Thank ABBA for ‘Old Town Road’

Frankie Knuckles/The Miscellany News

In 1986, three years before he would release “Pretty Hate Machine,” Trent Reznor attended a Depeche Mode concert. As the concert came to an end, Depeche Mode, who were on tour for their new album “Black Celebration,” played their then-biggest hit “Just Can’t Get Enough,” the band’s first single. It was also the last song written for the band by founding member and distinguished ABBA fan Vince Clarke. Reznor, frontman and only member of Nine Inch Nails (NIN) until Atticus Ross joined in 2016, left that concert inspired and commenced a career that would garner Grammy and Academy awards as well as the longest-running number-one hit in Billboard Hot 100 history. Since NIN are known for their rough, mechanical sound, few people know that NIN is actually only a few steps removed from Swedish pop group ABBA.

“Head Like a Hole” from NIN’s first album “Pretty Hate Machine,” which was produced in 1989 on a budget befitting a janitor’s salary, sounds like it could have been taken right off a Depeche Mode album. In fact, the similarity in sound between early NIN and contemporaneous Depeche Mode was so strong that Johnny Cash was able to take a song from each band’s catalog and cover them on the same album with no indication that he was covering two disparate genres, industrial rock and synth pop. But where did NIN’s sound really come from?

In 1985, Andy Bell and the aforementioned Vince Clarke formed the band Erasure, a synth pop band very much in tune with the times. Bell and Clarke were both infatuated with ABBA—an infatuation which culminated in 1992’s “ABBA-esque,” an EP in which Erasure covered four of ABBA’s greatest hits. Even though “ABBA-esque” came out in ’92, ABBA’s influence was audible both in Erasure’s lyrical themes and instrumental style well before then.

Take Erasure’s “Oh L’amour,” a sad bop of the synthesizer era. With lyrics like “No emotional ties/You don’t remember my name/I lay down and die/I’m only to blame/Oh, love of my heart/It’s up to you now/You tore me apart/I hurt inside-out,” the song resembles the more taciturn portions of ABBA’s discography, namely songs like “SOS,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Slipping Through my Fingers.” The non-lyrical parts of “Oh L’amour,” however, resemble some of ABBA’s more cutting-edge songs—“Voulez-Vous,” “Lay All Your Love on Me” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” come to mind—with a wonderful mix of synths and upbeat drum tracks. ABBA clearly influenced Vince Clarke, who, in turn, influenced Trent Reznor.

At first blush, Reznor and NIN don’t seem to be the torchbearers for your mother’s ABBA, what with Reznor shouting things like “She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin,” and “I want to fuck you like an animal.” But to see the connection, you must look beyond the lyrics. NIN has, for the most part, abandoned themes of longing and lost youth and instead focused on  drug abuse, depression and dissatisfaction. The instrumentation, however, still reveals a lot of the same style as the progenitors of “Dancing Queen.” 

As NIN has progressed, their sound has certainly strayed further from the synth-pop ABBA sound. The Academy Award-winning 2010 soundtrack for “The Social Network” doesn’t sound like “Mamma Mia!,” and the Grammy Award-winning 2011 soundtrack for “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” doesn’t sound like “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” The instrumental album “Ghosts I-IV” has very little ABBA influence, especially its now most famous track “34 Ghosts IV.” But without the influence of ABBA and Depeche Mode, NIN never would have taken off, they never would have been in a position to win awards for best soundtrack, “34 Ghosts IV” would never have been made and the world’s longest-running number one hit might never have been produced.

For those in the dark, “34 Ghosts IV” is the backing track for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” In essence, were it not for ABBA, Depeche Mode and 80s synth pop, our modern version of country rap would not be what it is today. And whether you like it or not, “Old Town Road” is every bit as much a country song as Johnny Cash’s cover of synth pop-influenced industrial rock band NIN’s “Hurt.” 


Of course, that’s not to suggest that ABBA were NIN’s only 80s influence. Reznor straight up sampled 80s legend Prince in “Ringfinger” and the Opal remix of “Head Like a Hole.” He called The Cure “One of the most unique, most brilliant, most heartbreakingly excellent rock bands the world has ever known.” Deep down, underneath the monochromatic, leather-jacketed exterior, Trent Reznor and NIN were products of the 80s. And like any product of the 80s, ABBA flows within them.

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