The Town That Raged Against Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine (“RATM”) is a heavy metal/punk rock band that got its start in the early 1990s. The quartet has seen a fair amount of success over their career — earlier in 2023, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Their songs can often be best described as “loud” and the lyrics are often violent, vulgar, and anti-patriotic — and not in a remotely subtle way.

And because of that — and because of the First Amendment — the small Utah town of Spanish Forks may never host a concert at its fairgrounds again.

RATM kicked off their American tour with an appearance on Saturday Night Live and controversy immediately followed. The show’s producers (in what, in retrospect, was an obvious mistake) invited billionaire Steve Forbes to host that week’s show; Forbes, at the time, was seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States and his central policy idea was the implementation of a flat tax. Rage Against the Machine, the musical guest, would probably have described themselves as anti-capitalist — and made that clear right before they weren’t fans of Forbes or what he stood for. As Louder reports, “In the moments before the band were due to perform, the band’s crew and producer Brendan O’Brien crept onto the stage and draped their amplifiers in a pair of upside-down American flags” as a sign of protest. SNL’s crew were able to remove the flags before the broadcast resumed, so no one watching at home saw this protest, but the message was received — and SNL’s producers didn’t allow RATM to go on stage to perform their second scheduled song that night. Rather, SNL banned RATM from performing on the show in the future.

For fans of the band, this seemingly bad news was actually welcome — the band, again, was not shy about sharing its political views, and their fans appreciated the transparency. Their tour that year was in support of their new album, titled “Evil Empire,” which peaked at #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and sold more than three million units. They played five shows in New York, another half-dozen in or around Los Angeles, and appeared at Lollapalooza.

And they also played a show in Spanish Fork, Utah — population 15,000 or so.

Spanish Fork is a small town about 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City and fifteen minutes from Provo. (Here’s a map.) It’s a place whose residents were much more likely to be fans of Steve Forbes than RATM, but when the latter were booking tour dates, Spanish Fork’s fairgrounds fit their route map. In early September of 1996, RATM ended up playing a show in Idaho on one day and another in Colorado three days later; Utah is between the two. As City Weekly explained, “someone called him [Stecen Money, the manager of the fairgrounds], asked if concerts were held at the arena, and asked if a certain date was available. Yes and yes, Money says he told them, noting that there wasn’t a provision to deny one band over another band.” Whether to vet the band for appropriateness, given the conservative temperament of the people of Spanish Fork, never occurred to Money or anyone else involved.

As the date of the concert approached and news of it spread, the dissatisfaction among Spanish Forkians spread, reaching the point of hysterics. Residents petitioned the town council to revoke RATM’s invitation. One local wrote to Provo’s Daily Herald to assert that “by letting them come into our community, we are tolerating their foul language, their sadistic theme, and their anti-Christian message.” Another resident went to a city council meeting to tell the board that she relied on them to do the right thing when making decisions for her children, and in this case, the city failed: as reported repoted by the Salt Lake Tribune, she said that she “let her two sons buy tickets thinking such a band would never play in Spanish Fork. She later discovered the CDs released by the band carry warning because of explicit lyrics.” 

The show, however, went on. Spanish Fork’s lawyers told the town that it would be on the hook as much as $300,000 in damages if it canceled, and that was beyond the budget of the small town. The people of Spanish Fork considered raising the money themselves, but that proved unworkable; per the Desert News, “petitions residents have been circulating committed people who signed them to contribute $10 toward the cancellation. But one person pointed out that if every household in Spanish Fork contributed it would raise only $46,000.” Besides, the lawyers noted, Spanish Fork’s policy was that the fairgrounds were bookable for concerts, and (openly) rejecting a band due to the content of their music could run afoul of the First Amendment. And Spanish Fork didn’t want to be the center of a free speech debate.

The RATM show was a success — at least, if you are a fan of the band. They sold out all 8,000 seats and per local reports, scalpers were getting three times face value for tickets. A review of the show in BYU’s student newspaper raved about the performance. And the fear of death and destruction never came to be; of the 8,000 people, only 11 were arrested (almost all for possessing drugs or for underage drinking) and while 120 were treated for injuries, none were serious — mostly people suffering from dehydration or with some bruises from a mosh pit.

Spanish Fork, though, didn’t want to risk any Rage in the future. As the Daily Herald reported, the town decided that, going forward, the fairgrounds could “only be used for the Utah County Fair, rodeos, and 4-H events” — and, therefore, no concerts.

 

Bonus fact: RATM took its anti-capitalist views literally, and physically, to the New York Stock Exchange in 2000, temporarily shutting down the market. The band was shooting footage for a video for their song “Sleep Now in the Fire,” the end result of which you can see here. As Far Out Magazine reported, “The video was directed by Michael Moore, who had the members of Rage Against the Machine perform on the steps of Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, New York City. Although they obtained a federal permit for the shoot, NYC authorities denied Moore a sound permit. This led to the NYPD shutting down the shoot after the band went through six takes, after which the group rushed the New York Stock Exchange across the street while he was being threatened with arrest.” The exchange, as cited in the video, shut down at 2:52 pm that day, but only for a few minutes.

From the Archives: A Pitbull Goes to Alaska: Another unlikely concert.