"So one of the reasons we invented this entity Passengers, is to allow U2 to be somebody else besides U2, I suppose."
-- Brian Eno
Rage Against the Machine and U2 Make a Perfect Pairing
The State (S.C.) newspaper,
May 16, 1997
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello never bothers to answer whether he's wearing one of his favorite caps, the one with the word "commie."
Rather, Morello, calling recently from a stop in Eugene, Ore., during a day off from the band's opening slot for U2's PopMart tour, is busy championing his tour mates.
At first glance, the coupling of these two bands is disconcerting. U2 is one of rock's most earnest and exaggerated juggernauts. Conversely, Rage Against the Machine maintain an aura of provocative belligerence.
The band's insurrectionary temperament was clear from the moment it first stepped onstage at a July 1992 show near Los Angeles. Although the outdoor show was one of Rage's earliest performances, the quartet crushed the headliners (Porno for Pyros) under a barrage of incendiary chants. Lead singer Zack de la Rocha stomped about in a Cypress Hill shirt, figuratively fingering the world.
In the five years since, Rage has thrashed imperialism, corporate greed and political injustice. So why tour with U2, possibly rock's most monolithic supergroup?
"I don't necessarily look at it that way," said Morello, one of rock's brightest and most progressive thinkers. "I feel like there's a hope and a passion to their music which, in addition to their willingness to challenge the conventions of what it means to be a mega-rock band, I appreciate.
"I also think there are some common ideological threads between the two bands. U2 fans who were drawn to the band by 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' will find the lyrics to (Rage's recent hit) 'Bulls on Parade' in the same ballpark. U2 goes to the irony well in a way that few bands ever have. This show is definitely one part huge rock show and one part, who's zoomin' who."
Leave it to Morello, a Harvard honors graduate, to find common ground. But there was no zoomin' going on with Rage's 1996 album, Evil Empire (Epic). The band's follow-up to its successful self-titled 1992 debut was another furious indictment of modern evils. Yet for all its savage and self-flagellating undertones, Rage is most notable for its immediacy.
Perhaps, then, the similarities between U2 and Rage are not just ideological. Perhaps there is also a mutual ability to unite and empower. That's partially why Morello enjoys conversing with rock fans instead of politicians.
"It's important for me to speak with music critics because that's our audience," he said. "The seeds of discontent need to be planted in record buyers. That's where it all starts.
"In a sense, it's easy to have activist aspirations and be in a rock band because it presents opportunities to encourage struggle on a scale that we would not be able to otherwise."
Yet Rage -- which includes drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Bob -- has taken a fair amount of criticism. Although writers were quick to embrace his revolutionary flair, de la Rocha has been slagged for sloganeering. Nor is it difficult to find inconsistencies in the band's ideology. If Rage rails against corporate greed, why not subvert major record companies by recording for an underground label?
"There is nothing inherent in independent rock labels that addresses any of the problems of capitalism," Morello said. "That has been born out by the experiences of many of my friends."
Rage, meanwhile, has become even more direct in its approach as it has grown comfortable in the public eye. While de la Rocha hurled straightforward epithets on the band's debut, Evil Empire came across as a darker and more subtle record.
"Some of the rallying cries on the first record were more visceral," Morello said. "But the political content on Evil Empire is no less revolutionary. I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that these are some of the most militant songs to have ever been on a record that entered the Billboard charts at No. 1."
The band also carries through on its activism. Rage Against the Machine is donating its total net earning from the PopMart tour to a variety of activist organizations including U.N.I.T.E. (garment workers union), Women Alive and the Zapatista Front for National Liberation.
It's also appropriate that the band covers a Bruce Springsteen song, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," as well. Activism is in Morello's blood, especially when he travels to parts of the U.S. infamous for repressive politics.
"I've been following that Marilyn Manson deal," Morello said. (Manson's April concert in Columbia was canceled after much protest.) "It's ironic that we haven't gotten it, too. But maybe it's just the overt Satanism. Seriously, though, it's really shameful. It kind of demonstrates where people's values lie. I guess we're still just flying beneath the radar."
Rage Against the Machine will open for U2 at Clemson Memorial Stadium tonight. Tickets are $54 and $39. They are still available at Ticketmaster outlets.
© The State, 1997. All rights reserved.