Why did Rage Against The Machine stage a naked protest 25 years ago?

Joe Sommerlad
Rage Against The Machine were known for their outspoken left-wing political views: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA/Rex

Today marks 25 years since the four members of Rage Against The Machine stood naked onstage to protest against encroaching censorship within the music industry.

Rather than play their set at the 1993 Lollapalooza Festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, bandmates Zach de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk stepped out in front of thousands of fans entirely in the buff, gaffer tape binding their mouths and the letters “PMRC” spelled out across their chests.

The abbreviation referred to the Parents Music Resource Centre, a pressure group formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, married to soon-to-be president Bill Clinton’s right hand man Al, to push for cautionary ratings on albums giving advanced notice of sexually explicit, violent or occult lyrical content.

Mrs Gore, once a rock drummer herself who played with Willie Nelson and the Grateful Dead, had been alarmed after hearing her 11-year-old daughter Karenna listening to Prince’s song “Darling Nikki” from Purple Rain (1984), which directly references masturbation.

She formed PMRC with other like-minded “Washington Wives” and published a list of songs they disapproved of known as the “Filthy Fifteen”, which inadvertently served as a fairly killer playlist, bringing together Prince, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper with the likes of Judas Priest, Motley Crue, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Black Sabbath.

PMRC did succeed in introducing the “Parental Advisory” sticker, but only after forcing a memorable 1985 Senate hearing into the alleged social problem of “porn rock”, in which unlikely allies Frank Zappa, country star John Denver and Dee Snider of metal band Twister Sister took the stand to mount the case for the defence.

Mrs Gore subsequently published a moralising book on the subject, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society (1987).

But back to Rage. Instead of playing their instruments, the Los Angeles rap-metal collective simply propped their guitars against the amps to create a wall of reverberating feedback as they stood there in all their natural born glory.

While the gesture was immediately understood and cheered by their politically-engaged audience, the crowd began to turn when they realised Rage had no intention of playing the hits like “Killing in the Name” or “Wake Up” they had gathered to hear. Bottles were thrown in frustration.

“People were just bummed out. We were hauled off by the police… That was a special moment,” Commerford told Louder Sound, remembering the event fondly.

The band overcame their private anxieties about the question of “shrinkage” (as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David once so delicately put it) to make a serious point about what they regarded as the PMRC’s unconstitutional assault on free speech and creative freedom.

Nakedness though was a semi-regular occurrence in the hedonistic world of American alternative rock and grunge in the 1990s.

Members of Jane’s Addiction, Hole and Queens of the Stone Age all played live in a state of nature, Iggy Pop was always more comfortable unclothed than dressed and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made an art of the well-placed white sport sock.