When Rage Against the Machine arrived in Philadelphia to play their 15-minute set as part of Lollapalooza ’93, the Los Angeles band knew they had a problem. Zack de la Rocha, the band’s incendiary frontman who was as outspoken on the mic as he was loud in his cadence, had no voice. A month of playing shows on a tour to support their self-titled debut album released the previous November had taken its toll on the frontman’s vocal cords. The day before in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, he had completely blown out his voice during Rage’s performance.
Being a new band trying to win over audiences that were mostly unfamiliar with their music, Rage couldn’t really afford to cancel their set. They were about to play to one of America’s biggest cities, an opportunity most bands in their position would kill for. So they had a decision to make: either cancel their set, hand over the slot to a band playing the side stage, or attempt to perform with a guest singer (also on the tour was Tool, whose Maynard James Keenan also sang on Rage’s debut album). But the four band members had something else in mind.
“We were on the main stage and we were the first band on. It was right when people started to know and like us in America. This was our big moment,” bassist Tim Commerford would tell ESPN’s Dan Le Batard in 2015. “We went onstage and it was back when Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, had just started the PMRC to spearhead the Parental Advisory stickers that they, to this day, put on records. We were against that, we thought it sucked. We were like, ‘We shouldn’t play this show, we should protest it.’
“Our way to do that was to go onstage with our instruments and then just lean them against the amplifiers and let them feed back, and do it all naked. We had PMRC, on our chests, each guy had a different letter on his chest.”
And so, on July 18, 1993, thousands of Philadelphians witnessed Rage Against the Machine walk out on stage in nothing but their birthday suits.
Lollapalooza was the brainchild of Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell. The travelling music festival had been devised in 1991 as a farewell tour for his band but quickly blossomed into a must-see summer event the following year. By 1993, its name had become synonymous with alternative culture. Although it was primarily regarded as a music festival, Farrell imagined Lollapalooza as much more—he wanted it to be like a circus of sorts. There was a side stage for smaller bands, an area for non-musical acts to perform (i.e. the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which featured a genital weightlifter, a lightbulb eater, and a sword swallower), a market that mostly sold Rasta caps, hacky sacks and ponchos, and booths for groups spreading the word about counter-culture and important causes (i.e. AIDS, censorship, anti-fur, and animal welfare).
What Farrell created with Lollapalooza was a world of discovery for its guests. But more than anything it was a live experience featuring a diverse cast of alternative music’s finest. In hindsight, 1993 had arguably the worst line-up of the festival’s first five years. Whereas the festival featured exciting headliners like Jane’s Addiction in 1991, Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1992, Smashing Pumpkins in 1994, and Sonic Youth in 1995, funkmeisters Primus were given the honor in year three. But as it would turn out, Primus would be upstaged every day by the band at the opposite end of the bill.
Rage Against the Machine had been together for barely a year when they signed to Epic in 1992. Their fusion of heavy metal, funk, punk, and rap created a big stir and even a bidding war. At a time when rock and hip-hop had only really joined forces via one-off collaborations between Aerosmith and Run-DMC, and Anthrax and Public Enemy, respectively, Rage Against the Machine was a revelation. And they were even more powerful on stage than they were in the studio. Live, they were an explosive unit that could simultaneously initiate a mosh pit and deliver a rant of political dissent. The rhythm section of bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk provided a pummelling, mosh-ready groove, the riffs of guitarist Tom Morello were both violent and wildly unorthodox, and frontman Zack de la Rocha’s spat his barbed, dogmatic manifesto in an informed yet aggressive manner that made people listen up. It should come as no surprise that years later they would be the loudest band to ever play Saturday Night Live, then be kicked off mid-show for hanging two upside-down American flags over their amps.
Their 1992 self-titled debut album had an immediate impact on listeners—it was as shocking to see as it was to hear. The cover wasted no time revealing the band’s political overtones before you even heard a note. It featured the iconic photo of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức engulfed in flames, an act he committed and subsequently died of protesting the government’s persecution of his religion. Despite being a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, for Generations X and beyond, it has become synonymous with Rage Against the Machine.
Released on November 3, 1992—the day Bill Clinton defeated George Bush to become the 42nd President of the United States—Rage Against the Machine capitalized on the buzz they had built in Los Angeles with their demo tape. It wasn’t an overnight success, but having a workhorse touring schedule and a single that dropped the F-bomb 17 times helped them gain a strong following and land a spot on the May ’93 cover of NME, which proclaimed them to be “rock’s new radicals.” (The single in question, “Killing in the Name,” was initially banned on MTV and radio, but would later become their battle cry and a circle pit instigator at every high school dance that played it.)
Like many albums that let the “fucks” and “shits” fly back in the 90s, Rage Against the Machine had the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” logo affixed to the bottom right corner of its cover. As freedom of speech advocates, Rage considered this to be an act of oppression. Conceived by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the committee led by Tipper Gore ruled that in 1985 all albums containing objectionable content must exhibit these warning stickers. Musicians like Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, and John Denver challenged the ruling in front of the Senate, but the decision was upheld.
While that sticker empowered adults who sought to keep music clean, it only tempted their children even more. Not only did the Parental Advisory logo become a popular T-shirt of choice in Sessions catalogs and by Woody Harrelson’s character in White Men Can’t Jump, it became forbidden fruit for underage consumers. For many kids, albums that were slapped with the sticker were almost always considered cooler and more intriguing, much in the same respect as movies with violence and nudity.
The Parental Advisory campaign also inspired many artists to exploit the issue in their music, and none more often than rapper Ice-T, who famously took the committee to task on a track called “Freedom of Speech” with this colorful memo: “Hey, PMRC, you stupid fuckin' assholes/ The sticker on the record is what makes 'em sell gold / Can't you see, you alcoholic idiots / The more you try to suppress us, the larger we get."
When Rage Against the Machine was offered a spot on the Lollapalooza bill, it was a break that many bands in their position were vying for. They were assigned the opening slot, ahead of primal grungesters Babes in Toyland, industrial freaks Front 242, and the hip-pop idealists Arrested Development. With the possible exception of Tool, who began the first leg of the tour headlining the side stage, Rage would benefit more than any other act. And yet even with this extraordinary opportunity they weren’t afraid to rock the boat. From the outset they refused to sell merchandise.
On stage in Barrie, Ontario, de la Rocha explained the decision: “Some people might think it’s a petty thing for us not to be involved in that, but we decided not to sell T-shirts and not be a part of that fucking blind consumerism that goes along with fucking charging 23 bucks for a shirt that costs seven to make.”
The refusal to sell T-shirts was only the beginning of the band living up to their name.
On that afternoon in Philly, Commerford, de la Rocha, Morello, and Wilk walked on stage wearing nothing more than black electrical tape over their mouths, perhaps as a nod to tourmates Tool and their 1992 video “Hush.” On each of their chests was a letter that together spelled out P-M-R-C. While feedback screeched over the speakers, the four men stood there buck naked for 15 minutes straight to protest the Parents Music Resource Center’s censorship of their music.
“The performance that day was more, um, performance art than a rock concert,” Morello would later tell NME. “The point we were hoping to make was that you can’t take it for granted that you’ll be able to hear music that challenges the status quo. People are trying to rob you of those First Amendment rights.”
The audience, as expected, was dumbfounded by what it was witnessing: an up-and-coming band using their brief set to stand with their junk hanging out and make a statement, instead of playing tunes. At first the spectators were encouraging and most likely amused, but that didn’t last.
“When we walked out on stage people loved it, they were cheering,” says Commerford. “But little did they know, we weren’t planning on playing a note. After ten minutes of standing there naked, what started as cheers turned into bottle-throwing. People were just bummed out.”
In fact, fans were so bummed that they began throwing any object they could find at the band. According to Morello, most painful was the spare change.
“Let me tell you, a lot of quarters were thrown at our dicks,” he told NME.
Police would eventually escort the band off stage, although there was no arrest or charges laid for public nudity. Fans hoping to catch a set of music, however, weren’t exactly too hard done by. Rage would return to Philadelphia months later and perform a free show as a way to make it up to the fans that had come to see them at Lollapalooza. And according to the footage below, they sold merch out of their van afterwards: $8 for short-sleeved shirts, $10 for long sleeves.
Looking back on it now, members of Rage seem to balance the severity of the message with some good-natured humor, primarily about having their dongs on display for all of the world to see. (In the 90s, UK magazine Select even included the image as a free pull-out page for readers to hang up on the wall.)
When asked what was going through his mind at the time, Brad Wilk later confessed to Modern Drummer, “I was thinking about how the wind felt underneath my scrotum, what the people in the front were thinking, and all the cameras flashing and what they were going to be thinking as they developed their film. Actually, doing that was no big deal. It didn't freak me out. That's how we all came into the world. It's a liberating thing.”
Commerford, on the other hand, reflects on it with some discomfiture, admitting he suffered from “frightened turtle” syndrome. “I referred to that moment for me as a half roll of nickels,” he told Dan Le Batard. “It was as if I came out of the ocean. It was incredible. I was trying to fluff things up to get the blood-flow to happen. But it wasn’t really happening.”
Despite 25 years passing since Rage went the Full Monty, censorship hasn’t waned much in the music industry. The PMRC may not have survived the 90s, but the Parental Advisory warning is still applied to every album that warrants one and songs are still edited for airplay. Ironically enough, the one published photo of Rage on stage in Philadelphia from July 18, 1993 is almost always censored when it appears online, be it with a black bar or some cute icon concealing their twig and berries.
Rage Against the Machine went on to fight other battles. In 1997, Morello was arrested during a march against sweatshop labor, directed towards Guess? Inc. The band followed that up by placing ads on billboards and in bus shelters that read, “Rage Against Sweatshops: We Don't Wear Guess? - A Message from Rage Against The Machine and UNITE (Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees).” The band also played protest gigs at both the 2000 Democratic National Convention and the 2008 Republican National Convention, the latter of which saw them stand silent, this time dressed, in black hoods over their heads and bright orange suits similar to the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.
Most famously, the band filmed a video for “Sleep Now In The Fire” with Michael Moore outside of the New York Stock Exchange calling out corporate greed. Eventually the police detained them, but not before the message was heard loud and clear. The video not only planted the seed for both Occupy Wall Street, but also eerily predicted the Donald Trump presidency.
Still, of all their calls to action, it was the one where a relatively unknown Rage Against the Machine stripped down at Lollapalooza that will go down in history as their ballsiest.