There were always old punks lurking at the local, or skulking in the nightclub, and we thought they were OK. Punk was old and dead, and the few wrinkly remainders trying to hit on women or men half their ages were smiled at like old WWII veterans. They might be a little out-of-place, perhaps a little embarrassing, but we wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for them, so there was a reverence there. We respected our elders. Nearly 20 years later, I see how young people today regard my own clubbing years. On Buzzfeed, a meme is going viral where fans are taking some footage of some terribly earnest-looking industrial fans dancing and overdubbing the music with ever more ridiculous novelty hits, with even more mischief to be found on Reddit. These fans are a laughing stock – and rightly so, because they are ridiculous.
What turns it from pathetic to outright upsetting is how little resemblance either the people or the music bears to the genre I loved with such a passion. It’s painful watching something you love die. Even when I was young, the old guard complained that Nine Inch Nails weren’t “real industrial”, and we smiled because things have to evolve and grow. But now there’s no trace of anything that ever made us love it in the first place. It hasn’t just evolved, it’s an entirely separate species, and it needs to be put out of its misery.
The term “industrial” was originally coined in the 1970s, with Industrial Records, and a sound invented to evoke the urban hell of factories. It sounded a bit like this. (Which is to say, f***ing dreadful.)
Still, we have the basic invention: aggressive vocals, early synths, fierce beats. Electronic punk, basically. The Germans, with characteristic efficiency, soon figured out that if you bang rhythmically on bits of metal, you can maintain that factory-floor coldness and sense of alienation, but having a bit of a tune won’t actually kill you.
Through the 1980s, industrial became a fully-fledged genre with its own subgenres running the full spectrum from a colder, darker synth-pop through to electronic rock, but by now the music contained actual songs with catchy hooks and choruses. The one connecting theme was that – true to its name – it always sounded like it had been recorded in an old warehouse of grey concrete despair. If punk was a roar of rage, industrial music was a scream of terror. Skinny Puppy articulated the death-cries of animals undergoing vivisection or prisoners being tortured, and pretty much everyone else was shouting about either political anxiety or the love-hate relationship with technology, as hundreds of thousands found themselves “replaced by computers” at work. The music was bleak, but not without a certain gallows humour. Acts like Laibach played with totalitarian imagery, not out of admiration, but from the same spirit as the Hitler/Downfall meme: destroy it through ridicule. Whatever the bands were saying, they were saying it because they had something to say. Industrial was art rock made for its own sake by people who had something to express.
Then, in 1989, Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine. It’s easy to forget just how popular NIN were. By the time The Downward Spiral came out in 1994, they had sold about 15 million records (their career tally is 30 million). Yes, Ministry and Front 242 got pretty big, but NIN not only popularised industrial music but completely changed how it looked and sounded.
Sure, the sound was appropriated from Skinny Puppy and Ministry (not to mention David Bowie, Queen and Prince), but the lyrics were Pink Floyd-style personal angst. A good-looking, sensitive soul in gothic fetishwear, Trent Reznor became a poster-boy for lonely teenage girls, widening the target demographic from the mostly-male audience to which industrial music had previously appealed.
Industrial music was suddenly huge. In the 90s, pretty much every film and video game had an industrial music soundtrack. The mix of thumping beats and guitars (metallic clangs long forgotten!) lent itself perfectly to “adrenaline-pumping action” in any guise, and the rush was on to find the next NIN. Pretty soon, almost every new record was an abrasive-yet-harmless blend of riffs and bleeps. Even the Smashing Pumpkins went electronic.
In parallel developed industrial techno. That had taken the path forged first by Kraftwerk, then Front 242 and Front Line Assembly, and ramped up the beats. The trouble is that, by that point, most of the first-wave industrial fans were off getting married and having babies and responsible jobs so weren’t out clubbing any more, and the next generation had taken one look at Billy Corgan in that Uncle Fester frock and f***ed off. With numbers dwindling, only the most hardcore clubgoers were left, and they weren’t “hardcore” in the sense of being unwaveringly passionate about the music.
The music didn’t really matter at all.
Although the bands themselves took drugs, the industrial fans never really did – bit of pot, mostly cider – any who might have ventured that way scared off by a spate of drug-related rock star deaths. The goths, on the other hand, took anything. Speed gave way to E and cocaine, and with that came a shift. Clubbing became about dressing up and taking drugs, with the music falling by the wayside. It wasn’t to be listened to any more, only danced to.
I figured it was time to get the hell out of “industrial” at around this point.
Go back and listen to those early tracks again. Does it in any way suggest itself as the progeny of Einstürzende Neubauten? Then again, Neubauten might put a downer on your cocaine-and-ecstasy high.
It got worse … and worse … and worse …
It. Has. f***ing. Autotune.
I mean, seriously.
For f***’s sake.
Kill it through ridicule.