The members of Rage Against the Machine are hypocrites. But claiming that hypocrisy invalidates Rage's message or success with the kiddies (U.S. 3.6 million sold) would be sophomoric. Rage don't suck because they slurp off the same corporate nipple they want to impale upon the needles of their agitprop. No, as they proved at the Shoreline Amphitheater, Rage suck because they play dull, repetitive monster rock that's politically ineffective and, at this point, stylistically backward.
The show's original bill, which meant to match L.A.-based Rage Against the Machine's rap-metal hybrid with Wu-Tang Clan's East Coast hip hop, promised inherent political contradictions. Rage -- still touring a year-old record -- concern themselves with communism, international atrocities, and fighting mainstream corporate media for control of personal space and collective information. Their machine is nothing less than capitalism itself.
Wu-Tang re-emerged this year with the double LP Wu-Tang Forever, and what appears the savviest culture franchising ideas since Ray Kroc put Mc on a burger. In the liner notes, Staten Island rappers Rza, Gza, and Method Man pose in fashion spreads for the group's own Wu Wear clothing line; also included in the artistic vision are opportunities to "join the Wu-Tang Clan" ($24.95, plus $4.95 shipping), buy official Wu Wear merchandise (sweat shirts and "hoodies," $50), and call eight 900 numbers, including a date line ($1.95 a minute with parental consent).
On the other hand, there's last year's Rage album, Evil Empire, which offers lyrics, addresses for political organizations (Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru, Refuse and Resist, etc.), and a bookshelf collage of two dozen political tomes (Dalton Trumbo's anti-war Johnny Got His Gun, Black Panther George Jackson's Soledad Brother, and so on).
The point: In the four years between the debut Enter the Wu-Tang and Forever, Wu-Tang's politics widened from the personal ("C.R.E.A.M.") to a larger community ("A Better Tomorrow" is "for all my peoples incarcerated, for those who ain't make it"), but their foes are still principally those in front of them. The Clan don't care who buys their records, as long as they're sold. In contrast, Rage rant against huge multinational corporations, but huge multinational Sony gets a hefty cut of every record sale.
Before the six-week tour, Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha sanctimoniously announced they were taking Wu-Tang along on a ride through Middle America. He said promoters wouldn't book the Clan because they are racists -- a simplistic accusation, since promoters are usually blind to all colors save green.
De la Rocha said he expected -- even hoped for -- controversy along the tour. He got it. Finally canceling in the first week of September, the nine members of Wu-Tang couldn't make it to shows on time. And in Chicago, four Wu-Tangers allegedly bloodied up their own record representative. Alas, Wu-Tang couldn't rage with the well-oiled (concert) machine, and was replaced by Philadelphia's Roots. Their absence might have explained the 5,000 empty seats at the 20,000 capacity Mountain View venue.
Out in the Shoreline's vast dirt lot, teen-agers guzzled bottles of beer in raucous allegiance to the tailgate party ritual. At exactly 7:30 p.m., Atari Teenage Riot bludgeoned a sparse, scattered audience. In small clubs, the intricacies of the German outfit's nihilism-laced digital hardcore ("Destroy 2,000 Years of Culture") get lost in muddy house systems. At Shoreline, where the Roland 808 drum machine's bass kick thumped at excruciating volume, Atari Teenage Riot sounded closer to the good-idea-gone-wrong heard on the band's most recent Burn, Berlin, Burn!
That idea -- to fuse punk's nihilism, techno's drive, and samples of rock's distorted guitars -- makes Atari Teenage Riot the most unlistenable band since Ice-T's Body Count. The sound was so deafening that the group's slogans ("Everybody start a riot") barely made it through the mix. If the levels dropped a tic or two, lyrics might have been discernible. But it's not clear that the band wants to do anything but confront audiences with aggressive emotion and image.
Sure, Atari Teenage Riot are good for a few things -- namely, amping yourself up for steroid injections and offending anyone who appreciates melody or songcraft. But as the three MCs flailed around amid the stage's half-dozen strobe lights like out-of-control teens whose parents just left for a long weekend, it became obvious that Atari Teenage Riot's appeal ends there.
Then came the Roots. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are not the Wu-Tang Clan," announced MC Black Thought from the front of the stage. "We are the Roots clan, coming to you live from Philly." The Roots immediately eased into "Proceed," one of the highlights off 1995's jazz-rap fusion Do You Want More?!!??! It's often hard to believe the Roots create such perfectly synthetic hip-hop sounds out of only traditional (guitar, bass, drum, organ) instrumentation. In fact, for several medium-simmer cuts, my pal and I repeatedly heard what sounded like help from the soundboard: samples, unreal low-end beats, and scratching.
But then the band broke down its sound into digestible components. After drummer Brother ?uestlove, organist Kamal, and bassist Leonard Hubbard proved themselves phenomenal musicians during spotlighted solos, Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze simply stumped the crowd with nothing but a microphone, a tad of reverb, and utterly inhuman sounds. He could imitate helicopters, mimic the scratches and breaks of a DJ, drop beats, and sing melody over the top. At one point he earned cheers from the crowd for perfectly re-creating the kung fu fighting samples heavily used on Wu-Tang records.
Still, that last nod (and the huge response it got) suggested that no matter how impressive the Roots talent show was, the crowd wanted their Wu-Tang.
Canned Stooges played over the house system after the Roots left the stage. A roadie placed Rage guitarist Tom Morello's amp at stage left, replete with the iconic Che Guevara covering, and the audience cheered as another guy draped an inverted American flag around both stacks of bassist Tim Bob's speaker cabinets.
Rage opened with "People of the Sun," the first track on Empire, and de la Rocha's invocation; he dedicates the song, and, presumably because it's the first song, the album (and, by extension, the concert) to the indigenous people of Central America. Lyrically, it's a smart, well-researched cut. In the middle, de la Rocha raps a rally call: "When the Fifth Sun sets get back, reclaim/ Tha spirit of Cuahtemoc alive and untamed." The simple couplet is laden with historical reference. The Aztecs allegedly predicted that their fourth sun (epoch) would set in 1516 due to the intrusion of a half-man, half-beast (or conquistadors on their horses) into their empire. The fifth sun in their calendar supposedly set earlier in 1997. Cuahtemoc was the last emperor of the Aztec empire, murdered by the Spaniards in 1525, four years after the siege of Technochitlan. The song ends in Southern California, with de la Rocha accusing Los Angeles of doing "tha ethnic cleanse" in the "new error of terror" -- probably referring to recent evils like Proposition 187 and Gov. Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant attacks.
The theme carries over to the Evil Empire record, but there de la Rocha makes his most challenging assertion -- that the plight of the downtrodden and politically ignored people of Chiapas, Mexico, parallels the struggle of economically disadvantaged and ill-informed Americans. A subtle, if not ridiculous, point. And subtlety is not Rage Against the Machine's forte.
For example, Rage's backdrop at the Shoreline looked like eight pages torn from a giant punk fanzine: black-and-white clip art images with questions ("Who is bought and sold?" "Who prays louder?" "Who salutes longest?") in big block letters.
Rage have a reputation as a great live band, partly because de la Rocha and his minidreadlocks bounce like a hydraulic lowrider in a rap video. Although de la Rocha exuded energy and worked the entire stage, he didn't reach his usual altitude, probably because of an ankle sprain incurred earlier on the tour.
The audience pumped their fists and bounced up and down to "Know Your Enemy" ("ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite"), and "Vietnow," a song flaming right-wing talk radio. "Vietnow" and several other Rage songs share an affliction: repetitiveness. Here, de la Rocha raps again and again, "Turn on the radio/ Nah, fuck it, turn it off." It reads stupid in print but it sounds good live -- de la Rocha knows when he's got a line. Unfortunately, like anyone who traffics slogans, political or otherwise, he can't help but belabor it to the point of irritation. (Got Milk?)
Rage's live show doesn't work as indoctrination; the choruses are the only discernible lines of the songs. It is, however, a good place to witness young men (about a 3-to-1 male-to-female ratio) behaving poorly. And if the general-admission lawn section is any indication, Rage shows are also good for smoking large amounts of marijuana or hurtling through a pit ringed by macho, shoving assholes.
Back in 1992, when Rage released their eponymous debut, the band and a few critics made much ado over the absence of samplers and turntables on what sounded like a record riddled with them. Back then, Morello had innovated a new guitar sound: With effects and inventive playing (hammering the frets and flicking the toggle switch, for instance) he imitated record scratching, which made him the Edge of metal. (Sort of.) But Morello never abandoned the Black Sabbath and muscle-car rock riffs, and five years later, he's still making those same sounds. More problematic, however, is the band's rhythm section, which can't seem to break itself out of the tired, oh so tired, rhythm-as-riff mode that should have been terminated with the death of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. Those riffs, like de la Rocha's lines, repeated again and again at the Shoreline on "Tire Me," "Bombtrack," "Revolver," "Freedom," and "Without a Face." By the time Rage left the stage after the Gulf War-inspired "Bullet in the Head," and returned for "Bulls on Parade" -- a ferocious ditty about U.S. military spending -- I was confident the band had already played the song. (On top of the similar hooks, I confused the phrase "With a pocket full of shells" on "Bulls" with "Fistful of steel" on "Bullet.")
When the hour and a half of monotony finally ended with "Killing in the Name Of," Rage's big sing-along ("Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me"), the crowd emptied out into the Shoreline's concession cattle path. Rage's T-shirts were still on sale (at the admirably low cost of $10) along with the same cheap necklaces offered by vendors on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The propaganda tables previously occupied by the likes of Freedom Offensive -- which suggested passers-by "go vegan" -- were empty. Out in the parking lot, one stop before the long car ride home, fans lined up around a cart of hot dogs. Apparently, anti-consumer cant makes the youngsters hungry.