Since 1991, Rage Against The Machine have never backed down from a fight. The trouble is, those fights often involved two or more members of that very band squaring up to one another. Nine years later, in 2000, as arguably the band were reaching their peak, singer Zack de la Rocha walked out of the band seemingly never to return.
Like everything else the singer ever did, it was a decision deeply involved in his personal ethos and his refusal to conform. Still, as the band took to the stage in Los Angeles in September of that year, the room was buzzing with anticipation of seeing one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Little did those in attendance know that just six weeks later they would be mourning the loss of that very same band. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, including the band, America set itself up for the George W. Bush-era and the war on terror.
De la Rocha leaving the group was not entirely unexpected. The band, which was comprised of the singer, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk spent a great deal of their downtime arguing and bickering. It’s not really a shock either, considering the heavy brains at play within the rock band paradigm. De la Rocha isn’t the only member of the group with some serious ideas; Morello studied politics at Harvard and Commerford is also known as a staunchly politicised performer. It led to near-constant in-fighting.
“I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage, because our decision making process has completely failed,” said De la Rocha in a statement. “It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively, as a band, and from my perspective has undermined our artistic and political ideal.
“I am extremely proud of our work,” the statement continued. “Both as activists and musicians, as well as indebted and grateful to every person who has expressed solidarity and shared this incredible experience with us.”
The departure of De la Rocha, though not unexpected, was pretty poorly timed. Just a few weeks later, the group would release one of the greatest covers albums of all time in Renegades, a record on which they covered everyone from The Rolling Stones to MC5. The album sounds like a band in the ascendancy but the truth was that the group were near-deterioration for the duration of the recording process.
“Zack called me the morning that the press release was issued,” explained Morello when discussing the singer’s departure. “One thing that might not be clearly understood is that we were in a period where he was planning to take 18 months to two years off. He wasn’t planning on writing another Rage song or playing another Rage show until 2003. So, as far as it did come as a surprise, in our daily schedule it didn’t have a huge impact on the rest of us. I was disappointed that, come 2003, we wouldn’t be booking a world tour, but Tim, Brad and I were planning to continue to work together and make new music. Those plans will continue.”
But why did De la Rocha leave the band? The truth is probably spread over a couple of different reasons. One heavily cited reason was Tim Commerford’s behaviour at that year’s MTV Awards. After Limp Bizkit picked up a gong, Commerford scaled a 15-foot stage prop and refused to come down. De la Rocha was said to be “humiliated” by the antics and left the event early. However, the reality is, the band were always destined for an explosion or two.
“It’s not unique among rock bands to find the occasional dissension,” De la Rocha said at the time. “But compared to music we make and the causes we pursue, it’s not so interesting.” According to Tom Morello, it was all quite simple, “Let’s just say Rage Against The Machine’s forces made us burn brightly and burn quickly. There’s been a constant tension that’s been an enormous challenge for us all over the years. Zack did what he had to do.”
With no bridges permanently burned, the band reunited in 2007 before going their separate ways once more only to be scheduled to reunite again at Coachella 2020. Of course, that event never came to light and the hopes of a new Rage Against The Machine tour are, for now at least, as distant as any live music. While there are plenty of reasons bands split up, the fact that Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against The Machine split for political and personal reasons, seems the most fitting tribute to their time as a band.
Rage Against The Machine are still considered one of the most potent political bands of all time.