The word on Renegades is that it happened by accident when rap-rock agitators Rage Against the Machine got together with rap-rock eminence Rick Rubin to wham out a couple oldie B sides. They kept thinking of additional goodies until the project blew up into a full cover album—which proved the last with the original lineup when singer Zack de la Rocha decided to take his bat and go solo. So it’s possible that the most penetrating and engaging album of their career was a lark that turned fateful. But RATM are one band that could justify a whole album of covers by insisting that those who do not repeat history are condemned not to know it, and as it ends up, hearing rock and rap past through their ears is a pop education. In the wake of a flood of stillborn tribute collections, cover albums don’t have much status these days. But in fact they reinterpret history, as their own history demonstrates.
In his track-by-track rundown, Rubin stumbles on the revolutionary potential of cover albums: “An interesting thing about this record is the band was able to kind of move musically in different directions because they’re starting with the format of someone else’s song. It kind of allowed them more freedom to kind of try different things. And I think it’s probably more diverse than Rage’s other albums.” Poets write in forms for much the same reason. The poet concentrates so much on fitting the words to the meter that his or her subconscious censor shuts off and the language can reveal more. United by the struggle of making the swatch of killer tunes their own, de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk clicked with each other even as they notoriously failed to agree on anything else. They tell more about their artistic mission than they ever have before, maybe even more about the world. Renegades has the potential of firing up those who haven’t thought much about political pop, and that will be its long-term value. By gathering some of the favorites that formed them as activist artists, Rage Against the Machine join an extended, little-noticed lineage of rockers who have worked to affect the future by rendering history more coherent.
Unless you consider the British Invasion an onslaught of cover bands that got played on the radio where the originals didn’t, the first modern albums in the remake mode were Dr. John’s Gumbo in 1972 and the Band’s Moondog Matinee and David Bowie’s Pin Ups in 1973. In an era when yesterday didn’t matter if it was gone, these were defiant moves—history, how freaky. But although Dr. John had reinvented himself as an LSD shaman in the late 1960s, in fact he was a secret r&b veteran revisiting the New Orleans foundation of his career. The Band were already obsessed with the past, though their rehabilitations outclassed those of the hokey ’50s-revival groups in vogue at the time. Bowie’s camp trip had its Sha Na Na side, but a spaceman futuroid doing vintage tunes made the gesture seem cooler and less decrepit. The next year Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry ran roughshod over Bowie’s pirouette into the past with These Foolish Things. Ferry advanced toward Renegades in that he grabbed not just Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, and the Stones but the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley and gave them roles in his glitter-lizard cabaret while trashing the niceties of the original music. Style sense, and Ferry’s puce-velvet voice, conquered all. You could tell he loved these songs even as he throttled them.
Renegades‘ only equal, however, is Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 “The Spaghetti Incident?” Axl ‘N Slash (‘N sometimes Duff) played around with rock-clod and punk-neurasthenic archetypes like they didn’t have a drug habit in the world. Any band that could make the connection between the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” and the Damned’s “New Rose” had way more smarts and humanism than nonzealots could detect in “Paradise City” and its ilk. “The Spaghetti Incident?” has become the G N’ R album for those who don’t like G N’ R, but in 10 years it’ll be more cherished than Appetite for Destruction.
Renegades shares the same sense of adventure and self-discovery, though it has more of Bryan Ferry’s feral irreverence toward its musical sources. Since the material includes Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk,” Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes,” Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” and Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” if Renegades even equaled the originals, it could establish a new pop order. As it is, there are a couple mere curiosities: Devo’s “Beautiful World” redone as a bitter croon-toon and “Street Fighting Man” booted with a guitar-as-synth figure that’s more vintage electrofunk than techno retouch. And there are a couple rallying points: a howling “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that surpasses Bruce Springsteen’s sepia-dignified original and a relentlessly shouted “Maggie’s Farm,” an oldie that needed its case of rabies renewed.
The other tracks parallel Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” with the rap-rock proportions reversed: not replacements, but side trips to help the listener fully savor the songs. Bassist Commerford has gained more muscle and ideas than any player in the band and is now as expressive as Morello in all his sweet savagery. De la Rocha, on the other hand, has failed to develop, and remains as awkward as Mick Jagger taking on Slim Harpo back when. But Renegades may be his monument. The stark groove-and-hush of “Microphone Fiend” gets Morello’s crunch treatment as de la Rocha takes off from the memory of Rakim’s words rather than simply reciting them, adding a particularly effective “in E-F-F-E-C-T” chant. De la Rocha would never come up with Rakim’s “silly rabbit” aside, but you know he appreciates the gag, just as he knows the reverberated “Housin’ . . . housin’ ” refrain on EPMD’s “I’m Housin’ ” is the kind of oratory-free dramatic fillip he never manages on his own. Morello has referred to the “odd Iggy Pop vocal performance” of “Down on the Street,” but the discomfort is all de la Rocha’s, the limitation of his righteous anhedonia—unlike Axl Rose, who had no trouble maintaining a full-body erection for “Raw Power.” Then again, de la Rocha has the rhetorical chops to put every verbal lick in place on “Maggie’s Farm.”
Renegades revels in its historic shrewdness down to the Robert Indiana “LOVE” send-up of the booklet art, and will fascinate, inspire, and instruct for a long time. There are outtakes lurking, too—Gang of Four’s “What We All Want” and a bizarro hybrid of Eazy-E’s “Ruthless Villain” and Rush’s “Working Man.” Successor bands who hear Renegades will know enough to plow ahead to Fela, Bob Marley, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco. More than expanding our views of established performers and demonstrating that punk, rap, and metal can feast together on meaty hooks and high-fat beats, Renegades establishes radical-pop protest-racket as more than just an aberration in the music that descends from Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. In the sequence of songs RATM have selected, sly words and assault music bridge years and races. After this record, no one can dismiss amplified activism as the fleeting howls of isolated hotheads. It’s the forever underground.