Flashback Friday: Rage Against The Machine Was My Bigger Brother

I was a shitty teenager. At the age of 13, I looked like almost every other boy my age. Long, badly kept hair, little bits of acne here and there, and a terrible, emerging moustache. For those reasons, and because of a bunch of hormonal changes that I won’t go into right now, I was angry. School sucks, I’m horny all the time and can’t handle it yet, and there’s no way for me to get all this out of my system. Up until this point, my parents had been the biggest influence in my music taste. Barry White, Air and Fatboy Slim didn’t really fit the state of mind I was in at the time – so I went looking for something that fit the mold – and that’s when I found it. An album that appealed to the way I was feeling, but would change my anger into a passion for music and shaped the way I viewed the world politically. Rage Against The Machine’s self titled 1992 album, only two years older than I am now, was like the big brother I never had.

Rage Against the Machine was the first album by the group, and in my opinion the best. Vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, all from LA, were known as a rap metal band, though I feel that they did so much more with the genre than any other group. Before you even listen to the album, you can tell what sort of experience you’re in for. The album artwork of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in protest in 1963 sets the tone that this album is going to be political, it’s going to be in your face, and though it’s going to be respectful, it won’t hold back. It really struck me as a kid, and I think the album art was the reason I picked up RATM in the first place – it’s an image with a musical accompaniment that demands to be heard.


Left to Right: Tom, Zack, Tim & Brad

Though not the first track on the album, the first I listened to was of course Killing In The Name. The name of the song rang in the back of my head when I read it, and so I thought it was a good a place as any to start. The hard driving riffs, insane instrumental sounds, heavy percussion, intense and passionate lyrics, and raw emotion are typical of every Rage song, but Killing In The Name is the Rage song. On first and subsequent listens, Killing In The Name spoke to me as a way to rebel as a teenager. The breakdown into “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” has to be the most screamed lyrics of all time – everyone knows it and everyone can relate to it in one way or another; in our personal or professional lives, and for me – against my parents, teachers, and the world. But, like with any other Rage song, there’s a much deeper meaning. Zack’s lyrics associate police brutality with racism, even likening some to the Ku Klux Klan with the line “Some of those that work forces, some of those that born crosses.” It’s when I had this realization that I started to appreciate Rage on a whole other level, and the intricacies of their heavy instrumentation.

All four members come together on the album to create a perfect balance between their four instruments. Everything is heavy when it needs to be – Zack screams, Tom shreds with absolutely crazy sounds on his guitar, Tom thumps ridiculously heavy bass (something which became a sort of signature for the group), and Brad smashes. Though they hit hard with their heavy themes – see almost every song on the album, but particularly Wake Up and Bombtrack – they also know how to do it delicately. Settle For Nothing moves through slow, wailing periods with particular emphasis on Zack’s lyrics, and into hard periods of screaming and bass – “If we don’t take action now, we’ll settle for nothing later – we settle for nothing now, and we’ll settle for nothing later.”

It’s the instrumentation all through the album that made me want to get into music further. Not just listening to it, but also playing it. I could have wanted to play guitar, bass, drums or sing just because of how inspired I was by Rage, but I’d already learned guitar for a number of years and so decided to work in the shadow of Tom Morello. I’d never heard a guitar make noises like it does on this album. The solos to Killing In The Name, Fistful of Steel and Township Rebellion, and the break to Wake Up – I spent weeks trying to learn the opening to Know Your Enemy. Rage Against The Machine was the first guitar tab book that I learnt back to front, and it taught me a lot about the music, but also just about growing up.

Initially I was attracted to Rage Against The Machine because they sounded like what I needed, an outlet. I wanted to get some energy out and Rage was angry, they were intense and they were there. But the more I listened to it, the more I sang along to it, the more I learnt to play it, the more I understood that that they’re not just angry. Rage Against The Machine’s debut album is compassionate, it’s intelligent and it’s delicate. These guys know and care what they’re talking about and they know how to get their message across, and they got it out to me. I became more politically minded, knew not to let anyone fuck me around, and realized that I’m lucky to be as lucky as I am – and for that, on the eve of my 21st birthday, I want to thank my big brother Rage Against The Machine, I wouldn’t be the same without the lessons you gave.