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The Cover Uncovered: The severity of Rage Against the Machine's political message

Rage Against the Machine‘s self-titled debut album is a bonafide classic. One of the most iconic and influential albums of the 1990s, it informed the musical and political sensibilities of a generation. It contains revolutionary left-wing political themes coupled with visceral musicianship and is subsequently hailed as a cornerstone in protest music. With the album’s release, the band triumphantly announced their arrival, and it is 52 minutes of unrelenting energy.

Unapologetic and defiant, Rage Against the Machine established each of the band’s members as legends in their own right. Frontman Zack de la Rocha’s vocal style combined the spirit of Bob Marley with the authoritarian rap style of Chuck D. Guitarist Tom Morello placed himself as one of the most unique musicians around with no shortage of meaty riffs. Bass player Tim Commerford has a funky yet punishing bass style that has inspired countless others, and drummer Brad Wilk became one of the most respected in rock music, with a precise and heavy-hitting style that is very similar to that of the late John Bonham. 

The album is nothing short of “riff city”; it galvanises you instantly and makes you want to take to the streets in protest at all of the world’s ills. Although released in 1992, its themes are incredibly pertinent today. It tells us a lot about society’s current juncture. Furthermore, in spirit, it is a successor to the countercultural movement of the ’60s, and its message should not be taken lightly. It shows us that nothing has really changed since then, and progress still needs to be made if we are to save ourselves: “What you reap is what you sow”.

For such a visceral and commanding body of work, it was only right that the band settled on an album artwork that was equally as in your face. They needed an image that would convey the multitude of emotions that the album delivered. The picture they chose would do the trick, ultimately cementing the album as one of the most important ever released.

The cover image is a crop of Malcolm Browne’s most iconic photograph featuring front and centre the heroic Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, enacting self-immolation. It was taken in Saigon in 1963, with Quảng Đức protesting against the corrupt President Ngô Đình Diệm for oppressing the country’s Buddhist religion. A staunch Catholic and anti-communist, Đình Diệm was captured and assassinated in the US-backed 1963 military coup.

At the time of release, Browne was working as an Associated Press correspondent. The photograph was so moving that the widespread international attention it garnered led US President John F. Kennedy to withdraw its support for Diệm’s government. Given what we noted above, that’s a remarkable feat for a single photograph. The image of Quảng Đức remains as shocking today as it was back in the ’60s, and that is indicative of its power. Furthermore, Browne was also awarded World Press Photo of the Year, showing the degree of impact it had. The image perfectly captures the band’s spirit and real message: always rage against the machine. 

The band didn’t stop there with their political message either. Totally unpretentious, driven by honest convictions, and with a healthy dose of self-awareness, on the album cover, the band started their tradition of referring to themselves as ‘Guilty Parties’. Famously, the sleeve notes contained the statement: “No samples, keyboards or synthesisers used in the making of this record”. 

In the “Thanks For Inspiration” section of the liner notes, political activists such as the Provisional IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands and Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton are listed. The politics of the former we will not go into. Displaying themselves as true punks, D.C. hardcore icons Ian and Alex MacKaye were also thanked. 

A Generation X body of work that rages against the machine of the neoliberal political system, given the time it was released, it comes as no surprise that it was met with disdain from the establishment. It was slapped with the forbidden fruit of the time, the label that made the rebellious and the enquiring everywhere want to buy it. Of course, we’re talking about the ‘Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics’ logo that was placed on all of our favourite albums at the time. 

This was highly ironic as Rage Against the Machine were freedom of speech advocates. The Parental Advisory sticker was conceived by the antithetical and conservative Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), the notorious committee that was helmed by Tipper Gore. The PMRC ruled in 1985 that albums that contained “objectionable” content must be labelled with the sticker. This was met with protest by everyone from Frank Zappa to Ice Cube and even John Denver.

Undoubtedly a product of its time, Rage Against the Machine is genius as it still holds up today. Still carrying the shock value it did upon release, this is augmented by the severity of the cover image and all its implications. The image showed the power of the album cover as a weapon of protest, which sadly is a concept that has been lost amongst the shift in the ways music is consumed. 

Listen to Rage Against the Machine in full and see the cover, below.

(Credit: Press)

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