At the Big Day Out in Auckland, Rage Against The Machine played their first gig outside the USA since they re-formed. (At least that’s what the publicity said.) They were a big drawcard for me – in fact, I haven’t been to a Big Day Out since the last time they came, back in 1996. My hopes were fulfilled, for they delivered a very tight set, absolutely in sync and looking like they’ve been waiting for this moment for the last decade. The enormous crowd became a seething mess of bodies, roaring out the words to their anthems. And Zach de la Rocha sang that line: “so we move into ’92, still in a room without a view”, stubborn as ever about the year he mentions. Heck, by the time he recorded the line for the debut album it was already late ’92; it was anachronistic even then. Now it’s sixteen years out of date, older than a lot of people who were dancing around me.
And it got me thinking. It was a pitch-perfect early-90s Rage performance here in January 2008. They’d been split up for nearly a decade and yet they had masses of young fans. What was going on?
RATM’s first studio album (released, according to Wikipedia, in November 1992) turned up in New Zealand in early ’93. I remember reading the review in the Listener, and thinking it sounded exciting. My friend Brad had read the same article, and after we talked about it enthusiastically, he went out and bought it. It became the soundtrack of our final year in high school.
I remember RATM cancelled a Wellington concert shortly before the Big Day Out in 1996. I’d had a ticket, and was disappointed, but they looked after me – full refund, and adding me to their freebie mailing list, so for the next few years nifty little vinyl releases would drop through my letterbox when least expected. At the BDO itself, I was impressed that their t-shirts cost less than half the price of every other band t-shirt; the one I bought stood the test of time and in fact I’m wearing it as I type. Overall, Rage seemed like a band that actually gave a damn on some level.
Round about the same time, Chris Knox (among other indie worthies) was going off on one about how Rage professed to be “Against the Machine” while being signed to a major label. I always found their counter-claim convincing enough: they retained creative control, so if they could use that distribution chain to get their message out there, it was worth generating profits for “the man”.
And so it continued. Two more albums followed the first, and I still like them both. If truth be known, all three are really the same album, just split up into parts. Rage didn’t develop their sound – they just kept doing the same thing over and over. The incredible trick was that they kept doing it extremely well, finding new musical variations on their established theme while they explored all aspects of their obsession with systemic injustice. (They also enjoyed playing covers, eventually releasing a fairly good covers album.)
So come to BDO 2008. We’re down in the crowd, and it’s getting packed in. The Rage crowd is pretty much the Shihad crowd, so everyone was sitting tight after that and waiting. There’s a lot of young faces, lots of teenagers, and the crowd is almost entirely male. Bjork comes on the other stage. She is, to put it mildly, not well received. Impolite comments here and there eventually erupt into full-scale booing and shouting by the masses, who only want Rage to come on. (Me, Malc and a few others made a point of clapping visibly at the end of her songs, just to stand against the tide.) This troubled me. Not for the first time I wondered if anyone around me actually paid attention to what Rage was about. Or was it just the thrill of shouting the F-word over and over again that made the band so popular?
When the group finally came on, there was a frenzy. Everyone was dancing. Almost everyone was singing, and not just the ferocious swear-anthem Killing in the Name, but all the other ones too, with all their dense political imagery and rhetoric.
De la Rocha was mesmerising. He’s become an even better frontman over the years, somehow making the lyrics to these roaring tracks incredibly clear and easy-to-follow, like he’s sitting in the room with you explaining how the world works as he sees it. Some of the time he just gazed out at the crowd as we sang the words for him. Mostly he leaped around the place; as I remarked to Malc, you can tell that Zach is getting old now because instead of jumping up and down 100% of the time he only does it 90% of the time.
When he mentioned Bush – the only time during the night he offered up words that weren’t lyrics – the crowd went wild. Everyone in that enormous BDO crowd hated George W. Bush. (Although I’ll wager most people would think twice about hanging him.)
So whatever else was going on, the crowds of young people were entirely engaged in the political stuff. Perhaps only in a shallow way, but I don’t think there were many people there who wouldn’t have at least some appreciation of Rage’s political stance and what they fight for. The romance of rebellion, of course, is all the more appealing when it’s delivered with power cords and obscenities. But it would be a mistake to think that this is all that was going on.
Then again, they roared their disapproval of Bjork like a bunch of munters.
More than a few commentators have said “Rage’s music seems more appropriate now than ever.” That makes me itchy, even if it’s true. with de la Rocha coming right out and saying that he hopes the Bush administration are put on trial for war crimes and hung. But the Rage tunes that had everyone leaping around were written in the Reagan/Bush-the-first era, but were the soundtrack of resistance in the Clinton era. RATM’s anger parallelled the fury of the new progressive movement, which came fully into being at the battle for Seattle in ’99. It makes me wonder more generally about the fate of what remains of this movement in the post-Cheney era. Removing the Cheneyites from positions of power in the US will be a huge achievement towards making the world a better place, but at best it will just land us back where we were in the 90s. Still in a room without a view, so to speak. And yet, I can’t help feeling the momentum of resistance will plummet when CheneyBush goes.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. I think I had a point when I started but I can’t find it now. Suffice it to say that I still love Rage. They’re so earnest and proud and right and they’re good for the world to have.
So instead I’m going to close on another memory. 2002, Portugal, in a shopping mall near Lisbon. There was a fancy and expensive clothes shop. In the window display, alongside the incredibly pricy clothes, were some large reproductions of album covers, including that of RATM’s first album. with the famous cover picture of the monk self-immolating to protest Vietnam. This is how the world works, in the end – everything will eventually be used to sell products.
More BDO notes, plus a clearinghouse of sorts for YouTube footage of Rage and others, can be found at the Public Address system.