Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 21 /
In 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love...', Jon Rogers reflects on his favourite songs by Canadian prog rock band Rush
Whilst most famously known as a rock act the Canadian trio' Rush’s music has certainly evolved over the years.
At their start in 1968 they were certainly cast in the blues-based heavy rock mould, an image cemented by their eponymous debut album in 1974. Quickly they built up a loyal following attracted to their songs based on fantasy and adventure in a Dungeons and Dragons-style, often with a literary or philosophical bent that raised the band out of the ordinary prog rock. A more mature band slowly started to develop with 'A Farewell to Kings' in 1977 and the incorporation of a softer touch and the use of synthesizers. By the early 1980s they were hardly recognisable from their earlier pomp rock era.
The trio of Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart may be something of the band snobbish critics love to hate , but they are still going strong and have amassed something in the region of 40 million album sales. So, they must be doing something right.
‘2112 – Overture’ (1976)
Pretty much most of the band's early output can really be discarded - pretentious and bombastic prog rock, along with shrill vocals singing about 'Necromancers', 'By-Tor and The Snow Dog' and the stuff of fantasy and legend. Pretty much all terrible. The opening section to the 20-minute title track '2112', however, proves the exception to the rule.
The song cycle itself is some fantasy hokum about a futuristic world that has outlawed music whereupon the intrepid hero discovers a guitar. Or something like that. The virtually wordless intro hurtles along at a cracking pace, complete with guitar solo naturally, and the listener cannot help but be propelled along with its sense of urgency and vitality. Then it all comes crashing down with the sound of a bomb going off (presumably a nuclear one) and the ominous phrase: "And the meek shall inherit the earth"... before the band launch in the second section 'The Temples of Syrinx' which is almost as good.
‘Closer to the Heart’ (1977)
After the rather indulgent '2112' the band then relocated to Rockfield Studios in Wales, the south Wales location perhaps having a rather telling impact on the band. All summed up in the album title of 'A Farewell to Kings' which saw the trio take on a softer edge.
While the literary and fantasy motifs and lyrical concerns remained -
'Xanadu' and 'Cygnus X-1' - the heavy duty rock posturing was (largely) out with the band taking a new turn. 'Closer to the Heart' mixed up a tender love song with the call for "the men who hold high places" to "mould a new reality." While the band certainly had written short songs before they were mostly known for indulgent 10-minute plus songs. For them, writing a succinct three-minute song was rather radical.
‘The Trees’ (1978)
Something of a controversial song certainly amongst some of the more hot-headed critics who have used the lyrics to indicated a right-wing bias in the group with the song being seen as an analogy of the struggle between the maples and the oaks in the forest as a metaphor for class struggle and the sarcastic tone of the ending where the "noble law" was passed and "the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw".
It's an interpretation lyricist Peart has denied about this song which appears on their 1978 album ‘Hemispheres’, telling 'Modern Drummer' in 1980: " It was just a flash. I was working on an entirely different thing when I saw a cartoon picture of these trees carrying on like fools. I thought, 'What if trees acted like people?' So I saw it as a cartoon really, and wrote it that way. I think that's the image that it conjures up to a listener or a reader. A very simple statement."
This listener tends to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Whatever your view on the song you can't deny its power to enthral though.
The obvious choice to pick from their 1980 album ‘Permanent Waves’, released on New Year's Day, is the opener 'The Spirit of Radio' with its rather commercial overtones. So in the spirit of the song this critic will use his free will and pick this.
Deciding to move back to Quebec to record instead of South Wales, the epic song cycles were dropped, including a half-baked idea by Peart to use the story of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' as lyrical inspiration.
While 'The Spirit of Radio' is a crowd-pleaser and opened the band's set for many years it is the more overlooked 'Freewill' that intrigues more. Peart sets out his ideas about the philosophical notion seeing it as a choice rather than a gift bestowed from a creator and that humans are, though, inevitably forced to make choices and even the option of not choosing is, in itself, a choice. And all set off against a blast of a Lifeson solo that sees the accomplished guitarist at his most aggressive.
‘Tom Sawyer’ (1981)
1981's 'Moving Pictures' is the band's artistic high-water mark which is saying something as all three members have a fierce reputation as perfectionists and really the entire album, recorded in Quebec, could go on this list, even 'YYZ'. But the album opener, inspired by the novel by Mark Twain, is perhaps the quintessence of Rush. Even Lee described the song as the band's "defining piece of music...from the early '80s". VH1 even voted the song the 19th best heavy rock song of all time. The song started life as the poem 'Louis the Lawyer' by a friend of the band's, Pye Dubois who gave it to Peart to use and then modified and expanded it with Lifeson and Lee then setting it to music.
'Tom Sawyer' might be their crowning achievement but an honourable mention should go to the rest of the album - the drama of 'Red Barchetta', the light reggae textures of 'Vital Signs', Peart's showpiece 'YYZ' and the epic 'The Camera Eye' as well as 'Limelight'. It was the band at their cleverest, all wrapped up in the three-way visual pun on the cover of the album title.
After the live album 'Exit... Stage Left', the band once again took another sharp turn in direction and entered a period where synthesizers would dominate their sound. While the trio had incorporated the instrument into their songs for some time now with the 1982 album 'Signals' they were pushed to the foreground and Lifeson's guitar, while not neglected, took something of a backseat. '
Subdivisions' sees Peart return to social concerns and in particular youth and the pressure "to conform or be cast out", where the suburbs cannot "soothe the restless dreams of youth". Intelligent lyrics set to some fine synthesizer work from Lee which rather duels with Lifeson's passionate guitar. While the album overall may be a little patchy - notably 'Losing It' is firmly in the filler category - it does contain some wonderful gems.
‘New World Man’ (1982)
Another wonderful gem was the first single from the 'Signals' album which went on to be one of the band's most commercially successful songs ever. It reached the top spot in the Canadian RPM national chart and peaked at #21 in the US but could only make it to #42 in the UK the first time it was released.
Structurally the song is nothing much as it follows a predictable verse-chorus format but lacks any sort of guitar solo. The song is, however, infectious and charges along with slight hints of a reggae pulse at times which the band had been dabbling in over the years as Peart's lyrics urge the people in the first world to look to those in the developing world and learn from their past.
‘Distant Early Warning’ (1984)
The 1984 album 'Grace Under Pressure' marked a dramatic sea-change for the band when the trio, unhappy with the overall sound of 'Signals', ditched their long-standing producer Terry Brown. First option was Steve Lillywhite who then stood the band up in favour of producing Simple Minds and Peter Henderson was given the job to twiddling the knobs behind the desk.
The resulting album is perhaps the band at their darkest as tensions in the ongoing Cold War escalated up and the possibility of an actual war ending in nuclear Armageddon was not such a ridiculous notion. Peart takes those concerns and mulls over the futility of the individual who is powerless to alter anything as the superpowers aim their rockets at one another: "The world weighs on my shoulders/But what am I to do?"
While the band were still playing around with synthesizers, the album is also notable for Lifeson's guitar to make something of a comeback and feature more heavily while changes were also afoot in Lee's singing style. While it had been changing over recent albums ,his high-pitched delivery had put off many potential fans but 'Grace Under Pressure’ now marked a more mature style deeper and more resonant and less screechy.
‘The Big Money’ (1985)
The 1980s were quite a horrible time. Friedmanite economic policies dominated thinking in both Washington and London where Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost and 'greed was good' and conspicuous consumption was all the rage.
The band's critique of corporate power and the power of money is neatly summarised in this 1985 song from the album 'Power Windows'. Which is rather odd for a band that is often criticised for having right-wing sensibilities. The title is taken from the left-wing American author John Dos Passos' novel 'USA'. Peart's lyrics leaves no prisoners in its assault with its final line of "big money got no soul." Not to mention some searing guitar playing from Lifeson.
‘Time Stand Still’ (1987)
The 1987 album 'Hold Your Fire' might have been something of an overall artistic failure for the band and nowadays sounds rather dated in its production values, but the standout track and lead single still passes the time passing test. Which is rather ironic considering it concerns Peart looking back over his time spent in the band and the cost paid spending months at a time either on the road or in a studio and the need to spend time with friends and family.
As with many Rush songs it's cleverly worked out and executed as the trio reject the need for nostalgia but to focus on the present. The song is also notable for the inclusion of Til Tuesday singer Aimee Mann who makes a cameo vocal appearance on the choruses, the first time a person not in the band had sung on one of their songs. Overall, 'Time Stand Still' sees the band at their most pop, which is no bad thing.