By Kelly Dearmore
This article contains excerpts from the 14-page Rage Against the Machine zine included with the Rage Against the Machine Bandbox.
Back in L.A. after two years of touring, the members of Rage Against the Machine took a lengthy and much-deserved break. In these pre-Internet days, the long wait led to rumors that Rage Against the Machine had broken up, but “Bulls on Parade” squashed those when it hit rock radio dials in February 1996. The monstrous single was led by another innovative Morello concoction - a roaring wah-wah riff that sounded more like a DJ scratching records. It didn't take long for the lead track to become ubiquitous on radio and MTV, sending anticipation for Rage’s sophomore release to a fever pitch.
The title of Evil Empire, which finally arrived two months later, refers to the term that Ronald Reagan used for the USSR in the 1980s. De la Rocha argued that the moniker could easily be applied to his own country, as well. Not straying too far from the proven formula of Rage’s debut, Evil Empire consists of eleven songs built on driving riffs, thrashing power chords, and fierce lyrical protests.
Rage Against the Machine was invited to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on April 16, 1996, for an episode hosted by former Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes. The band planned to play “Bulls on Parade” first, followed by the first album’s “Bullet in the Head” at show’s end. That second tune never made it to the air, though. During rehearsals, Rage placed upside down American flags on their amp speaker stacks, an act that traditionally signals a sign of distress.
As Morello tells it, “We thought that is was appropriate, especially in the election year, to demonstrate that, in our opinion, American democracy is inverted when your only choice is between wealthy representatives of the privileged classes. We weren't tearing up pictures of the Pope (as Sinead O'Connor did), just a couple of upside-down flags. We already had to endure some of the Steve Forbes skits in which he incessantly promoted his flat tax. As the Republican Convention draws near, he just wanted to keep that on the agenda, and the show was on April 15th — Tax Day.” SNL crew demanded they remove the flags for their performance, fearing they would offend corporate sponsors and the night’s right-wing emcee.
Rage’s roadies defiantly taped the inverted stars and stripes to the amplifier cabinets once again, but show staff hurriedly stormed the stage as they counted down to live transmission. There was a tussle over removing the props, and the stage crew managed to untape the flags before the broadcast commenced. Following “Bulls on Parade,” the group was asked to leave the studio and told they were no longer permitted to appear on the episode. Commerford then stormed into Forbes’ dressing room and proceeded to throw about torn-up shreds of the offending flags. Soon thereafter, NBC released a statement explaining that the show simply went over time, and that Rage’s second song had to be cut. Morello, though, took to the band’s website to set the record straight.
As Evil Empire reached number one on the Billboard 200 in early May, one thing became clear: SNL be damned, Rage were now firmly entrenched in the mainstream music machine.
Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.