The Anniversary

Rage Against The Machine Turns 20

Tom Breihan | November 9, 2012 - 4:25 pm

For a period of a few months when he was in sixth grade, my little brother did the same exact thing every day after school: He rode his bike a couple of miles to the record store near our house, the one with the listening stations, and he listened to the self-titled debut album from Rage Against The Machine. Every day. And when he was listening to that album, he didn’t do anything else; he just stared off into space and absorbed it. He never bought the album. Eventually, the clerks at the store started asking him if he wanted to buy it or what, but that didn’t stop him. I think he might have kept doing it even after I bought the album, and I would’ve been happy to lend him the thing. Years later, a friend of mind married one of the former clerks at that long-shuttered record store, and my brother’s routine somehow came up in conversation at one point: “Wait, your brother was that kid? We never knew what was going on with that kid.” Obviously, this was an absolutely insane thing for an 11-year-old kid to do everyday, but I sort of got it then, and I think I sort of get it now.

Over the years, Rage Against The Machine have achieved early-Metallica-esque mythic-rock-brutalist status in the popular imagination, but their critical reputation has suffered for some obvious and understandable reasons. Rage themselves didn’t invent rap-rock, but their crushingly efficient take on it was probably the single greatest factor in paving the way for the god-awful nu-metal takeover that started six or seven years later. Their own fired-up lefty stance, already somewhat overbearing on that first album, progressively became more of a hectoring presence as the years went on. (If I remember right, they weren’t blameless in that whole Nader 2000 fiasco.) And their whole standpoint — ferociously championing the marginalized underclass at every turn — jibed weirdly with their major-label rock-star reality. They did, after all, spend most of their days playing these smash-the-state anthems at notoriously violent shows for huge masses of sociopathic fratboys, one of whom grew up to become Paul Ryan. Tom Morello still cuts an annoyingly aggrandizing presence every time he shows up to support a noble cause. I could keep listing reasons why it’s OK to write this band off, but you absolutely shouldn’t. That first self-titled album, which turns 20 tomorrow, is an absolutely magical piece of recorded music. And listening to it today, my brother’s daily anger-trance makes more sense, and so do bands like P.O.D. After all, if you had the slightest inkling that you could sound like this, wouldn’t you?

Rage Against The Machine doesn’t let up once in 52 minutes. It has quiet moments, but they’re there to build tension for the inevitable fiery anthemic drop, not to give respite. There’s dynamic fluidity in its attack, but the sense of steely-eyed purpose never abates. They were a new band when they made it, but they were already firmly and furiously locked-in, cranking out dinosaur-stomp riffs like clockwork. Years later, they became one of the all-time great Guitar Hero/Rock Band bands, partly because all their songs were so rhythmically focused and partly because the experience of recreating these songs on plastic guitar-controllers brought home how often they switched up those gargantuan riffs, packing four or five into a song, just like Black Sabbath before them, when one would’ve done just fine. For pure smash-face-into-wall rock music, you’re rarely going to hear its equal. But what’s most interesting about the album is the way they achieved that level of rock-monolith.

Earlier in 1992, Pantera had released Vulgar Display Of Power, which showed just how hard a focused and controlled groove could pummel. But Rage did them one better by injecting the lockstep mechanical intensity of rap music, somehow making that fusion less clumsy than any of the bands that would follow them. Morello has plenty of triumphant, blazing solos on the album, but throughout, he’s just as likely to use his instrument to imitate Bomb Squad siren-blare or DJ Premier scratch-solo. He shows off a lot, but he’s the rare showoff guitarist who never loses sight of the song’s all-important beat. Bassist Tim Commerford could descend into Flea-type Seinfeldian slappery every so often, but more often his basslines brought a supple, insinuating implied-funk minimalism that recalled what Joe Lally was doing with Fugazi at the time. Zach De La Rocha wasn’t exactly a great rapper; it was weird, a few years later, when he made tentative steps toward launching an actual rap career. But he was an all-time great screamer, and with this band, when that screaming took the form of rapping, it worked.

Quick detour: It’s worth noting that the album wasn’t an immediate success by any stretch. By the time they joined the Lollapalooza tour six months later, they were opening the main stage, playing before Tool, Babes In Toyland, Front 242, Arrested Development, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr., Alice In Chains, and headliners Primus. The early ’90s! Without Lolla, Rage might’ve never blown up.

By the time they released sophomore album Evil Empire, Rage already had icon status, and they sounded like they knew it. But for all its fire-eyed discipline, there’s still a sense of fun on that first album, of young musicians figuring out a lane for themselves. Bands like Downset and Biohazard were already playing a vaguely similar hybrid, but Rage had more focus and more innate songwriting skill than any of their peers. And even though political fervor was already the band’s main driving force, the album still has a ton of dorky affected rap-swagger that now sounds just painfully endearing. “Steppin’ into the jam and I’m slammin’ like Shaquille” — that could’ve been a Kriss Kross lyric. Other parts just read straight-up unashamedly silly: “Hoover! He was a body remover!,” “The present curriculum, I put my fist in ‘em!” And the band also knew how to build to tempestuous climaxes, rather than just going full-bore all time time. The album’s greatest moments are all the ones where they finally rise up to drop the hammer: “FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME,” “A BULLET IN YOUR FUCKIN’ HEEEEAAAAD,” “ALL OF WHICH ARE AMERICAN DREAMS,” “NO MORE LIES, UNH,” “I’ve got a nine, a sign, a set, AND NOW I’VE GOT A NAME.” Just typing those phrases out, I feel ready to rip oak trees out of the ground one-handed. And even if their point got lost as often as not, that adrenaline-burst feeling hasn’t abated in two decades. That’s a thing worthy of awe.

You guys! How does the album hold up for you? Favorite song from it? Favorite memory attached? Did you have its lyrics echoing through your head when you were throwing bricks at riot cops during the Seattle WTO protests? Did you learn to hate it when the resident alpha-male shithead on your freshman-dorm hallway wouldn’t stop blasting it? Take it to the comments section. And now let’s watch some videos.