“I said to the label, ‘Look — sorry, but I don’t think there’s a fucking single in here. I don’t think it’s going to sell for shit, but I had to make this record, because it’s what I’m about right now; I believe in it 100 percent,'” he told Rolling Stone in 1997. “‘I’m sorry, though, there’s not something to justify the money you gave me to make it.'”
He was of course very wrong. Propelled by the success of “Closer,” the album would make it to Number Two and sell more than 3 million copies.
“It surprised me because — not to sound lofty, but I didn’t think people would get it,” he told RS of The Downward Spiral. When asked why, he singled out the album’s pulverizing opening track, “Mr. Self Destruct.”
“I made the first song on the record, ‘Mr. Self Destruct,’ sound like I wanted it to be: the shittiest sounding thing that, by the end, just deteriorates into noise,” he said. “It’s not fucking Michael Jackson.”
Starting off with a series of weird thuds that sound like someone repeatedly smacking a heavy bag, the song quickly builds into a sinister soundscape that contrasts cold electronic percussion with blasts of heavily treated guitar. On the anthemic chorus, Reznor screams:
I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down, I use you up
Mr. Self Destruct
Above you can watch intense live footage of the Downward Spiral opener, culled from the band’s 1994 Self Destruct Tour.
In a 1994 interview with Guitar World, Reznor explained how he used signal-processing software to achieve the song’s overdriven guitar sound, which sounds more like a jet engine than a six-string plugged into an amp. “A lot of the sounds on ‘Mr. Self Destruct’ that seem like guitar performances that no human being ever played are actually real performances that have been processed to unknown depths using Turbo Synth,” he said.
The song builds up to a wall of white noise that abruptly cuts out, leading to a strange outro consisting of a squiggly, multi-layered guitar loop. This section features the sonic wizardry of art-rock guitar hero Adrien Belew, known for his work with everyone from King Crimson to Paul Simon, David Bowie and Talking Heads.
In the Guitar World interview, Reznor recalled the day Belew came in to work on the piece with him and producer Flood at Le Pig, Reznor’s home studio at 10050 Cielo Drive, the L.A. house where the Manson Family had murdered Sharon Tate in August 1969.
“Flood and I were definitely intimidated when he first came up,” Reznor said of Belew. “We were sitting in the living room of Sharon Tate’s house — our studio — with this guy who’s played with Paul Simon and David Bowie. The first song we played him was ‘Mr. Self Destruct’ — the hardest-sounding one we had. I said, ‘Play whatever you want.’ He said, ‘What key is it in?’ And I had to say, ‘Uh, I don’t remember. It’s probably in E.’ It’s a real fast track. For a moment he thought, ‘What the fuck?’ Then he kicked in and it was just the most awesome thing.”
“Trent has an astounding command of technology, old and new; he’s such an intriguing person to work with,” Belew told Guitar Player at the time.
“Mr. Self Destruct” has been a Nine Inch Nails live staple since its release. The band often opened shows with it on their 1994 tour and were still doing so as of 2018.