by John Franck
Anti-establishment, unflinching and always unpredictable — three of the benchmarks of great rock ’n’ roll. For Rage Against the Machine, rock music has never been about option. It’s always been about necessity; a necessity to provoke, to communicate, to not only defy convention but to spit back in its face. Even though the band’s blind ambition eventually caused the quartet to implode, since its inception, the band’s had little competition. Because, politics notwithstanding, what Rage has done better than anyone else over the course of its career is successfully blur the now not-so-crooked line between classic rock and hip-hop. Remarkably, it did this by ridding itself of the most fundamental ingredient necessary to hip-hop’s evolution — the turntable — and replacing it with its own brand of noise—electric guitars, electric bass and drums.
On the heels of Zach De La Rocha’s departure comes Renegades, a new visceral collection of covers that Tom Morello calls “revolutionary versions of classic hip-hop and rock songs.” For once, believe the hype, because if this ain’t Armageddon, it’s close enough. These carefully “re-imagined” songs capture the band’s insurrection in a completely literate and nonlinear manner that, like Rage’s dictum itself, leaves little doubt as to its intellectual and social agenda.
What Renegades does do, on songs such as Eric B. and Rakim’s incendiary “Microphone Fiend” and the reconstructed version of Springsteen’s, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” is bridge the gap between the band’s own political chaos and its steadfast need to define the class systems. Consequently, it’s almost eerie how the band has completely rewritten new versions of these tracks, while at the same time retaining the fundamental bombast of the originals’ unmistakable attack. A perfect synthesis can be found on the cover of Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Kill A Man” and also a blistering take of Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes” — old-school, straight-edge hardcore at its best.
If Rage’s version of The Stooges’ “Down On The Street” remains faithful to its Funhouse origins (although Rage does slow it down a tad while chipping away at the song’s bottom end), the band’s reading of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” is timeless, urgent and virtuous (just as the song was intended to be, 35 years ago). Also noteworthy is a reading of Devo’s “Beautiful World,” which is rendered almost unrecognizable. Instead of trying to re-create its antiseptic, mechanical misanthropy, Rage goes in the opposite direction, turning the tune into a simple plea (like a modern-day version of “October” by U2).
So folks, if the curtain must come down, so be it, because ultimately Zack and company have done their part trying to save rock ’n’ roll from itself. If Renegades does prove to be the band’s last call-to-arms (although Epic will probably release a live record in 2001), the band can safely assume that they’ll go down as martyrs. And I’m sure they wouldn’t want it any other way.
E-mail John Franck at firstname.lastname@example.org.