Wheels Within Wheels: A Completely Subjective History of Rush (Part II: 1976-81)

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

In advance of the June 12th release of Rush’s 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, Sean Highkin is taking a decidedly unfair and imbalanced look back at the career of his favorite band. Here’s Part I if you missed it.

If Rush weren’t the antithesis of conventional rock cool, 2112 would be treated as one of the all-time great punk-rock career moves. 1975’s Caress of Steel tanked, and Mercury threatened to drop the band unless they started writing more commercial material. Neil Peart responded by writing another side-long suite, this one about an authoritarian future world in which music was banned. It was a fairly unsubtle jab, both thematically and sonically, at the label—and it ended up striking a chord with the public in a way that no previous Rush album had. More importantly, its success earned the trio a lifetime pass from any future label interference. Never before or since has such a blatant defying of record-company authority worked out so well—it’s just never likely to get the credit, because of Rush’s lack of critical correctness.

It wasn’t without reason that 2112 hit a nerve while Caress stiffed. The latter record’s extended pieces, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth,” often felt like collections of shorter songs slapped together under one title without much rhyme or reason. 2112’s 20-minute title track, on the other hand, completely and utterly justifies its length. The playing is focused and unified. Geddy Lee finally found a niche for his high-pitched wail that didn’t blatantly rip off Robert Plant. The “Overture” and “Temples of Syrinx” sections of the suite are the modern-day live staples, but the moment when everything truly coalesced for Rush was the transition from “Discovery” to “Presentation.” The idea of Alex Lifeson building a movement literally around the tuning of a guitar would be a nightmare scenario on Fly by Night or Caress of Steel, but he does it here with authority. His interplay with Lee and the buildup to “Presentation” serve as a plot device, but they may as well represent the band’s own simultaneous discovery of identity.

2112’s narrative is iconic as rock opera, but it also brought on a burden of guilt-by-association that Rush have never quite been able to escape. Ayn Rand was explicitly credited in the album’s liner notes as providing inspiration for the epic suite, something lazy rock writers never fail to bring up dismissively even to this day. The trio were decried as fascists (especially hilarious given that Lee is the son of Holocaust survivors), and have unwittingly served as libertarian icons for the last three-plus decades. The continued association is defensible only under the one circumstance Peart will admit to today: that the group found Rand’s brand of individualism applicable to their own struggle with their label’s demands. Their decision to risk going down in flames rather than writing another Rush-sounding album is one that Rand would likely applaud, but that’s more or less the extent of their affiliation with her politics.

2112 endures as perhaps the landmark Rush album not only because of the middle finger it gave to the record industry, but also because it displays Rush’s mastery of the concept suite, an art so many (including Rush themselves) have failed to do credibly. 2112 was the second Rush album I got as a preteen, which happened to be during the one summer I convinced myself I had any kind of talent for screenwriting. I spent several months attempting to adapt 2112 into a screenplay, which proved problematic because I didn’t realize that the songs on the album’s second side were completely unrelated to the epic title track. How was a 12-year-old to know that “A Passage to Bangkok” was actually just about traveling through the Middle East sampling different varieties of weed? Or that “The Twilight Zone” was simply an homage to the TV show? With the exception of the clunky “Lessons” (mercifully the only time Lifeson has attempted to write lyrics for Rush), side two is pretty great, and far more commercial that people give it credit for. The album can be looked to today as a starting point for the fully-formed version of Rush. There would be no more playing spot-the-influence with Zeppelin, Sabbath, or Yes on their record. From this point forward, the only band they sound like is Rush.

The prog-rock version of Rush hit its apex over the next two years, with 1977’s A Farewell to Kings and 1978’s Hemispheres. The lyrical themes were as lofty as ever (Greek mythology, union politics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, space travel), but musically, they were expanding faster than they could keep up with. Hemispheres’ nine-minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” is the only argument anyone needs for the trio’s technical supremacy. It’s a literal clinic of harmonics and intricate, interconnected soloing that fully earns its subtitle “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.” “La Villa” is, in a nutshell, why Rush are so polarizing. It’s hard for kids wired a certain way like me and, once upon a time, Kirk Hammett, not to be blown away. But those inclined to believe that instrumental flash is antithetical to musical soul or personality have a ready-made talking point.

Elsewhere on Kings and Hemispheres, Rush further honed and perfected every aspect of their identity. “The Trees” and “Closer to the Heart” got actual radio airplay and were unprecedented in the Rush canon for their genuine tunefulness, even if the former feels trite and forced today. Kings’ “Cygnus X-1” and Hemispheres’ 18-minute title track are the group’s crowning narrative achievements, both in storytelling and musical cohesion. “Xanadu” is a strong contender for best Rush song of all time, an 11-minute fever dream with a riff that spawned Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and Peart’s best drumming ever. The version found on 1981’s Exit…Stage Left is my favorite 13 minutes in the history of recorded sound, mostly because I have a thing for double-neck basses.

As awe-inspiring as Kings and Hemispheres were at their best, however, it was becoming clear that Rush were not long for prog rock in the conventional sense. They were beginning to find extended concept suites limiting, and the few that still prevailed on 1980’s Permanent Waves and 1981’s Moving Pictures were considerably shorter and more melodic. Of these, “Natural Science” is some of the band’s very finest work, and “The Camera Eye” foreshadowed their coming foray into keyboards.

Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures aren’t my favorite Rush albums, but I’d be hard-pressed not to call them their best. There has never been a more effective, filler-free synthesis of everything Rush does well than what can be found on these two albums. “Tom Sawyer” is Rush’s “Stairway to Heaven”—you can call it overrated because it’s the song you’re most likely to hear on a classic-rock station, but it’s really not. It’s the closest thing young drummers have to “Smoke on the Water,” something of a rite of passage. I never quite mastered it in high school. It’s a relentless, pulsating thing with a menacing earworm of a synth riff and a masterful repurposing of Mark Twain’s titular character into something not too different from 2112’s protagonist.

The rest of these two albums are largely responsible for what classic-rock relevance Rush does have. Waves’ “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” tested the limits of the mainstream’s willingness to embrace odd time signatures. “YYZ” is their defining instrumental, “Limelight” is Lifeson’s pinnacle as a riff writer, and “Red Barchetta” is as strong a lyric as Peart’s ever penned. There’s a reason Rush performed Moving Pictures in its entirety on 2010’s Time Machine tour—it’s the one album that even the band’s detractors cannot deny, and the cap to one of the most quietly brilliant stretches of albums a rock band has ever hammered out.

NEXT: Rush greets the 1980s with open arms, embracing New Wave and synthesizers.

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Categories: Music

Author:Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for USA TODAY Sports. He lives in Chicago.


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  1. Wheels Within Wheels: A Completely Subjective History of Rush (Part IV: 1989-1996) | Digital Refrain - June 8, 2012

    [...] a decidedly unfair and imbalanced look back at the career of his favorite band. Here are Part I, Part II, and Part III  if you missed [...]

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