Maynard James Keenan Helped Inspire Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ Riff
Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" is among rock's most powerful and iconic songs. The lyrics are simple, repetitive and oh so effective. As a guest on the latest episode of Rolling Stone Music Now, Tom Morello has explained the real inspiration behind one of the classic lines in the song as well as how Tool's Maynard James Keenan ultimately helped inspire that distinct guitar riff.
Speaking directly about the "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" line, Morello boasted that it "is a universal statement" and is one of singer Zack de la Rocha's "most brilliant lyrics."
"And to me, it relates to [late 1800s abolitionist] Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass said, the moment he became free was not the moment that he was physically loosed from his bonds. It was the moment when master said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘No.’ And that’s the essence of 'Fuck you, I will not do what you tell me,' the guitarist revealed, tying the motive into the present day amid scenes of protestors clashing with police and other law enforcement agents, "And that’s why it’s encouraging to hear it shouted at the Fed goons who are shooting tear gas at American citizens."
As for that immortal riff and the memorable start/stop moment later in the track off Rage Against the Machine's self-titled 1992 debut, Morello had a story behind both of those anecdotes too.
While giving a guitar lesson to "an accomplished local scenester musician," Morello was showing this student drop-D tuning, which he learned from Tool's Maynard James Keenan as both musicians had jammed together as Rage Against the Machine was in its earliest days of forming and Keenan was fresh out of comedic punk rock group Green Jellö and looking for a new singing gig.
"I was actually playing bass at the time, a crappy Ibanez bass. And I was like, 'When you play drop-D tuning, it just sort of suggests different patterns to your fingers.' And the first pattern I played was that riff. I said, hold on one sec, and got my little Radio Shack recorder and recorded that," recalled Morello.
Before de la Rocha laid those stirring lines over the track, it was originally an instrumental tune and the band used it to open their first public performance at Cal State Northridge. It underwent the transformation once lyrics were added, but Rage knew they were too controversial to print on their album.
"We actually left the lyrics off of the lyric sheet of the first record, because it’s I think it’s two lines, 16 'fuck yous,' and one motherfucker. And we’re like, in the midst of all this grand political poetry, let’s just that one stand for itself," confessed the guitarist.
Later on, Morello explained how A&R man Michael Goldstone, who he hailed as a "genius," implored the band to remove the "dunna-dunt" start/stop section from '"Killing in the Name." "I think he heard 'hit single, as long as he doesn’t have that crazy part where it just stops a lot!' That was a bit of a lift from Zeppelin’s 'Good times, Bad Times,' that part. We’ve felt pretty confident that needs to stay in the song, and I think history has borne that out," he went on.
This year was supposed to be a big one for Rage Against the Machine, who announced their long-awaited reunion late last year. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the touring industry to shut down, the band has been forced to postpone that comeback run to next year. See all the rescheduled stops here.
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