What happened when Rage Against The Machine were banned by Saturday Night Live

Rage Against The Machine in May 1996, standing in front of an inverted American flag
(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen)

Launched in 1975, NBC’s sketch comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live has a long history of embracing musicians, from those who behave themselves and get asked back – Dave Grohl has been a guest a record 14 times – to those who don't behave, and don't return.

Most famously, in 1992 Sinead O'Connor was banned after tearing up a picture of the Pope on the show, in protest at the Vatican's reluctance to address the problem of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The following year, marijuana enthusiasts Cypress Hill were barred for lighting up onstage. And as long ago as 1981, LA punk icons The Germs were banned after a riotous set during which SNL producer Dick Ebersol was struck by a pumpkin. 

With Rage Against The Machine, things were a little different, They appeared on the show on April 13, 1996, and were banned after an incident no one watching at home ever saw. 

The booking came three days before the release the RATM's second album, Evil Empire. They were scheduled to play two songs: Bulls On Parade, which had been released as a single two months earlier, and the classic Bullet In The Head. Lined up to introduce the Marxist-friendly RATM was ultra-conservative billionaire host Steve Forbes, a move that the show's producers would come to regret. 

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. 

"The inverted flags represented our contention that American democracy is inverted when what passes for democracy is an electoral choice between two representatives of the privileged class, guitarist Tom Morello later explained to Rock Out Against Censorship. "America's expression is inverted when you're free to say anything you want to say until it upsets a corporate sponsor. Finally, this was our way of expressing our opinion about the show's host, Steve Forbes."

A Saturday Night Live staffer was able to remove the flags just as Forbes made his introduction, and the band tore into an incendiary version of Bulls On Parade, their searing critique of US military policy. 

As soon as RATM left the stage and entered the green room, the show's producer Marcie Klein – Calvin Klein's daughter – told the band they had to leave the building immediately, without playing Bullet In The Head. Infuriated, RATM bassist Tim Commerford ripped up one of the flags and stormed Forbes' dressing room, where he hurled the remnants at the billionaire's entourage. 

"SNL censored Rage, period," said Morello. “They could not have sucked up to the billionaire more. The thing that's ironic is SNL is supposedly this cutting-edge show, but they proved they're bootlickers to their corporate masters when it comes down to it. 

"They're cowards. It should come to no surprise that GE, which owns NBC, would find Bullet particularly offensive. GE is a major manufacturer of US planes used to commit war crimes in the Gulf War, and bombs from those jets destroyed hydroelectric dams which killed thousands of civilians in Iraq."

We'll leave the last word to drummer Brad Wilk, to sum up the largely baffling appeal of SNL which, somehow, is still on air all these years later.

"It would have been another thing if that show had been really funny," says Wilk. "But I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup with orange juice and shit out better skits than I saw that night."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.