Rage Against the Machine has been one of rock’s most fiercely outspoken political bands since the L.A. quartet formed in the early ‘90s. One of their earliest acts of protest, however, was a comical misfire witnessed by a rock legend.
In a conversation with Ryan Downey for FIRE and SPIN, Rage and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello shares a few stories about how the importance of free speech has guided his career. One involved Rage’s stint on the third edition of the Lollapalooza tour, which culminated in band members getting naked in front of one of the festival’s headliners, the late Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley.
By the time the tour reached Philadelphia in July 1993, Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha had blown out his voice and had to take a day off from singing. Rather than pull out of the show, the band used its stage time to protest in defiance of the Parents Music Resource Center, the influential Capitol Hill committee that was pushing to censor explicit lyrics in popular music.
“We decided that we wanted to take a stand against the PMRC. What could we do to make a point about censorship? So our idea is this: we’re going to appear onstage butt-ass naked with the letters P-M-R-C written on our chests, duct tape over our mouths, guitars feeding back. And we’re gonna play no songs. That’s the show,” says Morello, who had a C on his chest for the stunt.
At the time, Rage’s self-titled 1992 debut album was still slowly becoming a sleeper hit that would eventually sell three million copies, and the band played early in the day on the Lollapalooza main stage. The buzz around Rage’s performances led, coincidentally and regrettably, to Staley checking the band out on the very day they played no songs. “Layne’s sitting on the side of the stage,” Morello recalls. “And he’s like, ‘Hey man, I hear you guys are great, I can’t wait to see you.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna see us, alright.’”
Watch Morello discuss how the Clash influenced his life of musical activism, how Rage’s first video got past MTV censors, and why the guitarist is a free-speech absolutist.