When the members of Rage Against The Machine assembled in North Hollywood to cut their demo tape in 1991, they had no idea that those songs would help spur the alternative rock movement. Before Rage, the Los Angeles scene was better known for good looking hair metal bands of oft-dubious motivation. But that began to change after the politically charged band was signed to Epic Records (after their second show, no less).
Today is the 20th anniversary of the release their seminal, self-titled debut, and to commemorate the band has just released a boxed set, which includes their original demo along with two live DVDs, which include the band's first show at Cal State Northridge. We spoke with guitarist Tom Morello, who talked about the making of that album and the group's early days.
What were some of the elements that went into making the album that may not have happened if it were recorded today?
The mission of Rage's first record was a product of the unique musical and personal chemistry of the four musicians and it's really a record of a particular time. The underground bubble of what was to be known as alternative music had not popped, but it was fermenting. When we were writing these songs, there was no expectation of ever even being able to book a club gig, let alone get a record deal and make a platinum album people would be talking about 20 years later.
Was there any resistance from Epic when they heard the lyrical content of the songs?
There was never any resistance. The record label actually suggested “Killing In The Name” as the first single, which contains the line, “Fuck you I won't do what you tell me” 16 times and one “motherfucker.” They knew that this was not a band that would craft pop hits. It was also the label's suggestion to not edit lyrical content for video or for radio, which is why it exploded outside of here. “Killing In The Name” and “Bullet In The Head” were hit songs across Europe, South America and Japan where there were less stringent censorship laws.
What were some of the band's expectations when the 12-song demo was recorded?
When we made the demo tape, we had no expectation of making an album or being signed or anything. On the first record, we used the music from “Bullet In The Head.” All of the other songs were re-recorded with a couple of different choices. The music from “Bullet In The Head,” that was the take we used on the demo. We just couldn't get better than that. The one thing that was a challenge for us was that the band was already on fire live and we had some trouble capturing that in a studio setting. What really broke the ice was we invited friends and family and played the set a couple of times through, not like we were trying to make a record, but were rocking at a show. Doing that was how we got half of the takes.
What was it about that take of “Bullet In The Head” that was so raw and captured what you were going for?
We did try to re-record it and there was an argument over which version to use. The one that we had recorded with the studio was more polished and reflected some arrangement changes that were arguably better, but there was something in that initial demo take that felt so right, like a raw wound. In what was to be known as alternative bands, one of the things that was not always prized was musicianship. When we were able to harness that technique, that's where it's evident on that take of “Bullet In The Head.” Guys can play their instruments, but it sounds as raw as the Sex Pistols.
Which song was the toughest to record?
“Take The Power Back” was one that always felt tough. The one that you hear on the record we actually may have sped up a tiny bit to goose it in the energy department. At the end of the day when we finished the record, we were all very satisfied that it was an accurate representation of what the band was.
What role did Garth Richardson play in shaping the songs?
Garth co-produced the record with us and in some ways we had to learn the recording process while working with him. I think some of the bands he worked with before, like Helmet and the Chili Peppers, those were bands that were more comfortable making records in a more traditional way where you spend a bunch of days getting the drums and build a bass track on top of that. We were not that band. I think that we wasted time in the studio trying to dial in on high-hat sounds and guitar tone, then recreate something that was spontaneously happening anyway. Like I said, we were at our best when we played the songs live in the studio, which after that is how we recorded every record.
What was it like watching footage from that first gig at Cal State Northridge?
Looking back, I can remember that day clearly. It was an outdoor lunchtime concert where another friend of the band who booked us that gig and I remember that we were playing while people were walking back and forth with their lunches. You can see in the video that midway through the concert, a couple of these hesher dudes stopped to check it out. You can tell that they're not impressed, but maybe it's better than going off to geometry class or wherever. And then the end of “Bullet In The End” happens and one dude looks at the other and gives the “Not so bad, bro” look. By the end of “Freedom,” they're banging their heads like they're at an Iron Maiden concert, which was pretty awesome.
Would you prefer the headbanging dudes as opposed to the Paul Ryans of the world?
Paul Ryan is welcome to headbang at a show anytime, but if he wants to enact policy that's going to hurt 99.9 percent of Rage Against The Machine fans, then he's likely to hear about it from me. One of the strengths of Rage Against The Machine has always been the music casts a wide net. Many people were drawn to the band initially not because of politics, but because of the power, aggression and the fusion of hip-hop and rock. They were exposed to a new set of ideas that could change their minds or change their lives. That's something that we as a band are pretty proud. Speaking of which, early on, the LA Weekly could never spell the band's name right in the concert section. We were once listed as Rag And Ain't The Machine, so if nothing else after 20 years, people have learned how to spell our name right.