“Where the [bleep] is Rage Against the Machine?”
That was a commonly heard refrain back in 2016 while Donald Trump was running for election using rhetoric that many Americans found to be offensive, particularly toward people south of the border.
Rage, the most fiery political mainstream band of the ‘90s, hadn’t been heard from since 2011. If the world was looking for a banger of a political anthem during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath, they were near the top of the list to do it.
Instead, Tom Morello, who had been active outside of Rage with Audioslave, the E Street Band and his solo folk project, The Nightwatchmen, hooked up with two fellow Rage members, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, to form Prophets of Rage in 2016 with rappers Chuck D and B-Real and DJ Lord.
Frontman Zack de la Rocha, whose post-Rage output had been a frustration for fans, remained under the radar. Projects with DJ Shadow and Trent Reznor never materialized and his most complete project was the little-known One Day as a Lion with former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore, which resulted in a 2008 EP. In 2016, he did release the El-P-produced single “Digging for Windows,” but the expected album remained unreleased.
A Rage tour in 2016 while Bernie Sanders was challenging Hillary Clinton, or when the latter was taking on Trump, would have been earthshaking.
Days that we Raged
“Rage Against the Machine,” the band’s debut album, was released on the day of the 1992 presidential election with a cover depicting the famous photograph of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s self-immolating protest in Saigon in 1963.
Morello, a Harvard-educated, Kenyan-American guitarist from Illinois, had spent a few years in an L.A. glam-metal band called Lock Up, and became more politically engaged via Public Enemy and copies of The Nation his mom sent him. He placed a want ad for “a socialist frontman who likes Black Sabbath and Public Enemy.”
He met de la Rocha, a Mexican American punk rocker from the bands Hard Stance and Inside Out, who was freestyling in clubs. Along with Commerford and Wilk, they formed Rage Against the Machine in 1991, taking the name from an unreleased Inside Out record.
With some piledriving Led Zep thunder and PE ferocity, they forged the rap-metal meld people had been waiting for and applied it to songs about warmongers (“Bullet in the Head”), the manufacturing of consent (“Take the Power Back”) and systemic injustice (“Killing in the Name”). The latter was most striking, with the lines, “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses/Some of those that hold office, are the same that burn crosses.”
Listed as inspirations in the liner notes were Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton and Provisional Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands.
While defining rock albums of the era by the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden tended to look inward, Rage was issuing a call to activism and revolution. Whether or not fans cared about these specific issues, they were drawn to the fiery intensity of a passionate young band that cared about something other than their own angst.
Rage’s debut, on Epic Records, the same label that had signed The Clash, only went as high as No. 45 on the charts, but the band landed on the main stage lineup of 1993 Lollapalooza with Tool, whose frontman, Maynard James Keenan, guested on “Know Your Enemy.”
By the time they came back with a second album in 1996, people were ready for Rage. “Evil Empire” topped the charts on the strength of “Bulls on Parade,” a high-powered sonic assault with the cry “We rally the family with a pocket full of shells.”
“Evil Empire” touched on the Zapatista revolution in Mexico (“People of the Sun”), the American right wing (“Vietnow”) and class warfare (“Down Rodeo”). The album came with a heavy reading list that included Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” Karl Marx’s “Capital, Volume,” William Powell’s “The Anarchist Cookbook” and Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent.”
It was welcome to the machine for Rage, which won a Grammy for “Tire Me,” played “Saturday Night Live” — where their appearance was truncated when they inverted the American flag — and were put on the PopMart Tour with U2. They gave their PopMart profits to the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Women Alive and the Zapatista Front for National Liberation.
The tour with Wu-Tang Clan brought them back to Pittsburgh for a second and last time in the summer of 1997 — at Star Lake — where the show was marred by a bad sound mix that obliterated de la Rocha’s vocals.
1999’s “The Battle of Los Angeles,” the third and final proper studio album (not counting the post-breakup covers collection “Renegades of Funk”), was Rage’s heaviest and most accomplished, beginning with the three-song attack of “Testify,” “Guerilla Radio” and “Calm Like a Bomb.” On “Voice of the Voiceless,” they sang of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982: “My panther my brother/ We are at war until you’re free.”
Tellingly, Rage played the final show of its first life outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles protesting the 2000 Democratic National Convention, where the party was nominating Al Gore to run against George W. Bush.
There had been little pushback from the music world against the Clinton administration, but Rage was there to protest the Democrats’ hand in NAFTA, welfare reform, the crime bill, banking deregulation and bombings in Eastern Europe.
“Our democracy has been hijacked!” de la Rocha shouted to the crowd of about 8,000. “Our electoral freedoms in this country are over so long as it’s controlled by corporations! We are not going to allow these streets to be taken over by the Democrats or the Republicans!”
Meanwhile, Rage had its own internal conflicts, leading to the singer’s announcement a month later: “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because 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.”
“There was so much squabbling over everything, and I mean everything,” Morello told Q magazine. “We would even have fist fights over whether our T-shirts should be mauve or camouflaged! It was ridiculous. We were patently political, internally combustible. It was ugly for a long time.”
Rage’s first reunion took place at Coachella in 2007 as a reaction to the “right-wing purgatory” under the Bush administration. It led to a world tour that included protest shows at both the Democratic National Convention in Denver — where they pressured the Obama campaign to meet with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War — and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.
When they announced The Public Service Announcement Tour in November 2019, it was timed for the 2020 election cycle to remove Trump from office. But along came the pandemic, pushing the tour out of a wild year and into 2022, where a different set of issues are on the front burner.
With the Democrats back in power, much of the machine-raging is coming from the restless populist right, which is leading the offensive against COVID/pharma policy, the escalation of the war in Ukraine, censorship by tech companies aligned with the Democrats and the administrative state.
They are bolstered, to some extent, by popular journalists and YouTubers like Glenn Greenwald, Russell Brand, Jimmy Dore and Matt Taibbi who would rather tone down the identity politics and find a left-right common ground to take on the ruling class.
Roger Waters, who has been in us-vs.-them mode since the ‘70s, just came through Pittsburgh on the This is Not a Drill Tour with a jarring video package that referenced the persecution of journalist Julian Assange and labeled every American president since Ronald Reagan a “war criminal,” including Joe Biden who was “just getting started.”
So, what does Rage, going out with a set of 30-year-old songs, have to rage against?
The band is using its screens to decry gun violence, police brutality and the Roe ruling. According to reviews, crowds erupt when they see “ABORT THE SUPREME COURT.”
In the early days of Rage, before social media, they were blasting out messages that were street-level. Now, the game has changed.
On a Reddit thread discussing their relevance in ‘22, one commenter declared, “Today, they are nothing more than a mall brand band with a commercialized message.”
Under The New York Times review, a commenter posted, “Given that [RATM’s] politically correct views completely align with those of mainstream media and Democratic-controlled institutions, they should be called Rage With the Machine. I mean, it’s not actually that radical or courageous to spout ideas that everyone in your cohort already agrees with.”
In that sense, the show becomes more of a rally of the base ... with some killer riffs.