"Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!": the brutal true story behind Machine Head's Davidian, one of the defining anthems of '90s metal

Davidian video still
(Image credit: Roadrunner Records)

There aren’t many metal albums that better define their era than Machine Head’s classic debut album Burn My Eyes. Released on August 4, 1994, it's a record that shook up a metal scene still reeling from the bloody nose it had received from grunge and alternative rock at the start of the decade, and was arguably one of the first albums inspired by the look and swagger of gangster rap to be embraced by the metal community.

With its fusion of thrash metal riffs, groove rhythms and dark, angry, cynical lyrics documenting societal ills and urban decay, Burn My Eyes felt uniquely fresh upon release. But there was one song that towered above all the rest; inspired by one of the most infamous and shocking massacres of the era and featuring one of metal’s most memorable and often-quoted choruses, album opener Davidian has become the band's definitive anthem. 

According to frontman Robb Flynn, Davidian was one of the final songs written by the Oakland, California band before they were signed to Roadrunner Records. Onstage in London in 2019, Flynn recalled its origins, telling Machine Head's audience, “Logan [Mader, the band's original guitarist] came up with the intro riff and I had this other riff that went good with it, which is a total Exodus rip off: I was like, Fuck it, I’m gonna put some double-bass on that shit and make it sound nothing like Exodus.” 

Once the music was completed, Flynn began to improve lyrics while the band jammed on it. The, now iconic, hook of the song wasn’t included in early versions. In fact, as Flynn subsequently admitted, when the band premiered the song at an Oakland warehouse party, its key lyric was “Get the fuck up to a bone-breaking groove”. Those words had barely left his mouth during that debut unveiling of the song before performance, before Flynn decided that they “fucking suck” and was determined to amend/delete them. In keeping with songs inspired by then-recent events such as the 1992 LA Riots and investigations into abuse by the Catholic Church, Flynn look at giving the song a more socio-political angle, and he wouldn't have to wait long before inspiration struck.

The siege that took place in Waco, Texas from February 28 to April 19 1993, saw state law enforcement officers raid the headquarters of the Brand Davidian religious cult, led by David Koresh. Expecting to undertake a routine search for illegally-owned firearms and serve Koresh with an arrest warrant, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives team were drawn into a brutal gunfight, before cult members torched the compound. When the smoke cleared, 82 Branch Davidians - including 28 children - and four federal officers were dead.

The horrific incident was widely discussed, with many believing the tragedy stemmed from an abuse of power by the state: others who had heard allegations of coercion, abuse and statutory rape levelled against Koresh felt little sympathy at his passing.  

The events in Waco became the new lyrical core of the reworked Davidian . Gone was the cringe-worthy “Get the fuck up to a bone-breaking groove” lyric, and in its place came the line that would come to define the band: “Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast.” Talking to Metal Hammer in 20-20, Flynn admitted, “I don’t want to say it’s political, but songs like Davidian and Block were documenting all the crazy shit that was going on.” 

Upon its release, Burn My Eyes was hailed as an instant classic, its opening track and lead-off single brilliantly setting the record's tone 'Straddling the new '90s metal subject matter of religion, war and injustice, Burn My Eyes is a colossal album, a landmark' declared Q magazine, not known for championing metal bands, in a glowing 4 star review.

Three months later, Machine Head were in Europe opening for Slayer, at the request of guitarist Kerry King, who later revealed that the Oakland quartet were “the only band I’d ever demanded open for Slayer”. In 2022, Robb Flynn acknowledged that the tour was responsible for “launching Machine Head into the stratosphere.” When Machine Head walked onstage at London’s Brixton Academy on December 9, 1994, they were greeted like a headlining band. As drummer Chris Kontos opened the set with that immortal drum roll, Machine Head launched into Davidian, and the roar which greeted “Let freedom ring...” was deafening. One year on, Flynn's band were back in the UK, back in the same venues ... only this time they were the headline attraction. 

Thirty years on, Davidian hasn’t aged a day, in fact the only person who has ever seemed to have any reservation about it was Flynn himself: in the aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting he expressed his reluctance to play the song again

That would have been an understandable position, albeit that Flynn has now had second thoughts, and it shows just how deeply Flynn considers the art he puts out. But as one of the most iconic and recognisable metal songs of the last three decades, the primal roar of Davidian deserves to be heard and screamed far and wide.  

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.