Of all days to finally finish this piece I started writing FIVE years ago, last night was supposed to be the first Rage Against the Machine show in nine years. After living in San Diego for 25 years, I recently moved back, just a few minutes from where this all happened. Hopefully this tale of their beginnings will give you some hope that we’ll still see those four together again someday. Stay safe and enjoy.
In the fall of 1991, I was starting my second year at Cal State University Northridge. At 30,000+ students, it’s one of the largest universities in the state system but since it’s largely a commuter school, there wasn’t a huge amount of student involvement. They had sports and a Greek system but I barely remember either. Most people came to campus for classes and then left.
Since I was from San Diego and lived just a few blocks away, I was a little more aware and interested in events happening on campus. Every Wednesday at noon in our student union, there were free concerts put on by Associated Students and Student Productions And Campus Entertainment, known as SPACE. As a lifelong music obsessive, I rarely missed a show in the three and a half years that I was there. There weren’t a lot of us regulars. Most people who came throught the student union walked right past the bands to get to their cars in the parking lot on the opposite side of the building.
With a huge student body and a decent stage & sound set-up, the school got plenty of good acts, mostly in the alternative world. Even for someone with a memory and scrapbook as good as mine, I can’t remember most of the bands I saw there. A lot of them were, literally, forgettable. Still, I saw Southern Culture On The Skids, the Gin Blossoms, Robby Krieger from the Doors, Digable Planets, No Doubt and many others on that stage. Then there was the one time that the Leaving Trains’ singer got naked during the last song of their set. After a few moments of shock, I turned around and enjoyed watching the horrified faces of unsuspecting people walking through the quad. Apparently, he calmly walked into the campus pub a few feet away after their set, eluding security completely.
RATM’s first demo tape, released December 1991
Undoubtedly, the most historic noontime show at CSUN happened on October 23, 1991 when Rage Against The Machine played their very first show. While touring major label acts from around the country regularly played the weekly shows, groups from the huge local scene around Los Angeles were often recruited to play. Rage started recording their demo tape in August of that year but it wasn’t officially released until December. Not having anything released, it seemed an unlikely place for a band to make their debut but the band was friends with Johnny Sabella, who booked the weekly shows, so they were in.
The group had only been together a few months at that point. Earlier that year, guitarist Tom Morello had left the band Lock Up, who’d released a major label album in 1989, and hooked up with Zack de La Rocha after seeing him freestyling at a Los Angeles club. Drummer Brad Wilk had auditioned for Lock Up, so Morello brought him into the fold while De La Rocha brought in childhood friend Tim Commerford on bass. Wilk had grown up in nearby Woodland Hills, attending Taft High School with one of my best friends at Northridge, Brian Levy, a fellow drummer who worked for Pork Pie Percussion, Wilk’s longtime drum supplier. Rage began rehearsing in the San Fernando Valley, so it’s not completely surprising that Northridge was where they would make their debut.
I likely had a class or two in the morning that day but in my planner, I’d written nothing about seeing Rage at the Student Union. I just went every Wednesday, no matter who was playing. It looks like it was a busy week for me, having just seen England’s Wonder Stuff two nights before, then seeing School of Fish up in the Bay Area a few days later before coming back to watch Spinal Tap drummer auditions at an empty Los Angeles Coliseum on Halloween, where Rage Against The Machine would headline twenty years later. Every week I would grab lunch and sit on a patch of grass on the stage right side. I had no idea what I was in for that day. No one there did.
With little fanfare and zero applause Johnny Sabella announced the band and they went into a shortened, instrumental version of what would one day be their most well-known song, “Killing In The Name Of…”. The famous, squeaky guitar solo actually appeared a few songs later that day, in the unreleased track “Hit The Deck”. Chances are, it was too new to have lyrics yet, so Zack just stood side stage, getting ready to “bring that shit in”. It’s surprisingly not that engaging without it leading up to THOSE lyrics but once they broke into “Take The Power Back”, you could see that everything that made the band great was already there. Dynamics, guitar tricks, great call and response between the three musicians plus De La Rocha railing, rallying and doing a funny little side dance, trying to find his b-boy stance after years of fronting punk bands.
I was intrigued, though I was hardly a raprock enthusiast. I was an early Chili Peppers fan and they were huge in LA, so clones were everywhere. I was pretty much over it by the time they blew up that year with Blood Sugar Sex Magic. For me, those bands were rarely my cup of tea, other than the criminally underrated Urban Dance Squad, who RATM adored. Quite a few funk/rap/rock bands had come across that stage in the two years I’d been going to school there and they were all the same to me. This was different. The rhythm section was tight but not quite yet the force they would become. Morello’s guitar magic really set the music apart. You couldn’t wait to see what he did next. But it was De La Rocha’s anger that was the most unforgettable thing that day.
There are some bands that are hard to imagine not playing in front of thousands of crazed, adoring fans and Rage Against The Machine is one of them. They blew up so quickly that this is one of the only times that they ever played to completely unprepared ears. Their set was already crammed with angry, controversial lyrics but, despite college campuses being the center of youth rebellion in the 60’s, De La Rocha’s mini-sermons felt totally out of place at Northridge in 1991. To say it was uncomfortable is an understatement. It was amazing to watch and almost impossible to not want to rally behind them, though dozens watching were rolling their eyes and could be heard making sarcastic remarks. HUNDREDS of people walked right by without stopping that day.
They were great, especially for a first gig, but I probably only heard their name once or twice that day, so I might not have remembered it if I’d never heard them again. I was devouring new music at the time, working at Wherehouse Records near CSUN and going to see shows almost every week. The band were signed by Epic Records after their second show and were recording their major label debut within six months of playing Northridge. In July of 1992, there was a buzz about an unsigned band that was opening up Porno For Pyros’ first big show up at Castaic Lake called Rage Against The Machine and I didn’t recognize their name. The record was released in November of that year and was being promoted by the folks at Hits Magazine, where I worked for a few months. Someone had it on at the office and after a few songs, I realized who it was. It’s kinda hard to forget a guy screaming that you have a bullet in your head that many times in a row.
Randomly looked up Big Audio Dynamite’s “Contact” video earlier tonight and damn if Mick isn’t looking a la Rocha with that fro! Who knew?
Years later, I was obsessed with trading rare tapes online. When online filesharing came along, I was fairly clueless but eventually had someone show me how to type in a few things I’d been looking for into Napster or Shareaza. Sure enough, a bunch of songs I’d been searching for came up and one of them was Rage covering the Clash’s “Clampdown“. The way they broke down the verses that day was so distinctive, I could remember it over a decade later, after only hearing it once. They stopped playing it almost immediately, not including it on their 2000 covers album, though they did play it twice at reunion shows in 2008. In 2014, Tom Morello sang it on tour as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist. The band was so politicized, I wasn’t surprised at all that they loved Strummer & Company (they also covered “White Riot” in 2010). The “Clampdown” file I found said that it was recorded “Live At The Quad”. It seemed unlikely that it was from the show that I saw, not realizing that it came from a well-circulated bootleg from that day.A few years later, Youtube came along and video of their entire set that day was uploaded, listing it as the band’s debut performance. Well, I’ll be. I knew their CSUN show had to be one of their earliest but had no idea it was their very first. Apparently, the band had played the same six songs twice at a friend’s house party in Huntington Beach a couple of months before the CSUN show but their very first public performance was in our quad. When their first album was re-released for its 20th anniversary, it included a DVD of the grainy, one-camera video shot that day. Tom Morello remembered the gig in an interview with Consequence of Sound:
“There was actually a friend of the band in 1991, 1992, a 17-year-old kid who was an aspiring piercing artist, who happened to have a camera, a video camera, and was around for a lot of those early performances, you know, when we were playing in front of 15 people. I think we got the very first ever live performance of the song Wake Up on there. That Cal State Northridge is literally the first public performance that the band played. And some of those early ones are pretty priceless.”
“Looking back, I can remember that day clearly. It was an outdoor lunchtime concert where another friend of the band who booked us that gig and I remember that we were playing while people were walking back and forth with their lunches. You can see in the video that midway through the concert, a couple of these hesher dudes stopped to check it out. You can tell that they’re not impressed, but maybe it’s better than going off to geometry class or wherever. And then the end of “Bullet In The End” happens and one dude looks at the other and gives the “Not so bad, bro” look. By the end of “Freedom,” they’re banging their heads like they’re at an Iron Maiden concert, which was pretty awesome.” (LA Weekly interview)
It was definitely a kick to see the performance after all of those years. The weekly shows were usually attended by no more than a dozen or two people but you can see a crowd slowly gather and, by the end, the area in front of the stage is FULL. There’s a ton of great comments overheard in between songs, the best being “These guys any good?!” I watched the entire set and waited for them to pan over to me quietly enjoying my lunch with an IBC Creme Soda but no dice. I did post it on Facebook once and a friend of mine noticed someone yelling my name (“ADAM!“) as clear as day.
For me, the best part comes just four and a half minutes in, when a tall long-haired dude in a black Mack Truck hat and t-shirt walks in, stands right up front and starts nodding his head, instantly into it. That’s my friend Allen Neece. As a fellow regular at the weekly concerts, I recognized him long before we ever met. He was kinda hard to miss. Tall and good looking with perfect Anthony Kiedis hair that hid a barcode tattoo on the back of his neck, one female friend of mine referred to him simply as “beautiful man”. There are dozens of Youtube comments proclaiming Allen as the very first Rage Against The Machine fan but, by far, the best one is “The one guy with dreads in front = Only one who can hear evidently”. He got two things wrong. His long hair wasn’t in dreds, which is an understandable mistake with the quality of the video, but more importantly, Allen is legally deaf.
CSUN has one of the largest huge deaf communities of any Ameican campus. I met Allen’s roommate, Kevin, in a Spanish class and we became friends. He told me about how he and Allen would pull hilarious pranks on each other, like writing things in invisible paint on their walls that they wouldn’t see until the lights went out. Allen once took all of Kevin’s belongings and stuffed ALL of it into his bathroom. Kevin recruited my girlfriend and I to be in on a Scare Tactics-style prank at a Halloween party where we were the only ones who could hear. Good times terrifying the costumed deaf.
That’s me and my girlfriend as the Pope and Sinead O’Connor, a timely reference in 1991, I assure you.
Kevin was always telling me I had to meet Allen and when we finally did, we instantly bonded on our love of music. He, Kevin and two other deaf friends actually won a lip sync contest on the same stage that Rage played on. The deaf crew did the Chili Peppers’ “Sex Rap”. Completely off, completely awesome. When it came time to decide a winner by applause, they all cupped their ears and yelled, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!” You could tell the guy who’d dressed up as the Phantom of the Opera and made us endure “Music Of The Night” was a little bummed to lose to four guys who couldn’t even hear. Hilarious.
Allen was ripe to be a Rage fan. He was already a fan of politically minded music and encouraged activism, working for Rock The Vote and even recruiting me to work the booth at Lollapalooza in the Bay Area in 1994. While most of us who have all of our senses barely help our fellow man, Allen worked for the Peace Corps, stationed in Kenya for years. Still my hero. When I finally started to write this piece, I knew that I had to tap the memory of the band’s unofficial first fan. It only took five years and a worldwide virus scare to get him to find the time so we could finally post it.
What do you remember from that day?
My friend, Johnny Sabella, was director of the noontime shows that CSUN hosted in the quad during the semesters. We first met a few years earlier as members of the Loyal Order, a punk rock student group. CSUN at the time was a mostly white-bread hotbed of Valley frats, sororities, and jocks. Punk had yet to break through, or more importantly, yet to be commodified. Anyway, Johnny was doing an amazing job of booking bands to come through (Helmet, No Doubt, Mary’s Danish, Digable Planets, The Last Poets, Flatten Manhattan, I can’t remember the rest) as well as booking Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins on other occasions. She had received a cassette of Rage’s first demo and urged me to show up. I think I may have left class early to get there and arrived in the middle of “Take the Power Back”. I realized immediately that I was seeing something that was incredibly fresh and new. Tom’s riffs were mesmerizing and Zach’s passion was scorching. He was crying at the conclusion of “Freedom”. I had grown up with punk in D.C. and seen plenty of bands before this but I definitely got the chills at the end of their set.
Did you usually stand up front at shows to feel more?
Always. Why the fuck people sit at shows, I’ll never understand.
Do you remember first seeing the video or hearing it was their first show?
I can’t remember when I first saw it but it was a trip. My hair was cut by then and now when I see the video, I’m reminded just how much hair I used to have, ha. This was definitely their first public show but I was told their first actual show was a “private” show somewhere. Anyway, it’s fascinating to watch this now, in the time of the CORVID-19 pandemic, and reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.
How does it feel to be referred to as the very first RATM fan?
It’s an honor but as you can see from the video, I wasn’t the only one. The guy in red who busts a move in the end gets credit too. I just wanna recognize Johnny Sabella, if she hadn’t booked them, this wouldn’t have happened.
Did you ever see them again?
Many times. Brad, the drummer, lived for a time with Johnny, so I would see him around. I think it was the following year they played Lollapalooza at Irvine Meadows. I had attended the MTV Video Awards at UCLA and still had my red VIP wristband on from my work with Rock The Vote. The wristband for access to the pit floor in front of the stage was red and I flashed it to the security guy and walked right pass him and enjoyed the rest of the show from there. Brad was there and we hung out. A few years later, I was working the night shift in Burbank and was driving home to my apartment in the Fairfax district at like 1 or 2 in the morning. I’m at a red light, I look over, and it’s Brad! We rolled windows and chatted for a bit. He was a real nice guy. I remember seeing them at the Whisky, Palladium, and other joints. I remember seeing them at CSU Fullerton where they headlined a benefit for Leonard Peltier with Cypress Hill, Beastie Boys, and Stanford Prison Experiment. Again I had backstage access so it was fascinating to see all these band members hanging out. Sen Dog had the biggest blunt I still to this day have ever seen. At one point I used the tunnel under the velodrome to use the portapotty and coming back I saw at the end of the tunnel, which was near the steps to the state, three guys whom I recognized immediately to be the Beastie Boys. They were dressed in brown UPS uniforms and were obviously getting ready to go on. I walked as slow as I could, pretending to stop and tie my shoes, stalling to the best of my ability but it wasn’t easy when I’m a 6’4 hair farmer and the only other person in the tunnel. They kept looking at me so I smiled, waved, and walked on. I think they were touring Check Your Head at the time. I can’t remember when was the last time I saw them. I still have their first cassette and 7-inches somewhere in a box.
I never did get to see another proper Rage show. Two years later, I saw them kill acoustically at KROQ’s annual Christamas show, even with a mock rape/poetry ending. A few years after that, we watched from afar at the first Tibetan Freedom Festival in Golden Gate Park as their throng of followers lost their minds. When the band reunited at Coachella in 2007, I was obsessed with finding clips from their set and got chills watching them walk out to sirens to a mass of people in the darkness. To this day, I never get tired of watching footage them play to a sea of fans. Hopefully we’ll be watching them again very soon.
Strange times. Rage safely from home, folks.
Huge thanks to Lita Van Houten from the CSUN Daily Sundial. She was nice enough to dig up an issue of the campus newspaper from the day before the show, supplying us with the only known listing for Rage Against The Machine’s very first show, for the first time ever online.
More serious than what yer used to seeing here? Oh fine…..
BACK TO BEST…DEBUT…FAREWELL…REUNION…SHOW…EVER
ALSO SEE CONCERT SCRAPBOOK (1984-94), SHOW MEMORIES 1994 TO SEMI-RECENTLY AND TOO OLDE FOR SHOWS