To a younger generation, Lollapalooza is an annual 4-day festival that is always held in Chicago’s Grant Park. While the event has been stationary for nearly two decades, those of us who are a certain age undoubtedly remember its earliest incarnation as a traveling celebration of alternative music and culture.
A highlight of the third annual tour was the up-and-coming alternative hardcore activists Rage Against The Machine. Having released their self-titled debut album in November of 1992, the band had been gaining steady critical and commercial steam for nearly a year. As they had yet to release a video, Lollapalooza was Rage Against The Machine’s first meaningful foray into the mainstream.
When the band took the main stage early in the day on the converted lot where JFK Stadium had recently stood in Philadelphia on July 18th, curious counterculture fans turned out in droves to see the fierce new band bubbling up from the underground. Instead of the blistering political tirade that concertgoers were expecting, they were met with guitar feedback and singing dicks.
As legend has it, frontman Zack de la Rocha, who had been delivering brutal performances for the better part of a month, finally lost his voice the prior day in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Rather than cancel their set in one of America’s biggest cities, the band seized on an opportunity to further cement their reputation as anti-establishment radicals.
Led by then-Vice President Al Gore’s wife Tipper, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was created in 1985 with the mission to shield impressionable youth from subjects and language in music that they deemed harmful. While sexually suggestive lyrics and George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” were the lobbying group’s primary targets, the PMRC gleefully used their platform to attack anything outside of their limited scope of understanding; leading to the creation of the notorious Parental Advisory stickers on albums.
The sticker might have been old news by 1993, but it was still a point of contention among fans and artists. As the branding was treated as a black mark by retailers as well as parents, Rage Against The Machine viewed the PMRC’s efforts as censorship. Armed with an agenda, the band decided to use their Philly set as a vehicle for protest.
Completely naked, Rage Against the Machine took to the Philadelphia stage. While the musicians initially held their instruments, each member soon put them down to purposely cause feedback from the amps. Every member had a piece of tape fastened across their mouth, along with an individual letter painted on their chests. Standing in a line, those letters spelled out P-M-R-C. The band stood in place, silent other than the tone of their amps, for fifteen minutes.
In a print-only interview with Uncut, guitarist Tom Morello recalled that there “was an outpouring of excitement among the crowd for the first five minutes.” However, the mood of the crowd would sour drastically in time.
“Then there was an interesting standoff as it was clear this was not just some sort of quick stunt,” said Morello. “Then for the last five minutes, there was outright hostility – booing and giving us the finger and quarter coins being thrown at our dicks.”
When asked about the incident by Modern Drummer, Brad Wilk confessed: “I was thinking about how the wind felt underneath my scrotum, what the people in the front were thinking, and all the cameras flashing and what they were going to be thinking as they developed their film. Actually, doing that was no big deal. It didn’t freak me out. That’s how we all came into the world. It’s a liberating thing.”
Although police eventually removed Rage Against the Machine from the stage, no charges for indecent exposure were filed. The band returned to Philadelphia later that year to perform a free show for fans who felt let down by the Lollapalooza stunt.