Music History

A Look Back at Nine Inch Nails’ Career-Defining Woodstock ‘94 Performance

A look back at the band's riveting, mud-caked, destructive performance on 8/13/94

nine inch nails woodstock 94

Photo: AP Photo/John Gaps III

The original Woodstock festival of 1969 is acknowledged as one of rock and roll’s defining moments. So when festival organizers conceived a 1994 event to commemorate Woodstock’s quarter-century anniversary, the concept was met with considerable skepticism. Critics insisted that there was no way that Woodstock ’94 could even come close to the mythic stature of the original festival, and that the spirit of the peace-and-love sixties was being perverted into a corporate nightmare (what critics in 1994 couldn’t know was that the spirit of the sixties wouldn’t be truly defiled until five years later at the bedlam of Woodstock ’99). What attendees of Woodstock ’94 got was something in between blasphemy and greatness: the event was a general success, notable mostly for lots of mud and moshing. In fact, the only band that truly rose to the occasion that weekend was Trent Reznor and his cohorts in Nine Inch Nails.

On the second day of the festival, Nine Inch Nails took the stage caked in fresh mud. Reznor told MTV News, “On the way to a stage, there was a little accident. It turned into a mud wrestling thing that escalated into a full-scale mud riot.” It seemed like an unusual act of abandon for the frontman, who typically exerts a high level of control over his band and its performances. And the mud did cause problems. Later, Reznor said of the performance, “There was a lot of broken things. Because of our mud bath, things just tend to go wrong. The guitar rig was totally caked in mud.”

Nonetheless, the band’s mud costume was seen as an act of solidarity with the audience, and became symbolic of the entire event’s mud theme (Primus dodged mud while performing ‘My Name is Mud,’ Green Day flung mud back at its audience). It gave Nine Inch Nails a dramatic visual presence and unified the band members’ wardrobes (something akin to the Ramones’ leather jackets or Run-DMC’s matching Adidas). Reznor’s Woodstock ’94 outfit now hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Nine Inch Nails proceeded to deliver one of the most explosive performances of their career. Reznor was at his brooding best as careened around the stage with aplomb. Danny Lohner trashed at his keyboard like it owed him money or drugs.

nine inch nails woodstock 94

Reznor assaults a keyboard

When musical instruments started to malfunction, Reznor destroyed them. Three keyboards were axed with a microphone stand. Reznor explained his destructive habit to MTV News: “I have a policy where if something doesn’t work, it needs to pay the price. So if it’s out of tune, it has to pay.” For a band with an album called Broken and countless songs about annihilation, the riotous performance seemed the perfect distillation of their spirit.

During a 2013 interview with a Canadian radio program, Reznor said that he became aware of the importance of the Woodstock ’94 show during the performance. “I knew onstage,” he said. “I felt like this was one of those important, unable-to-replicate moments that you can’t plan for. It just felt like we were at the right place.”

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