Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello recalls being in northern England early in 1992, hitting a dance club with the group's tour manager on a night off. On the dance floor, he recalls, they watched "all these young headbangers losing their minds to Killing in the Name," a song from Rage Against the Machine's self-titled 1992 debut album.
"You guys may write better songs than this and more sophisticated songs and go on to have records that are critically acclaimed," he recalls the manager saying, "but I have a feeling that this is the song you guys are going to be remembered for in 20 years.
Two decades later, as the now-semi-active band commemorates its debut with an expanded 20th-anniversary edition of Rage Against the Machine," the accuracy of that prediction can be argued, but there's no denying that the group's first album was both defining and definitive.
The Los Angeles quartet's rap-rock fusion was as fresh as it was furious, a harbinger of the rap-rock and nu-metal movements that followed later in the decade. Its blunt, leftist bent, voiced by rapper Zack de la Rocha, was subversive even by the standards set by the 1960s folk and folk-rock scenes. Rolling Stone called the album "a furore unheard since the MC5 and the Clash." It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart and was certified triple platinum. In his liner notes for the anniversary edition, Rage Against the Machine. All of which, Morello says, caught the band members by surprise when they were urging fans to Take the Power Back and Know Your Enemy.
"I had literally zero expectations," says the 48-year-old Morello, a Harvard graduate who had before dedicated himself to music with a band called Lock Up that didn't work out. "(I had) just come out of a bad record-company marriage (and) basically considered my career in music over. I'd had my chance to grab the brass ring and it failed. So for my part I was just going to play music that I loved and believed in, and not care if I ever played shows or made records or anything. Those included de la Rocha, whom Morello heard in a Los Angeles club.
He in turn brought in bassist Tim Commerford, while Morello recruited drummer Brad Wilk, who had auditioned for Lock Up. They took their name from a song de la Rocha had written for his previous group, a hardcore punk outfit called Inside Out, and hunkered down to hammer out the sound that would be heard on Rage Against the Machine.
"It's a product of the very unique personalities and chemistry of the four guys in the band," Morello says. "This music could not have existed without the four of us together. I had some of these riffs before meeting those guys, but they didn't sound one-tenth as good. So it was just the chemistry of the four of us that made that very unique sound.
The group's first show took place on April 17, 1992, in North Ridge, California, at a house party hosted by a friend. "The first song we played was Take the Power Back," Morello says. "I had been in a lot of bands before, and people watch your new band and they check it out, they tell you what they like and didn't like afterward. That's how it works.
"That was not the case with Rage Against the Machine," he insists.
(Gary Graff/The New York Times News Service)