery that Reznor encouraged in the band at the time, then-NIN live bassist Danny Lohner pushed him into the mud just before the band was set to go on. Reznor retaliated, and soon the other members — guitarist Robin Finck, drummer Chris Vrenna, and keyboardist James Woolley — entered the fray. Meanwhile, as if the organizers had wanted to make a statement about just how much times had changed since the hippie idealism of the ’60s, one can only imagine the jarring contrast the audience experienced in the transition from Crosby, Stills & Nash — ’60s icons who famously appeared at the original Woodstock — to NIN’s unbridled, openly violent brand of negativity, misanthropy, and self-hate.

At the start of the official pay-per-view broadcast footage of the show, which you can watch in full above, an atmosphere of malignant dread overtakes the proceedings when the band’s four-minute intro segment begins to emanate from the PA speakers — an ominous, wheezing drone that swells into a melange of churchbells, sickening horror movie-esque textures, noise samples, fragmented screams, and an elongated version of the central guitar riff from “Pinion” off NIN’s 1992 EP Broken. The stage becomes engulfed in fog, the “Pinion” riff begins to slow down, sounding more and more mechanized, insistent and menacing. The moment builds to an exquisitely drawn-out climax. (More bands should build anticipation to a fever pitch like this, and Reznor really needs to release this extended version of “Pinion” someday.) And then, on cue, the five silhouetted figures emerge from the fog, and Reznor himself uncoils his body in a way that resembles the inhuman physicality of the monster from the Alien series before they launch into “Terrible Lie.”

"Nine Inch Nails looked like demonic shadow figures — perfectly fitting for the malevolent tone of the music they were about to unleash on the crowd."

In the MTV interview that followed, Reznor and Lohner admit that they thought the band played terribly, and Reznor also admits that he came around to enjoying the atmosphere of the event. In the Q interview, he looks back on Woodstock and recognizes that, somehow, all the variables fell into place for that performance to resonate as a hallmark of its moment in time. “I knew onstage,” he says in the interview, “that it was one of those important moments you couldn’t replicate or plan for. It just felt like we were at the right place at the right time.”

Watching the footage — which actually exposes the flaws in NIN’s over-reliance on sequencing, staged anger, and (at times) mime-style fakery — it’s impossible to pin down why a moment such as this embeds itself in the cultural lexicon, but it’s also impossible to deny that it’s happening, that an iconic moment is unfolding right before your very eyes. On the other hand, the band nearly upstaged itself with its own pre-recorded intro. And in contrast to the instrumental skill level on display in the most recent NIN touring production, the 1994 live band look like a bunch of instrument-bashing primates. Unfortunately, Reznor continues to instruct his live musicians to pantomime parts they’re not actually playing sometimes, but even still the recent NIN live show clearly demands jaw-dropping musical proficiency from its players.

Of course, aspects of the Woodstock performance cut through its over-the-top showbiz theatrics. The anguish — but, even moreso, the vulnerability — in Reznor’s voice rings true. As does Robin Finck’s ability to translate some of the non-tonal, industrial-style noise from NIN recordings into inventive guitar parts that he actually plays for real. (Finck has been a mainstay of recent NIN live lineups as well.) Watching Nine Inch Nails at Woodstock is also revealing because it captures the band right in the thick of its rocket-like rise to multi-platinum, household-name status.

When asked in the Q interview how he handled success, a clean, sober, married (and, presumably, more grounded) Reznor answers “poorly” and chuckles. In a moment during NIN’s Woodstock rendition of the tortured-sex anthem “Closer,” Reznor looks out at the crowd and sings “you can have my isolation / you can have the hate that it brings / you can have my absence of faith / you can have my everything.”  Watching him contort his frame during that verse, it’s almost as if he’s pleading with his growing audience, and there is a sense of watching a person being swallowed by the realization that he’s given everything he has and has nothing left to bare of himself.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a wonder that Reznor not only survived, but that he has continued to push himself and strive for the uncompromising artistry of his own idols, towering figures with extensive catalogs such as David Bowie and Brian Eno. His Woodstock ’94 appearance reinforces how far Reznor has come on that journey, and that Nine Inch Nails have left a profound legacy that extends far beyond a Kodak moment where the band was covered in mud on a night they knocked their gear around between Crosby, Stills & Nash and Metallica.

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