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 seemingly once again showing itself on the horizon, we thought we’d revisit one of their most iconic moments on stage. Well, on the studio stage.
If and when the band do return for their reunion tour, 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 of that gigantic swerve 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 that would seem pretty tame today.
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, which had tried so hard to remain balanced. The nu-metal group were banned from ever appearing on the mammoth show again, with show producer Lorne Michaels unlikely to budge anytime soon. Looking back on Michaels’ decision two decades years later, it seems like a truly ludicrous overreaction.
Rage Against The Machine had been challenging authority ever since their first gig in 1991. In truth, it was all they ever really set out to do. 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 in front of the entire world whenever they could.
By 1996, with the dissolution of grunge and the ethos that went with it, the band had ascended to become the voice of an increasingly turbulent generation. A generation who were intent on letting their growing voices be heard in whatever way they could.
When Rage Aginast The Machine 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 most of RATM’s popularity was gained directly because of their headstrong anti-authority 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 — surely a prime candidate for the band’s fury. It was a recipe for destruction and one that RATM wanted to add their own ingredients. 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 in a more subtle way than you maybe would have hoped for. They made their statement by deliberately hanging American flags upside down from their amplifiers as they 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 Rage Against The Machine and ordered them to immediately leave the building like an angry headmaster.
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.