Rage Against the Machine - Biography
By Bill Gerdes
Their story starts with a paradox-namely, how does a band rail against the very system that enables its rants against the system to be heard in the first place. Rage Against the Machine never quite solved this unsolvable question; perhaps it was even unfair to ask them to. Yet to hear them at a club, or better still live, in the mid-nineties was nothing less than a raw rush of adrenaline straight to the heart, one that made any sort of illicit drugs, unnecessary, superfluous, even dangerous. At that point it didn’t matter if you were a pseudo-Marxist or a reactionary conservative-you got your ass out on the floor.
No mistake though, Rage may have been the most successful “political” band ever. They were more explicitly radical than many of the punk bands whose angst seemed to inspire them on some level. For the band, the message was the raison d’tere for Rage’s very existence, indeed part of the reason they started in the first place.
It all started around 1991 when guitarist Tom Morello left his band Lock Up, looking to start off a new band. He soon met Zack de la Rocha rapping in a club in L.A. Morello liked what he heard, asked to see a few lyrics, then invited de la Rocha to form a band dedicated to spreading their shared political perspectives. Brad Wilk soon signed on as drummer, as did Tim Commerford (a childhood friend of de la Rocha) on the bass guitar. Despite the infighting and issues with the band throughout the years this is still the lineup of Rage Against the Machine today, or at least up until press time.
The band’s name came from a song from de la Rocha’s previous band, Inside Out-the name stuck for the band had both rage and targets for it in spades. But again paradoxically to get their message out they needed to sign with a major label. While they waited the band played house parties and picked up what gigs they could, even going so far as to put out something of a rough draft of their first album on a self-released cassette. The cover art featured a picture of the stock market with a match taped on the inside. No one could accuse Rage Against the Machine of trying to hide or bury their political leanings in order to get a record deal.
It turns out they didn’t need to. Relatively soon they were eagerly sought by several record companies and signed with Epic. To Rage, there was no sense of selling out as long as they maintained creative control, i.e. as long as they could do whatever they wanted . . . well, then where was the sellout? Critics, unfairly, lambasted them as the latest in a long series of hypocrites who took the cash and ran.
And there was plenty of cash to be had. Rage’s first album, Rage Against the Machine was a monster, hitting triple platinum despite, or maybe because of, the copious amounts of the word “fuck” in the hit single “Killing in the Name.” The song itself was a monster as well, with an incredibly heavy driving beat which matched up perfectly with the lyric “Fuck you. I won’t do what you told me,” even as most of us in our daily lives wound up doing just that. The band supported the release with a tour of Europe opening for Suicidal Tendencies and also played Lollapalooza in 93.
Rage Against the Machine’s music also began showing up in several movies, including “Year of tha Boomerang” in the film Higher Learning, a new song “Darkness” for The Crow, and “No Shelter” on the Godzilla soundtrack. The political implications of Rage’s being involved in so many terrible movies in one year remain a mystery to this day.
Never a prolific band when it came to releasing new material Rage Against the Machine took another three years to release their next album, Evil Empire in 1996. The album was another fat success, debuting at number one on the Billboard charts. They soon received an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live. The host that evening was Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, to some an iconoclast American hero, to Rage a billionaire whose major claim to fame was a flat tax designed to make the rich obscenely richer.
To protest the band members decided to hang upside down American flags as a way of denouncing Forbes being on the telecast. SNL producers sent out stagehands to put the kibosh on the protest, cancelled their second song “Bullet In The Head,” and ordered Rage Against the Machine to leave the building, with some accounts having bassist Commerford trashing Forbes dressing room. Their appearance certainly ranks up their with Sinead O’Connor’s destruction of a picture of the pope and Fear’s near riot in the late seventies in the pantheon of outrageous Saturday Night Live appearances.
Next up for the band was a gig opening for U2 on the PopMart Tour. Critics suggested another sell-out, but Rage put their money where their mouth was and donated all of the proceeds to organizations which they felt fostered their ideals of social justice and liberation. When the band returned to the US to kick off their national tour with Wu-Tang Clan they received the news that many cities had managed to have their concerts cancelled due to the band radical agenda. To the band the various attempts by law enforcement and the mainstream media only strengthened their point; obviously they must be on to something if many jurisdictions were so hell-bent on preventing them from even playing.
All this brings up the question of just how influential the band’s political messages were anyway and if the authorities had as much to worry about as they thought. For every fan who donated money to the Zapatista Front for National Liberation there was one who like the fact that Rage played hard, fast, and loud.
Meanwhile they continued to tour the world, including Japan, released an originally bootleg album of B-sides called Live & Rare on Sony Records, and later put out a live video entitled Rage Against The Machine. They then took a short break-the way things were heading they would need the rest.
Their next release The Battle for Los Angeles would prove to be both a prophetic and provocative title for Rage Against the Machine. Commercially, always something of an ironic situation for Rage, the album debuted at number one and sold 450,000 copies the first week and eventually going double-platinum. The song “Wake Up” was featured in The Matrix. Rage Against the Machine was the angry and politically band that could do no wrong. Within a year they would implode.
The year 2000 started off with a trip to the New York Stock Exchange to film a video for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire.” They brought along Michael Moore as the director; they attempted to enter the exchange-they were then helped to leave the premises by security. Moore was threatened with arrest, all in all, a rather typical endeavor for the band.
But this was all just a warm-up, an appetizer, a crab puff if you, will for Rage Against the Machine, the band that thrives on controversy. In the year 2000, Rage decided to play a free concert at the Democratic National Convention to protest the two party system. After much legal wrangling the courts decided that the band could hold the concert across from the convention itself, which made the police nervous, which led to tighter security measure, which led to. . . almost a full-scale riot. As the band Ozomatli played the police shut down the concert, shut down the power, but failed to quickly shut down the now very angry concert goers who refused to leave. The police then waded through the crowd using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. The American Civil Liberties Union called it nothing less than a police riot, while mainstream media outlets tended to put the blame on the protesters.
Not long after on October 18th 2000 de la Rocha left the band, citing the ever popular “creative differences” angle that has waylaid many a band and marriage. The rest of Rage originally tried to replace Rocha with another lead singer, with some of the options being Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill fame. Instead they formed a new band.
In what originally seemed like an unlikely pairing the remaining members of Rage got together with ex-Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell to form Audioslave. The new band was given generally high marks by critics and also managed to succeed financially. Eventually Audioslave released three albums until Cornell left the band in 2007.
De la Rocha had a more subdued single career. In 2003 he joined forces with DJ Shadow to put out the song “March Of Death” in protest of the upcoming war with Iraq. There was also collaboration with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nail’s renown, but as yet that album has yet to be released and may never be. Meanwhile Rage continued to be offered big wads of cash to reunite.
It had always felt a bit strange to have a silent Rage Against the Machine during the Bush Era. As de la Rocha’s solo career seemed stuck in neutral and members of Audioslave apparently losing interest in the project the odds of a Rage Against the Machine revival became more and more likely. Rumor became reality on April 29th 2007 when the band reunited at the Coachella music festival. Originally thought to be a one-time affair the Coachella performance turned into almost a full-fledged reunion and as of 2008 the band continues to play a host of festivals across the globe including Rock The Bells in New York City.
Rage Against the Machine has yet to put out any new music though and has strongly hinted through Tom Morello that it has no plans to do so in the near future. One might think that suggests that all is still not well in Rage-land, since Rage was never meant to be a nostalgia act, a Rolling Stones for a new generation. Here’s hoping they reconsider and put out some new material soon-surely there’s enough going on to be angry about?