Rage Against The Machine - Six Years Later, Are Rage Against The Machine Still Relevant?

Daniel Smith 20/07/2007

As recently as six months ago, the thought of Zack de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford ever performing onstage as Rage Against The Machine again seemed inconceivable. Hell, the only scenario that seemed more unlikely in the rock world was the release of Chinese Democracy. But miracles do happen, and it appears that the God of rock has blessed a second generation with the opportunity to see this seminal band live as more and more live dates are announced and rumours of a full-scale World tour refuse to go away.

Bands reform to flog the proverbial dead horse all the time - just look at the Sex Pistols' shameful descent into self-parody. They were once the sole mouthpiece of a downtrodden generation, yet they are now condemned to sell their souls time and time again on endless reunion tours. So why should Rage Against The Machine be any different? If anything, you might presume Rage's music would actually stagnate faster when denied the social context of the 90's that helped spawn it. This and many other cynical preconceptions were shattered completely by the band's blistering comeback performance at Coachella this year.

A typically angry Zack de la Rocha wastes no time in expressing his opinions of President Bush and the war he has lead his country into. During the breakdown of 'Wake Up', he announces that a 'friend' of his has told him that if the “current Bush administration were tried under the same terms as Nazi leaders where after World War Two, they would all be shot.” It's impossible to take these pronouncements without a pinch of salt, but at the same time, they are too disturbing to ignore. His belief in his own words never wavers for a second; “they should be hung, tried and shot as any war criminal should be”, he says with a conviction reminiscent of the hard-line Christian fundamentalist preachers of America's bible belt.

Ok, so he went for the easy kill by earmarking Iraq but in no doubt, he is, just getting warmed up. All too often these days, left wing ideas are packaged as a marketable commodity. It's cool to be a bit 'punk rock', and George Galloway makes a decent living from it. But Zack de la Rocha, and guitarist Tom Morello, himself a Harvard graduate, are extremely well educated men. When confronted about their lyrics in the past they have answered with coherence, conviction and the ability to sustain a valid argument far beyond the call of duty. Bassist, Tim Commerford, and drummer, Brad Wilk, however, are far less interested in the ideals behind their music. A sketch from cult pop-culture satire show Celebrity Deathmatch aired back in 1999 says it all. When pitted against 'the machine' of their name, Rage's rhythm section retreats from the ring with Commerford screaming at the top of his lungs: “I just answered the ad to play bass!”. You can believe it.

Regardless of who wrote them, the lyrics do still mean something. Rage's music goes far beyond the “fuck you I won't do what you tell me.” of 'Killing In The Name', and seeks to educate as well as persuade its audience. Before listening to Sleep Now In The Fire, I couldn't have told you what the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria even were. The same song also inspired me to Google 'Orange Agents', and subsequently immerse myself further in the darkest of America's foreign policy blunders - Vietnam.

This is exactly what we need - bands that open people's minds in an age where politics, particularly in America, is becoming increasingly polarized. But don't switch on your iPod or turn your CD player up to 'Spinal Tap 11' and believe everything Zack de la Rocha shouts at you - his word isn't the gospel. Indeed, Rage Against The Machine aren't going to single handedly drag western culture from its self-imposed rut. The free exchange of ideas is fundamental to our culture, rut or not, and the band should be taken in this context. Rage offer an interesting take on the more liberal right-wing end of the scale that is gift wrapped in a very effective package comprised of metal, hard rock and hip-hop influences easy for young minds to digest.

The only remaining question is; are the kids willing to listen in the capacity that the band intended? The DVD of what was intended to be their farewell performance at the Olympic Auditorium in New York from 2000 reveals a fan base primarily made up of what socialites would call, 'rockers'. Shots of the band playing are intertwined with creatively edited montages of their audience's impassioned (if predictable) responses. In footage of a separate mini-concert on the same DVD, the audience chant slogans and cheer at Zack's baiting of the Republican Party at a show right outside the site of the said party's annual convention. But is it all a hollow gesture? Cheering and mass sing-alongs are a staple at rock concerns, whether you're singing about politics, love or the highway to hell. In short there's no way of telling if the Rage faithful at Coachella or any past performance are cheering in response to what the band are saying, or the almighty racket they are making in saying it.

When Audioslave; Morello, Wilk and Commerford's post-rage collaboration with Chris Cornell became the first American band to play Cuba in 2006, Tom reflected on this issue during a pre-show press conference. He found it refreshing that the people in Cuba had no preconceived ideas about “rock concert etiquette” like the music savvy crowds' he'd played to before in America and Europe. Audioslave's Cuban fans' response to the concert that evening would be pure and unadulterated reaction to the music. Admittedly, Audioslave weren't a political band (Morello underlined this in the same interview) but it's clearly an issue he'd considered before and one we have to consider now. Rage Against The Machine may still be relevant, but is anybody going actually to listen - is their bark loud enough to make the downtrodden masses finally bite?