The revolution will not be trivialised
Text: John Robinson.
New Musical Express 29 january 2000.
Now when it belongs to Rage Against The Machine the best authentic political insurrectionists...ever! So Bat-buckle up as we tour their fabled campaign against the forces of fascism and prepare for a British visit from Their Worthinesses. Creepy, huh?
He might be off-duty, but there's something about a policeman that isn't tied to uniform alone. It's a 24-hour pursuit, it's the job, the life for a man who knows what's right and wrong, and it's not tied to shift work. He's here tonight in Worchester, Massachusettes, November 30, 1999, and he'll be in Philadelphia in a couple of days' time. He's brought 300 of his buddies and he's come here with one thing in mind - to shut down the Rage Against The Machine gig.
Rage, he's been informed, support cop killers. Specially, they support Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio journalist and Black Panther who was convicted of shooting a policeman dead on a Philadelphian street in the early hours. He had no prior arrest record, but the boys in the FBI have had a file on Abu-Jamal since he was 15. It only takes one bad apple, after all, and the boys in the Bureau had this guy coming down from the start.
So the cop's in Worchester, protesting with a few hundred comrades, and he's shouting. He wants a boycott of Rage Against The Machine. He wants a boycott of the NBC television network, too: they let these guys sine one of their 'songs' (Testify) on the Conan O'Brien show the other night. OK, it's a free country. But these guys are cop-killer associates. Sometimes there's no justice at all. "The police hounded us through our entire US tour," says Rage guitarist Tom Morello, speaking to NME down the phone from Los Angeles, in anticipatiom of their massive European tour, which commerces at Wembley on Friday... "They called for a boycott of Rage albums and Rage shows, and they absolutely failed. I don't know if this joke means anything in England, but in the US, the police spend a lot of time in doughnut shops drinking coffee. We sent them out 300 doughnuts, courtesy of the band. We figured if they weren't out there protectiong the community, they might at least be well-fed."
The cops are back for the Philly gig. They know now they can't stop the show, but they've had a rethink. They'll go on television and get the group that way, tell the people how it really is. The network say that's fine. Incidently, the network adds, singer Zack De La Rocha and Tom Morello will be there to debate with the cops. The cops back down.
"You know it's been a good day at the office," says Tom, "when you 've got the police slapping you on the back and telling you're doing a a great job - that's the time to get out of the business, as far as I'm concerned."
Some groups mobilise a lively fanbase when they play. Others, meanwhile, mobilise the police. Rage Against The Machine are a rock group from Los Angeles, California. And they're coming to England soon.
"This is a mediocre band at best, whose real talent is not music, but radical politics. I guess when you lack musical talent, but are good at marketing an anti-everything image, you can still sell records and get on television." - Gilbert G Gallegos (President of the United States Fraternal Order Of Police)
Rage Against The Machine are the most radical and entirely confusing band on the planet.
They respect hardcore punk ethic (Tom Morello was in a punk group called Lock Up, Zack De La Rocha in one called Inside Out) but they took the Man's dollar, using it to spread the message wider. They appeal to both the hardest and unthinking of rockers, and at the most bleeding of liberal hearts. They effectively invented a workable version of the rap-rock genre, currently the cornerstone of US record sales. They don't mind Korn and Limp Bizkit, even.
"It's a perfect natural evolutionary process that bands would borrow from bands who came before them," says Tom. "The worst-case scenario would be for bands with no political convictions to pontificate about things because Rage Against The Machine does. They are true to their stripe.
"It would be impossible to confuse the bands philosophically," says Tom. "I mean, you couldn't."
Indeed not. One of Rage Against The Machine is a Harvard graduate whose dad was in the Mau Mau resistance fighters; one spends his 'leisure time' with the Mexican Zapatista organisation, the EZLN (the Mexican Army Of National Liberation); one smokes a load of pot (that'll be drummer Brad Wilk), and the other is an ongoing program of total body art, who has renamed himself YtimK from Timmy C. They're a significantly heavy group, but they've previously planned to form The Rage Quartet, to play jazz versions of Rage tunes before they play themselves. They're great, they're extraordinary, and they only meet up with each other when they've got something to archive.
On this last count, their most recent achievement is 'The Battle Of Los Angeles', an album that restores faith in the powers of Rage. And this was faith that needed to be restored. For too long they suffered at the hands of the English mindset, which saw them pigeonholed with the collision-pop new radicalism that swept the music scene in 1993 (remember Senser?). As that movement withered, Rage, it seemed, looked destined to become an anachronism. Then there was 1996's 'Evil Empire'. It sold, certainly, but the record was hard-fought by the group who had made a massively ill-conceived decision to relocate in Atlanta, and were nearly riven by infernal friction. Away from California, away from Los Angeles - simultaneously the center of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous poverty in the US - the group lacked a source of inspiration. The group lacked tunes, too.
Things, happily have changed, and it's the sort of change that can be measured not only in sales (the album went double platinum in the US and platinum in the UK), but also in the neat 50-50 split between the passionately political and the purely enthusiastic when the band participated in web chats on their official site ratm.com and others. ("What do you say to people who say Mumia's guilty?" lines up squarely with "YOU GUYS KICK ASS").
And indeed the record does kick ass. If the group defined a politicised indie-dancefloor era with 'Killing In The Name', a song NME's Steven Wells remarked was everything from teenage tantrum to ultimate revolution - a song Tom Morello cheerfully admits to being the greatest in their live repertoire - then 'Mic Check' and the Stooges-esque 'Sleep Now In The Fire' (both from 'The Battle Of Los Angeles'), they have songs of comparable quality if not such epochal pitch.
'The Battle...' reasserts Rage's radical rock Premiership credentials and, equally importantly, roundly refutes the statement by Gilbert Gallegos above. Just as no-one bought the Manics (Manic Street Preachers) when they were a punk rock group. It takes a band totally on top of its game to reach the masses. Yeah, Rage Against The Machine individually have causes, individually support radical organisations, get involved. But when they do so as a group, they do so as a force neither exclusively political, nor exclusively musical, and this force is mighty indeed.
"There's a plenty of professors at junior collegues who maybe share the same opinions as us," says Tom. "But they don't rock with the same might, to draw the children in."
"The machine," he said recently, "refers to illegal authority, whether in your home, your relationship, in your school, in your workplace or in socicity at large - it deserves to be raged against." What Rage Against The Machine are after is some kind of justice. This is how they're looking for it.
"Rage Against The Machine are no strangers to controversy." - Zack De La Rocha
"We do rock particularily hard, and the locomotive on which the message rides is one with a particularly sturdy engine." - Tom
Rage Against The Machine were pretty much born to controversy. Tom's father was instrumental in bringing to an end the British Colonial rule of Kenya, and what he saw in its wake- the co-opting of the revolution into a Kenyan government of morally debatable sophistry - was a very depressing thing to observe, he told his son. Tom's mother, meanwhile, has taken democratic arms against Vice President Al Gore's wife Tipper and her Parents Music Resource Centre (PRMC) organisation, who are ultimately responsible for those 'Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics' stickers that you see on album sleeves. Mrs Morello was instrumental in setting up Parents For Rock And Rap, a campaign for freedom of musical speech.
Zack's involvement with the EZLN in Mexico is still more hardcore. Since the Zapatista army uprising in 1994 (when they 'took' several Mexican cities on New Year's Day and demanded political reform from the non-democratic ruling government), the movement has been seeking support for a revolution with an affiliated network of worker's organisations. The situation in Chiapas is that while an upper class live in incredible luxury, the poor live in deplorable conditions. Zack has been deeply involved with EZLN's work.
"While we were there, our main purpose was to document troop movements, try and calculate their numbers and report them back to the indigenous representative clandestine committee," he told NME back in 1996. "You'd wake up hearing dog's barking. The dogs only bark when there's army people moving through the communities at night. It's terrifying. You get to experience the kind of fear these people face every day of their lives."
Rage, basically, are not afraid to get into the thick of it. Their abiding principles are humanitarian: pro-choice, pro-active, anti-censorship, with a healthy dose of suspicion that never crosses into the labyrinthine madness of conspiracy theory. The blows they've stuck for their cause have been partly by accident, partly by design, but what they've achieved with the simple precept that one should be allowed, in a free country, to say anthing and question everything has been incredible.
And of course, very rock'n'roll.
"It's somewhat unique, the way we choose to rock," says Tom. "There's certainly a long history of bands who have combined rock power and powerful politics. We have blended some unique musical elements in it - but from the MC5, through Bob Marley, The Clash... while I'm not saying we're as good as those bands, we have some of the same intent. It's down to a number of factors.
Not least that we do rock particularly hard, and that the locomotive on which the message rides is one with a particularly sturdy engine."
As early as their first European tour with Suicidal Tendencies in 1992, Rage Against The Machine's stance was unequivocally inflammatory. The band had found an old CIA-published comic-book that was issued to the Contras in their war against the Sandinistas, and used an informative page, showing how to make a Molotov coctail, on the back of one of their T-shirts. On the order of the French Minister Of The Interior, customs officials seized the T-shirts and burned them, while the band got out of the country just in time to escape questioning.
They contributed to the demise of Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes, too. In 1993, 'Killing In The Name', the British public's introduction to the band, was available in its unaltered form - 16 appearances of, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me", culminating in a "Motherf-cker" - and also in a radio edit that completely missed the point by eliminating all the swearing.
Bruno played the wrong version while doing the Top 40 rundown. There were 138 phone calls of complaint to the BBC.
In 1997, they supported U2 at a series of stadium concerts. Here was another transparant attempt by U2 to align themselves, as they later did with Oasis, with forces evidently a great deal more radical than themselves. Though it might have seemed at first to be an unusual move for Rage, they took the sizable fees involved and used the money to benefit the charitable and political organisations with which they are involved.
The causes they endowed with the profits from these gigs all furthered the group's larger aim of justice: the EZLN; its affilicated organisation the NCDM (The National Commission For Demcracy In Mexico), which aims to facilitate the free flow of information about to struggle in Mexico; FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting), which heightens awareness of global media, monopolies and their vested interests, and the Concerned Family And Friends Of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
"Our objectives gave changed since we started," says Tom now. "Back then (in 1991) we were a band with a demo tape in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, and the prospects of effecting any kind of real, substantive change seemed pretty remote."
"Thirteen million records later, the landscape is different. This is kind of unprecedented territory for a band that has this political commitment as well as mass commercial appeal. There's no blueprint to turn to and say, 'Well, they did it.' It's a matter of figuring it out as you go along. It's a tremendous opportunity. Our record company may share some of our goals, but it's not their life's work - it's up to the guys in Rage Against The Machine."
It's Rage's involvement with Mumia that has brought them their most recent controversy, though they have supported his quest for an appeal for years. The power of a rock group in supporting causes in their ability to generate publicity by association. If the police, or indeed the PMRC, had a greater understanding of the notion of the expression 'the oxygen of publicity', they might have tempered their own outrage for the greater goal of media silence. This not being the case, Rage's involvement with Mumia has become an altogether more widespread issue, and where their efficacy in saving his life is at its optimim.
Throughout their involvement, however, Rage have been scrupulous to maintain that it is not the matter of Mumia's innocence that they are debating. A year ago, at another Mumia benefit concert, Zack De La Rocha made a substantial statement.
"Let me say straight up that tonight's benefit is not to support cop-killers, or any other kind of killers," he began. "And if there were no question about the guilt of Mumia Abu-Jamal, we would not be holding this concert.
"We have a great deal of sympathy for anyone who is a victim of tragedy, including the widows of slain police officers," he continued. "But we do not feel that the proper answer to tragedy is to inflict injustice on others. We need to base ourselves on fact, not emotional. Our path to closure should be paved with a search for truth and justice, not a search for revenge on whoever is targeted by police." "It's ironic that tonight," he concluded, "on the day that the Pope called for an end to the death penalty in the United States, we have others outside calling for the taking of a life on the flimsiest of evidence."
As with the case of Leonard Peltier (a Native American serving two life sentences for the shooting of two FBI officers on a South Dakotan Native American reservation in 1975, even though the case was entirely spurious), it is with the systematic denial to the two defendants of their rights, and the unfairness of their trials, with which Rage have issue. The band's part being to raise awareness, it is, they stress, the responsibility of the induvidual to hold the authorities to account. Though they have not resorted to conspiracy theory, the band have frequently highlighted how both the officers involved in the Abu-Jamal case (not to mention the judge) were all one-time members of the Fraternal Order Of Police, a body of both retired and serving police officers. It's here, through legitimate means, with other noted rockers Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and the European Parliament, that Rage do their bit ro raise the hackles of America.
There's a fine line. The kids want to rock. The kids also know extremely well how to think, and it's in this tantalising ability to harness the two that Rage Against The Machine do their thing. So bring on the conservative forces, the PRMC, the Rock For Life people (who have accused Rage of "promoting hate crimes") the police, and most importantly, bring on the people. Rage Against The Machine have rock for your heart, and for your head.
"England is the first place in the world where an audience saw something in Rage that was worth checking out," affirm Tom, generously, "In the States no radio station would touch this band."
You heard the guerilla radio. Happily, it's still on air.
'I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME'
FIVE EXEMPLARY RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE MOMENTS
1: Lollapalooza III, Philadelphia, 1993
2: Saturday Night Live, April, 1996
"They were afraid their sponsors would be offended", says Tom. "Timmy shredded up one of the flags and threw it at the host. The place filled with secret service agents and we were summarily escorted from NBC studios."
3: Wu-Tang Clan abandon tour, August, 1997
The two groups have remained friends.
4: Tom Morello arrested, December, 1997
5: Zack De La Rocha addresses UN, April, 1999
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