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“The goal was to make music that was so extreme we’d never even get a gig”: Tom Morello on the early days of Rage Against The Machine

The guitarist had radical ideas when Rage Against The Machine started out – and was shocked when they started selling loads of records



There was a steely, feisty drive to everything that Rage Against The Machine did when the LA quartet emerged with their coruscating blend of rock, rap, punk and funk in the early 90s. Despite the fact they were signed to a major label, everything about them seemed like a well-drilled DIY operation with no room for the opinions and meddling of record execs. It was an understandable approach given what had gone down with Tom Morello’s previous band, the LA metal crew Lock Up. The guitarist was determined not to get burnt again.

“We did one Lock Up album for Atlantic – Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes in 1989 – but were so screwed over by the music business that we quickly split up,” Morello once told Metal Hammer. Drummer Brad Wilk had just auditioned to be in the band before their split, so he and Morello stuck together and had the bit between their teeth. “We were determined to do something very radical.”

That’s exactly what they did with Rage Against The Machine, a band who never did things by half. But Morello revealed the initial idea behind Rage was even more severe. “The goal for Brad and I was to make music that was so extreme, lyrically and musically, that not only would we not get signed, but we’d never even get a gig!” Morello explained.  “The politics were so radical, and we found in Zack de la Rocha [vocals] and Timmy Commerford [bass] like-minded spirits. So we were stunned when our debut album came out in 1992 [Rage Against The Machine] and sold so well.”

Despite the group’s huge success, Morello expressed regret that they couldn’t push it even further. “We sold 15 million records with an uncompromising political agenda, yet I don’t think we had the ambitious courage to take it as far as we should have done,” he reflected. “Unfortunately, there was a dysfunctional element in the band, and that held us back. We only did three studio albums, when we should have done seven or eight. I love what we did, and like to think it inspired a lot of bands today to be more radical, but to me it was a missed opportunity.”

Speaking to Classic Rock’s Paul Brannigan in 2017, Morello expanded on the idea of Rage Against The Machine as a “missed opportunity” when Brannigan suggested he was taking a downbeat view on what was a hugely influential band. “That’s kind of you to say that, but I self-identify both as a musician and as a political activist, and I thought that the activism platform that I was afforded with Rage Against The Machine could have the sky’s the limit ramifications. So in that regard it was a promise unfulfilled,” Morello said. “I was aiming to bring down governments. Seriously. If you had a band with the politics of Rage Against The Machine who were bigger than Led Zeppelin what might that mean for the world? If you played a free concert somewhere and then said ‘This is now a march, and we’re going to depose the governor’, could that happen?”

Maybe it could, ventured Brannigan, offering the idea that the kids who listened to Rage in the 90s were now coming into positions of power. “I hope so,” stated Morello. “Every day I meet people who are impacting the world in part because they were turned into ideas by Rage Against The Machine. But we are not yet living in the anarcho-syndicalist paradise that I envisaged!”