Cover Stories: Rage Against the Machine’s Self-Titled Debut
It’s an album cover that couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes to put together, yet it stands as one of the most compelling sleeves of all time.
There is no Photoshop here, no collage, trick photography or stunt people. To view the cover of Rage Against the Machine‘s self-titled debut is to bear witness to a political protest against the machine that literally burns, but not with rage.
A detailed discussion of the politics behind the photograph are well beyond the scope of this article, but here are the broad strokes. In 1955 the French left Indochina, leaving a man named Ngo Dinh Diem in charge of the south. A referendum was held to determine whether the country would return to monarchy or form a republic, which was Diem’s choice. Diem won, collecting 150,000 more votes than there were registered voters, and named himself president of the newly formed Vietnam.
Now, the Vietnamese population was as much as 80% Buddhist, but Diem was a Roman Catholic. As he built his dictatorship, his government became increasingly biased toward Catholics and discriminatory toward Buddhists. Catholics were given the plum government jobs and military promotions, for example. When weapons were distributed for defense against the Viet Cong, they were given to Catholics. U.S. aid went disproportionately to Catholic villages, too.
This led to what historians have deemed “the Buddhist Crisis.” The problem came to a boil in 1963 when Buddhists were prohibited from flying flags in honor of the Buddha’s birthday. A protest led to the death of nine civilians at the hands of the military, which Diem’s government blamed on the Viet Cong. The Buddhists responded with a list of five demands, among which were religious equality, compensation for the 9 victims, and a commitment to hold the murderers responsible.
Diem responded by banning demonstrations, which led to more demonstrations. On June 3, 1963, protesters were tear gassed, leading to 65 injuries. One week later, a Buddhist monk known as Thích Quảng Đức pushed the crisis past the point of no return.
Quảng Đức took his vows at age 15, when he was still known by his birth name, Lâm Văn Túc. Over the course of the next 50 years, he was responsible for the construction of 31 temples throughout the country. That’s quite a legacy, but on June 10 Quảng Đức sat down on a street corner and created his true legacy. Prior to that incident, the monk wrote a note:
Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.
The episode was handled with more media savvy than one might expect for a bunch of Vietnamese Buddhist monks circa 1963. They contacted American journalists the prior day, drawing their attention to an important event that would occur outside of Saigon’s Cambodian embassy. Among those who turned up were photographer Malcolm Browne and New York Times reporter David Halberstam. A procession of 350 Buddhists accompanied a car carrying Quảng Đức, two other monks, a cushion, and five gallons of gasoline.
The monk emerged from the car and sat quietly on the cushion, fingering his prayer beads and chanting “Homage to Infinite Light,” or “Homage to Amitābha Buddha,” while one of his fellow monks doused him in gasoline. He then dropped a lit match into his own lap, but beyond that he never moved. Halberstam wrote:
I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
Malcolm Browne snapped photos, though the incident was caught on film, too. President Kennedy said of Browne’s photograph, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” One photo from the series earned Browne both a Pulitzer prize and the World Press Photo of the Year award.
Quảng Đức’s remains were cremated, yet even after his self-immolation and his cremation his heart remained intact. It is considered a holy relic now and a symbol of compassion. As for Diem, he was assassinated during a coup on November 2, 1963.
So Rage Against the Machine came out swinging with the cover of their first album. Everything the band stood for was captured in Browne’s photograph — the commitment, compassion, steely resolve and defiance, a sense of history. They’d release three more classic albums over the course of their too short career, but none matched the visual intensity of their stunning debut.