GIGS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: Rage Against the Machine, Finsbury Park, 06.06.2010
Cast your minds all the way back to December 2009, if you can. The race for who would make Christmas Number 1 in the UK charts was dominating the news for the first time in years. The result was usually a forgone conclusion, with the prestigious honour of having the best-selling single on Christmas Day going to whoever won the X-Factor that year. This time around though, winner Joe McElderry’s cover of the Miley Cyrus song 'The Climb' had a serious challenger from a song that had been released seventeen years previously; Rage Against the Machine’s classic 'Killing in the Name', from their 1992 self-titled album. The campaign to get it #1 originally had nothing to with Rage themselves, who had reunited for a string of shows in 2008 (including a headline slot at Reading & Leeds Festival) but had gone quiet since then. The campaign was kick-started by Jon and Tracy Morter from Essex, who wanted to take a stand against the manufactured music that had dominated popular culture in the UK for the past few years. Nevertheless, when news of the campaign reached them, Rage threw their weight behind it, along with the promise of a free ‘Victory Concert’ should they take the coveted Number 1 spot.
In one of the first grass-roots campaigns of its type which utilised the power of social media, fans of alternative music came together to write 'Killing in the Name' into British music history. It was a victory for those whose tastes had been demonised and marginalised through the various moral panics of the 00’s, but for me personally there was a more selfish reason I bought the single 8 times despite already owning the song. Rage Against the Machine had been my favourite band since I started properly listening to them in my angsty political teenage years; at a time when they were not a functioning band and there was a genuine possibility I might never get to see them live. Fast forward to the 6th of June 2010 when I was an angsty political university student (yes, I’m that old) and I finally had a chance to see them for free – one that I wasn’t going to pass up. And now ten years on, as an angsty political young adult, it still ranks as one of the most special days of my life.
As I made my way with a group of like-minded friends to North London, the vibe that greeted us was one much more akin to a festival than a normal gig. The sun was shining, the beer and food tents were set up and, due to Rage’s broad appeal, a huge variety of T-shirts were on display: from Cannibal Corpse on one hand to Snoop Dogg on the other. The support acts were equally broad, with Gallows kicking off proceedings in typically furious fashion. With Frank Carter still at the helm and 'Grey Britain' having been released the previous year, this was Gallows at their peak and the perfect choice of band to get the crowd going. Next up was British rapper Roots Manuva who appealed to hip hop contingent of the crowd and gave me the chance to grab some merch and double the number of Rage Against the Machine T-shirts I had that day. Gogol Bordello were the perhaps slightly odd choice of final support act, but it actually worked incredibly well, with their upbeat gypsy punk pleasing every contingent of the crowd and offering something fresh and different from what we were all used to.
Of course, no matter what any of the supports were like, this was always going to be about the headline act. When a spoof cartoon of Simon Cowell came on the screens to announce “the greatest rock and roll band in the world, Rage Against the Machine” the immense excitement could be felt to ripple through the 40,000 assembled fans. From the moment the opening riff of 'Testify' greeted the band’s entrance, there was no let up to the pure intensity and power of the band’s live performance. If anybody had been wondering why a band who had faded out of popular culture since their split in 2000 had managed to galvanise such an incredible movement, their victory performance demonstrated why. When they’re at their best, Rage Against the Machine are pure passion and togetherness personified; whether they were thrashing through 'Know Your Enemy', headbanging along to 'Bulls on Parade' or rapping the verses to 'Bullet in the Head', the diverse crowd was in unison loving every single second.
With no-one was this spirit more evident than frontman Zach De La Rocha, who prowled the stage like a man possessed, delivering line after line with the sort of energy I'd always imagined seeing Rage live in the early 90’s would have been like. Even when the music stopped, he was still relentless; preaching to the crowd and extolling the virtues of revolutionary British music before the band went into the only real surprise inclusion of the set, a cover of The Clash's 'White Riot'. For me though, I was even more mesmerised by guitarist Tom Morello, whom I had idolised ever since discovering Rage Against the Machine. His innovative style of guitar playing which is so key to Rage's signature sound was showcased fantastically well, and he even took over the mic at one stage to invite the Morters onstage to present a check for £162,713 (this being the profits from the sales of 'Killing in the Name') to go to the homeless charity Shelter.
Once the set was done, there was a conspicuous absence of a particular song that everyone knew was coming for the encore. And sure enough, after the screens at the side of the stage retold the story of the campaign for Christmas Number 1, Rage re-entered the stage as the words "You Made History" shone out to the crowd. All 40,000 people there jumped along and bellowed the song's (in)famous line in toal unison. This was more than a show, it was an experience and it truly was music history being made. I went to the show excited about seeing my favourite band, but I left with so much more than a good a show. True to the mission behind their music, Rage Against the Machine cultivated an extraordinary sense of community spirit and revolutionary idealism of the kind that stuck with me long after my ears stopped ringing. It was everything I'd hoped for and more, demonstrating the true power of alternative music.
Rage Against the Machine Live at Finsbury Park is available on DVD.
Re-watch Rage Against the Machine's controversial live performance of Killing in the Name on Radio during the Christmas Number 1 campaign: