Friday, July 23, 2010
Persistence, virtuosity and a staunch decision to follow their instincts have been a recipe for success in the case of Rush.
Defying gravity on stage? No problem.
Creating a diverse and layered body of work over 36 years? Check.
Did the band members themselves think that the ride would last this long?
In the late sixties, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson were high school kids from the suburbs of Toronto. Music meant a great deal to both and they quickly formed a bond through playing together and emulating their favorite bands. The impact on their grades was likely pretty severe, but they were teenagers during the golden age of rock. How could they not be smitten by acts like the Who and Cream?
Signal distortion, more advanced PA and monitoring systems were making it possible for fewer musicians to make a bigger sonic impact playing live. The age of the “power trio” (not to be confused with The Kingston Trio) dawned in the mid-sixties. Casting off the 2-3 minute formats into which pop had been straight-jacketed, many groups began to explore the outer limits of improvisation. Out of these non-linear jams, brilliance could easily slip into self-indulgent flights to the Republic of Tedium. Nevertheless, there were groups that devoted themselves to long form, multi-part epics, brimming with inventive playing. No more would the rhythm section tap or plunk out basic foundation work, while the guitarist and singer reaped all of the glory.
Happily unfettered, everyone now had their chance to shine.
With interminable soloing.
Progressive rock was born.
Truth be told, this genre was around for many years. It was called Jazz, though it wasn’t amplified by 100,000 watts with an accompanying laser light show.
Hey! Weren’t you supposed to be writing about Rush?
Fast forward to 1974: Our protagonists, Geddy and Alex, along with drummer John Rutsey, had long been full time gigging pros who had recorded a single and were furiously doing late night sessions to complete their self titled first album. Owing more than a small debt to the sound of the mighty Led Zeppelin, Rush had placed themselves squarely in the game.
Then John Rutsey announced that the touring grind was not for him, especially with the added burden of increasing health issues in the form of diabetes. He bowed out.
What to do?
Enter Neil Peart, whose explosive percussive skills won him the job following his audition/jam session. They had also gained a lyricist in Peart, with Lee and Lifeson more than happy to strictly work on the music.
Personnel crisis averted they then sharpened their focus, recording two more LPs (Fly By Night and Caress of Steel), toured incessantly and despite their obvious talent, saw little in the way of any significant breakthrough.
Neil Peart picks up the story:
"The ensuing tour in support of Caress of Steel was half jokingly referred to as the "Down the Tubes Tour", and it was a pretty depressing string of small towns and small clubs, and a lot of unwelcome pressure from certain quarters about making our music more accessible and more salable. It was uncertain for a time whether we would fight or fall, but finally we got mad! We came back with a vengeance with "2112", perhaps our most passionate and powerful album yet. We were talking about freedom from tyranny, and we meant it! This was the first real blend of our diverse and schizophrenic influences, and it was also our first really successful album. We felt at the time that we had achieved something that was really our own sound, and hopefully established ourselves as a definite entity. The side long title piece itself became a featured part of our live shows, as much fun for us as for our audiences, and the trend was all upwards from that point on."
Flipping a proverbial middle finger at prevailing musical trends and record company hacks, they put all of their energy into making 2112.
Conceptual pieces were not new in the world of prog-rock. Many artists had already mined this territory, with the Who’s Tommy being one of the most successful examples. Yes, Genesis and scores of other bands would devote much effort to album-side length suites that followed a loose storyline and took listeners on a journey.
So it was with side one of 2112.
Granted, this seven part suite is graced with very engaging instrumental passages, impeccably played, though the story itself is somewhat slight:
In the year 2062, a galaxy-wide war results in the union of all planets under the rule of the Red Star of the Solar Federation. By 2112, the world is controlled by the "Priests of the Temples of Syrinx", who determine the content of all reading matter, songs, pictures - every facet of life. A man discovers a guitar and learns to play different music. When he goes to present this to the priests of the Temples, they destroy the guitar. He goes into hiding and dreams of a world before the Solar Federation. Upon awakening he becomes distraught and commits suicide. As he dies, another planetary battle begins resulting in the ambiguous ending:
’Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control.’
As well they might.
Back in 1976, Rush pulled off a coup. In going against the wishes of their own priests of the temples of Syrinx (i.e. record company executives telling them to ditch the concepts) they gambled and won. 2112 grabbed the imaginations of young, predominately male listeners, who bought it in droves. Add to that the live draw of three world class players who mowed down every audience that they faced and the one-two punch was unbeatable.
There are plenty of magical moments through the first side (vinyl copies) of 2112, with all of the main motifs boiled down and condensed in the “Overture” (shades of Tommy). Signature riffs, tasty bass lines and muscular drum work all underpin Lee in full cry on the “Temples of Syrinx”.
In all fairness, there is enough detail in the twenty minute cycle to at least grasp the intended message, though not enough time is allotted to truly develop characters in any great depth. Hence the jarring, 90 degree angle drop experienced as the piece ends swiftly, with cold totalitarian forces (apparently) obliterating all who dare to bring any light into the lives of the masses under their control.
Let’s all go the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves some pot
In stark contrast to the claustrophobic, grim vision of a future without choices served up in the first half, the second side of 2112 starts out with a fantastic train trip through exotic locations. Each destination offers a chance to stuff your pipe with mother nature's finest.
A dope song? Yes and it's quite fine, complete with a fantastic harmonized lead guitar/bass figure. Best track from a very stellar set.
"We only stop for the best."
This hirsute gentleman guarantees it.
Balancing shorter compositions with the extended narrative that comprised the first act was a smart move. "Something For Nothing" is a strong finish to what would be an extremely pivotal LP for Rush. If you listen closely to the lyrics, there is almost a sense that some loose ends are being tied up with respect to the dystopian picture painted of 2112. Far from subtle, it does serve to nicely bookend the idea of a nightmarish society where freedom of expression is forbidden with a gentle reminder that certain rights and privileges are often taken for granted.
Or something like that.