The highly political metal-rap band Rage Against the Machine (RATM) has just played the Big Day Out in Auckland. Unfortunately this performance showed that their politics still have a lot more bombast than substance, which is disappointing because RATM continue to be one of the most successful political artists of modern times. Fortunately, at the Big Day out, the band’s guitarist Tom Morello also played his own set of acoustic political music under his alter ego moniker of the Nightwatchman, and this turned out to be much more sophisticated and relevant. [Read more]
Teenage rage against everything
The 1990s were a fairly dry period for political music, but the formation of Rage Against The Machine (RATM), in Los Angeles in 1991, meant that at least some sort of political dissidence could be played on the speakers of stereos throughout the west. And even today, with a lot more political music emerging, RATM are still one of the few artists to be able to headline a sold-out 45,000 Big Day Out while putting an openly anti-capitalist message.
The name of the band – Rage Against the Machine - was taken from the title of one of the earlier songs written by frontman Zach de la Rocha, and it sums up the style and content of the band very well: oppositional, anarchistic, bombastic, and fiercely polemical. The band railed against war, racism, corporate America, cultural imperialism, government oppression, and the capitalist system in general.
The two main forces in the band are da la Rocha's (whose Chicano father was a political activist and artist known as Beto), and Tom Morello, the son of an Irish and Italian mother and a Kenyan father. Morello’s uncle, Jomo Kenyatta, was the Kenyan freedom fighter who went on to become the country's first president. His parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and his political education began early when the KKK hung a noose outside his father’s garage.
RATM are not just notable for their polemics, but their unconventional musical style which mixes hip hop rhythms with soaring metal-grunge guitar and funk. Not only is their music rather riff-tastic, but incredibly inventive. As one reviewer put it, ‘Rage Against the Machine' is very impressive for the amount of sounds and styles the band can generate from just bass, guitars, drums and vocals. They can create some real synthesized electronic sounds, and combine them with more traditional rock and metal noises to create an album that is a bizarre mix of modern and old.’
Seeing RATM live at the Big Day Out was a truly intense experience. Their fans went into overdrive when the band played the anthems Killing In the Name, Bombtrack and Bullet In the Head. It was hard to know whether the frenzy in Auckland was driven by a connection with RATM’s rebellious political message or just the hard punk music. Did the average fan really care that the band wanted them to read Marx and get active?
Did the fans really care about RATM’s longtime support for radical movements and causes? The band clearly has a true revolutionary goal of being involved with the oppressed and those fighting back ‘against the system’. They have been prominent and constant supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. They’ve played endless gigs for US causes such as ‘Refuse and Resist’, ‘Rock For Choice’, and FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). In 1999 they created controversy for performing a concert for death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. More recently, Morello spoke at the latest G8 protest, and both Morello and de la Rocha performed at the Hollywood writers’ strike. Other controversies have included RATM’s incendiary show outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000. And they inadvertently shut down the New York Stock Exchange when the band defied the police to play at Wall Street and then invaded the exchange while making the Michael Moore-directed music video Sleep Now in the Fire.
In many ways RATM’s Auckland concert was rather disappointing. The politics on offer wasn’t exactly sophisticated or contemporary. Whenever de la Rocha deviated from his decade-old lyrics to say something additional (which wasn’t often) it was to give rants that also sounded like they better suited to 1997 than 2007. What is the point in RATM putting forward a critique of George Bush when he’s about to leave the US presidency? He’s a lame duck president that virtually the whole world dislikes. Cliff Richard could probably condemn George Bush, but it’d be a bit more interesting to hear de la Rocha’s take on the current US elections.
De la Rocha also repeated his controversial demands that the US administration be sent to the International War Crimes Tribunal and then hanged. Such statements merely give credibility to the farcical and imperialistic international body. It all just sounded like unthinking rebellious sloganeering. His next statements following the mosh-inducer Wake Up track, lectured the audience on how bad America is. He told us to boycott US products! Whether that extended to RATM CDs wasn’t clear.
Split and reformation
Most of RATM’s audience were probably surprised to see the band performing at all, as the band had split in 2000 and its members had gone onto other projects. Zack de la Rocha apparently left the band over personal and musical conflicts saying ‘our decision-making process has completely failed; it is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us and from my perspective has undermined our artistic and political ideal’. He told the band over the phone. And even his longtime friend, drummer Tim Commerford, didn’t talk to de la Rocha again for six years. Instead the remaining bandmates formed Audioslave with ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, and started spending $40,000 a week on band therapy. It didn’t therefore seem likely that the old band would be playing concerts again.
So why has RATM reformed? The official reason given is that the band members were so enraged by the policies of the Bush regime that they felt the need to ‘get the message out’. So it’s unfortunate that the message that they’re getting out is so lame. And it’s unfortunate that they refuse to do interviews, which one might have thought would be part of getting the message out. Although Tom Morello helpfully talks to journalists, he told the NZ Herald recently said ‘Rage Against the Machine is not doing press. With Rage Against the Machine we will speak for ourselves on stage. I'm only really doing Nightwatchman press and it wouldn't be fair to the other guys. We agreed we weren't doing any press for Australia and New Zealand.’ From the sound of things, relations in the band might not still be normal. In fact the reunion obviously has a lot to do with Audioslave splitting in late 2006. Morello even directly says that ‘The disintegration of Audioslave" was part of the reason Rage reunited.
In many ways it shouldn’t be surprising that Audioslave turned out to be a short-term project for Morello. Morello was the only one with a dedicated political agenda in the band, but no outlet for it. Certainly it’s hard to find overt politics in Audioslave’s music. Possibly the most radical thing that they did was to defy the US blockade of Cuba in 2005 to put on a free concert in a show of solidarity with the Cuban people.
The Nightwatchman and the politics of Tom Morello
While still in Audioslave, Morello started his new politico folk Nightwatchman gig while touring with Audioslave in 2004. It came about precisely because Audioslave didn't allow him to exercise his political activism. He was also involved in a number of other political music projects. In 2003 he paired up with political soulmate, Billy Bragg to join the Tell Us The Truth Tour, which aimed to expose the lies and deceptions of the Bush administration. The other significant project has been the creation of The Axis of Justice organization together with Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Its purpose, according to their website, ‘is to bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice’.
Luckily for the politically-interested punter at Auckland’s Big Day Out, Morello was performing his solo sideshow Nightwatchman act a few hours before RATM came on to headline. This gig was far superior. Just to see what one of the world's most influential guitarists of recent times is now doing was interesting enough. Musically, Morello’s new songs are the polar opposite to the loud and intense RATM gig. One reviewer said that the Nightwatchman allowed Morello to distill ‘the influences of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, early Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash with the rebel spirit of the Clash's Joe Strummer, Public Enemy's Chuck D, System of a Down and his own Rage Against the Machine’. Morello himself, says that ‘The goal of this has always been 50 per cent Johnny Cash, 50 per cent Che Guevara’ – which is a pretty good combination.
The critics might think that this folky arrangement indicates that Morello has obviously mellowed with age. Morello replies to such accusations by saying that despite the Clash song that says ‘You grow up and you calm down’, he’s ‘angrier now than when I was 17’. And it’s definitely clear that he’s still incensed by the gulf between rich and poor, which drives many of his Nightwatchman songs. While lyrically it is in similar territory as RATM, with the celebration of resistance and workers' rights and anti-racism, there seems to be an even stronger class-orientation to the Nightwatchman than to RATM. The rebellious teenager feeling of Killing in the Name seems to have matured into a more sophisticated but equally angry condemnation of the rich and powerful. But where RATM might focus more on Bush directly, Morello discusses the effects of politics on ordinary people, like steel workers and immigrants. His songs are predominantly about unions and the oppressed. Morello explains that he’s created this project because, ‘I felt compelled to do it for all the right reasons, and I felt I needed songs to play at the barricades and songs to fan the flames of discontent’.
Morello describes himself as ‘a political musician and a musical politician’, and he even has his own uniform – a Nightwatchman heavy black clothes and baseball cap with a union logo on it.
Unlike de la Rocha’s headline act, Morello was keen to engage with the audience in his act, and he was ready to speak about New Zealand. He seems to have come to NZ often, and in 2003 he told the NZ Herald that ‘Whether you live in Wellington or Washington, if you're interested in stopping the war in Iraq, or you're interested in environmental issues, workers rights, or you are being physically or sexually abused, you can join an organisation and get help today’. More recently in 2006, he told the same newspaper that ‘The way I look at it is, as long as there's a lower class, I'm in it. As long as there are people standing up for the oppressed, I'll stand shoulder to shoulder with them, period. I would do this free. I love it’.
While RATM appears to be still strongly based on de la Rocha’s 1990s anarchism, Morello has shown that there needs to be more to political music than just basic sloganeering. And luckily he’s got some fairly solid analysis. Raging against the system is fine. But ultimately there’s a need for more than just rage.