A Canadian Moment with Rush; Prog Dabblers to Mainstream Rock Migration

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Canada’s greatest Prog Rock export from the seventies and probably the biggest well known Canadian rock band name going, not including that kid from Stratford who shall not be mentioned in this blog due to the overwhelming embarrassment he’s brought to himself AND this country. So yes I am talking about Rush, three guys from Ontario that gave us hope in reaching global status and recognition. Sure we had other bands that came out during the sixties and seventies but folk and countrified music just wasn’t cutting it as far as something you can blast through a PA system now is it? Nothing wrong with those bands and they have their rightful place in Canadian music history but as far as a heavier sounding band we needed something that surpassed The Guess Who, Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot. Funny thing too is that it was the state of Ohio that really gave Rush their boost and break, so to the United States I say thank you for a great many things but for this blog, helping Rush make it big.

From their modest beginnings in the mid seventies with Geddy Lee (bass, vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar, backing vocals) and John Rutsey (drums) they played high school dances and parties anywhere they could get their feet in the door. Good on them, because back then it was probably easier than today so step one, right place-right time. Playing covers and whatever else came of it they began to attain a bit of a following and started writing their own music but in Canada in the seventies it really wasn’t going far. It wasn’t until they recorded their first album self titled, RUSH that things began to take shape. But getting airplay in Canada wasn’t as easy as it seemed. So WMMS radio station in Cleveland, Ohio picked up on their album and the song, “Working Man” spoke volumes to the people of the there with huge thanks to DJ Donna Halper who made it a point of incorporating that song in regular playlists.  Still playing high school dances with the likes of Max Webster, (Kim Mitchell’s Alma matter)  they would start touring the province and playing community centres, halls in Canada and slightly over the border, wherever they could but by late 1973, early 1974 the band was already beginning to run in to problems. John Rutsey was showing signs of fatigue from the extensive touring they were doing due to his issues with diabetes so he stepped down and stepping in, Neil Peart (Peee-rt as he says it’s pronounced) on drums and percussion in July 1974 just two weeks before their first official US tour.

As the opening act for Uriah Heap and Manfred Mann on their first US tour they hit; Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Washington DC, St. Louis, Minneapolis & Parsippany. Not bad for getting their feet wet for their first major outing and great exposure to bigger audiences. By September they were the opening act for Blue Oyster Cult and Kiss, a much better match up although Uriah Heap was always referred to as “a poor man’s Deep Purple” so that wouldn’t have been too bad a match for a gig. Given the opening slot the band were made to learn the ropes fast and use their time tightly and conservatively as there was no room for chit-chat time talking to the audience. Thank yous and that was about it really so for their benefit the opening slot helped shape them in to what they would become eventually. Back home between tours of the US the band would play venues locally with other bands in the areas but on US tours they stuck with Kiss for a while with the odd one off gig opening for Nazareth, Rory Gallagher, Law but with Kiss it gave them   an edge I feel mostly from Gene Simmons’ business sense and how Kiss was gaining a larger audience due to their stage presence and appearance, it really was a Rock show with them. 1975 saw the release of “Fly By Night” and “Caress of Steel” as the band continued touring with Kiss and a few other bands that would drop in and out of the tour were allowing Rush to hone their craft and write new ideas but their album sales weren’t coming up keeps.

 

So what’s left to do? You write a Prog epic one side piece and give it a futuristic title of a year that seems to be so far off that no one will be around to see it happen. You write 2112. The band had been writing these dark and off the wall Prog classics like; By-Tor and The Snowdog, The Necromancer & The Fountain of Lamneth with other songs dipping in to the Prog recipe books but always coming up more hard rock and riff rock than Prog but they still were only a couple albums in to their canon of Lps. 2112 became their Hail Mary record that truly saved them from calling it quits and going home. The band’s lyrical accommodations had certainly gained a much deeper and sci-fi undertaking with Neil Peart writing the majority of the songs lyrics due to his fascination with authors like Michael Moorcock et al.

1975’s North America wasn’t really ready for a Canadian band to be pushing out Prog epics and sci-fi concepts when they’ve been graced with the likes of Brit Proggers Pink Floyd with Wish You Were Here, Theatrical Prog/Folk/Rock Jethro Tull’s Minstrel in the Gallery, Hard Rockers Deep Purple between Nov. 1974’s Stormbringer and Oct. ’75’s Come Taste The Band Lps and Led Zeppelin with the question to the Are they Prog or are they hard rock, Neither! They’re Art Rock, Led Zeppelin’s double Physical Graffiti album. Yes I called Led Zeppelin Art Rock because they weren’t really mainstream, not entirely Prog, a Whole Lotta blues influences and lengthy pieces that incorporated everything but the kitchen sink and often that too! So it was Artsy in a way where you couldn’t call it one thing or another. So Rush had some competition in their way but with the release of 2112(1976) that competition seemed to be peanuts after audiences got a whiff of the title track in it’s full on attack of the mind, senses and your ears. Like something straight out of a movie you are immediately thrown in to Prog Rock of gargantuan proportions with the intro being that start and stop shuffle, delays, far string bending solos, slow downs, speed ups, effects, intensity supreme and finally an explosion that leaves you wondering, “Is that it? That’s the first song?” Nooooooooooo it is not the first song over, it’s STILL the first song!

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And the meek shall inherit the earth

Never a line sung more softly yet made louder, grandiose and epically spoken to hoards of generations that just inhaled this as it became their banner to rise up against the tyranny of their oppressors regardless of whoever they were. Probably their greatest Prog contribution to date and most recognizable song in the genre’s elemental requirements to really call them Prog. The song reigning in at 20:33 minutes falls in to the same domain as other bands using an entire side of a record for just one song but never heard from a Canadian band to which at the time I don’t think a lot of people knew it was three guys form Ontario doing this. Didn’t quite sink in as yet but it eventually did as they began to gather a cult following and started headlining more shows on their own. Playing bills with the likes of; Ted Nugent, Artful Dodger, Max Webster, Aerosmith, UFO, Kansas, Thin Lizzy, Starcastle, Cheap Trick etc  and a one off in ’76 with Lynyrd Skynyrd in Tennessee and Iron Butterfly in Texas! So they were definitely getting around and with big names on the bill it helped get their name out there and gain an even bigger name for themselves at home and abroad.

 

Post 2112 Rush threw themselves in to the Prog machine with “A Farewell to Kings” and “Hemispheres” and as Geddy described it as “You can just smell the hash oil coming off that record.” Clearly the Farewell to Kings album was primarily a Prog album with the courteous lighter tracks for radio play, “Closer to the Heart” and the title track because getting FM radio play was now becomming more a staple thing for bands to do so the band had to be able to accommodate the masses as well as the legions of die-hard fans who still wanted the epics put in their laps and their minds blown away. But by the end of the decade Prog was becomming a dinosaur as the MTV generation was making its way in to the homes of the masses and album rock was starting to dwindle if but ever but so slowly at first. 1980 saw the last of the “Prog” albums that the band would release with “Permanent Waves” yielding songs like; “Entre Nous“. “Different Strings” and the finale Prog piece “Natural Science” which I feel became their Prog epitaph. Rush had managed to bypass disco and punk and keep to their roots and stick to their guns still in to 1980 whilst recording their next album, “Moving Pictures” that spawned their almost anthem track, “Tom Sawyer“. With other brilliant tracks on the record such as, “Red Barchetta” and “YYZ“(Airport identification for Toronto) the album became the start of a new chapter for the group and its subsequent tour and played in its entirety on the 30th anniversary of its release of it which I have to say seeing that tour was both amazing and memorable for quite a few reasons to me. But it also started to see Rush write more conservative songs that would garner more FM airplay and there wasn’t a upfront audience looking for epic 10 minute plus pieces anymore in the ’80’s.

 

1982’s “Signals” album would mark the end of the Terry Brown produced records for the band because they began to enter their neo-synth phase with both synths as a lead instrument more and in the drums with Neil’s interest in electronic music and Terry felt that it was no longer the same anymore and they parted ways after ’82. The big hit and probably one of the Top 5 most recognizable songs in the Rush canon came from this album, “Subdivisions” that spoke of growing up in the burbs and having to flock to the city likes moths to a flame for a piece of the action or sneak in to some basement party to be cool or be cast out. Local CityTV news anchor/reporter Mark Daly made a guest appearance saying the song’s title during the chorus which gave the song that much more of a Canadian feel to it as Mark Daly’s voice was completely recognizable from the television news and adverts for the station. Anyone who grew up in Toronto in the seventies onward knew Daly’s voice ANYWHERE! One of my favourite Rush songs from the 80’s and an absolute crowd pleaser to this day. However, for many fans the band dipped in to a recessive low with the next few albums as they didn’t seem to live up to the Rush moniker that they once held in high reverence. The 80’s weren’t particularly kind to Rush records as the shorter songs and over keyboard usage created a clinical sterile feel  which abounded and saturated each album until almost the end of the decade. The ever presence of the 80’s had taken over and synth rock was the norm and Rush were no stranger to it and embraced it as part of their strategy to keep the machine going. Sure it worked and the band sold out stadiums and venues all over because they still kept a lot of the older material active in their sets but it just wasn’t the same for a while.

 

With the emergence of grunge in the early nineties Rush was faced with a bit of dilemma having to yet again reinvent themselves and continue to go with popular trends and maintain their audiences listening. 1991 saw the release of “Roll The Bones“, a newer approach to their sound and tactics to writing music. Incorporating a bit of “rap-like” material in the title track that was just a clever rhyme but isn’t that what rap’s all about? It gave them an opportunity to reach out to wider audiences that had never heard the older scores and/or had taken a break from their music because of the incessant replays of the same songs over and over on rock radio stations ad nauseum. By this time the late eighties had all but ruined the Prog sounds of their ’70’s epics; 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres and their Prog epitaph from 1980, Permanent Waves. Rush had made the continental shift from concept album to mainstream stadium rock band able to draw crowds in droves to the venues every time. I know, I’ve done it four times with my best friend/brother Doug so we get it! The 1993 “Counterparts” album spawned a more intimate side in spots and a heavier side to their music with tracks like; “Stick it Out” the heaviest track on the record and a more emotional approach to song writing with “Nobody’s Hero“. I always felt that when Rush entered the ’80’s post “Moving Pictures” Lp they seemed to really buckle down on the first side of the record but side two was always just filler really. It never seemed to have the same panache and thought put in to the song quality as what you found on side one. Perhaps it’s just me and how I took each album in but many have agreed with me on numerous occasions that this is the case, perhaps the radio singles that were from side one spoiled us too much to really appreciate side two.

Terry brown’s position was replaced with Rupert Hines and Peter Collins on varying records so each album was treated as that producer felt giving it a different profile with each new album released. Collins’ last album with the band was 1996’s “Test For Echo” and 2002’s “Vapor Trails” saw the entrance of Paul Northfield who organized one of the best Rush albums in a long time. The whole album was great and straight forward no BS rock record from the band. It was ballsy, brazen and toned back and stripped from the effects and keyboards that the band relied upon in previous records as to make the music meatier and more colourful, which is not a bad thing at all to have extra instruments going to enhance the experience especially in Progressive Rock music but by this time in the mainstream of things Prog wasn’t in the books for Rush anymore. They matured as a band but along the way they altered their music to reflect the current status quo of what was going on in the industry and explored the avenues thereof.

Many arguments can be made about the band that they are still Prog in many ways and also were only just a great rock band from the seventies that evolved in to a better rock band. Ok, but every band has their up and down periods and Rush is no stranger or absconded from that. I think somewhere along the way(the 80’s) they let go of the Prog tomes for mainstream passages that seemed to be paved with a slightly more golden paycheque than staying in the gardens of so-called “dinosaurs” of the past. It was an evolution the band undertook over the years, decades and albums that has brought them full circle to their last record, “Clockwork Angels” in 2012 that again saw them at their most heavier sides and musically intense. Snippets of that was seen in the previous album, 2007’s “Snakes and Arrows” which I found a little harder to get in to at first as the band did not record as a “band” in the studio but rather emailed parts of songs to each other as Peart was in L.A. and Geddy and Lifeson were home in Canada or abroad wherever they may have been at the time so the album was a strain originally to absorb because they weren’t really there to record it. It is a good album once you have allowed a couple of years to lapse and are ready to comes to terms with it and it is in the sense of what a Rush record should sound like.

 

Geddy’s voice has always been the circle of debate as to whether people love it or hate. I love it and it just would have been Rush had someone else been singing for them. A lot of their music has a smidgen of Prog still in it but for the most part they became what they are, stadium rockers at its best. It did however change around ’97 and he couldn’t sing older songs in the range he originally did it in and they were still playing songs in their original key but soon after by ’07 during the “Snakes and Arrows” tour they had altered the key in which some of the older songs like “2112” were played in to either a half step or full step down to match his vocal range and the newer songs were all recorded in the right key so the Rush experience was back to where it should be, on key! The band was and has always maintained a level of humour in their history by appearing in Canadian TV shows and albums such SCTV’s Bob and Doug’s Great White North album, The Trailer Park Boys show and even an appearance in an episode of South Park as the characters form a band and try their “talents” at performing “Tom Sawyer” which the band used in previous tours as a visual opener to the song as well as performing their own skits before concerts start in a very SCTV fashion that utilized their jokes and poking fun at characters from their past and people who they saw growing up and the stereotypes of their heritage they embraced from the Jewish to the Irish alike.

 

 

 

The music speaks for itself and they never slowed down regardless of what decade it was and what critics thought of their music and those who love them, went, those who didn’t stayed home and watched TV eh?!

 

RUSHCOLLAGE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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