While The Clash Blazed The Trail, Rage Against The Machine Is Still Catching Up
A friend of mine once defended his love of AC/DC (or is it AD/DC, as it is misspelled on their official Web site?) by insisting that because all their songs sound the same, their collection of albums formed a continuous groove and a dependable, recurring music experience.
AC/DC would never fall victim to those great rock cliches: no orchestra accompaniment, no sitting in with Ravi Shankar, no covers album, no fusing rock with world music.
Listening to the new Rage Against The Machine album, “The Battle Of Los Angeles,” an eerie parallel emerges.
When the Rage’s first album was released in 1991, it was like the soundtrack to a riot. The music was a white-hot melding of hip-hop, funky backbeats, proletarian lyrics and powerhouse guitar riffs. Two albums later, the song is remarkably the same.
“The Battle of Los Angeles” is no less angry or less intense. It isn’t even necessarily monotonous, but rather, it sees the band fine-tuning the well-tested formula.
The group was always at its best on songs like “Bulls On Parade” from its second album, “Evil Empire,” or “Freedom,” “Know Your Enemy” or “Bombtrack” from its first. The songs’ snarling and slithering rhythms, mixed with the anthemic raps of lyricist/vocalist Zack de la Rocha, were an apocalyptic outcry against injustice, capitalism and oppression.
And new songs like “Guerilla Radio,” “War Within A Breath” or “Sleep Now In The Fire” deliver what you’d expect. They fit very comfortably with the band’s older material.
Besides de la Rocha’s signature yelp, the songs rely most of all on the inventiveness of Rage’s guitarist, Tom Morello. He doesn’t play guitar; he plays at it and on it. His unorthodox solos and lead breaks showcase him messing with the instrument’s power jack or sliding his hands all over it. His guitar heroics make him the group’s old-school DJ.
Only two songs really mark any sort of a departure. The fluxing melody of “Mic Check” is the band at its most restrained, while “Born Of A Broken Man” is delivered like an incantation. Though Morello’s heavy riffs erupt throughout the song, the tune is driven by the band’s rhythm section.
Most remarkable of all, de la Rocha moves away from his usual rallying-cry subject matter to conjuring images with his words. Lines such as “Like autumn leaves/His sense fell from him/An empty glass of himself/Shattered somewhere within” hint at something more personal.
Now don’t misunderstand; the album is enjoyable. But there lies little new information behind the musical catharsis. And although political, religious and economic inequities persist in the world, the band really hasn’t changed its tune either.
In many ways, the Clash was no less intensely political or ferocious in its musical approach than Rage Against The Machine (Morello often cites the Clash as a big influence).
But what the Clash never did was rely on a formula.
And on their new live release, “From Here To Eternity,” they prove the depth and versatility of their musical vision and why they were the greatest punk band ever.
This year has been something of renaissance for the group. Last spring, a Clash tribute album was released, while Will Smith is sampling “Rock the Casbah” on the first single from his new album, and a new 90-minute documentary, “Westway To The World,” will be released shortly. In the wake of this renewed interest, Epic Records is planning on re-releasing the entire Clash catalog (save their final Mick Jones-less album) in December.
As a live document, “From Here To Eternity” fills an important gap in the band’s discography. And this 17-track album supports (and reintroduces) the Clash’s reputation as a great live act. Most of the songs drawn for this collection were recorded during tours between 1978 and 1982. (In fact, seven of the cuts were pulled from a single show in Boston in 1982.)
What made the group so exciting was the richness of its musical pallet. Despite being a punk band,
they absorbed every music they came in contact with, mixing rockabilly, early rock ‘n’ roll, blues, funk and reggae with their white English working class roots and spewing it anew.
That said, the record has many highlights: the blurred vocals and driving guitar interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones on the early classic “Career Opportunities.” The dead-on reggae of “Armagideon Time” or the propulsive version of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Another standout is a cover of “I Fought The Law.” The Clash’s blistering take on the song is all momentum, a maelstrom of guitars that washes everything else out and yet, with the song’s classic riff, invokes the image of a gunfight in the Old West.
The performance of “Guns of Brixton” is great, not because it is technically flawless or identical to the studio version, but because of the human factor. Bassist Paul Simonon, the song’s writer and lead singer, barely holds onto the bassline that he’s playing while he’s trying to sing the words. And yet it all works.
And what lesson Rage Against The Machine has yet to learn can be found in the Clash’s performance of “Know Your Rights.” Right before kicking off the song, Strummer says, “We’re making this public service announcement with guitars.”
And with lines like “You have the right not to be killed,” what Rage needs to learn is a sense of humor and humanity.
Straightforward political messages in songs are admirable and can be vitally important, but if that’s all you do, it can limiting.
For more info on the Clash:
- London’s Burning!
- The Clash
- Clash City Rockers
- Clash City Showdown
- The Clash Zone
- Clash Alternative
- Matt’s Clash page
- Rock the Casbah
For more info on Rage Against The Machine:
- Zapata’s Blood Rage Page
- An unofficial Rage page
- Another unofficial Rage page
- Rob’s Rage Page
- Bullet In The Head
- Timmy C’s Rage page
- Relentless RATM Page
- Anger Is A Gift
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.