Please Explain to Me ... Rage Against The Machine

Bore, bore, yes ya gonna bore me.

It's convention time, so why not try to find some cross section between politics and music? In this case, I'm going see if anyone can convince me that Rage Against the Machine isn't one of the worst bands in the history of the world. (The band is, predictably, playing shows near both convention sites over the next couple weeks, to protest whatever it is they protest these days.) I have my doubts, but there have been some surprisingly thoughtful comments left by some people in previous editions of PETM. You have your work cut out for you this time.

First, rap-rock? Of all the terrible (dash)-rock mergers, this one is clearly the most painful. There's a reason you see the "Judgment Night" soundtrack in every single bargain bin. And it was RATM that opened the rap-rock floodgates that made the turn of the decade such a low point for popular music.

Now as for Rage as great political spokespeople, I have to laugh at that. It's revolution rock for meatheads. What is Zack de la Rocha's most famous lyric? "[Expletive] you, I won't do what you tell me." Deep, man. Deep. Let's just put "Killing in the Name Of" right up there with "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in the pantheon of great musical/political statements.

Then there's the whole Tom Morello as guitar genius thing. I definitely need an explanation on this. J. Freedom - who by no means shares my opinion of RATM - sent along this link of Morello on "TRL" (fight the power!) showing how he makes his guitar make all sorts of wacky, non-guitar sounding sounds. Well, some of us like a guitar to sound like a guitar. So Morello can make it sound all scratchy and wicky-wicky. Who cares?

Rage has just always struck me as an extremely dumbed-down version of everything they attempted to do. Maybe that's why had such mass appeal? Because the masses are dumb. So, please explain Rage to me. Come wit it now.

By David Malitz |  August 25, 2008; 2:04 PM ET Please Explain
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I like them ok on CD, but live they were the most aggressive show I've ever seen (Patriot Center, '96). very impressive, but I have no need to see them again (I like keeping my bones inside my skin).

Posted by: Hemisphire | August 25, 2008 2:53 PM

You, sir, are no communist. Clearly.

Posted by: Gene | August 25, 2008 3:02 PM

In terms of all out sonic catharsis, Rage is pretty unparalleled. I was more into them in my angsty high school days, but I still find their music valid. Granted, I felt a line like "[expletive] you I won't do what you tell me" related more to my geometry homework than the plight of the Zapatistas, but, whatevs. It gets the point across. Sometimes directness is preferable to subtlety. It all depends on your mood. Some nights you want to watch a Woody Allen film, other nights you want to watch 'Pineapple Express.'

Yeah, Rage does big dumb loud rock music, but they do it very well. See Also: Led Zepplin. So clear tha lane Malitz, stop hatin' and TURN THAT ISH UP!!

Posted by: mikef | August 25, 2008 3:53 PM

I think his most famous lyric is actually "Bulls on parade".

Mikef, mostly hit it. They came along at just the right time to push politics back into the rock music scene after a few too many years of Poison ruling the charts. It helps that the songs of their that hit on the radio were a little bit softer on the radical leftism than their deeper tracks.

I've been lucky enoguh to hear some of their stuff played live and the cd doesn't compare at all to it. Really incredible catharsis. Think of it like white water river music. It'll beat the heck out of you, but you love every minute if you can keep up.

Posted by: EricS | August 25, 2008 4:21 PM

I used to live in Boulder Colorado, which harbored many Rage fans amongst it's college student, trustafarian, neo-socialist yuppie citizens. Initially I was repulsed by Rage for many of the reasons you cited, but I came around to love them because they embody a lot of elements of some of my favorite musicians -- Bob Marley and Public Enemy to name two -- which is have something to say, and have a good groove. Sure the lyrics were dumbed down, but they had that everyman appeal that speaks to the disenfranchized masses. And let's face it, they rawwwk!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 25, 2008 4:22 PM

No no no, you must not blame Rage for later, crappier rap-metal bands. For one thing, Zach de la Rocha can actually sort of flow, though he's only got one setting (MAD). You only need to listen to Audioslave to understand how important he was to the formula. And the fact that he's rapping about, like, Zapatistas and Leonard Peltier gives his anger some actual heft. It's not "Break Stuff," at least! I know it's about as deep as collegiate socialism gets, but since mainstream rock got so complacent and lame in the 90s, I like that there was a band out there just getting really, really angry, in the vein of Minor Threat or Gang of Four. That Zach de la Rocha. What a spitfire.

Also, too bad you can't appreciate Morello. Remember when Bulls on Parade came out? And you were all, man, that's gotta be a turntable. And then you got the CD, and the liner notes said "No samples or turntables were used in the making of this album"? Mind: blown. And he's good at slower Sabbath-sounding riffs too. In short, Sabbath + Public Enemy = two great tastes that go great together.

Personally, as a lady, I like that they were "socially conscious" and not misogynist. It made heavier rock more accessible to me. It's a shame so many of their fans were such meatheads.

Posted by: shf | August 25, 2008 4:51 PM

man...i'm so mad i didn't get to fight the power with them at Coachella ($250+) or the Reading Festival ($230+). I would have gone to both but I couldn't afford the tickets. What's a young comrade supposed to do?

But i guess that's why RATM are geniusesss!!! They're fighting capitalism with capitalism (and sonic catharsis, of course). wicky-wicky.

free mumia

Posted by: sean | August 25, 2008 5:56 PM

I saw RATM once, at Lollapalooza in 1993. They were the opening act on the main stage, and my first exposure to them was walking into the venue to Zac screaming "Killing in the Name." With aggressive guitar, a weird 70s-sounding vibe that actually seemed unusual in those days, and lyrics filled with angst and, well, rage, RATM made an overwhelming impression on my 16-year-old self.

What I appreciated the most was that they had a sense of the irony of having such a buck the system message when they were at a corporate sponsored event regulated by Ticketmaster et al. Zac pointed out that they weren't selling RATM tees at any of the booths, because the group didn't want to have prices dictated to them by the event organizers, who were trying to jack up prices on all goods. Zac told the crowd that if they really wanted to have a good memento, to get an old t-shirt, and write the band's name and the date on it with Magic Marker.

Since those heady days, I have fallen out of step with that kind of music and honestly only have one album and a single. But I remember them with much affection!

Posted by: oregonchick | August 25, 2008 8:49 PM

Don't forget to check out the take from Popless:

Posted by: Hemisphire | August 26, 2008 9:34 AM

Just for the heck of it...

I take minor exception to someone takeing exception to Audislave. Granted, the first album wandered a bit to much, but the other two really found a good groove and balance between loud rockers and some more unusual bits, occasionally in the same song. Again, it's one of those things that really comes out better live than on CD.

Just to be a bit contrary as well. Those huge festival don't come cheap, but you do get a heck of a lot for the money you spend. It's not 200+ bucks for RATM alone, you get dozens of other bands, many of them quite huge in and of themselves. Just sayin', that's all.

Posted by: EricS | August 26, 2008 10:12 AM

Whats to understand? They are a G8 protest on stage, Critical Mass in CD form. They are anger and rage, sir. Against the Machine, as it were. They accomplish nothing, add nothing, and preach to the frat boys that can't wait to earn enough to buy that M3, but they are angry...

Posted by: aceofspades | August 26, 2008 10:39 AM

"Rage has just always struck me as an extremely dumbed-down version of everything they attempted to do. Maybe that's why had such mass appeal? Because the masses are dumb."

Bingo. I wouldn't say RATM is the worst in history (Limp Bizkit anyone? Ugh.), but the whole fratboy (c)rap-rock thing was the beginning of the end...and is exactly why we have so many morons at shows now.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 26, 2008 10:44 AM

They were great when I was a teenage, but never really evolved. Audioslave was also nigh unlistenable and I really liked Soundgarden back in my younger years.

I think one thing you missed is that underneath the turntable sound - Morello and the bassist with the awful tattoos are playing the most basic blues-scale riffs. It's the kind of thing you can work out on a guitar before the second chorus. Someone might say this is a good thing, I think it just means they're quite limited musically.

Posted by: MN | August 26, 2008 2:47 PM

Wow, sorry Tom Morello's playing is so offensive to your precious bourgeois notions of what a guitar "should" sound like.

But come on, it's "Rage Against the Machine," not "Engage in Polite Nuanced Discourse About Achieving Consensus With the Machine." If you don't understand "F you, I won't do what you tell me," you need to go take Rock & Roll 101 again.

Posted by: fiendwithoutaface | August 27, 2008 5:42 PM

I would like to hear the sound Tom Morello makes when he eats.

Posted by: Jimmys | August 28, 2008 3:45 PM

Apart from the band's subtle, nuanced, THOUGHTFUL world view, I think the fact that Zach sounds like Henry Chickenhawk from Foghorn Leghorn is a HUGE selling point. Also, those great, memorable melodies. -E

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | August 28, 2008 4:45 PM

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