Textu(r)al Undercoding & the Music of the Rock Band Rush: String Quartets, Death Metal, Trip-Hop and Other Tributes

Initial Aside: This paper was originally presented at the University of Alberta’s Augustana University College in 2002 and at NYU’s ’80s Music Conference in 2003. It excludes the type of bibliographical references otherwise included in my dissertation and elsewhere. Relevant musical examples and a bibliography appear on the Handout. All of the music mentioned in this paper can be found on YouTube. In some cases, a “real” music video is even available. Be aware, though, that there are numerous tribute versions of Rush songs and (in some cases) various live versions by Rush itself. However, I do actually talk about some tribute versions of Rush songs near the end of the paper, and those versions are undoubtedly more difficult to find. In any case, check carefully that you’ve found the right thing!

Before the show in a crowded arena, a man in his thirties spots an old friend and yells across to him: “Dude—I totally fucking knew you’d be here! It’s been a really long time.” In their teens, these men bonded musically, but afterwards they moved on—into careers and long-term relationships. Similar white males in their 20s, 30s, and 40s comprise about two-thirds of the audience for this Music, but the audience also includes blacks, Asians, Latinos, indigenous persons, women, teenagers, small groups, couples, and families. As the show begins, the stream of music careens among the power chords of heavy metal, the emotive riffs and solos of hard rock, and the structural and metrical complexities of progressive rock. Much of the audience sings along, but a large number also “play along” on air-bass, air-guitar, air-keyboards, and, especially, air-drums. My remix of several versions of one song originally by the rock band Rush indicates that the fans of this music include musicians who play such styles as pop-rock, trip-hop, death metal, alternative-industrial, and classical music.

Geddy Lee’s countertenor singing style and virtuosic bass playing, Alex Lifeson’s precise-yet-tuneful guitar playing, and Neil Peart’s elaborately constructed drumming and semi-literary lyrics comprise the central features of music by the Toronto-based rock band Rush, which began in its earliest form in 1968. Most rock critics considered Rush’s music [“pretentious boredom,”] but Rush fans generally held that the band taught musicians to [“grow and improve themselves.”] This latter pedagogical sentiment reflects what I call the “post-counterculture.” Among other things, the 1970s and ’80s fostered individual efficacy, differentiated interests, professionalism, technique, business acumen, libertarianism, technological prowess, and several types of neo-conservatism, not all of them necessarily “right-wing.” These elements provided a context for the post-industrial reconstitution of the working and middle classes. To account for this, in the late 1980s Ralph Whitehead coined the terms “New Collar” (as in, updated blue-collar) and “Bright Collar” (as in, updated white-collar). Basically, New Collars are working class “shop” folks who ended up using automated machines and computerized tools in their work; Bright Collars are middle class “office” folks who ended up largely dealing in “information management.”
These groups represented vastly larger populations than the “yuppies” and “preppies” of the same period.

Most New Collars and Bright Collars listened mainly to rock music, such as Led Zeppelin, Yes, Styx, and many other artists. Several million of these rock fans played music themselves (mostly as amateurs), and about the same number of them listened to Rush. By 2003, despite having had only one U.S. Top 40 hit (in 1982), Rush had sold 40 million copies of twenty-seven albums and about 15 million concert tickets. My fan research indicates that musician-fans comprise about two-thirds of Rush’s one million hardcore fans. The band continued to synthesize its musical/cultural identity over several decades, which reinforced its pedagogical status among these fans. Rush retained certain tendencies, such as individualism, instrumental virtuosity, and a “modular” approach to song construction. However, it also engaged with other musical styles (such as post-punk, new wave, jazz-rock, synth-pop, world music, and alternative rock) and with other lyrical themes (such as relationships and the environment). Rush’s lyrics provide important meanings in most of the band’s songs, but the music of individual songs often compellingly addresses otherwise unexplored issues through textural, metrical, rhythmic, tonal, tempo, and dynamic changes.

The three types of rock music most often disparaged by rock critics in the 1970s and ’80s—hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock—in some ways provided aspects of European “classical” compositional practices within recorded and live music-making. Among other things, this involved pre-composed music and complex or extended forms. Certain rock music thus often substituted for classical music’s comparable tendencies, and various specialized musicians’ magazines began to function pedagogically for guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboardists, and others. In the 1980s and early ’90s, most of these magazines regularly featured one or more members of Rush, some eventually placing them in “Honor Rolls” or “Halls of Fame.” Dozens of Rush tribute bands performed in a number of countries, and between 1996 and 2002 three very different Rush tribute albums appeared, spanning progressive hard rock, death metal, and classical string music. However, Rush’s status among rock fans transcended its “musicianly” core. In 1996, a Rolling Stone journalist disclosed that the magazine’s readers had requested a major story on Rush more
often than on any other artist.

Rush formed in Toronto in the late summer of 1968 and included 14-15 year-old guitarist Alex Lifeson and his neighbour and schoolmate, drummer John Rutsey. The band name “Rush” certainly implied “adrenaline rush” or “drug rush,” but throughout the 1970s the band members became increasingly involved in their family lives and thus said very little about the band name’s origin. Slightly later in 1968, guitarist-turned-bassist Geddy Lee (also 15) joined the band, and a fourth member (Lee’s eventual brother-in-law) also temporarily joined. The early band mostly played cover versions of well-known U.K. and U.S. rock songs, initially by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, and others. Rush re-formed in the fall of 1969 and the band picked up on the stylistic eclecticism, high vocals, and distorted electric guitar of the newly-formed U.K. rock band Led Zeppelin. By 1971, Rush played mostly original songs in this hard rock vein, and in that year the Ontario government lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18. Thus, by the fall of 1971 the band could play in bars, instead of mainly at coffee houses, high school dances, and outdoor recreational events. The band’s first full-length concerts of mainly original songs took place in Toronto and Detroit in early 1972. Its first recording, a 1973 single, flopped.

Later in 1973, Rush booked off-peak recording time in Toronto to make a full-length album for a total cost of $9000. Rush’s eventual co-producer Terry Brown, a U.K. expatriate who had earlier worked with a number of well-known groups in the U.K., helped the band complete the album. The self-titled album, Rush, was released in Canada as an independent record in early 1974. It combines Led Zeppelin’s acoustic/electric rock eclecticism with boogie/blues hard rock, the latter more in the style of new U.S. bands such as KISS and ZZ Top. The album’s best-known song, “Working Man” (written in 1971), appealed to suburban working class rock fans. Import copies of the debut album made it to Cleveland, Ohio’s flagship rock radio station (WMMS) in the spring of 1974, its programmer Donna Halper championed it (especially “Working Man”), and the band suddenly had a much larger audience. The band started to play as an opening act at important rock shows, and Cliff Burnstein of the U.S. label Mercury Records signed the band to an album deal and re-released the debut album in the U.S. In the late-summer of 1974, just before the band’s first major tour (when it often opened for KISS), St. Catharines, Ontario native Neil Peart replaced Rutsey. By the end of the band’s first tour, the debut album had become Mercury Records’ biggest-selling U.S. debut.

Rush’s five studio albums from 1975-78 combine the power-based aspects of heavy metal with bluesy hard rock and some metrical and structural complexities from progressive rock. The band’s breakthrough came with the individualist- and science-fiction-themed 2112 (recorded and released in 1976, U.S. triple platinum in 1995). The band’s two most musically progressive studio albums appeared in 1977 and 1978. These included individualist/explorer mini-epics, an anthem of diversity, an extended title suite about bridging Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies, a libertarian anthem called “The Trees” that rejects social principles of uniformity and patriarchy, and a dream-inspired epic instrumental, “La Villa Strangiato.”

By the late 1970s, Rush became a headlining act in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and it quickly graduated to large arena venues. The band’s success enabled it to base its activities in Canada and, in a decidedly libertarian and post-countercultural move, to run its own business—Toronto’s Anthem Records. The band also mostly recorded in Canada. In the early 1980s, Rush toned down its somewhat heavy-handed individualism as well as its inclusion of extended compositions. The band continued as “progressive,” but also in the sense of exploring influences from various other kinds of music, especially post-punk (itself influenced by reggae), plus jazz-rock and synth-rock. Rush’s second breakthrough came in the early-1980s, with the pair of studio albums Permanent Waves (1980) and Moving Pictures (1981, the band’s biggest-seller, U.S. quadruple platinum in 1995), the band’s second live album (Exit . . . Stage Left, 1981), and its ninth studio album (Signals, 1982). These albums include succinctly individualist songs, the band’s last mini-epic, several FM rock staples (including “The Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer”), a Grammy-nominated instrumental, an ode to suburbia, and the band’s only U.S Top 40 hit—the synth-pop- and new wave-influenced “New World Man.” In 1981, Geddy Lee also provided the vocals for Bob and Doug McKenzie’s (“SCTV”) comedy song “Take Off [to the Great White North].”

On its three studio album from 1984 to ’87 Rush successfully combined its ongoing inclination towards hard rock and progressive rock with synthesizers, samplers, and other music technology. Then, on its four studio albums from 1989 to ’96, it often re-addressed its eclectic/hard rock sound. From 1998 to 2000, the band largely went on sabbatical because of the deaths in 1997 and 1998 of the daughter and spouse of drummer-lyricist Neil Peart. It reunited in 2001 to make its 17th studio album, Vapor Trails (2002), and to tour once again in arenas and amphitheatres across North America. By 2004, the band had sold about 40 million copies of its twenty-seven albums. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Rush won eight Juno awards, as well as numerous additional Canadian music industry and civic honours. As for the U.S., only a dozen groups have longer series of gold, platinum, or multi-platinum albums than Rush’s twenty-two such albums.

The very first song of the 1980s opens Rush’s album Permanent Waves, which was released on January 1st, 1980. This song, “The Spirit of Radio,” inscribes an open-minded approach both to modern rock radio and to music technology. Some of the song’s gestures inscribe a raw energy that fits with the aesthetic of late-’70s’ post-punk. The song’s title refers quite specifically to the Toronto-area modern rock radio station, CFNY (named to refer to New York City). The song’s lyrics indicate that Rush listened to such modern rock music, including post-punk, new wave, gloom rock, synth-pop, and other late-’70s styles. The song also musically combines the band’s 1970s-style use of modal chords and harmony with post-punk major/minor techniques. I’ll play Verse 2, the Chorus, and Verse 3. See the Handout—column 1 of the form-chart on page 2.

After these sections, the song’s ending then functions as a conflicted meditation on the necessity of musical/cultural change. Neil Peart’s lyrics parody part of the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s mid-1960’s song “The Sounds of Silence.” The update accuses the music industry of focusing too narrowly on “the words of the profits.” Thus, according to Rush, music industry executives certainly fail to live up to Paul Simon’s subway/tenement “prophets.” In the Rush song section that refers to this Simon & Garfunkel song, Geddy Lee sings in his natural chest voice, which contributes a laid-back vocal quality, coded as complacent or inevitable. Musically, the band conforms more to a “stripped down” (less busy) aesthetic, featuring stylized back-beats and pseudo-reggae/post-punk steel-drum sounds. As the second pseudo-reggae section attacks the nasty music industry, Lee sarcastically spits out the word “salesmen” and Alex Lifeson’s angry, bluesy, wah-wah solo evokes a chattering argument.

After this fast/active/angry caricature, the band incorporates a second, more substantial reprise of the song’s main unison, hard rock ascent. However, a comparatively simple “rock ’n’ roll” piano part joins in to further heighten the stylistic ambiguity. Rush did sometimes use keyboards in the mid- to late-’70s, but for occasional melodic, timbral, or textural reasons—not for something like this. I begin my excerpt at the initial pseudo-reggae style shift and continue through the ending of the song. See column 2 of the form-chart, starting at “reggae insert 1.” The printed musical example picks up just after the guitar solo. These closing gestures may suggest that Rush wishes to assert a hard rock victory over the other styles with which it just engaged. However, it seems more likely that the band meant to suggest that post-punk, hard rock, and so on should all be combined.

Rush’s song “Tom Sawyer,” from 1981’s Moving Pictures, features an unusual time signature, 7/4, within its middle instrumental section. This section initially centres around a descending pattern on a Minimoog synthesizer, but it soon becomes “traditional Rush,” with Lee taking over his own synth pattern on bass guitar in order to support Lifeson’s guitar solo. To get back to the earlier music, the band restates the four-chord “swagger” riff that also underscores the song’s verses. This slows the song’s rhythmic feel back down, but the riff section now features Peart’s drumming prowess more prominently. Verse 2 refers to the notion of neither god nor government being worthy of one’s mind and also to “change” as a permanent strategy.

The song’s underlying swagger riff comprises a “short-long-short-long” gesture in which different fully-voiced chords emerge from identical recurring low notes. See my form-chart on page 3 of the Handout. The first printed musical example shows the 7/4 pattern that underlies the instrumental section, and the second example includes the swagger riff as it underlies the verses. In this song, Rush positions itself as an updating of Mark Twain’s famous young misfit. The combination of individual and collective gestures also exemplifies this. Both “The Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer” remain staples of album-oriented rock radio today, including Toronto’s Q-107, Los Angeles’ KLOS, and Edmonton’s “The Bear.”

The mini-tributes to Rush by its Toronto compatriots the Barenaked Ladies include the swagger riff of “Tom Sawyer” and the energy riff of “The Spirit of Radio.” You may also detect the reference to Vince Guaraldi’s 1964 “Peanuts” music, “Linus and Lucy.” The Barenaked Ladies’ song that refers to this and to the two Rush songs is “Grade 9,” from their 1992 album Gordon. Obviously, this song constructively parodies the socially awkward early years of high school for “geeky” aspiring musicians with eclectic, non-mainstream tastes in music.

In 1998, Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” appeared in three major U.S. motion pictures: The Waterboy, Whatever, and Small Soldiers. The CD soundtrack of Small Soldiers includes DJ Z-Trip’s trip-hop remix of the song, which leaves out many of the original song’s more overt progressive rock elements in favour of various sectional and chord re-sequencings, turntable scratching and other percussion elements, studio effects on Lee’s voice, panning effects, and speech samples. Z-Trip also considerably abbreviates the original’s 7/4 middle section, erases its guitar solo in favour of more extensive synthesizer-based sounds, and extends the repeating 7/4 Minimoog pattern in order to make it conform to two units of the much more normal time signature 4/4.

The following year, in 1999, U.S. band Disarray’s death metal version of “Tom Sawyer” appeared on the album Red Star: Tribute to Rush. Although very different stylistically from the trip-hop remix, it similarly modifies Rush’s instrumental section by removing the guitar solo and by extending the repeating pattern to two units of 4/4 time. Disarray generally takes the song at a somewhat faster tempo than Rush’s original, but it considerably slows down the instrumental section. Then, the tempo suddenly snaps back up for Verse 2.

In his 1980 U.S. #1 hit, Billy Joel suggested that “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” Arguably, this song’s appropriation of and homage to the rock ’n’ roll pedigree of post-punk music reflects a certain degree of textual/stylistic overcoding. If anything, the point of Joel’s song is a little too obvious. By comparison, Rush’s musical undercoding in the 1980 #51 song “The Spirit of Radio” and the 1981 #44 song “Tom Sawyer” led to an ongoing engagement with those songs. The points of these Rush songs are less obvious and, therefore, more interesting to discuss. David Brackett similarly discusses Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ 1965 #1 pop hit “This Diamond Ring” and Wilson Pickett’s 1965 #21 rhythm-and-blues/soul classic “In the Midnight Hour.” Regarding “The Spirit of Radio,” other than the Barenaked Ladies’ reference to the song’s energy riff, from 1994 to 2002 U.S. violinist Rachel Barton, additional U.S. string musicians, U.S. heavy metal band Premonition, and the British alternative bands Catherine Wheel, St. Etienne, and Rosetta Stone all engaged with aspects of that song. Regarding “Tom Sawyer,” other than the Barenaked Ladies’ reference to the song’s swagger riff and the trip-hop remix and death metal versions just discussed, in the early 2000s samples from it underscored a Nissan Maxima TV ad and the band Deadsy released a progressive-industrial version.

Rush used relatively subtle classical elements in a few songs between 1985 and ’93, including a wordless choir, a brass section, and several string sections. This sort of thing dates to the late-1960s and early-’70s (the U.K. band Procol Harum, for example), but it has also recently enjoyed something of a revival—Metallica’s S&M, the 2003 Grammy awards ceremony, and so on. A different sort of fusion—spearheaded by the Finnish four-cello ensemble Apocalyptica—<involves fully translating hard rock songs into something more like classical music. As far as I know, the first recorded instance of translating a Rush song entirely into classical instrumentation appears on Chicago-based classical violinist Rachel Barton’s cleverly-named 1998 Stringendo album Storming the Citadel. Barton grew up listening to rock music, still liked some of it, and wanted to play it—but her way. In her string trio translation of “The Spirit of Radio,” she effectively uses “pizzicato” (plucked string) technique to convey the stripped-down, reggae-influenced elements of the original song’s ending. She skips Lifeson’s guitar solo, however, and goes directly into the song’s rock ’n’ roll-inflected ending, including textural approximations of the percussive piano part.

The 2002 album Exit . . . Stage Right: The String Quartet Tribute to Rush references the title, cover, and song order of Rush’s second live album of five, 1981’s Exit . . . Stage Left. See the album covers on page 4 of the Handout. Nashville-based producer-musician Todd Mark Rubenstein applied multi-track recording, sampling, and similar studio technology to “beef up” his string transcriptions of the original elements. The album’s opening track provides a classical-type version of “The Spirit of Radio” to compete with Barton’s. Unlike Barton’s version, though, it includes an approximation of Lifeson’s chattering guitar solo—not a very convincing approximation in my estimation, as electric guitars facilitate numerous things that acoustic violins do not. Barton’s earlier version of “The Spirit of Radio” succeeds better than this one, because she arranged for live string trio what Rush plays with a live rock trio. On the other hand, in 2002 the U.S. Recording Academy accepted a first-round nomination for Exit . . . Stage Right for the “Best Pop Instrumental Album” Grammy—an odd category given the hard rock origins of the music, and also odd given that Rush itself never won a Grammy (although second-rounded twice). Revealingly, of the sixteen artists with series of at least twenty-two gold or platinum albums in the U.S., the four never to have won a Grammy reflect only two categories: country singers Hank Williams Jr. and George Strait and hard rock bands KISS and Rush.

Unlike all rock-oriented Rush tribute songs, Barton’s arrangement of “The Spirit of Radio” and the dozen arrangements on Exit . . . Stage Right present nothing equivalent to Neil Peart’s drumming or lyrics. However, without those seemingly central elements Rush’s music from 1975-81 still translates quite well into the classical medium. This results from the band’s “classic” period of especially progressive-oriented influences—elaborate solos and instrumental sections as well as varied textures, rhythms, time signatures, instrumentations, and dynamics. Robert Walser indicates that heavy metal musicians often drew on resources made available [“through mass mediation and their own historical study”] in order to create dramatic, noisy interpretations of time-honoured classical music. Rock tribute artists accomplish something similar in finding variable, refractive, distorted, and disruptive meanings in recent non-classical music. In an unexpected breadth of dialogue concerning the music of Rush, tribute artists hail from a field of activities itself inscribing considerable ideological and literal noise. As we have seen, this includes the electronic sounds and digital manipulations of trip-hop, the distortions and demonic vocals of death metal, and even the bows-on-strings noise of classical music.

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