Evil Empire by Rage Against the Machine
I'm still unsure what I was angry about, but Rage Against the Machine stoked the fire inside a generation of young men.
There’s Nothing Like Rage Against the Machine Live In Concert
On August 10, 1996, at age 17, I had one of the earliest tests of my personal morality. I was at James A. Rhodes Arena on the campus of the University of Akron to see Rage Against the Machine. I don’t remember if it was before The Jesus Lizard took the stage as the opener or in between bands, but the memories are vivid otherwise. An impossibly cute girl who looked plucked out of central casting for a “1990s Alternative Rock Scene Girl,” was ascending the steps to the highest point of the arena. People were chanting, but I couldn’t make it out at first.
She was dirty blonde with perfect pixie hair, baggie jeans, a choker necklace, and a form-fitting nearly-sleeveless white t-shirt. In those days, as music fans who were never cool enough to dress the part, my friends and I would have said in a Butthead voice, “She looks alternative.” We said lots of things in a Butthead voice in those days. On the one hand, we wished we could pull off the kind of clothing that would end up in Hot Topic. On the other hand, we knew there was something inauthentic about trying to look counterculture by shopping at specially-branded stores in the mall. This isn’t a shot at her and I don’t mean to objectify her. I’m just trying to set the scene for the world through my eyes in those days. My friends and I were the awkward, confused, uncool ones, but man, did we navel-gaze about it a lot for some lonely dudes who thought we were above it all. To a kid trying to figure out who he was, it was all very confusing. To belabor it once more, for people who didn’t care enough to dress “scene,” we conversed a whole lot about what it meant to dress “scene.”
As this girl gets halfway up the section, the volume of the chant picked up and I could clearly hear the crowd of mostly young males yelling, “Show your tits!” over and over again. Of course, that’s what was happening. She reached the top step, turned around, did a little pose with her arms in the air for maximum attention. Then she reached down to the bottom of her t-shirt and lifted. The crowd went wild.
On the one hand, as a 17-year-old male, I have to admit that I found it exciting. As a Rage Against the Machine fan getting ready to see the most politically woke band in the history of rock and roll, it occurred to me how inappropriate and out of place it felt. Trust me, I watched when she lifted her shirt, but it gave me pause. I’m not looking to win a prize for my bravery here because it “made me think.” This isn’t about me and some feminist cred that I’m owed or earned. I’m just telling you what went through my mind as someone who was there and who was conflicted.
It really made me wonder about the crowd. Did they listen to the new album Evil Empire? Did they read the lyrics to the songs, especially, maybe “Revolver?” I don’t know exactly what that song is about to this day because Rage, for all its strident cause-consciousness, can be artistically vague. “Revolver” sure seems to explore the ideas around gender inequities. The song opens, “His spit is worth more than her work…” and eventually breaks into a chorus of “Hey Revolver, don’t mothers make good fathers? Revolver!” I admit it’s vague and I literally don’t know what it’s referring to, but the point being, I don’t think Rage was or is a “Show your tits!” type of band. Rage Against the Machine likely isn’t in favor of fostering this type of environment for their fans, especially their largely outnumbered female fans.
The Northeast Ohio music audiences have a mind of their own, however. This is just one example, but as we continue with this newsletter, it’s far from the last time that a Northeast Ohio musical audience will make a cringey appearance.
That’s part of the struggle for a phenomenal groundbreaking band with political messaging. Not everyone is capable of getting it. Even some of those who are capable won’t want to get it. If your songs are catchy enough, some people will fall in love with the music even if they are starkly opposed to the political aspirations of the lyrics and the members of the band. I’m not going to rehash the war of words between Tom Morello and former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, but the fact is that some people just love to work out and lift weights to Rage’s music. Yes, even Republicans.
This dissonance isn’t completely unique to Rage Against the Machine, but because of the band’s groundbreaking style, the volume is unprecedented. The Paul Ryan stuff occurred much later, of course, but it’s emblematic of the push and pull that took place in the arena that night in Akron.
Thanks to Setlist.fm, I was able to go back and see the setlist. It was one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen. The volatility, energy, and urgency inside that arena was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and probably since. I already used the word volatility, but it bears repeating. I can still feel the volatility in the crowd. For some reason, people were getting in security guard’s faces and flipping them off — play-acting the band’s name in a weird on-the-nose LARP-ing ritual. I was rocking out and screaming words and enjoying the show, but, like, I really didn’t want to fight anyone. Some people did, but all things considered, the show went off without a hitch. There’s no letdown in a Rage setlist.
People of the Sun
Know Your Enemy
Without a Face
Bullet in the Head
Bulls on Parade
Killing in the Name
A Seemingly Unfollowable Debut
Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous first album came out November 3, 1992. It was one of those albums that seemed totally unfollowable. Everyone I knew eventually owned a copy and my closest friends and I thought we couldn’t wait for the follow-up. It turns out we could wait and did so for a very long time. From November 3, 1992 until Evil Empire there were 1,260 days of time. When you’re 13 and 14 listening to “Freedom” and “Bullet in the Head,” you don’t imagine you’ll wake up as a 17-year-old when the sophomore album finally arrives.
“Bulls on Parade” was an instant hit with the Fozzy-Bear-wocka-wocka Tom Morello guitar riff exploding into Zach De La Rocha’s “Come wit it now!” I originally thought it was “Quit it now!” with an inexplicable extra syllable that made it sound like “co-wit it now!” The internet says “Come wit it now!” and I’m not going to argue with Google. “Bulls on Parade” was released in February as the album’s first single, but the full album wouldn’t come out until April 16, 1996.
The song was huge, but it felt even bigger thanks to a video on MTV that mixed live band footage with imagery of civil unrest and plenty of muted curse words. Watching the band jump around the stage with huge, frenetic mosh pits in front of them, it added to the gravity of the music. The last minute of the video when the music is at an all-time high and De La Rocha is screaming “bulls on parade!” the cuts in the video are so chaotic I remember wishing I could slow it down and extend pieces to figure out all that was actually happening.
That’s who Rage Against the Machine are. They bring you in with impossibly catchy music and then make you think with their lyrics. As a kid from suburban Cleveland Ohio, I wasn’t very politically active. My parents didn’t talk about politics much. We would generically talk about presidential candidates and elections when I was a kid, but it never seemed that important. When you listened to Rage Against the Machine, you’d start to discover issues that were important to them, and important enough to write songs with screaming, urgent vocals. You want to talk about culture shock, Rage Against the Machine was it.
While you were screaming along with “Bulls on Parade” you were protesting the toxic relationship between the United States and Mexico that resulted in thousands dying on the border, whether you knew it or not. When you’re jamming out to “Down Rodeo,” you’re decrying social inequality and commenting on class warfare. “These people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one.” The power of Rage is in how they get their message into a wide audience because the music is so interesting and activating.
One of my favorite songs from the album is “Wind Below.” It features the most menacing guitar solo I’ve heard from Tom Morello before it drops out almost completely to silence. Brad Wilk’s drumbeat is quiet but driving. Tim Commerford’s bass line is droning and consistent. Tom Morello is one of the only guitarists of his time period and caliber that would literally just stand there and let the silence speak for itself as he lay in wait. Zach De La Rocha delivers some of the most direct attacks in his quiet lyrics.
Yeah, all the shareholders gonna flex and try to annex the truth
And while the new trust tries to flex and cast their image in you
And GE is gonna flex and try and annex the truth
And NBC is gonna flex and cast their image in you
And Disney bought the fantasies and piles of eyes
And ABC's new thrill rides of trials and lies
And while the gut eaters strain to pull the mud from their mouths
They force our ears to go deaf to the screams in the south, yeah
That last line culminates in the peak of the music as the instruments all come in at once and crash over you like a wave. The band builds up to an impossibly loud peak with exploding guitars and drums. It’s grainy, but I encourage you to see the band explode live on stage in Philly from 1996.
(If you can’t wait, it’s just before the five-minute mark.)
That footage does more to explain the power of Rage Against the Machine than I could ever do with the written word. That’s the power this band had in what would have been considered a b-side from Evil Empire.
Not only did Rage Against the Machine follow their own debut album, they probably surpassed it. But it wasn’t easy.
Evil Empire Was Never Guaranteed
Rage Against the Machine temporarily broke up during the making of the album. Drummer Brad Wilk admitted it to the LA Times. “We go into rehearsal to make a second record, and all the personal differences that we had swept under the rug when we were touring suddenly came up, and we had to deal with them. I felt like the band could have fallen apart then.”
The things that made Rage so great were also the things that threatened their very existence. They were all extremely opinionated with different backgrounds. Zach De La Rocha grew up in a very white Irvine California, the product of divorced parents and living with a mother who earned a PhD in anthropology. Tom Morello was born in New York to an American mother and a Kenyan father who was Kenya’s first ambassador to the United Nations. His father left when Morello was less than two years old. Morello would get a Harvard education, graduating in 1986 with a degree in social studies. Tim Commerford was born in Irvine to his father, an aerospace engineer, and a mother who was a teacher and mathematician. Drummer Brad Wilk was born in Portland, raised in Chicago, and later moved with his family to Southern California.
With the success of their first record, they hit the road for three straight years, including stints on Lollapalooza. After grinding away for so long together on the road, they could have folded. All of those differences came to a head. They aired their grievances, took a few months off from each other, and reconvened in their practice space instead of a fancy studio. The path that led them there was worth it for the music that resulted. The band eclipsed one million album sales of Evil Empire in the first four months of its release. By 2000 it would be certified platinum three times over.
Rolling Stone said in its review, “If the band’s first album is a call to arms, Evil Empire is a declaration of war.” With volatility like that in the art, they’re lucky that they were able to stay on the same team long enough to not aim their weapons at each other.
Rage Against the Time Machine
I never saw Rage Against the Machine ever again after that 1996 show. In many ways, it seemed perfect that it was a one-off. Recapturing a feeling from a show that was so different from anything I’d ever witnessed before would probably have cheapened the memory. The band’s breakup seemed to guarantee that it would be a one-off for a long time, but the breakup didn’t last. The band reunited for a show in 2010 and followed it up with some festival appearances. Then, in 2019, they announced they were reuniting for a tour. I was planning on going to see them in 2020.
I had tickets to see Rage Against the Machine with opener Run the Jewels at the same basketball arena where the Cleveland Cavaliers play. That seemed like a weird venue to see a revolutionary band because it’s a building sponsored by the Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert’s mortgage company. I figured if Rage could figure out how to circle that square then I’d buy a ticket and participate.
Unfortunately for them and me, the show has been pushed back twice due to the pandemic. I’m sure it will be worth seeing when and if I ever get to experience Rage live again. I’m sure it will bring back numerous feelings and emotions from my youth. It will be a whole new level of feeling conflicted though.
Back when Rage Against the Machine first washed over me as a kid of 12 or 13 with their debut, and then against as a 17-year-old with Evil Empire, I didn’t know who I was yet. I was figuring it out and I think many of the foundations were set, but trust me when I say I made mistakes along the way that would make you scratch your head. Now, as a 40-something with two kids - one of whom is almost the age I was when the debut album came out - it’s hard to figure out what the personal relationship to the band is anymore, other than a weird nostalgia. As a 40-something, I’m less open for business for new ideas to be seeded. I’m pretty firm in my perspective and views of the world. While many of them seemingly align with Rage Against the Machine, there’s a level of enthusiasm and excitability that no longer has space in my life. So, what happens to Rage and its fans after they grow up and become firmly ensconced as part of the machine?
One thing’s for sure, all these years later, I’m less conflicted on one thing. I definitely won’t be one of the people chanting “Show your tits!” should the opportunity arise. 25 years later, that much is still clear to me.