The music and politics of Rage

November 26, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

It isn't often that a band captures the sound of the moment as accurately and completely as Rage Against the Machine does. Where most bands fit neatly into a single style, Rage Against the Machine crosses boundaries at will. Listen to the band's selfIt isn't often that a band captures the sound of the moment as accurately and completely as Rage Against the Machine does. Where most bands fit neatly into a single style, Rage Against the Machine crosses boundaries at will. Listen to the band's self-titled debut, and "Bullet in the Head" will have you thinking that the Rage's primary influence was hip-hop; flip over to "Bombtrack," and they sound like a funky metal band; jump over to "Fistful of Steel," and what you'll hear sounds more like industrial music than anything else.

No wonder the band boasts fans of all stripes. But guitarist Tom Morello insists that the band's aggressively eclectic sound wasn't a premeditated construction.

"We just embraced our different influences, and through the band's chemistry, this is the way that it sounds," he says, over the phone from his parent's home in Los Angeles. "A lot of it is just the good fortune of having found each other to play with, in a musical context which combines these elements seamlessly.

"By not being afraid to play hard-core punk rock music with guitar solos, and not being afraid to play hip-hop music with live instruments, and not being afraid to play hard rock music with a radical message, we took off the blinders of musical convention. And this is what came out."

Morello makes it sound so obvious and easy -- and maybe it was. But there are some things about the band's sound that clearly put it in a class by itself.

Take, for example, the way Morello scratches rhythm. A lot of guitarists choke the strings against the neck of their instrument to get a "chicken scratch" sound; throw in a wah-wah, and you've got the "Theme from 'Shaft' " sound. But Morello has added yet another twist, something that allows him to "scratch" on guitar the way a rap DJ "scratches" on a turntable -- something that must be seen to be believed.

"Well, the actual business of doing it is quite easy," he says, modestly. "But the coming around to doing it is maybe the bigger leap. Most guitar players pick up their guitars because they have certain guitar heroes who they want to emulate, and you tend to follow blindly down the paths well trodden by your heroes. It takes almost a philosophical leap to start trusting in your own eccentricities -- to be able to put down the guitar pick entirely and try to find other ways to manipulate the instrument."

Music, though, is only part of this band's appeal. For as the name suggests, Rage Against the Machine also has a definite political agenda.

Take the band's most recent European tour. Because one of the things Rage Against the Machine tries to fight is right-wing oppression, the band made sure to align itself with the anti-fascist movement wherever it went. In Britain, says Morello, "We worked in close conjunction with the anti-Nazi League, which culminated in a demonstration in Welling in London. There was the biggest anti-fascist demonstration in the British Isles since World War II. People came from all over the continent, some of whom were turned onto the cause by coming to Rage Against The Machine shows.

"That's an example of real, concrete street action -- both on an informational level, combating racism in the schools, and on a very physical level, combating racists on the streets of Welling."

Despite such efforts, though, there are some in the alternative music community who complain that Rage Against the Machine can't possibly be revolutionary, because the group is signed to a division of the mammoth Sony Music.

"Personally, I can't stand the elitist dogmatism that goes along in some punk rock circles," scoffs Morello in response. "First of all, that criticism comes from upper middle class white males, exclusively. The punk rock finger-pointing always comes from the children of the elite.

"I really think it's important not to disparage people who maybe don't have as cool musical taste as you or I do now," he adds. "I ZTC grew up in a totally backwater Illinois suburb where, in the record store, the musical variety went from Kiss to Fleetwood Mac by way of Donna Summer. The Sex Pistols are the band that made me play guitar -- I was in a band the same week that I bought the Sex Pistols record. And I first heard of them in a hard rock magazine that had Kiss on the cover."

So Rage Against the Machine sees being on a major label as the best means available to get a politically subversive message out to places like the backwater Illinois suburb Morello grew up in.

"It's very important for us to reach the angry young people in Prague and in Belfast and in rural Kentucky and in the ghettos of Los Angeles," he says. "It's important to cast the net wide enough to find the people who, when they come together, are going to make a real difference."

Rage Against the Machine

When: Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Michael's 8th Ave., 7220 Grayburn Drive, Glen Burnie

Tickets: $22.50 (Sunday show is sold out.)

Call: (410) 766-7474 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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