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Sleep Now In The Fire: Farewell to Rage Against the Machine’s Live Show

Well, it’s over. Again.

Last week, Brad Wilk, drummer for iconic rap-rock firestarters Rage Against the Machine confirmed that the band would not be rescheduling the shows they’d cancelled in the United States, and that they simply wouldn’t be performing again.

“I want to let you know that RATM (Tim, Zack, Tom and I) will not be touring or playing live again,” he says on Instagram, with a palpable ache even through text alone. “I’m sorry for those of you who have been waiting for [rescheduled shows] to happen. I really wish it was…”

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We’re no strangers to Rage Against The Machine breakups, with frontman Zack de la Rocha leaving the band in 2000 and a 2008 reunion fizzling out after a headline set at Coachella, but this time, there’s a sadness attached to the statement. The band is a whirlwind of fury, making its greatest statements on the world stage in protest, and to be closed down by text on an Instagram post feels like a match being dropped into a puddle. But if we’re to say goodbye, we’ll do it with gratitude.

The band might have made their name in the early ‘90s, but their presence in the musical and political worlds has never been cut loose — and a surprising amount of that comes down to their live shows. You only need to look so far as 2008 to see this, with the band’s performance on BBC Radio 5 Live, in which they were asked not to swear during the breakfast show as they played “Killing in the Name.”

You can probably imagine how that went, but if you knew about it at the time, there’s a chance you haven’t been able to shake it from your head. Call it idiocy on the BBC’s part for inviting them in the first place, but it has been clear since 1990 that you do not tell Rage Against the Machine what to do, especially when it comes to muffling perhaps the greatest call-to-action ever put to record. To imply that de la Rocha’s barking of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” didn’t apply to the BBC and wasn’t going to find its way to the people was bizarre, but it only illustrates how much Rage Against the Machine’s work could worm through barricades and barbed wire to find its audience.

An audience that needed them.

Giving the BBC hell and claiming a Christmas Number One in the UK besides was unprecedented in its own way, but when it comes to real-world impact and breaking down the hells of modern society, the band have rarely proved their mettle more than the performance that was transformed into the music video for “Sleep Now In The Fire.” They took to the New York Stock Exchange after the New York City film office decreed their filming illegal, and with the call from director Michael Moore to “no matter what happens, don’t stop playing,” the band garnered hundreds of onlookers that would go on to storm the Stock Exchange itself. Riot shields came down and put a stop to the movement, but for a few glorious moments, capitalism itself had screeched to a halt, and it was soundtracked by a rap-rock rager that illustrated its greed and hellish impact on the planet.

These moments aren’t mere snapshots — they’re indicative of a wider movement that Rage Against the Machine started. The most recent reunion that coalesced in shows across 2022 proved the band’s impact wasn’t fleeting, nor particularly obvious. It’d be easy to presume for people vaguely familiar with RATM that their comeback would be swamped by the typical liberal “Trump bad!” talking point, but any one party staking a claim on them was a grand mistake.

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“I don’t know about you this evening, but every time I turn on the news lately it seems that Congress is passing another $100 billion arms package, building more weapons, sending them to Europe, sending them to Saudi Arabia, sending them to Israel, sending them all over the world to cause nothing but death and destruction for no just cause … especially at a time when all the people here in the US are starting to hurt worse and worse,” de la Rocha beckons at their performance in Washington DC as the band behind him tiptoes through the bridge of “Bullet in the Head.” 

This is only the tip of the iceberg, with RATM paying tribute to the named and nameless people who have died at the hands of the police and revitalizing the messages that gave their songs their spark in the first place. They’ve proven for the thousandth time that Rage Against the Machine’s greatest works aren’t just de la Rocha’s insight or guitarist Tom Morello’s boundary-breaking guitar innovations, but reflections of what the real world looks like when set aside from the glowing false smile of the music industry at large. Rage Against the Machine isn’t them — it’s us.

The band never sold themselves to any larger being or served anyone other than those who needed to be served, and even thirty years on, they refused to change. Injury may have brought this chapter of Rage Against the Machine to a close, but if we have to say goodbye to one of the most crucial bands ever to make a stamp on culture, we’ll do so with gratitude.

We really weren’t worthy of a band like this — a band that wrote calls to action instead of songs, who performed protests instead of concerts, and made “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” not only a beckon call for the downtrodden, but a statement synonymous with the power of music in all its forms. We’d like to say that they’ll be back when we need them most, but we’ve always needed Rage Against the Machine. If it’s over, we’ll learn to accept it — but we’re all the better for having them.


Joseph Kime is a journalist, author and podcaster from Devon, UK. He is the Senior Trending News Writer for gaming site GGRecon, writer of the self-published essay collection Building A Universe, and co-creator of The Big Screen Book Club podcast. After graduating from Plymouth’s MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he’s written for the likes of The Digital Fix, Zavvi and FANDOM. He’s Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s biggest fan, and will talk your ear off about the significance of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

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