At this point, you might be forgiven for thinking that I am picking bands for my piece JUST to piss off our Editor. Nothing could be further from the truth, it just appears to happen EVERY time.[Oh, please—it was just that damned a-ha—Ed.]I am more focused on bringing to light the brilliant work that goes into songs that, at first blush, may not seem to deserve this sort of analysis. I feel that Rage Against the Machine definitely fits into that category. They should not be over-looked OR under-appreciated. What Brad, Tim, Tom, and Zack, managed to pull off is nothing if not revolutionary. And the level of musicianship is extraordinary.
Drums – Brad Wilk
Bass – Tim Commerford
Guitar – Tom Morello
Vocals – Zack De La Rocha
Zack De La Rocha and Tim Commerford have been friends since attending elementary school together in Southern California. In junior high, they both played in the embarrasingly-named band, Juvenile Expression. It didn’t last long; Zack went on to be the front-man in the straight-edge band Hardstance, and then played in the hardcore band Inside Out, before discovering, and falling in love with, hip-hop. At, roughly, the same time, Tom Morello was playing in some bands and hanging out with different characters in the scene. One of these was a lad who went by the name Maynard James Keenan, he would go on to form a band called Tool. He was ALSO the bloke who showed Morello what Drop D tuning did to the sound of a guitar.
Morello was converted! I love little moments like that. Where two characters who go on to cast LONG shadows over music meet in their nascent days, and that meeting has a profound effect on both themselves AND each other. Maynard was ALMOST the lead-singer of RATM. Imagine, if you will, what THAT would’ve sounded like, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Morello’s band Lock Up went the way of the dodo, but its drummer, Jon Knox, encouraged him to meet and jam with Zack and Tim, even though he wasn’t interested in drumming for them himself. Morello reached out to a kid named Brad Wilk, who had auditioned for Lock Up but hadn’t got the gig. He did. They jammed. It worked. Band created. A guy named Kent McClard had known of Inside Out and been friends with them. At one point in his fanzine, No Answers, he had coined the term “rage against the machine” and a MILLION t-shirts would be emblazoned with it within a couple of years! Tom and Co. had their band, had their name, and with it, their manifesto. They made a demo tape; 10 of those songs made it onto their debut album. Which has 10 songs on it. You do the math. That’s it. Fucking amazing. They played their first gig on Oct 23rd, 1991, and their eponymous debut album was released in November of ’92. Brilliant. Every label wanted to sign them, but they went with Epic because, as Tom put it, “Epic agreed to everything we asked—and they’ve followed through…We never saw a[n] [ideological] conflict as long as we maintained creative control.” This was how they made peace with becoming part of the “machine” that they were “raging” against. They seemed destined from Day 1.
Killing In The Name
The song has eight lines of lyrics. And 17 different iterations of the word fuck. It also features one of the sickest riffs to come out of the 90’s. Don’t forget that at this time Grunge had a strangle-hold on the musical minds of MTV Culture. This shit wasn’t THAT! I have a particular fondness for this record, as it was brought into my life when I was in college, working at my college radio station, WPUR, SUNY Purchase, Purchase, NY. Our Hip-Hop Music Director was my friend Ron Archer, who would go on to die in his early twenties of a brain aneurysm. A horrible, tragic loss, of a wonderful bloke. RIP Ron, you are missed still. He was ALSO Epic’s East Coast College Rep. One day he hit me up and said “You gotta come to my room…I’ve got some new shit that’s gonna BLOW YOUR MIND!”
Ron was not one for hyperbole, so, as soon as lunch was completed, I hightailed it to his dorm room where, upon entry, he handed me a CD with the famous Malcolm Browne photo of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức on the cover, and the name “rage against the machine” in broken type-writer font below it. “What the f’ is THIS?!” I remember asking, just as bombast of “Bombtrack” ripped out of the speakers. I WAS blown away. And Ron’s shit-eating grin let me know that I was right. We sat in silence as “Killing In The Name” began and I was converted. I won’t ever forget sitting and listening to the whole album that day. The second person on our campus to know what was coming. And one of the few to hear it in the nation. A BRILLIANT memory that I owe Ron for. Thanks man.
When Tom first moved to LA, he had a couple of jobs to help pay the rent. One was to strip under the name Tom “Meat-Swinger” Morello, true story, and the other was teaching kids the wonders of the Ol’ Six String. It was during one of those lessons, ironically enough focusing on the glory of Drop D Tuning, that he bumped into the riff that would become “K.I.T.N.” He stopped the lesson, recorded the riff, and then played it to the lads at rehearsal the next day. Between all of them, they beat the riff into a song that would go on to drive their debut album to 3 million records sold. Quite an accomplishment for a song that sounds RIDICULOUS on the radio with all of the “fuck’s” taken out.
TO THE TAPE!!
The song starts with some BIG OL’ CHORDS! And then, almost as quickly, it stops, and Brad SOMEHOW gets away with using one of the least metal instruments of all time, the cowbell, which is, ironically enough, made of metal, to create a signature moment in 90’s music. You could play just THAT bit to almost anyone who was in their teens/early twenties in the early 90’s and they’ll know EXACTLY what song it is. Quite an accomplishment. And then we’re OFF! This track is the definition of bruising. Such a sick back-beat. Rap/Metal, unfortunately, owes most of its DNA to this record. There are some great conceits in the mix. Andy Wallace’s contribution to the flawless nature of RATM‘s debut cannot be under-stated. There are few mixers who can give you the delicacy of Maroon 5 and the bombast of Slayer all in the same resume. He is one of my favorites at the board. There are some inspired choices made. He blooms the snare with a little gated verb in places, and then dries it up in others, changed the size of the kit’s sonic depending on the need. For instance, in the “Now you do what they told ya!” section there are NO room mics used, so the kit becomes tight and claustrophobic, only to be allowed to explode back out again as the chorus begins. At the 4:10 mark, our boy Brad starts to REALLY earn his keep with some gorgeous fills, flourishes, drama, and cacophony, before the final Rock ‘n’ Roll ending brings us to a climactic close. Balls out! A beast of a track. #swagger
Tim Commerford is one of music’s best kept secrets. Perhaps, in any other band he would’ve been greater appreciated, but when you’re in a band with Tom Morello, you might tend to get a little over-shadowed. It’s unfortunate because Tim’s instincts are spot-on, ESPECIALLY in this track. This is the DNA of RATM on full display. He mirrors Tom’s riff, adding the occasional flourish, and counter-melody, as well as judicious usage of some gnarly FUUUUUZZ, just the ONCE, in complete support of the theme of the song melodically, and also paired beautifully with Brad’s 12-cylinder explosions. Check his playing in that last minute of the jam! RIDICULOUS! He also has some of the most incredible tattoos to ever grace a musician. Entirely individual to him, as one would expect. Exactly like his bass playing. Tim is the Real Deal. Google “Rage Against the Machine Bassist MTV video Music Awards” for the final convincing. #renegadeoffunk
Tom. What can you say? Nothing. Just watch THIS.
There it is. It’s shocking that it took until the early 90’s for someone to significantly change the way that the guitar sounded, and its usage in music. The person who had pulled it off prior, in the 80’s, was The Edge. That was the last time someone played something and you said “Wait! Wtf is THAT sound?!” Morello re-invented the guitar. That’s one HELLUVA thing to get done in your early twenties. He just took his guitar, had the pick-up switch re-wired to emulate the Transformer switch of a DJ mixer, put it all through a Dunlop Crybaby pedal, followed by the Digitech WH-1 Whammy Pedal, straight into the amp, and BOOOOOOM! A revolution in sound. Drop that D and be done!
I once spent 3 hours in an LA parking lot waiting for AAA to show-up to let him into his 70’s Duster and just talking shit with Tom. I’ll tell you this…he’s one of the best people I’ve met in the industry. I’d go to war for Tom Morello. Enough said. Listen to audio of the radio segment and watch that video. There’s a reason he’s “Tom Morello.” Oh, and my FAVORITE work from him is his lead in Audioslave‘s (one of the worst band names EVER, btw) song “Like A Stone.” Video below. Check it. Cornell’s performance is also legendary on that thing. And Tom is a TOTAL NERD!! Uncool has never been cooler. #armthehomeless
Zack de la Rocha was destined to become Zack de la Rocha, of this there is NO doubt. His paternal grandfather, Isaac de la Rocha Beltrán (1910–1985), fought in the Mexican Revolution as a revolutionary and was an agricultural laborer in the U.S. Pair this with Morello’s degree in Social Studies and Poly Sci from Harvard, and you’ve got two kids with VERY big brains, and even bigger mouths, joining forces to make a POINT! There are eight lines of lyrics in this song. That’s it. Eight. And he imbues each one, each repetition, with the force of a call to arms that cannot be resisted. It is a brilliant move. All you have to do is to see them live to see how effective it is. The crowd sings EVERY word. Screams it. Yells it. Feels it. There are 17 fucks at the end. Each one heavier than the one before it. His voice is a megaphone of emotions. Unbelievable to think that they INVENT this. They are definitely wading through waters that Faith No More traversed prior, but this ISN’T that. This is Revolution!
If you never got to see them live, you missed out. Four dudes making the noise of 10. Enormous. But, the oft-overlooked thing when it comes to Zack’s vocals is that he MEANT it. This performance is anything BUT a performance. And you can feel that. This is real for him. Real for all of them. They know that they signed with a major label, they know that the duplicity is obvious, you COULD call them on it, or, rather, you could try. But, not once you heard them. Nope. There is a skill to being able to create a melody out of spoken word poetry and de la Rocha is a skilled MC. It shouldn’t be discounted, also, that he continued to do this for four albums and not ONCE did he repeat himself, or did the joke get old. Each song is a thing unto itself and each an opportunity to say something of meaning. Something to shake up the audience. One can see how being in a band with a guy that means it THIS much could become exhausting…and, by all accounts, it was. But, it ain’t easy being that dialed in. There’s a LOT to rage against. Period. #wegottatakethepowerback
Rage Against the Machine called it quits about 7 years ago. They’ve all gone on to other projects and other callings, which is unfortunate. If ever there was a time to hear what George Carlin, Brad, Tom, Tim, and Zack, would have to say…it’s America, and The World, in 2018.
Go back, grab Rage Against the Machine, put it in the car, turn it up, to the point where you are endangering the lives of your speakers, put the windows down, and drive around your ‘hood yelling “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” at the top of your lungs. You’ll feel a LOT better.
Until the next one,
PS – You can find me on IG, Facebook, and here if you want any info about The Sessions and where to catch me live.
Their first public performance:
Their insane performance at Woodstock ’99: