Rage Against the Machine – s/t

Part 29 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

Before I delve into the finer points of the 1992 debut album by Rage Against the Machine, I need to get something out-of-the-way. The word “fuck”. It is essential to this record in the way it is sung, rapped, and shouted and there is no way to honestly talk about this album without liberal use of the word. In other words – if this bothers you, feel free to join me next week (or catch my Green Day review that goes live later this weekend). For the rest of us, let’s talk about it. The word “fuck” as used in today’s context first originated in / or about the year 1475. It’s evolved over the years to incorporate sexual intercourse (“fuck”), an insult or expression of rage (“motherfucker”), or even to indicate a bad business deal (“that motherfucker fucked me”). Now that we got that out-of-the-way, let’s carry on, shall we?

1992 and 1993 were strange years. Post Nirvana the musical landscape was littered with many imitators – some in for the long haul, some would end being one hit wonders. Not too many bands had attempted to emulate what Faith No More and Red Hot Chili Peppers had done – aggressive music accompanied by rapping / singing. I first became aware of the Rage Against the Machine album by way of MTV’s buzz bin (remember that? anyone?). They were playing the video to the song “Freedom” non-stop (this was actually about a year after the album was released) and generally creating a…um…buzz among those who loved edgy music.

I was in 11th grade in a class called Principles of Technology (as 16 and 17 year-olds, we quickly latched on the acronym for the class). I remember very clearly as the band grew in stature one student made the argument “How can they rage against the machine if they are part of the machine”? I’m not sure I can explain that to be honest (though the band apparently responded to a letter the student wrote to them explaining their position). All I know is that this album is 20 years old and feels just as relevant as the day I 1st heard it. It hits the sweet spot in its quest for truth, with the intensity of the music matching the vitriol of the lyrics.

Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me…

Bombtrack – the album starts out with a riff by guitarist Tom Morello that was deemed too heavy for his pre Rage band, Lock Up. It’s metallic riffing segues into Zach de la Rocha’s unique singing and rapping. It all leads up to the explosive chorus with backing vocals by bassist Tim Commerford. The lyrics are pure unadulterated…rage. A perfect introduction to this masterpiece of a record. Key lyrics:

I call the bluff
Fuck Manifest destiny

Landlords and power whores
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch ’em burn

Killing in the Name – Surprisingly (due to its repeated use of the word “fuck”) this track was the lead off single for the record. It may also be the most well-known Rage song. It has a jam metal feel to it with the lyrics focusing on racism in security agencies. Vocally, it is repetitive with Zach de la Rocha changing his vocal stylings each time a phrase is repeated. It all builds to the “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” chant which is repeated close to 20 times as the song closes. Guitar sound is incredible throughout. Curiously over 15 years later this would be a Christmas #1 in the UK (2009). Key lyrics:

And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!

Take The Power Back – Slower start to the song, bass really carrying the momentum in stunning fashion. Once the band joins in we are fully immersed in a punk-funk workout. Once it kicks into the chorus the guitars add some extra depth to the stunning verses rapped so passionately by de la Rocha. Perfection. Neil Young would use the “no more lies” lyrical breakdown years later on his Living With War record. Key lyrics:

The teacher stands in front of the class
But the lesson plan he can’t recall
The student’s eyes don’t perceive the lies
Bouncing off every fucking wall
His composure is well kept
I guess he fears playing the fool
The complacent students sit and listen to some of that
Bullshit that he learned in school

Settle For Nothing – Moody, quieter atmosphere before exploding in a noisy outburst of anger. Not quite as catchy as what has come before, I’d consider this a deeper cut. The guitar solo 3 minutes in sounds like something a speed metal guitarist would lay down before it shifts into a chant like dirge from Zach de la Rocha. Key lyrics:

If we don’t take action now
We settle for nothing later
Settle for nothing now
And we’ll settle for nothing later

Bullet in the Head – Strumming of the bass before launching into what at first sounds like a straight-up hip-hop song. Guitar F/X in the background before it segues into a full band assault. It is really amazing how the hard rock, hip-hop, and guitar heroics – theoretically 3 different vibes – come together in this track so perfectly. The last minute of Zach screaming the title with the band locked into a groove is an all time favorite moment from this band for me. Key lyrics:

No escape from the mass mind rape
Play it again jack and then rewind the tape
And then play it again and again and again
Until ya mind is locked in
Believin’ all the lies that they’re tellin’ ya
Buyin’ all the products that they’re sellin’ ya
They say jump and ya say how high
Ya brain-dead
Ya gotta fuckin’ bullet in ya head

Know Your Enemy – slower intro with a feel like it is leading towards something more explosive…it comes to fruition 40 seconds in as a metallic riff is isolated on the left speaker and we are off and running with a full metal assault. Lyrics are sung / shouted, with the main riff instantly memorable (even after 20 years it still sounds fresh). Lyrics are striving for truth and display a righteous indignation (David Byrne, I’ve found it. It’s here. On this song) Key lyrics:

Fight the war, fuck the norm
Now I got no patience
So sick of complacence
With the D the E the F the I the A the N the C the E
Mind of a revolutionary
So clear the lane
The finger to the land of the chains
What? The land of the free?
Whoever told you that is your enemy?

Wake Up – Led Zeppelin vibe to start, with shades of “Kashmir”. This fades into another straight up hip-hop section before shifting back into a hard rock song. Later imitators would make their rock / rap feel jarring – Rage Against the Machine make it feel absolutely natural – like the song has always existed. Lyrically, we are still focused on the search for truth and justice – this time through the stories of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. Key lyrics:

Come on, although ya try to discredit
Ya still never edit
The needle, I’ll thread it
Radically poetic
Standin’ with the fury that they had in ’66
And like E-Double I’m mad
Still knee-deep in the system’s shit
Hoover, he was a body remover
I’ll give ya a dose
But it’ll never come close
To the rage built up inside of me
Fist in the air, in the land of hypocrisy

Fistful of Steel – Guitar F/X before shifting into yet another memorable metal riff. I view this track as a cousin of “Know Your Enemy” – but it does stand on its own. All sounds were created on the guitar but at times it sounds like Public Enemy is helping out with a turntable – a huge credit to the skills of The Nightwatchman himself, Tom Morello. Key lyrics:

A .44 full of bullets
Face full of pale
Eyes full of empty
A stare full of nails
The roulette ball, rolls along on the wheel
A mind full of fire
And a fistful of steel

Township Rebellion – The bass on this track is absolutely stunning. It feels like the music is racing towards a cliff – dangerous, edgy. It shifts suddenly into a sludgy (or is it grungy since it was the early 90’s?) section before shifting back to the drum & bass-centric rhymes. The guitar solo again sounds like something Yngwie Malmsteen or Eddie Van Halen would lay down – stunning versatility on display. Key lyrics:

Now freedom must be fundamental
In Johannesburg or South Central
On the mic, ’cause someone should tell ’em
To kick in the township rebellion

Why stand on a silent platform?

Fight the war, fuck the norm
Fight the war, fuck the norm
Fight the war, fuck the norm
Fight the war, fuck the norm

Freedom – The song that first brought Rage Against the Machine to my attention, and curiously – not quite as strong as the rest of the record. Rumors at the time were that they had intentionally released this as a single to frighten the masses, but I’m not sure if that is true or not. It has rapping, metal guitar, and amazing lyrics. The riff isn’t quite memorable as on earlier tracks, but as a deeper album cut it works quite well. The guitar solo in tandem with heavy bass is stunning. Key lyrics:

The environment exceeding on the level
Of our unconsciousness
For example
What does the billboard say
Come and play, come and play
Forget about the movement
Anger is a gift

Freedom, Freedom, yeah right

This is one of the angriest records ever released in my humble opinion. If the cover of a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk setting himself on fire in protest of religious persecution didn’t tip you off, a quick scan of the song titles may help you out. What’s nice is that the anger doesn’t feel forced – it comes from a place of truth and yearning. It also employs the most honest (and liberal) use of the word “fuck” on a musical record and yet never feels ridiculous. In all honesty, I enjoy everything Rage Against the Machine have released. I’m hopeful that one day the reunited Rage will release a new record – in the meantime I will enjoy this record (and the 3 that followed). Join me next week as I talk about The Painted Word by Television Personalities.

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