Rage Against The Machine matter in a way few bands ever do. Righteously angry and fiercely intelligent, they also proved that political rock didn’t have to suck. They made rap manifestos that rocked and heavy riffs you could dance to.
Their debut album went off like a bomb twenty years ago this month. Over the next two decades the shockwaves changed countless lives, including mine. To mark the anniversary the band are re-releasing the record in a box set that also contains footage from the band’s first ever public performance at Cal State Northridge in 1991 as well as their Finsbury Park victory concert in 2010. They’ve also thrown in the original demo tape of 12 songs that they recorded before they’d even played a show.
I don’t need a calendar-based excuse to listen again to Tom Morello’s incendiary guitar riffs, but it doesn’t hurt. Morello’s a genuine Harvard-educated political heavyweight as well as a technical pioneer who famously used his guitar’s toggle switch to simulate a DJ’s scratching. I caught up with the rebel with a cause to find out what he remembers about making the album, politicising a generation of fans and the moment it all kicked off at Reading.
It’s been two decades since you released ‘Rage Against The Machine’. How does it feel?
In some ways time has just flown by, but in other ways I never thought I’d live this long! Looking back at 20 years of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” has been really energising and I’m so glad that we’re able to put out this box set for the people who I’ve always considered the fifth member of Rage Against The Machine: the fans.
If you could somehow speak to yourself in 1992, would you give yourself any advice?
Oh yeah. The success of the band outpaced the emotional maturity of all four of us. We were swept up in it. We were offered a record deal after our second show. It took a while for the band for the break the US, but ‘Killing In The Name’ exploded in the UK shortly after it was released. We didn’t really pay the normal dues together, where bands build a brotherhood of solidarity. We were thrust straight onto the cover of the NME! The one thing I would say to myself would have been to press pause and really check in with each other as friends and as brothers to see where everybody was at and how everyone was doing as opposed to just pressing forward with the next gig.
What do you remember about recording those first demos together?
Let’s make it clear that we had no ambition beyond writing songs that we liked. We thought that the disparate genres of music that we were combining would be wholly unacceptable to the general consciousness. We didn’t even dream of an indie record feel. That was just off the board. We didn’t even think we would be able to book club shows. At a rock club nobody wanted to hear anybody rap and at rap clubs they certainly didn’t want to hear Zach. Then the band’s politics as well: there was nothing like that ever on the radio. Then there was the ethnic make-up of the band: there were no bands with a half-black guy and then a Chicano and a half-Jewish guy. So we wrote those songs for this first record with complete surety, without any aspirations to even book a club show let alone get a record deal. I reckon that’s one of the reasons we connected, because we were so unafraid, and we didn’t have any commercial aspirations. We made that whole first demo, recording 12 songs, before we even played a show.
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Was there a moment when you realised things had exploded?
It was Reading ‘93. We had been to the UK a couple of times to play club shows, and we were still opening up for House Of Pain back in the United States and opening up clubs, and we were somewhere middle of the bill at Reading. When we came out it was like the whole country was pogoing. It was unbelievable. Clearly every one of the 65,000 people knew every lyric and were just going ape shit. We were like ‘Wow, what’s happened?’ It was really then that it occurred to us that there more might have been going on than we expected.
Are you proud of what the band achieved in terms of engaging fans politically, or do you sometimes wish you could have changed society more?
First of all there has never been a more popular band with politics as radical as Rage Against The Machine. We planted a flag on the political rock Mount Everest. There are bands that are political who have sold more records but they’re not as radical. There are bands who are more radical – well, maybe – than Rage Against The Machine but they haven’t come near to the same global popularity. That’s something we can be very proud of. You can look at it on a global scale and a personal scale. Bands like The Clash and Public Enemy changed me and encouraged me to pursue a life of activism and charity work. I meet people every day who tell me that Rage Against The Machine has done that to them. A number of the founders of the Occupy movement on a global scale have cited this particular record as the thing that politicised them. So any work that they do is in part because of those ten tracks! So that’s on a personal level. Certainly on a global level there have been specific issues that the band have been involved in, such as different union struggles in the US, where there have been great successes. There have been other goals, such as the Zapatistas’ goal in Mexico, which may have not been fulfilled to the fullest, but Rage has been a link in the chain of a long history of musical artists who stand with and for the oppressed and continue to put wind in the sails of future generations of rebels. That’s something to be proud of.
Why do you think there aren’t more bands today engaged with politics?
In the wake of Rage Against The Machine’s success in 1992/93, there were a lot of bands who were kind of emasculated versions of Rage. They played commercially successful rock/rap music without the politics. I can’t name two bands who even attempted to do what Rage did. That makes me feel very fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Zach, Tim and Brad and have that perfect storm come together.
What’s been your proudest moment with Rage Against The Machine?
Wow. I would say just lasting 20 years. It’s the fans who are the reason why we connect so viscerally with our global audience because the raw emotion that you feel in the music in the performances and in Zach’s lyrics is real. The entire band’s history is a tightrope walk. At any moment that raw emotion could tear the band apart. The other side is that if it could be harnessed it could be the biggest band of all time and maybe start a global revolution! [Laughs] The band somehow picked a path, directed by fate and luck and chance and the vectors of day to day living, where we were able to get some good work done but left some work undone. I’m proud of the fact that 20 years later we’re all alive and able to celebrate the 20 year anniversary. Sometimes I feel like our fans have been underserved by us. Maybe we haven’t toured as much as our fans would have liked, or brought out as many records as they’d have like, but this moment in time is for them. Here’s all of it. Here are shows from 1993 in a Philadelphia bar that you weren’t at, but now you get to enjoy forever. This band lit a lot of fires.
How important has the UK been to the band?
The UK is where Rage first broke, so thank you. The UK is where Rage had our first ever number one ‘pop single’, so thank you. It’s been a love affair with the UK since day one, so sincerely thank you for the support y’all have shown us over the last 20 years.
Watch ‘Know Your Enemy’ live from Finsbury Park 2010: