Raging in the streets

November 7, 2008

Rage Against the Machine is back just in time, with a newfound creative and political confidence, Alexander Billet explains.

WHEN RAGE Against the Machine played their first show in seven years at last April's Coachella Festival, it invoked the wrath of none other than Ann Coulter. Within days of their comeback, the archconservative pundit was on Fox News denouncing comments made by front man Zack de la Rocha as "violent" and "hate speech," before labeling the group "irrelevant." Though it may be easy to chalk the segment up to Murdoch-fueled bluster, it also showed that Rage was doing something right.

In an era where bands reunite merely to cash in on empty nostalgia (for example, Smashing Pumpkins), Rage Against the Machine have returned as their rabble-rousing selves. The past year and a half have seen them put action behind words much as they did before their breakup in 2000. They have spoken out for immigrant rights, publicly allied themselves with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and most recently played shows for protesters at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

The band has rediscovered creative and political confidence that fits these tumultuous times perfectly. This fall has also seen the group's two most politically outspoken members release material from their own projects. Guitarist Tom Morello has released a second album under his acoustic alter ego, the Nightwatchman, and De la Rocha has released One Day as a Lion, his collaboration with former Mars Volta drummer John Theodore. If music tells us something about the time we live in, then Rage's ability to find roots today signifies a shift that this country hasn't seen in a long time.

Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine (Penner)

There'll Be No Shelter Here

When asked why Rage was reuniting in early 2007, Morello responded, "Is it a coincidence that in the seven years that Rage Against The Machine has been away that the country has slid into right-wing purgatory? I think not."

It would be easy to paint this as a statement of supreme arrogance--as if the political future of a country was tied to the actions of one single rock band. But recent polls suggest the U.S. populace has tilted leftward in a big way. Two-thirds of Americans believe that the government should provide universal health care for all its citizens. The war in Iraq is opposed by almost 60 percent of those polled, who think U.S. troops should leave as soon as possible. And with the specter of global recession looming, 62 percent of Americans blame the government's failure to regulate the banks and mortgage companies and are unhappy that taxpayers have to foot the bill.

This is a far cry from the state of the country in October 2000 when Rage called it quits. The knee-jerk nationalism and dollar-store flag-waving that came in the wake of 9/11 generated a climate largely intolerant of criticism. These were hard years for anyone of radical or even progressive political stance. Rage Against the Machine's Web site was shut down by the FBI for a few days and every song in their catalog was banned by Clear Channel in the wake of 9/11 the attacks.

Since the midterm elections in 2006, though, Americans' anger and dissatisfaction with the Bush administration's mismanagement has grown. And the Democrats' inability to do anything about Iraq coupled with the continuing plummet in Republican credibility has sent growing numbers of young people toward radical ideas and activism. These shifting political winds made it clear that is was only a matter of time before Rage would be swept into the maelstrom again.

Out of the Wilderness

It appears that nobody felt the sting of Rage's disintegration more than Zack de la Rocha. While the other three members embarked on the successful but notably apolitical Audioslave, De la Rocha all but faded into the background. He made only a few occasional public appearances at union rallies or benefits and released a song here, a song there. He made a solo album that was never released. A few guest appearances were all that the talented lyricist could seem to muster.

De la Rocha discussed these wilderness years with Ann Powers in a recent Los Angeles Times interview

When I left Rage...first off, I was very heartbroken, and secondly, I became obsessed with completely reinventing my wheel. In an unhealthy way, to a degree. I kind of forgot that old way of allowing yourself to just be a conduit."

With One Day as a Lion, the first thing one notices is how un-Rage it sounds. John Theodore's drumming is a free-flowing opposite to Rage drummer Brad Wilk's hard hip-hop-influenced beats. (De la Rocha describes Theodore as a mixture of John Bonham and Elvin Jones.) The fuzzed-out keyboards, played by the De la Rocha, have a three-chord simplicity to them that is more punk than anything else.

The lyrics, though, are trademark De la Rocha. On the title track, he draws a connection between poor kids in LA and the people of Iraq:

We comin' like peoples army
For the people who can't eat
Who work with no sleep
For the child with no shoes on their feet...
Tear mics till my voice get raspy
Faced flame for five centuries
And if L.A. were Baghdad we'd be Iraqi!

The EP displays how De la Rocha himself has been emboldened by the shifting political climate. He described the impetus behind the EP's opener, "Wild International," to Powers:

The name speaks about a generation of people, a kind of development that I feel. It's an intuition about people who aren't going to be so concerned about elections to get what they need. And whose politics aren't going to revolve around a bourgeois morality. Their interests are going to be focused on food and housing and justice and revenge.

Brave words? Undoubtedly. And words that could easily be dismissed as radical jargon. But it's plain that De la Rocha doesn't take them lightly.

The Black Robin Hood

Tom Morello hasn't exactly been out of the spotlight like De la Rocha has. Audioslave sold five million albums and toured internationally. His political opinions found lower-profile outlets, like his internet radio show Axis of Justice, with System of a Down's Serj Tankian.

Morello wouldn't inject politics into his music again until 2003. The guitarist put aside his amps and effects pedals in favor of a cheap secondhand acoustic and developed a style of agit-folk in the vein of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez. Dubbing himself the Nightwatchman, he released One Man Revolution in April 2007, five days before Rage's reunion show at Coachella.

Morello has brought an impressive amount of outspoken bravado to the project. "The Nightwatchman is the Black Robin Hood of the 21st century," he declared to MTV, "a reaction against illicit wars, against first strikes, torture, secret prisons, spying illegally on American citizens...and it's a reaction against a few corporations that grow rich [off] this illicit war while people beg for food in the city streets."

While One Man Revolution featured very little apart from guitar, the occasional harmonica, and Morello's deep baritone voice, the follow-up, The Fabled City, incorporates percussion, organ, piano, steel guitar and violins. It's a much more raucous album, a ramshackle call to arms for those battered by the past seven years.

Morello's lyrics evoke Dylan's finger-pointin' songs and Tom Joad-era Springsteen, weaving stories of outcasts stuck between fallen movements and the uprisings of the future. He likens the generals of Guantánamo to "The King of Hell," prays for the flood waters of Katrina to drown the president, and channels the spirit of the true believer in "Whatever it Takes":

Flood waters raise the ramparts
I'll meet you now wherever you are
I'm here until the frontline breaks
Whatever it takes

The Microphone Explodes

If there was any doubt that the reunited Rage would be as committed as in their previous incarnation, it was put to rest at recent rallies. As thousands marched in the streets demanding an end to war, inequality and poverty, Rage were among a diverse array of musicians and artists who performed to show their solidarity. Not mere entertainment, these bands were seeking encourage and galvanize the protesters.

In Denver, at the Tent State Music Festival to End the War, they performed for more than 10,000 people. Halfway through their set, Rage brought onstage members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who after the show led a march of thousands to the convention center to demand a meeting with Barack Obama.

In a recent interview, IVAW member Phil Aliff stressed the importance of having a group like Rage allied with them:

The Rage Against the Machine concert is a good example of how to use political music strategically. From the beginning, when the performers started talking about GI resistance, there wasn't much of a response, but by the end, people were fired up and ready to go.

At the Republican Convention, protests were characterized by almost constant clashes with police. Activists, journalists, even regular passersby were sometimes subject to the heavy-handed tactics of the St. Paul Police Department. Rage's music seemed to complement the chaos on the streets, as well as the unity that the protests showed in the face of riot gear and tear gas.

When police shut down the Ripple Effect festival after Anti-Flag's set, Rage Against the Machine, who were expected to play, went up sans instruments, and De la Rocha addressed the crowd:

The reality is we're just four musicians from Los Angeles who have used our voices and our talent and our musicianship and our words to stand up against these unjust policies. And why the fuck are these cops so afraid of us? Are they afraid of us? Nah, they're not afraid of four musicians. They're afraid of you!"

From there, Morello and De la Rocha launched into an a cappella--yes, a cappella--version of "Bulls on Parade." With armed cops waiting to pounce, the two used a megaphone to perform, with Morello half-singing-half-beatboxing the song's iconic "wow-wow-chika-wow-wow."

De la Rocha's speech during the Republican National Convention (the band performed in Minneapolis during the convention) speaks to the power that a social movement has on artists and musicians. Not only are they back, but they have thrown themselves onto the frontline of protest and activism.

Where this volatile mixture of anger, hope and glimpses of protest goes is anyone's guess. In a country whose youth are quickly shifting to the left, to say Rage Against the Machine will find an audience is an understatement. They may find something much more powerful: a movement.

First published at PopMatters.com.

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