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Rage Against the Pop Machine

by Sean Gibson / 17.06.2010

In contrast to the great national sell out of plastic South African rockers the Parlotones, activist rockers Rage Against the Machine have successfully bounced Simon Cowell’s manufactured pop off the charts in the UK, and to thank their fans they recently played a free gig in London’s Finsbury Park.

“Good evening. We are Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles, California.”

The first cold beer of the weekend, leaving on a road trip, your team scoring in the final minute, diving into the ocean, the first time the clothes come off the girl of your dreams… the list of things that get my blood pumping is lengthy and pretty varied but seeing one of your favourite bands of all time is damn close to the top of it. However, hearing Zach de la Rocha shout those words in a leafy park on a humid London evening, opening track “Testify” dropped on the 40 000 people crammed into Finsbury Park and the place exploded in a storm of raised fists and flying beer cups, was something else entirely.

How I came to be in the middle of this storm, and that’s exactly what it was 20 metres from the stage, is an emotional rollercoaster of a story (for me at least). See, I was one of the unlucky 160 000 people who didn’t win the ticket lottery and was destined to sit outside hoping for a revolution, but then a good friend came to the rescue two days before the gig and BANG, I’m in, backstage and all. The backstage area was pretty boring though and we just popped in there to use the queue-free toilets and super fast bar, although I did see the lead singer of Gogol Bordello walking around, guitar in hand, like he was on acid (which, judging by his awesome performance later, he might well have been). Anyway, I’ve been to a couple of these outdoor gigs in parks around London but I’ve never seen such a large police presence at any of them. It was crazy, tons of vans, command posts, a helicopter flying around, sniffer dogs doing the rounds, the whole bit. It definitely added to the sense of occasion. Didn’t help later in the day though as a mob of people stormed the fences and got in anyway.

We hung around outside for an hour or two, soaking up the sun and some cheap beers and enjoying the festive atmosphere outside the fence. People of all ages and hairstyles were gathered around, drinking and smoking all kinds of shit, letting their freak flags fly and generally having themselves a merry old time. It was cool feeling the vibe in the park, it felt like so much more than just your standard gig, like there was something special in the air, and we hung out there until it was time to go in and catch the first act.

I was not expecting the spectacle that greeted us inside the ten-foot fence. A full funfair complete with dodgems, food stalls, multiple bars, cameras swooping over the crowd on booms and a shedload of people. Not what I thought a free gig would be like and I was impressed down to my socks. “Free?” I hear you say. Yip, free. All paid for by Rage Against Machine as a thank you to their fans. Last year an English couple, Jon and Tracey Morter, fed up with the once hallowed UK Christmas single race being dominated by Simon Cowell’s manufactured pop turds, started a Facebook campaign to get people to buy “Killing In The Name” in the week of the Xmas single race and topple his stranglehold on something that used to be exciting. It was their second time trying it (the first time around they urged people to buy Jeff Buckley’s “Hallejujah”, but to no avail) and this time the people were victorious. “Killing In The Name” sold over 500 000 copies and relegated Cowell’s X Factor winner Joe McElderry to second place. It garnered a lot of attention in the media and on talk shows and the like and, probably mostly due to it being in a part an anti-Simon Cowell movement, ended up being a pretty big deal over here. Staying to true their roots as activists the band decided to put on a free victory party in London where tickets were allocated on a fan site and made tout-proof with photos. For a full rundown on the story of the Xmas single upset check it out here.

Anyway, back to the gig. Gallows were first up and put on a good show but one that never seemed to take off. Heavily tattooed frontman Frank Carter was amazing at communicating with the crowd and likeable on stage but his vocals seemed a little thin for me. They’re a great band, don’t get me wrong, but their set was lacking something and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe the sound was possibly a bit soft to do their music justice, or maybe they were just lost on such a big stage in front of so many people. It felt like you should be watching them in a sweaty little hole somewhere instead of out in the sunlight surrounded by thousands. I’ll say one thing though, Gallows is one of the most energetic bands you’ll see on any stage anywhere. They got the crowd riled up and ready for the next act, Roots Manuva, who did a good job of calming people down and getting some reggae/dub inspired swing into a couple of hips. It was a great set but was held back by poor sound on the vocals. Gypsey punksters Gogol Bordello were next and were nothing short of awesome, apart from also being hampered by some sketchy sound on the vocals. What a rad act to witness on a big stage in the open air. If you’ve never seen them I highly recommend you do so the first chance you get because they will have you hopping around and spilling beer all over the show, wishing you had a funky ‘tache, a girl in a long flowing dress and some chickens in your garden. Way too much fun and an inspired choice as the final act before Rage Against the Machine.

As they finished with a rousing “Start Wearing Purple” I ducked off to join the masses emptying bladders and filling cups because there was no way I was going to miss a second of the next set. We’d found a good spot about 20 or 30 metres in and a little stage left, against a corridor of security barriers breaking the 40 000 people into sections (this turned out to be a stroke of absolute genius as I watched a literal sea of people getting spat out of the crowd to escape the crush during the first fifteen minutes of the show). I somehow made it back to that spot (still have no idea how I managed this) and smashed both my beers in my face before the chaos started. As I was looking around, clocking all the expectant smiles surrounding me, the screens lit up with a cartoon image of Simon Cowell and the crowd booed. I can’t remember exactly what he said (beer, lots of it) but it was funny as hell and a pretty good way to introduce the gig. The cartoon ended off with him standing up, displaying his y-fronts, and introducing the greatest rock band in the world Rage Against The Machine. A siren started wailing and a massive banner with the red star on it lifted slowly at the back of the stage. The band strode out onto stage to a gigantic roar from the ravenous crowd, donned their instruments, de la Rocha said his hello’s and they rolled into the noise-scape intro to Testify. When it exploded on de la Rocha’s “BOOM!” it was pandemonium.

What followed for the next hour and a half was some of the most awesome shit I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. The set Rage played read like hits from the last fifteen years of my life. I get a little hazy when trying to remember which song they played when, but they played them all with the crowd often filling in for de la Rocha and being loud enough that it wasn’t an issue. Everyone there knew the songs, everyone knew the words and everyone was over the moon that this was actually happening. I struggled to get my camera in the air, using the space over the barrier behind me to check settings and wipe beer off the lens, and gave it up after a while so I could join the heaving throngs. Halfway through the gig they stopped playing and brought Jon and Tracey Morter onstage to thank them and give them a cheque for a homeless charity Shelter from the proceeds of the sales of their single. It was a poignant moment punctuating an historic night that these two unassuming and perfectly normal looking people could have made all this happen. Zach and Tom Morello thanked the crowd, telling us that we did this, we made history and that it had started with a single grass-roots idea and required absolutely no money. And they were under no illusions that it was because of them that this had happened. As Zach said:

“It says more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly and less about the song and the band. We are very proud to have had the song chosen as the vehicle by which to do this.”

It was hard not to get caught up in the fervour of the moment and start believing that we could change anything if we cared enough to. I think the majority of us lead such selfish lives and do nothing about the injustices that piss us off or make us sad that we were ready to celebrate being a part of something, no matter how insignificant, that we feel passionately about. But maybe that’s what starts revolutions, a couple of people who believe and a whole lot more who’re ready to. Shit, I know it’s only music we’re talking about here and it’s not like the pop machine is going to stop churning out utter crap packaged as music to the masses but I can’t tell you how good it felt to put a middle finger in the air and feel like I was being heard. With all the emotion running through the crowd I’m pretty sure Zach could’ve called for an anti-war rush on parliament there and then and the police would’ve had a serious problem on their hands. The whole thing was an intense reminder of how powerful the adage “be the change you want in the world” really is.

After the Morters left the stage Zach paid tribute to British punk music and the bands that inspired them to pick up guitars. He listed some of the greats – The Sex Pistols, The Who and Joe Strummer – calling them the people who didn’t always have the most talent but who had the belief and the heart. Then they ripped into a cover of the Clash’s “White Riot” and the rest of their set, which was nothing but highlights. Like I said, I can’t for the life of me remember what was played when and at one point asked a buddy when he thought they’d play Bombtrack. “That was their second song” came his bemused reply. A gig like that becomes a timewarp where you get totally lost in what’s happening right there and then and nothing else matters. It’s like Buddhism in practice. Be here now, the future and past are irrelevant. Songs that stuck out particularly for me were the opener Testify, Bullet In The Head, Know Your Enemy, Guerrilla Radio (a favourite of mine), Township Rebellion (which felt particularly fitting “…why stand on a silent platform, fight the war, fuck the norm…”) and the final triumphant victory cry. Before unleashing “Killing In The Name” on us the band left the stage and X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s syrupy single “The Climb” was piped over the speakers as the story of the race was flashed up on the screens, told in excerpts from the press and quotes from various people, beginning with the fact that Cowell’s X Factor winner has topped the charts every Christmas for the past five years.

“The X Factor winner is expected to be Christmas number one again according to betting odds”
OLB6 Sports, 3 Dec 2009

“Rage Against The Machine has emerged as the unlikeliest of candidates in the race for Christmas Number One”
Live Odds And Scores, 7 Dec 2009

“X Factor winner Joe McElderry has branded ‘Killing In The Name’ “dreadful” after finally hearing his chart nemesis.”
NME, 13 Dec 2009

“They can’t be serious” he said. “It’s dreadful and I hate it. How could anyone enjoy this? Can you imagine the grandma’s hearing this over Christmas lunch?”
NME, 13 Dec 2009

“RATM number one at Christmas? I can’t see it happening.”
The Guardian, 14 Dec 2009

“Despite the campaign to get ‘Killing In The Name’ to the top spot the X Factor will still be victorious.”
Simon Cowell, 15 Dec 2009

A couple more excerpts and blustery quotes from Cowell followed then the words 20 Dec, 2009 flashed on screen. Then:

X Factor: 450, 838
RAGE: 502,672

McElderry’s crappy song shut down (which was actually a good score to the story, soppy lyrics and all) and a giant…

Made History

…was left up on screen while the crowd bayed. Then it was on. The four chords that signal the start of “Killing In The Name” blasted off stage and for the next five minutes everyone celebrated. We celebrated a band that has spoken to us in our language since we were teens, a protest band, a band that inspires, a band that stands up for what they believe in and puts their money where their mouth is, a band that’s willing to give back by throwing us a free party, our band, playing for us. I saw a poster today for an Oasis “Best Of” compilation that says something like “27 hits, 15 years, the soundtrack of a generation” and said to myself “Fuck that. That Oasis jock singalong bullshit isn’t the soundtrack of my generation.” I thought back to the end of Sunday night, jumping up and down with my friends and 40 000 equally worked-up people screaming “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” and being totally and utterly lost in the moment. That’s the soundtrack of my generation.

All images © Sean Gibson.

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