Rage Against The Machine were due to make a glorious comeback before the coronavirus pandemic scuppered their plans. The group were set to take the stage at Coachella in April before the festival was postponed following the outbreak and now, with their return laying in tatters, all we have left is to revisit some of their classic moments on the airwaves.
The band will surely make their return at some point soon and, hopefully, it will be as big and brash as we all had hoped for 2020. However, one location that won’t be on their touring schedule is the famed Studio 8H at NBC, also known as the studios for Saturday Night Live. Confirmation came a few decades back following a fretful night in 1996 which saw the anti-establishment group banned for life following an on-air stunt.
Like many a fateful act before them, we’re looking at you David Bowie and Elvis Costello, Rage Against The Machine would be punished for airing their political views on the acclaimed late-night TV show. The nu-metal group were banned from ever appearing on the mammoth show again with Lorne Michaels unlikely to budge anytime soon. Looking back on Michaels’ decision 24 years later it seems like a truly ludicrous overreaction.
Rage Against The Machine had been challenging authority ever since their first gig in 1991. The group were born out of the fiery angst of an undervalued and underestimated generation and they weren’t shy about pointing the (invariably middle) finger at their oppressors and calling them out for all to see. By 1996, with the dissolution of grunge, the band had ascended to the voice of an increasingly turbulent generation who were intent on letting their voices be heard in whatever way they could.
When the group were invited to the mainstream TV show on April 13th, 1996, eyebrows were raised by the loyal fans of both camps. While SNL had always been at the cutting edge of comedy and music, it really preferred that politics were left out of any musical performance and their ‘lifetime-ban’ of Elvis Costello for his mini-protest is a testament to that. Considering the majority of RATM’s popularity was gained directly because of their headstrong political viewpoint, surely a clash of cultures was about to ensue, no matter what happened.
To make matters worse, on this particular night, the show’s guest host was none other than billionaire and then-Presidential candidate, Steve Forbes. It was a recipe for destruction and one that RATM wanted to add their own ingredients to. According to guitarist Tom Morello: “RATM wanted to stand in sharp juxtaposition to a billionaire telling jokes and promoting his flat tax by making our own statement.”
The band made their political statement by deliberately hanging American flags upside down from their amplifiers as the took the stage to perform ‘Bulls on Parade’. While it may feel a little tame by the band’s standards, it was enough to enrage the patriotic producers on hand that night and stagehands were sent in to remove the flags.
After the flags were pulled, almost instantaneously, and the first performance of the evening concluded, officials approached RATM and ordered them to immediately leave the building.
Rage wouldn’t go easy though. Instead, upon hearing of their expulsion from the building, bassist Tim Commerford stormed Forbes’ dressing room throwing bits of the recently torn flag as he went. Morello said that members of the SNL team “expressed solidarity with our actions, and a sense of shame that their show had censored the performance.” It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s clear that, at the time, SNL producers were very fearful of repercussions.
Ever since this incident, Rage Against The Machine have not appeared on Saturday Night Live again. Whether they will again remains to be seen but if they do, we imagine they’ll have a few surprises up their sleeves.