Back in 1999, there was no heavy rock band more politically engaged than the nu-metal legends Rage Against The Machine, and they were sure to use their huge spotlight slot at Woodstock 1999 to make a political statement by burning the United States flag during their performance, enraging a certain spectrum of America’s conservative belt. A political statement that would burn on into the evening.
Celebrating Woodstock festival’s 30th birthday was meant to be a big, 200,000-person-strong party. But following a lack of toilets or drinking water, the huge event in Rome, New York, in 1999 is now seen as a shambolic failure. After the festival ended, the allegations of sexual abuse and the destruction of the event’s site became widespread and unavoidable, it was a shameful day for most involved. But not Rage Against the Machine.
It will go down in history as the year that “nu-metal” took over Woodstock’s peaceful site, with artists such as Limp Bizkit, Insane Clow Posse, Kid Rock, and Korn all filling the bill with some teenage angst and adding fuel to the already burning fire. Rage Against The Machine found themselves following Limp Bizkit’s violently visceral set and before Metallica’s huge headline set on the second night, July 24th, 1999. Not a great sandwich to be in.
While Fred Durst has historically been lambasted for encouraging the crowd’s increasingly violent temper, Rage Against The Machine would not be trying to calm anyone down with their own incendiary performance. While “nu-metal” may have been growing, Rage showed that they were every bit the Daddies of them all with a firey performance blast across the bouncing crowd.
It was a performance that was charged with the band’s feverish spirit and a range of their impassioned anthems, culminating with the band’s iconic anti-establishment hit, ‘Killing in the Name’. The undisputed anti-establishment anthem saw a heaving crowd grow rowdier and rowdier as the climactic lines “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” beckoned with every passing note. But the band had another little surprise in store.
When Zack De La Rocha began the infamous lyrics in his usual whispered tones, bassist Tim Commerford broke away from the group and set alight the American flag that had previously been innocuously draped over their amps. The flag went up quickly and incited an already riotous crowd into a near-frenzy of rock and roll liberation.
It’s an act in America that is seen by many as hugely disrespectful and would’ve likely garnered the band a fair degree of unwanted attention from Middle America. In fact, a similar but far tamer stunt (hanging the flag upside down) had seen the group banned from SNL for life. But, by 1999, there was no band better at doing that than Rage Against The Machine. In fact, there’s nobody better today
Watch below as Rage Against The Machine burns an American flag during their Woodstock ’99 performance.