Behind the Meaning of the Politically-Charged “Bulls On Parade” by Rage Against The Machine

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Rage Against The Machine has long been known for its politically-charged records, and if you needed any confirmation of that statement, just take another look at the band’s name. Each band member—guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk, and vocalist Zack de la Rocha—are bona fide rockers with no problem saying exactly what’s on their minds. 

So, in an attempt to take a page out of RATM’s book of keepin’ it real, let’s take a closer look at the meaning behind one of the band’s most streamed songs: “Bulls On Parade” (1996). 

The Overarching Meaning of “Bulls On Parade”

“Bulls On Parade” is a commentary on military spending by the United States. RATM laments, protests, and rages against what the band members perceive to be an egregious amount of money spent on building up the military.

Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war, cannibal animal, de la Rocha sings.

And as far as the title, “Bulls On Parade,” the phrase is included in the song’s outro and is likely a reference to the “bull market.” A bull market is when the stock market is seeing share prices rising which usually prompts an increase in buying. So, by associating the U.S. government with a bull market, RATM is implying that the government is on a buying spree. Further, the animal itself is known for its aggressive nature and is still used in Spanish bullfighting events.

The Details

The song runs just under four minutes and includes two pointed verses steeped with allusions. In the first verse, de la Rocha references a “de la O” in the hilariously confrontational line, either drop the hits like de la O or get the fuck off the commode. The “de la O” character is a reference to Genovevo de la O who was a general in the guerrilla force called the Liberation Army of the South. This army was focused on fighting for rural land reform in Mexico, and acts as somewhat of a counter-aggressor in “Bulls On Parade.”

Another allusion, “that five-sided Fistagon,” is a reference to the U.S. Pentagon and RATM declares it to be the rotten sore on the face of Mother Earth that just gets bigger. The Pentagon, the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense, is another source of greed in the eyes of RATM’s “Bulls On Parade.”

And finally, the chorus is saturated with lyrical barbs. 

Rally ’round the family with a pocket full of shells
They rally ’round the family with a pocket full of shells.

On one hand, RATM is pointing out the irony of government officials who proclaim to be both “pro-family” and “pro-war.” And perhaps more grossly, the chorus partially mimics the cadence of the dark nursery rhyme “Ring Around The Rosie.” Read more about the history of that nursery rhyme HERE.

How It All Came Together 

Logistically speaking, de la Rocha wrote the lyrics for “Bulls On Parade,” and it was produced by Brendan O’Brien and the members of RATM.

“We didn’t know it would be the first single when we started jamming on it,” Morello said in an interview, “but we realized quickly that it was a most potent piece of music. We recorded cassette demos as we wrote and jammed, and Brendan didn’t want to lose any energy as we worked. Our method of working was pretty much ‘jam, roll the cassette tape, then cut the real track.’ Not a lot of time for overthinking and over-tinkering.

“I came up with the wah-wah guitar part,” he continued. “I also came up with the music underneath the verses – I was listening to a lot of Geto Boys back then, so I wanted something dark and sinister…. And Brad [Wilk] worked up that awesome, artillery marching beat. Hands were definitely on deck.”

Morello also gave de la Rocha some credit for the guitar parts and revealed that the singer was actually still writing the lyrics when the band cut the main track. In the end, though, Morello dubbed “Bulls On Parade” to be “a real banger” that sounds “like the world is exploding.”

Photo Courtesy of Legacy Recordings

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