Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rage Against the Machine

Sound Familiar?
“Guerilla Radio,” “Killing in the Name,” “Bulls On Parade”

Who Are They?
A political powerhouse of a hard rock band.

Once upon a time, a pretty skilled guitarist named Tom Morello met a pretty rad dude named Zack de la Rocha while the latter was freestyle rapping in an LA club. Tom asked Zack to be a rapper in his band, and the two of them drafted drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford to form Rage Against the Machine.

(Fun fact: The name Rage Against the Machine stems from a song Zack had written for his previous hardcore punk band Inside Out. The term “rage against the machine” was coined in a 1989 article in a zine called No Answers.)

After giving their first public performance in Orange County in 1991, the guys signed to major label Epic Records and their self-titled debut was released a year later. Rage Against the Machine went triple platinum thanks to the heavy radio play of “Killing in the Name.” (Fun fact: BBC Radio 1 accidentally played the “Fuck You” version of the song on the Top 40 singles show. What’s so bad about that? Well, Zack screams “fuck” 17 times in the repeated phrase, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”)

The debut is also known for its album cover, which features the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who burned himself to death in protest of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime during the Vietnam War (just wanted to give you guys a mini history lesson since this band’s history is chock full of political references).

RATM didn’t release a follow-up until 1996’s Evil Empire (this blogger’s favorite Rage album). It was during the Evil Empire era that the band started getting vocal about their political views. During a performance on Saturday Night Live in April 1996, Zack de la Rocha and company attempted to hang inverted US flags from their amps (which symbolizes distress or great danger) in protest against having Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as guest host. (The act was cut out of the program.)

The band began 1997 by supporting U2 on their PopMart Tour, allowing all their profits to be donated to various social organizations (aw, how nice). After successfully showing their humanitarian sides, the boys decided to end the year by going on a controversial tour with Wu-Tang Clan, of all groups. Needless to say, cops in several jurisdictions got a little nervous about this pairing and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some of the shows cancelled, citing the bands’ “violent and anti-law enforcement philosophies” as viable cause. (The Roots later replaced Wu-Tang Clan.)

Two years later, RATM supported the release of its third studio album, The Battle of Los Angeles, by playing at the disastrous Woodstock ’99 concert. (Here’s the full set for your viewing pleasure.)

Where Are They Now?
Still sticking it to the man in various ways, both as a band and individually.

On October 18, 2000 Zack announced his departure from the band, saying, “Our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” So basically, artistic differences.

RATM’s final studio album, 2000’s Renegades, was a collection of covers of artists such as Devo, Cypress Hill, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (“Renegades of Funk,” an Afrika Bambaataa cover, is arguably one of the best on the album).

The band dissolved after Zack left, releasing a slew of live DVDs as an apology. But the controversy continued with Clear Channel’s 2001 memorandum, which contained a list of what was termed “lyrically questionable” songs for radio (this was shortly after 9/11). Rage Against the Machine was the only band to have all of its songs deemed “lyrically questionable.” (This list also included Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” neither of which are even remotely offensive. Come on now, Clear Channel.)

In the wake of RATM’s breakup, Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford teamed up with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to form Audioslave. The supergroup released three albums before Chris left in 2007.

Tom began a solo career in 2003, playing open-mic nights and various clubs under the alias The Nightwatchman (a superhero name fit for a superhuman guitarist).

Meanwhile, Zack started collaborating with DJ Shadow, Company Flow and Questlove for a solo album, but dropped the project to work with Trent Reznor (who wouldn’t?).

Rage Against the Machine finally reunited at Coachella in 2007, a reunion which Tom described as a vehicle to voice the band’s opposition to the “right-wing purgatory” of George W. Bush’s America (though Green Day kind of beat them to that with 2004’s American Idiot).

A proper reunion tour followed the Coachella appearance, but hopes for a new album were continuously dashed. Tom cited his work as The Nightwatchman his principal focus, Zack admitted that a new album was a “genuine possibility.”

But Why Rage Against the Machine?
A new album is totally possible at this point. Also, the band recently released a 20th anniversary box set for their debut album.

What Does Sam Think?
I’m not a very political person, but something about this band spurs me into believing that I can start a revolution. This is pure, unadulterated anger with a message clearer than most Dead Kennedys songs. And RATM isn’t a band that just talks shit. These guys take action.

But I won’t get into politics here (there's an entirely separate article on Wikipedia dedicated to RATM's political views). That’s not really what this blog is about. So let’s concentrate on the music, shall we?

First of all, Tom Morello is hands-down my favorite guitarist of all time (if you couldn’t tell by the number of times I’ve mentioned this in the sections above). He’s not technically the greatest, but his creativity is impressive. He’s a big fan of effects pedals (much like Muse’s Matt Bellamy) and I love that. Guitars can do so much more than play a few chords. I’m not gonna pretend that I know everything there is to know about guitars, but I know what I like and I like Tom Morello. BAM.

Second, Zack de la Rocha is a kick-ass frontman (like literally, he could probably kick my ass). He has this intensity in his voice that never seems to waver. That could also be because there is no such thing as a slow RATM song (with the exception of the band’s cover of Devo’s “Beautiful World”).

With the addition of Tim Commerford’s boss bass skills and Brad Wilk’s funky drumbeats, this band hits you with the force of a brick wall. Rage Against the Machine is not a band for the faint-hearted. You don’t have to be into politics to appreciate these guys, but if you’re into kick-ass jams that punch you in the gut, this is the band for you.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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