Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (forthcoming book)

The book comes out in November 2014, but you can pre-order it now!

Introduction: Why Rush?

The Canadian rock band Rush has mainly explored an eccentric, album-oriented “progressive hard rock” style, sometimes bridging it with heavy metal (especially in the 1970s), new wave and synth rock (1980s), and alternative rock (1990s-2000s).  In its music, lyrics, and career path, Rush has remained stubbornly individualist, and its several dozen albums (45 million sold) and major concert tours have appealed to musicians and others interested in certain types of structural complexities and serious issues.  The group continued to pursue its own path well into the 2000s and in 2013 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  The band comprises Geddy Lee (bass guitar, vocals, and keyboards), Alex Lifeson (electric and acoustic guitars), and Neil Peart (drums & percussion and lyrics).

Chapter 1: “Finding My Way,”
From Blues-Rock to Arty Hard Rock, 1974-75

Rush emerged as an early example of a power trio (guitar/bass/drums) and initially focused on a combination of heavy blues-rock and boogie-blues.  The group independently released its debut album, Rush (1974), then a new drummer-percussionist replaced the band’s original one and helped solidified its interest in pursuing the hard-rock potential of “arty” British progressive rock.  Rush’s Fly by Night and Caress of Steel (both 1975) explore such areas as:  extended songs, lengthy sections of instrumental interplay, “poetic” lyrics, and unusual textures and rhythms.

Chapter 2: “Their Own Music,”
Progressive Heavy Metal, 1976-77

For 2112 (1976), Rush decided on a focused, heavy, angry style, and the album provided a major turning-point for the band’s success.  The opening title-work, “2112,” is an extended work of science-fiction, describing a world that outlaws individual contributions—somewhat similar to the socio-political contexts explored in the fictional writings of Ayn Rand.  The album’s other progressive heavy metal songs are more modest in scope and favour such seemingly incompatible things as illegal drugs and a strong work ethic. On A Farewell to Kings (1977), Rush further applied its complex music to strongly-individualist themes, such as within the mini-epics “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1.”

Chapter 3: “The Universe Divided,”
From Progressive Hard Rock to Post-Prog, 1978-80

On Hemispheres (1978) Rush explored sociopolitical themes within an extended/philosophical title work and in other songs (such as “The Trees”), but it also created a fully-instrumental work (“La Villa Strangiato”).  The band’s first “post-progressive” album, Permanent Waves (1980), bridges 1970s’ hard rock (e.g. “Freewill”) with such newer styles as post-punk and new wave rock (e.g., in “The Spirit of Radio”).  Songs on the album address those newer types of music, provide a renewed approach to individualism, and explore the mysteries of the nature and science as metaphors for the complexities of human relationships (“Natural Science”).

Chapter 4: “Modern-Day Warrior,”
User-Friendly Progressive Rock & Moving Pictures, 1981

Rush’s best-selling album, Moving Pictures (1981), begins with the band’s best-known song: “Tom Sawyer,” which is a modernized version of Mark Twain’s 19th-century misfit.  The song includes a prominent guitar-chord progression, as well as an extended instrumental section that includes both a synthesizer component and a guitar solo.  The album’s other “user-friendly” progressive rock songs include:  a near-future “mini-epic” about the pleasures of illegally driving a sports car (“Red Barchetta”), a texturally-varied instrumental named after the code signal for Toronto’s main airport (“YYZ”), and concise reflections on such things as fame (“Limelight”) and intolerance (“Witch Hunt”).

Chapter 5:“Be Cool or Be Cast Out,”
Fusions with Synth Rock and New Wave, 1982-84

On Signals (1982) and Grace under Pressure (1984), Rush more fully explored certain musical areas that it had only tentatively explored in 1979-81:  synth rock and new wave, including electronic drums & percussion and samplers.  In addition, the band released “MTV-style” music videos, such as for songs about:  a young person’s “love/hate” relationship with the suburbs (“Subdivisions”) and living in the era of the Cold War (“Distant Early Warning”).  Other songs address such issues as:  growing up (“The Analog Kid”), mortality (“Afterimage”), and artificial intelligence (“The Body Electric”).

Chapter 6: “Against the Run of the Mill,”
Rock / Technology Balance, 1985-88

Rush felt that Power Windows (1985) and Hold Your Fire (1987) achieved a much more suitable balance of technology and hard rock, but the albums also included collaborations with a string section, a brass band, and the voice of singer-songwriter-bassist Aimee Mann. Additional lyrical themes include mixed feelings concerning corporations (“The Big Money”) and nationalism (“Territories”), the idea of perseverance (“Marathon”), and—not surprisingly—an anxiety over technology (“Manhattan Project”). The music video for “Time Stand Still” incorporates fanciful in-studio effects of unexpected movements, including the participation of Mann.  In most cases, the band used keyboards and samples just for the textures of certain song sections, including a song that incorporates samples of traditional Chinese instruments to underscore lyrics derived from Peart’s bicycle tour there (“Tai Shan”) and another about having a secular-humanist worldview (“Mission”).

Chapter 7: “It’s Hard to Play It Safe,”
New Approaches to being a Power Trio, 1989-95

Into the 1990s, Rush tapered off its use of music technology and returned to a more power trio, guitar-oriented style for Presto (1989), Roll the Bones (1991), and Counterparts (1993).  These were the band’s least-ambiguously hard rock albums since Moving Pictures, but also somewhat close to alternative rock.  On the other hand, the band’s openness to other styles of music also saw it tentatively explore funk-like guitar gestures in several songs (e.g., “Show Don’t Tell”) and a section of rather eccentric “rap music” in another (“Roll the Bones”).  The early 1990s was also the period of some of Rush’s best music videos (e.g. “Stick It Out”), and a number of the band’s songs explored mental/emotional states and/or inter-personal relationships (such as “The Pass,” “Dreamline,” and “Animate”).

Chapter 8: “To the Margin of Error,”
Eclectic Rock, Tragedies & Sabbatical, and Return, 1996-2003

Rush’s Test for Echo (1996) is extremely eclectic, with the title song addressing TV/media content saturation, “Driven” featuring a tightly-constructed riff influenced by the “math rock” that Rush’s earlier music had itself influenced, and other songs concerning geopolitics (“Half the World”), the internet (“Virtuality”), and so on.  Shortly after the band’s 1996-97 tour, Neil Peart’s daughter died in a car crash and his wife then died of cancer, and he responded to the dual tragedies by traveling tens of thousands of miles on his motorcycle and writing a “literary travelogue” book.  The band mainly went on a “sabbatical” from 1998 to 2001, although it did release a fourth live album, following the pattern of four studio albums plus one live album that it had maintained for over twenty years. In the early 2000s, the band resumed its work and made the often-reflective, but still hard rock, album Vapor Trails (2002). It includes such songs as “One Little Victory,” “Ghost Rider,” and “Earthshine.”

Chapter 9: “Some will be Rewarded,”
Getting to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 2004-13

In the new millennium, Rush toured internationally and released several new live albums (and videos).  In addition, Rush made appearances on The Colbert Report (2008) and in the movie I Love You, Man (2009), as well as being the subject of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010). For its 30th anniversary, Rush released an album (Feedback, 2004) of studio-recorded cover versions of eight blues-rock and hard rock songs that had influenced the band as young musicians. It then returned to original music with the aggressive, hard rock album Snakes and Arrows (2007), including the songs “Far Cry,” “Spindrift,” and “Faithless.”  In 2010, Rush released two new songs (“Caravan” and “BU2B” — for “Brought Up to Believe”), which then opened the lyrically-futuristic, progressive hard rock concept album Clockwork Angels (2012).  In 2013, Rush was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Conclusion: “In the Fullness of Time”

Given the band’s uncompromising approach to its music and career, Rush has always produced a kind of “alternative rock.”  Covers of Rush songs range across such areas as:  progressive hard rock, death metal, electronica, classical strings, jazz piano, and world music, so the band clearly influenced a quite wide range of musicians.  However, by avoiding Top 40 and other mainstream styles of music and instead folding various musical and lyrical influences into what it already did, Rush and the band’s music also made sense to millions of fans who adapted and evolved in their own lives.

Writing Sample (from Chapter 4)

You will have noticed that Rush released quite a few lengthy songs between 1974 and 1980.  The band’s fifteen longest songs in that period average 10:43, with two of the longest ones, “2112” (20:34) and “Hemispheres” (18:08) opening the albums named after them.  However, in the same period the group also had twenty-eight songs averaging only 3:56.  In 1980-81, though, Rush became more consistently accessible, opening its albums with distinctive, relatively-short songs.

Moving Pictures (1981) is the band’s best-selling album, eventually selling more than four million copies just in the US.  The album opens with “Tom Sawyer” (4:33), Rush’s best-known song.  It begins in a fairly straightforward manner, with the band at first acting somewhat reserved, in the same way that Mark Twain’s original character sometimes has to interact politely with others.  Geddy Lee’s synthesizer filter-sweep and Neil Peart’s sparse drumming in 2/2, “cut,” or “march-like” time function like a fanfare, immediately marking the song as “different” from any of Rush’s earlier music.  Lee’s vocal introduction describes the song’s modern-day Tom Sawyer as a warrior, with a “mean, mean stride” and a “mean, mean pride.”

The underlying music then changes to follow the idea of stride-meets-pride, mostly through Alex Lifeson’s guitar-chord progression that sounds, appropriately, like a confident “swagger.”  Verse 1 suggests our hero’s “mind is not for rent,” but also clarifies that he doesn’t really mean to be arrogant.  By analogy to the original’s raft, the new Tom Sawyer rides out his life on “the river” of complex, modern society.  Extending the river/raft analogy, the song’s pre-chorus and chorus are more dream-like, with words about mystery; the world, love, and life are “deep,” and the skies are “wide.”  The song also suggests that we are all a part of this depth and wideness, and a new version of the song’s vocal introduction suggests that Tom Sawyer gets his energy from “you”—as in, anyone listening.

An extended instrumental section further explores the ideas of confidence, depth, and looking outside of ourselves.  It features one of the band’s uses of an unusual time signature:  7/4, instead of the rest of the song’s much more normal-sounding 2/2.  The section begins with Lee’s descending melodic pattern on a synthesizer.  However, it soon becomes “traditional Rush,” when he takes over his own pattern on bass guitar, in order to support Lifeson’s guitar solo.  The solo is quite complex, with unexpected leaps and rhythms and with string-bends alternating with fast patterns.  The solo ends when Lifeson joins in with Lee’s underlying pattern; and Peart’s drumming also sort of matches them.  As with Twain’s Tom Sawyer, sometimes we have to do our own thing in eccentric counterpoint to what others are doing, and sometimes we have to come together and do much the same thing as everyone else.

To get back to the song’s earlier music (and “cut” time), the band restates the “swagger” progression.  However, this time it features Peart’s drumming prowess quite prominently, in a kind of “mini drum solo.”  Verse 2 refers to the quite libertarian notion of neither god nor government being worthy of our modern Tom Sawyer’s mind and also to the idea of him being “hopeful, yet discontent” and having change as a permanent, overall strategy.  The instrumental verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all then each happen one more time, but note that the words of the pre-chorus and chorus are changed slightly.

An expanded, ending version of the vocal “introduction” then prepares the song’s exit, so that we can all get on with “the friction of the day.”  Tellingly, the song ends with a version of its 7/4 instrumental section.  The ending grooves along, but it also fades out—as though we’re all drifting away on modern-day river-rafts, while also still managing to cause some mischief of our own.  (Indeed, the album’s very next song is a near-future one about the pleasures of illegally racing around the countryside in a powerful and well-preserved sports car.)  Of course, we’re meant to understand that Rush itself is one of many possible, modern-day Tom Sawyers.  But so are you!

3 thoughts on “Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (forthcoming book)

    • The book is well under way now. It will need to go through content editing, proofreading, etc. at the press around February or March. So, it will probably see the light of day around mid-to-late 2014.

  1. Pingback: “Experiencing Rush” – book update | Durrell Bowman

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