Rage Against the Machine’s first gig, a 1991 outdoor college show, is included on DVD in Rage Against the Machine XX 20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe Boxed Set (Epic/Legacy). Only a few people are watching so it feels like a rehearsal. The parts are interesting but they only add up to possibilities, to potential.
By the time Rage’s first album, Rage Against the Machine, was released a year later that potential was fully realized. It contains ten tracks, now road tested for two decades. Like many country songs, the titles reveal a lot about each tune, in thought or feeling or both. “Bombtrack,” “Killing in the Name,” “Take the Power Back,” “Settle For Nothing,” “Bullet in the Head,” “Know Your Enemy,” “Wake Up,” “Fistful of Steel,” “Township Rebellion,” “Freedom.” Several lines from these songs have become catchphrases worldwide, such as “Anger is a gift,” “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” “They say jump, you say how high.”
But Rage is more than a political poster with sound effects. The songs are concise, well-written, and brilliantly arranged. The rhythm section of Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford is rock solid while Tom Morello brings hip-hop style into his guitar playing without sacrificing the power of major riffage. Zach de la Rocha commands the mic with a unique combination of rap, spoken word, and speechifying.
Besides that first show, the boxed set includes the first album on vinyl, a remastered version of the CD with live bonus tracks, and twenty live video clips. Plus twelve music videos which highlight the band’s playful side as they skewer Wall Street and America’s one party political system.
The most compelling extra is the “Battle of Britain” concert DVD. That show was the result of a 2009 Facebook campaign in England started by Jon and Tracy Morter to have Rage’s “Killing in the Name” be the most downloaded song and thus the number one Christmas single in the UK. They were up against the winner from Simon Cowell’s vapid pop music TV show The X Factor. The band promised that if they won they would do a free show. They did win and on June 6, 2010 they played in London’s Finsbury Park for eighty thousand fans.
Midway through a concert featuring Rage at its incandescent best, the Morters came onstage as part of a victory celebration. A check representing fan donations and royalties from the song was presented to the homeless charity SHELTER. The crowd was in full throat, exulting in support of the homeless and in their own collective power in making the concert happen. Zach de la Rocha spoke about the inspiration drawn from British bands, just before Rage plunged into a cover of the Clash’s “White Riot,” whose lyrics confirm Rage’s roots:
Are you taking over
Or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?
The show held its intensity to the end, the inevitable closer being “Killing in the Name.” The band took a bow as the crowd’s earlier chant of “Fuck Simon Cowell! Fuck Simon Cowell!” hung joyfully in the air.
Why would a band like Rage waste its time with Cowell, a man who literally smirks for a living and whose non-television claim to fame is that he signed the Teletubbies to a record deal? On the concert DVD, Public Enemy’s Chuck D asks if the whole affair might be “small and inconsequential.” Chuck’s answer is that all those people coming together to stick it to the mainstream was indeed meaningful.
Now wait a minute. Rage Against the Machine, a band which has sold millions of CDs and sold out stadiums, is part of the mainstream. Indeed, there’s been sniping by some journalists and musicians throughout the band’s career that with their radical politics, Rage’s proper place is as part of some vaguely defined underground. Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies wrote a song attacking them and went on to say that they were hypocrites for “talking about how evil corporations are, and they’re signed with one of the biggest corporations in the world.”
That’s a false issue. Most of us work (or seek to work) for corporations or for institutions controlled by corporations. The choices are, to say the least, limited, even more so for musicians who want to be paid for their work. What matters is what you do from where you’re at. A rock star can do things beyond the reach of cult favorites, however worthy. For instance, during the 2003 supermarket strike in Los Angeles, I was standing next to Tom Morello at the Roxy in Hollywood before a benefit show he’d arranged with many top names. His phone kept ringing—some of the calls were from other bands who have millions of fans saying they were on the road but wanted to be involved. On May 1, 2012 at Occupy Wall Street, Morello led a Guitarmy of several hundred guitarists in street demonstrations, an expansive new form of mobilization made possible by his rock star status.
That doesn’t mean riding a mainstream wave doesn’t have its contradictions. The boxed set is retailing for up to $110 which means the majority of the band’s fans may never see or hear it. But that’s just further proof that the current social arrangement doesn’t work. Getting out your music with the help of a large corporation is a tactical decision, not a moral one.
In any event, the mainstream music industry won’t exist much longer. It’s being destroyed by technology and its own greed. I’d be willing to bet my last “Home Taping is Killing Music” T-shirt that whatever comes next, Rage Against the Machine will be in the middle of it, drawing lines and taking sides as they’ve always done.