A Judgement To Rush
(Sorry Philip, I beat you to this one!)
This past week or so, I have been mostly binge-listening to Rush albums.
I realised after posting my tribute to Neil Peart that I had, in fact, heard comparatively little of Rush's output.
Sure, I was familiar with three of their four classic LPs from the late 70s and early 80s - 2112, A Farewell To Kings and Permanent Waves (having missed 1978's Hemispheres for some historical reason) - but all that I knew of the three albums issued before them and the numerous ones issued afterwards was the occasional track on the 1990 Chronicles double-CD set.
So, with my customary over-ordered obsessiveness, I set to filling in the gaps in my knowledge, helped by the fact that every one of them is on YouKnowWhere.
I was not so obsessed as to include the live sets on my voyage, however; I tend to the view that concert albums are inadequate substitutes for the way that the material was originally intended to be heard, and am enough of a sonic snob to believe that what might be gained in 'excitement' and 'atmosphere' tends strongly to be outweighed by 'poor sound engineering' and 'lousy production'.
So that left me with...count 'em...nineteen albums, which I listened to during every evening (and a couple of afternoons) of this past week whilst doing some long-overdue moderation work on the submissions queue at 45cat (a duty which I have been greatly neglecting for some time).
Now please appreciate that, due to the fact that I was multi-tasking (an increasingly fraught operation in itself nowadays), what follows is in no way an analysis or even an overview of a recording career spanning nearly four decades. Instead, it's little more than a series of impressions and observations:
- Listening to the first (eponymous) album, whilst the style is formulaic and much in the pattern of what was called 'heavy' rock at that time (think Bachman-Turner Overdrive, fellow Canucks), one can still discern something more trying to come out. The second (1975's Caress Of Steel) shows a development into a more expansive style, but this mainly involves the dreaded 'multi-section long track' syndrome (there are two such on the album) where the sub-pieces neither hang coherently together as one concept nor create a whole greater than the sum of them. It does, however, bring us the first classic track in the form of Bastille Day:
- The third LP, Fly By Night saw Rush treading water, musically speaking, containing as it does another multi-part track and (never a good sign) a track called Rivendell. In short, this is the 'heavy prog' phase that we're listening to and - whilst recognising a greater proficiency and sophistication in the music - it fails to engage very much with this particular listener.
- The second and third albums having received poor reviews and achieved poor sales, Mercury Records were on the verge of dumping the band at this stage. Instead of knuckling down and producing a more 'commercial' product, however, Rush - with Neil Peart now having firmly settled in as both drummer and primary lyricist - went all-out in the opposite direction. 2112 had as its title track a more coherent concept, written by Peart, a science-fiction tale of a future world where creativity and individuality have been outlawed. A young man finds a bashed-up guitar in a cave and takes it to the all-powerful priests of the Temple of Syrinx (a deeply ironic title, but the nomenclature of tyrannies often is so, if unconsciously; think of all those 'People's Republics' we used to have about the place). The priests dismiss it, destroy the instrument and banish its discoveror. Side two contains five songs not linked to the concept of the A-side, and the title track marks the first use of keyboards on a Rush album, albeit played by the band's graphic designer Hugh Syme. The gamble paid off, the LP received approving reviews and the band's future was assured.
- With renewed confidence, 1977's A Farewell To Kings begins with the most overtly political track Rush had issued to date. Beginning with a pastoral acoustic guitar, it then morphs into an excoriation not only of the near-alien viciousness of rulers ("scheming demons dressed in kingly guise") but also of the sullen passivity of the ruled ("Eyes cast down on the path of least resistance"). The message was valid at the time; it is so in spades in our convulsed age, and it makes for a strong start to a strong set (I mentioned the beautiful Madrigal last time) and, even though there are two tracks over ten minutes in length, both are single-concept pieces and thus hang together better than their predecessors.
(A small digression here: the first of those long tracks - Xanadu - contains a slightly bizarre moment where Geddy Lee, instead of singing 'by' and 'sky', instead sings 'boy' and 'skoy'. Still, what else could a nice Jewish boy do?):
- What was clear by now was that Rush were not only musically accomplished but also had developed into the tightest of units. This - along with Peart's growing confidence and imagination in his writing - took the band to a whole new level of attention.
- This was not, however, carried over particularly well on 1978's Hemispheres (which, as I noted way back up there, I seem to have blanked at the time), where Rush resorted to another side-length track - a sequel to Cygnus X-1 from AFTK - which didn't really gel. Nor did the nine-minutes-plus La Villa Strangiato on the flip side. The album did, however, contain the political allegory of The Trees which - despite Peart's denials - is clearly about a struggle for identity which may represent his native land's attempts to get out from under the domination of both Mother England and their aggressive and self-entitled neighbour to the south, although the final verse suggests that no good will come of it by merely legislative means (Peart's Randianism coming out again):
- Perhaps chastened by the somewhat underwhelming response to Hemispheres (the diehard fans in my own circle didn't rate it particularly highly), Rush returned to their homeland to cut 1980's Permanent Waves in Québec. I admit that it's my favourite Rush album, but I think any more objective listener would agree that it's a work with no significant weaknesses. Indeed, it provided them with their only top-twenty UK single in the lead-off track The Spirit Of Radio. I've previously linked to the sublime Jacob's Ladder, but here's the other track from side one of the LP, Freewill, which again shows us - to a strong musical backing - Peart's philosophical outlook:
- Having thus re-established themselves, they moved on to 1981's Moving Pictures, and from this point on my remarks will become rather less specific because I'm into the previously uncharted territory I referred to at the beginning (and I'm also aware that - despite my earlier disclaimer - I do seem to be giving an overview if not an analysis after all, so I need to reign things in a bit to avoid an abuse of position).
- Moving Pictures was, according to Peart, the album where everything came together fully for the first time, and it's not hard to hear why, containing as it does a line-up of classic tracks on side one: the anthemic Tom Sawyer (with lyrics knocked into shape by Peart from the original ideas of their friend and compatriot Pye Dubois), and always a live favourite; the storming instrumental YYZ; Limelight, in which the lyricist addresses the difficulty of a deeply reticent man having to deal with the exposure brought about by his new fame; but I'll lead you to Red Barchetta, another science-fiction short story in song form in which motor vehicles have been outlawed, and our protagonist visits his elderly uncle who has a forbidden old sports car, which the young man takes on an illicit drive and nearly comes to grief (the point at which the drive begins - at about 2:30 in this clip - is a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-raising moment, giving us one of Alex Lifeson's most celebrated riffs):
- By the time Signals was released in 1982 (and it's worth noting that after just eight years of their recording career, the band had released nine studio albums and two double LPs of live recordings; they were reticent as people, but certainly not as musicians), the keyboards - played now by Lee - had begun to take over. Whilst this led to utter classics such as Subdivisions (linked to in my Neil Peart obit), it did seem to diminish the overall force of their sound, and whilst it and its successors through the eighties - 1984's Grace Under Pressure, 1985's Power Windows, Hold Your Fire (1987) and Presto (1989) didn't damage their standing, they by and large didn't enhance it much either; although Neil Peart's lyrics were becoming deeper and more thoughtful, the music they were put to didn't show a great deal of development. Indeed, there are a number of tracks in this period in which they seemed to be trying to sound like another power trio, namely The Police. But at least during this period, Geddy Lee - perhaps out of necessity - toned down the high-pitched vocal style with which he had become associated and sang more often in a normal register.
- There's one track from this period which I exempt from criticism, and that's Show Don't Tell from Presto. In it, Lifeson's guitar drives the whole thing - showing that they still knew how to rock out - and Peart's desire for hard-headed objectivity in dealing with the issues of the real world comes through in the lyrics:
- There was an unusually long gap between Presto and its successor Counterparts, a four-year period in which they still released yet another live set. What was clear in 1993 was that the guitars had returned to something like their old prominence (indeed, there are occasional nods towards the sorts of guitar sounds which had been coming out of places such as Seattle in the preceding years) and although neither Counterparts nor its successor Test For Echo (1997) blazed new trails, they maintained Rush's reputation for powerful music put to conveying lyrics which were erudite and profound, but expressed in a sufficiently direct (if still poetic) manner as to ward off any accusations of pretentiousness.
- It was right after the conclusion of the tour in support of Test For Echo, of course, that Neil Peart suffered the first of the two tragedies which struck his family with the death of his daughter in a road accident. This, followed by the next year's death of his wife from cancer, caused the band to go on an open-ended hiatus while their drummer-lyricist tried to work out his grief.
- It was to be four years before the band reconvened and, whilst it might be natural to expect the lyrics to be more melancholy - informed as they were likely to be by the experiences of their creator - in fact the words to be found in the songs of Vapor Trails are, on the whole, surprisingly optimistic. What was also somewhat unforeseen was that - for the first time in two-and-a-half decades - there were no keyboards at all on the album (apparently Lifeson ordered Lee not to use them). That meant that the sound was all the standard rock guitar-bass-drums-vocals line-up, and this made for a very powerful sound...
- ...except that a misjudgement in the mastering left the sound over-loud (this was part of the so-called 'loudness war' which had afflicted rock music recording for years). It wasn't until a substantial remix a decade later that Vapor Trails could be heard as it should.
- 2007's Snakes & Arrows found Rush in much the same mood (although a Mellotron did sneak in) and whilst, again, it didn't push anything much further than its predecessor, it still maintained a standard and was still, undeniably, Rush. The power was there, the lyrics were becoming ever more philosophical (mostly in a more accepting, almost serene, manner) and the virtuosity of the playing assured.
- At this point, I want to show you this video. It dates from about 2010, and shows the guys enjoying a very convivial dinner somewhere. As the evening wears on, the hilarity increases, but never to the point of grossness; these were three men who were never part of the culture of trashing hotel rooms and groupies, preferring quiet lives out of the limelight with their families. What is clear - most movingly so in the light of this month's news - is that these three musicians were more than just a band, but were blood brothers and had an obvious deep affection for one another (because only good friends can josh with one another like this):
- Having slept it off, the band reconvened for what was to turn out to be their last studio effort, 2012's Clockwork Angels. This was the only album in their thirty-eight years of recording which was a complete concept from start to finish, a musical Bildungsroman about a boy growing up in a steampunk-type world who had "...big dreams, and needed a big place to explore them: the whole wide world".
- Although united by the one overarching concept, the album is musically diverse, and the old strengths are there in abundance.
- A fitting end to a long and storied career, although of course we didn't know that at the time. But, having toured the album and then done another round of gigs to mark the fortieth anniversary of their first LP, Neil Peart started to suffer from tendinitis to such an extent that playing had become a constant battle against pain. So he announced his retirement from the band in late 2015. The remaining pair didn't immediately announce the cessation of the band's activities; that wouldn't follow until early 2018 when it would have been known to them (but to few others) that their buddy was suffering from an incurable cancer.
- And so the legend ended.
- Looking back at all the guff that I've written here (and please comfort yourselves with the knowledge that you are only ever going to have to read it once), I'm aware that in skipping lightly over the last thirty years' output of Rush I may have done them a grave disservice. In fact, I know I have.
- Let this be said clearly: Rush never made a bad album. Their mis-steps were few and they always bounced back from them.
- So what is their legacy? That three (not forgetting original drummer John Rutsey, who was a more than capable exponent of the skins) musicians of remarkable individual talents combined for forty years to produce rock music which was powerful, inventive and thought-provoking. Geddy Lee's bass licks and (when he wasn't on helium) vocals have been expressive and inventive throughout; Alex Lifeson is perhaps the most under-regarded guitarist in rock history, combining a deftness of touch with an ability to let rip in such a way as to enhance the whole song rather than just show off; and in Neil Peart they had not only a drummer who every other drummer looked up to, but also a lyricist of poetic subtlety and philosophical depth which places him amongst the most important figures in rock.
- Where do they stand in the great pantheon? Well, they're certainly up there, and the debate as to where in the top five or six they stand will continue as long as their music continues to be heard. As it will do.
- Let me end with The Garden, the closing track from that last album, a fitting summing-up of a life, and a triumphant elegy to all that has been, all that has gone: