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There’s no Rage Against The Machine at this year’s Coachella – but there are plenty of other brilliant bands on the line-up…
As revolutionary in their genre-smashing sound as their inflammatory politics, few (if any) outfits have had the game-changing impact Rage Against The Machine delivered across the space of three explosive LPs. Bringing together New York-born guitarist (and Harvard graduate) Tom Morello, vocalist Zack de la Rocha (whose paternal grandfather was a Mexican revolutionary), bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk in the political powder keg of early '90s Los Angeles, sparks were always going to fly.
Somehow taking agitprop into the mainstream, their unequivocal message and eye-catching activism – from 1993’s naked protest against kitchen-sink censors the Parents Music Resource Center to starting a riot at the 2000 Democratic National Convention – won over a legion of fans that somehow only continued to swell after their initial disbandment in 2000, due to apparent ‘creative differences’.
Although the band reunited for live shows between 2007 and 2011 (with more now scheduled for next year), and its constituent members have been prolific in their output with projects as diverse as Audioslave, One Day As A Lion, WAKRAT, Prophets Of Rage, The Nightwatchman and The Last Internationale, our Top 20 focuses only on RATM compositions from that golden period between 1992 and 1999. Maybe – just maybe – there’ll be more to follow in the years to come. For now, though, enjoy this cache of sonic Molotovs.
Handle with care...
Arriving late in Rage's creative arc, Born Of A Broken Man is a peculiarly personal reckoning from Zack on the fractured legacy left by his father: trailblazing Chicano artist Roberto "Beto" de la Rocha. A member of hugely influential collective Los Four, Beto would divorce Zack's mother and subsequently suffer a mental breakdown where he destroyed many of his own paintings before retreating into shadowy solitude with only his dog-eared bible for company. Transitioning from downbeat despondency through seething resentment to an ultimate no-fate-but-what-you-make defiance ('Born of a broken man, but not a broken man!') there's real power in its portrayal of the internal struggle against hereditary self-destruction and the unquenchable thirst to be better than those who came before.
Another unusually intimate composition, Revolver finds the band tapping into their resentment for the 'festering' dynamic between husband and wife at the heart of so many traditional western households, and the brutal domestic abuse that is its consequence. Zack's near-whisper on the verses ('A-he's a prize-fighter / And he bought rings and he owns kin / And now he's swinging / And now he's the champion') pokes at the pathetic notions of behind-closed-doors privacy that so often allows this injustice to go unpunished. The explosive chorus – hinting at a mother reaching breaking point and murdering her husband with the titular pistol – lands with equal measures of catharsis and tragedy.
There's no small subversion in the fact that this rare standalone single – a Marcusian anthem and potent critique on the role of manipulative media and consumerist hijacking of the very concept of teenage rebellion – first arrived on the soundtrack album for 1998's mindless mega-blockbuster Godzilla. Hell, it even includes the line 'Godzilla, pure motherfucking filler to get your eyes off the real killer!' Plenty of critics at the time were quick to level accusations of selling out at the band for contributing to this kind of corporate tie-in, and getting involved in the following year's infamously overpriced Woodstock 1999 festival. They missed the point. This was Rage at their most confrontationally audacious: taking the opportunity to stand atop the music industry mountain and preach a radical message to the entitled consumers most in need of hearing it.
Showcasing a rhythm-section unlike any other in rock and metal, Take The Power Back felt like a real showcase of the depth of sound, atmosphere and concussive impact Rage could summon from their ostensibly stripped-back three-instrument setup. A reckoning on the peculiarly forced, hand-on-chest ideals of the U.S. educational system – and the inherent links between blind conformism and the American dream – it was a powerful early statement, even name-checking 1970s militant organisation The Weathermen. The image of 'complacent students' listening to their teacher reeling-off the same 'bullshit that he learned in school' still feels like a powerful call to break systemic cycles of ignorance.
Starting with a riff that could've been nicked from Smashing Pumpkins, Down Rodeo shapeshifts into one of the band's funkiest, most lyrically powerful blends of hip-hop and punk rock. Referring to the uber-affluent Rodeo Drive community in Beverley Hills, lyrics like ‘Yeah, rolling down rodeo with a shotgun, these people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one’ highlight the historic racial inequality ingrained into the fabric of America. Although there remains plenty of seething anger at its heart, there's also an element of playful fantasy fulfilment to this banger – and a subversive challenge for California's wealthy liberal elite to match words with actions.
Never officially released as a single, The Battle Of Los Angeles' rough gem Calm Like A Bomb garnered enough attention and radio airplay to become a fan-favourite regardless. A swirling showcase of the band's effects-laden expertise, Tom's whammy pedal and Tim's bass wah are deployed with unforgettable results on a song that stands as a snarling riposte to anyone who's ever suggested the downtrodden should just shut up, lie down and be thankful for being allowed to exist. Referencing black American playwright James Baldwin alongside Mexican rebel Emiliano Zapata in positive light, and the Ku Klux Klan and police widow/death penalty advocate Maureen Faulkner in a mercilessly negative one, it remains brilliantly unapologetic in its real-world delineation of right and wrong.
If the through-line of Rage's third album is the dynamic specific to Los Angeles – where black, white and hispanic communities collide in the city's patchwork of neighbourhoods, and the contrast between the impoverished and super-rich is visibly at its starkest – Born As Ghosts lays bare the implications that being born a couple of hundred yards down the street can have for an individual's future prospects. Debunking the old American dream that all are welcome, and anyone can be what they want to be if they're willing to work for it, it paints a picture of 'gates, guns and alarms' keeping immigrants at arm's length, and the school system as the 'tomb' keeping their U.S.-born children from climbing the social ladder. Smouldering away with a treacly bassline before fully catching fire, it stresses that such inequity will prove to be the burning fuse on a powder keg soon to explode.
Originally featuring on the soundtrack to Boys N The Hood director John Singleton's powerfully politicised 1995 college drama Higher Learning (with a heavier hip-hop feel and a titular 'the' in place of its eventual 'tha'), Year Of Tha Boomerang had its guitars brought up in the mix and was featured as an Evil Empire prime cut. Particularly high-minded in its reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's advocacy for the use of violence by colonised peoples against their colonisers in his preface to the 1961 edition of Frantz Fanon's seminal critique The Wretched Of The Earth, the song examines issues of minority representation, institutionalised racism and sexism as hurdles to be overcome to reach true societal balance. With instruments twisted into primal dissonance and Zack in full swagger, it feels impossible to miss the point.
Tied, inextricably in many fans' minds, to the Wall Street-crashing stunt recorded in its Michael Moore-directed music video, Sleep Now In The Fire is often regarded as emblematic of stock, late-era RATM where the catchy rap-rock was more clearly defined than the actual message at hand. In truth, although the anti-capitalist sentiment of their managing to get the New York Stock Exchange closed for those few minutes on January 26, 2000 was hardly irrelevant, it distracts somewhat from the actual lyrical content. Dealing with the United States' systemic oppression of non-white indigenous peoples, from the arrival of 'The Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria' and the conquest of Native Americans through the 19th Century African slave trade right, through to one-sided military action against Japanese and Vietnamese civilians, the song was a challenge for everyday Americans to step back and reconsider their own history. Even if they weren't willing to do that, most couldn't resist banging along to a tune that's catchier than a noose.
Confidently referencing complimentary hip-hop slang in its title, there was a clear double-meaning to the opening track of Rage's self-titled debut: the song that would light the fuse on the most volatile of catalogues in all of popular music. With Tim's iconic bassline eventually setting off Brad's concussive beat, the song is a scattergun attack on 'landlords and power whores' perpetuating a cycle of social inequality. The accompanying artwork was far more direct, with a video expressly supporting Peruvian revolutionary/terrorist Maoist militia Sendero Luminoso and their leader Abimael Guzman, while the single artwork featured Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick's iconic two-tone interpretation of legendary Marxist guerrilla leader Che Guevara. If listeners didn't know what they were in for, this helped them quickly catch on.
Originally conceived as a tribute to California's Chicano natives, Evil Empire standout People Of The Sun evolved into a song about the Zapatista movement: an army of indigenous farmers (the EZLN) who rose up against the Mexican state and drug cartels in the country's southernmost Chiapas state. Coming in at a concise 150-seconds and featuring some of Tom Morello's most innovative guitarwork – pencils and wrenches reportedly dragged across his strings – it cuts through five centuries of colonialism and straight to the point. Zack's pointed, firestarter lyrics ('That vulture came to try and steal your name, but now you found a gun / You're history, this is for the people of the sun!') pop with militant power.
The penultimate track on Rage's last collection of original material to date, Ashes In The Fall finds Zack at his bleakest and most evocatively abstract, imagining a society collapsed beneath the greed and hypocrisy of money men. ('A mass of nameless, at the oasis that hides the graves beneath the master's hill / Buried for drinking the river's water while shackled to the the line at the empty well.') The urgency of Tom's guitarwork – nails-on-a-chalkboard screech swelling into a hurricane of sound – coupled with Zack's predictions of traditional industrial decline and the rise of an American prison industrial complex make clear that this is a final-straw warning for society on the brink.
'Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.' Repurposing the party slogan of the Oceania government from George Orwell's horribly prophetic masterpiece 1984, Testify highlights the modern truth that control of information – and public perception – is tangible currency for crooked political leaders. Hammering home that the mass media's corrupt power brokers are tools of the superpowers they should be holding to account, Zack's indictment of intoxicating Hollywood glamour and tabloid mudslinging rings ever truer in the era of fake news. Tom's rampant deployment of particularly OTT distortion can even be read as another layer of metaphorical commentary on a world where playing straight and clean is nowhere near as ear-catching as muddling things up.
Amongst hardcore fans, almost 30 years' overexposure to what's unquestionably Rage's biggest song has led many to forget why its one of their best. A feast of unforgettably stripped back riffs and atmospheric percussion, its simplistic, middle-fingers-aloft payoff ('Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!') might've become almost comically synonymous with idle adolescent rebellion (and breaking the reign of talent show The X-Factor over the UK's Christmas Chart) in the years since, but take away that baggage and there's still real power burning in there. A jagged anti-authoritarian warcry against the badge-wearing 'chosen whites' that openly highlights the history of collaboration between law enforcement and white supremacism, its message still has more relevance to contemporary America than many "fans" would like to admit.
Another track that rails against the blinkered worldview peddled by mass media outlets, Bullet In The Head is all the more powerful for its invitation to listeners to seek out the facts and form opinions for themselves. Only as well-informed individual thinkers, the band reasoned, would people be truly prepared to tackle the constrictive machinery of society – whether on a tribal level in relation to religious or gang affiliations, or on the grander, governmental scale. Inspired by triumphalist American coverage of the fallout of the first Iraq War, where the deaths of thousands of innocent citizens were whitewashed out of the picture, they reasoned that passive audiences blindly consuming this skewed portrayal intellectually might as well be the ones with bullets in their heads.
The lead single from The Battle Of Los Angeles felt like a bridge between the bombastic rap-metal sound of old and a rockier, more experimental approach, and would go on to become one of Rage's most popular releases. Pessimistically outlining the futility of the United States two-party political system (three years after Kang & Kodos had more gently lampooned the same ideas in The Simpsons) they pre-empted the beige chaos of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, while giving broader focus to the more historic use of that 'low intensity warfare.' The song would also achieve immortality as the recipient of a GRAMMY for Best Hard Rock Performance and – more importantly – on the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 soundtrack.
The most sweeping track on Rage's 1992 debut comes on like an updated take on Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, with that overwhelming opening riff eventually combusting into something more funkily aggressive. Although its blunt title could be applied to any number of Rage's activist ideals, its fury at the FBI's 1960s counterintelligence operations – used to suppress political dissidents (often Civil Rights leaders) like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – burns bright even amongst the rest of the catalogue. The famous closing line 'How Long? Not long, cause what you reap is what you sow' is a direct reference to Dr. King's legendary Our God Is Marching On speech on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. Ironically, it's also a song that would pre-empt much of the sound and aesthetic of the sophomoric nu-metal movement that would emerge in the years to follow.
Dropping curtain on Rage's 1992 debut and remaining, for years, the closer in their live set, Freedom still feels like a powerful distillation of the righteous anger at the heart of their music. Fixated on the ability of the U.S. government, mass media and all-powerful corporations to lull the masses into a sense of "freedom" while curtailing that same liberty in many more meaningful senses, we're throttled by one of Tom's most bombastic riffs before Zack's emphatic howl and a climactic clatter of feedback drop us back to earth. The powerful music video tells the story of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement leader who many believe was framed for the murder of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota in June 1975. Peltier remains in prison today.
On the surface, the second single from Evil Empire felt almost deceptively straightforward. A straight-up call out to America's military industrial complex, Bulls On Parade's evocative chorus line ('They rally round the family with a pocket full of shells') provides the simple springboard for a message that would become catastrophically relevant across the ten years – and multiple wars – after its release. More impressive was the sheer level of hip-hop skill exhibited in one of Zack's cleanest-ever deliveries, and Tom's fine-tuned ability to make his six-string sound like a scratched turntable. Tellingly, rap luminaries as varied as Dizzee Rascal and Denzel Curry would later go on to cover the track.
Knowledge is power, and knowing who exactly is pulling strings on the global stage enables real rebel minds to hold them to account – and to tear them down when the time comes. Such was the message behind the most incendiary cut on Rage's all-guns-blazing debut. If casting aside the status quo and forgetting years of force-fed jingoism were the first hurdles to be overcome on fans' insurrectionary overhaul, Know Your Enemy was the foundation stone on which so much of their activism would be built. It helped massively that the song is also one of their most infectiously immediate, with Tom's iconic, juddering riffage combusting into a sludgier sound that flows as unstoppably as Zack's fluent rhymes. Tool frontman and longstanding friend of the band Maynard James Keenan even crops up, contributing his 'I've got no patience now...' refrain every bit as seamlessly. Rage mightn't have been the inventors of many of the ideas they espoused, but they were master communicators, spreading that fire amongst a self-satisfied Western youth. No song was a more powerful – or irresistible – call to arms than this.
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