Fly By Night. Rush.
1975, Mercury. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown
Purchased ca. 1984.
IN A NUTSHELL – Mind-blowing musicianship on display in intricate, powerful, fist-pumping anthemic rock and multi-part story songs. If you don’t mind complex songs about discredited philosophical theories and allegorical battles between mythological beasts, played by virtuosos and sung by a harpy-esque voice, you will LOVE this album! It is amazing. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it didn’t include the song “Rivendell.”
No one sets out to be a dork. There isn’t a time in a young nerd’s life when he or she makes the decision that, “Dammit! Scorn, derision and an adolescence spent alternately falling for hurtful pranks and sitting alone wondering how to transform myself into some version of me that is less likely to be hated is the life I’m going to lead!!” Dorkdom isn’t a choice. Dorkdom simply is.
As with all human characteristics – from athleticism, to intelligence, to sexuality – there is a range of dorkocity, a spectrum ranging from the IN (Infra-Nerd) region on the low end (aka “What the fuck planet did that guy come from?!”) upward through an array of math aficionados, sci-fi and comic book lovers, arching across Renaissance Faire participants, role-playing gamers and subscribers to GAMES magazine and Popular Mechanics, and terminating in the AH (AdHuman) region (aka “She seems a little weird, right?”). It is a sort of Rainbow of Rejects.
And while all American kids at one point or another feel like they are weird or not right, like they can’t wait one more second for the bullshit of adolescence to end, once and for all, only particular kids live with that feeling all the time. These are the dorks. The nerds. The geeks. Like war, or famine, or any other human hardship, you only really understand nerd-dom if you went through it.
And all nerds know they are a nerd. If you think you might have been a nerd, you weren’t. Simply having a fondness for comic books or Sudoku doesn’t count. This public service announcement from Portlandia explains:
All nerds understand. No matter where you fall on that Crescent of Kooks, you know the dread of waking up, getting dressed, looking in the mirror every day and thinking … “Oh, hell. What’s the use?”
But there’s a secret to dorkdom that many non-dorks overlook, and that keeps (most) dorks from getting so depressed that we take drastic actions against ourselves or others. The fact is – nerds have FUN!!
People tend to think that nerdhood is a result of poor social skills, or extra, yet misplaced, intelligence, or a lack of physical coordination. And while those conditions may well-characterize 99% of nerds, they are merely co-infections. The real unifying aspect is a desire to have fun. Nerds may wish for popularity when they are home alone, trying to sleep, thinking of that boy or girl they like who won’t even say hello to them; but when a nerd is with his/her friend or friends (admittedly a small group, but undoubtedly a tightly-bound one) the desire for popularity goes out the window. The main shared goal is to have a lot of fun.
Nerds aren’t too shackled by others’ opinions of what is or isn’t cool – they just know what they like – and they do it. This singularity of focus – doing what one wants to do – is a valued trait among adults, but among kids and teenagers it can be a socially fatal flaw. The terrifically awesome TV show Freaks and Geeks featured classic adolescent nerd life in every episode (thus the “Geeks” in the title), and in one of the best scenes ever, uber-nerd Bill gets to share “Seven Minutes in Heaven” with popular-girl Vicki, and he gets a chance to describe how a nerd can have fun even all by himself:
Nerds have fun. I had an opportunity to share this wisdom with my son when he was about 9 or 10. He had been invited to a classmate’s birthday party, a boy with whom he was friendly, but who didn’t share my son’s interests of sports, sports and sports. As a nerd myself, I immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the boy. My son was skeptical of the giant chess board painted on the back yard, and the adults dressed in Harry Potter-ish get-ups, the juggling slack-rope walker and the tree house transformed into a miniature Elizabethan castle.
But when the afternoon spent in a role-playing treasure hunt ended – a hunt whose clues were embedded in a life-size chess game, and that relied on accosting costumed bad guys with plastic swords and rescuing a damsel in distress – my son exclaimed, “That was the BEST BIRTHDAY PARTY EVER!!” Nerds have fun.
My own dorkdom started early. Thanks to two older, very intelligent sisters – who enjoyed the blackboards my parents hung in our basement, and used them to full-effect while forcing their little brother to be a “pupil” to their co-teachers every single fucking time they played “classroom” – I was taught to read at a very young age. So by kindergarten I read at quite a high level. This was no big deal, except for the fact that – as happens to nerds and geeks throughout their typically miserable educational experience – the teachers turned it into a negative. Mrs. Confer (who I liked very much) excused me from class a few times a week to go read books with the first and second graders. My little classmates would watch me leave the room with looks that said, “What’s wrong with that kid, that he doesn’t get to color and play with blocks? He must be weird!”
In the early grades, being a “smart kid” was seen as a positive, and I was respected among my peers. Then “education” screwed it up again. Beginning in fourth grade, all the “smart” kids were rounded up and placed in the basement together for a few hours each week, where a few young, well-intentioned aides called us “gifted” and made us create and think and solve and shit like that, instead of just being normal kids playing on the playground.
If that weren’t bad enough, right about that time my parents decided it would be a great idea for me to learn the trombone.
Now, it may seem hard to believe, but there was a time and place when playing the trombone was really cool! Unfortunately, that time and place was 1912, in River City, Iowa.
And as slow-to-progress as rural Pennsylvania might be, by 1976 trombone playing was no longer cool. Even the Amish found it uncool.
My life of dorkdom was well under way.
And by high school, my nerd credentials were firmly established:
On that Rainbow I described above, I was lucky enough to be on the normal side slope, in the AdHuman region. Similar to the oft-described hierarchy of skin tone among African-Americans – a prejudice among a group of people already dealing with prejudice from the larger society – there is a pecking order among geeks, as well, and those folks at one end of the Array of Errors are proud to be not as geeky as those at the other end. I was big and rather athletic and could amuse other kids with jokes, so my Hawaiian shirts and bright orange Chuck Taylors were typically seen by my peers as mere oddities, not as an invitation to pummel.
And like all dorks, I continued to have fun. I enjoyed playing trombone in the marching band, made some great friends – including Dan K., a trumpet player, and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother, and who shared my love of David Letterman, Bullwinkle cartoons and Hawaiian shirts.
The marching band traveled to football games and band competitions and parades by school bus, and seating on the buses was assigned by groups of instruments. So, for example, clarinets and saxophones and trumpets might be on one bus, French horns and majorettes and flutes on another, etc, etc. For an entire school year, you rode on the buses with the same group of kids.
In my first year of band, the trombones were assigned to ride with the drum line. Now, if you accept that there is, indeed, a hierarchy of nerds, and you assume (probably rightly so) that all the members of the marching band are part of that hierarchy, then the very far edge of that hierarchy – on the fringes of actual adolescent coolness – would undoubtedly be the drum line. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the only ones whose lips don’t touch their instruments (usually) or because they get to carry their instruments around in a sexy fashion but the drummers were pretty dang cool.
On these marching band bus rides, the drummers had a boom box to play music, and they played one musical act more often than any other, a band I had never heard before, but that would become one of the biggest influences in my life, my first real band-crush – necessitating hundreds of dollars of cassette buying, hours of daily listening, and round-the-clock having my frickin’ mind blown, dude! – and most definitely ensure that my nerd-hood was here to stay: Rush.
The first two things you notice about Rush are 1) the singer tends to sing like a frightened teen girl screaming in a slasher movie; and 2) the songs usually last longer than a typical slasher movie. These are two obstacles that many listeners never can – or even try to – surmount.
But if you can get over those two aspects (for me, the voice was just another high-pitched 70s dude in tight pants, and the musicianship was SO GOOD that I didn’t mind spending time listening) the next thing you’ll notice about the band is how well each of them plays their instruments. Bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart are each recognized as rock virtuosos, and I think as a young musical nerd, this is what really endeared them to me. Here were three guys who had spent hours and hours mastering their instruments, three guys who didn’t seem like they were trying to do the things the popular acts were doing, three guys who seemed to be doing what they were doing simply because they were having fun doing it – even if nobody else thought it was cool. Simply put: three dorks. How could I not fall for them?
I bought Fly By Night on cassette sometime in high school, and it grew on me slowly. I was a fan of Rush’s radio hits, like “Limelight” and “Spirit of Radio” and – of course – “Tom Sawyer.”
Fly By Night has one song – the title track – you’d hear on the radio back in the 70s and 80s, and I often found myself fast-forwarding through other songs to listen to that one track. But at some point in college I started to listen more to the entire album, and I played that cassette until its squeak-filled demise.
Fly By Night starts off with the track “Anthem,” and it is an immediate display of the muscular musical chops of all three members.
You don’t start a song like that without feeling pretty damn confident in your talents. This initial display is a sort of fanfare, an opening statement common to Rush songs, and part of the repertoire of any so-called “progressive rock” band, like Yes or King Crimson or early Genesis. The main part of the song opens about 35 seconds in, with a cool Lifeson guitar riff, and then Lee’s vocals kick in.
The vocal melody is a nice, bouncy line sung/screamed in typical Geddy fashion. Rush is an unusual band in that the singer for the band isn’t the lyricist. Neil Peart is the main lyricist, and Fly By Night was the first album on which Peart was a member of the band. Much in the way many listeners don’t care for Lee’s voice, or the band’s long, complex songs, Peart’s lyrics have long been derided. In these formative years of the band, Peart – always a voracious reader – was digesting the writings of libertarian nut-job, and hero to the greedy, Ayn Rand.
The lyrics to “Anthem,” named for a Rand novella, are typical Rand bullshit, but one of the great things about the band is that with the incredible virtuosity on display, and Lee’s near-indecipherable keening, it’s hard to make out what the lyrics are all about anyway! About 2:20 into the song, there is an extended instrumental section.
With most bands, these sections are simply referred to as “guitar solos,” and while it is true that Lifeson takes a lead here, and plays a spectacular, interesting solo, the playing of Lee and Peart behind him is so great that it’s hard to think of it as a guitar solo.
[Side Note – as I write about these guys, I find myself traveling back in time to my 10th grade self, my jaw slack with wonder as I consider just how frickin’ AWESOME THIS BAND REALLY IS!!!! Sorry. I’ll get back to the album now.]
Next up is the nerd anthem “Best I Can.” It’s a short song, by Rush standards, only 3:24, and it is a straight-ahead, 70s rocker – the type of song you might hear on an album by Bachman-Turner-Overdrive or Bad Company. I call it a Nerd Anthem because the lyrics – which are also typical 70s rock lyrics expressing what seems to have been a common desire among young male rockers in the 70s: Being Left Alone to Rock! – feature the chorus “I do the best that I can/I’m just what I am.” This couplet expresses the nerd life very succinctly. The musicianship on display, as usual, is what sets this song apart from typical Bad Company/BTO fare. The main riff is herky-jerky and odd, and as always, Peart finds a way to squeeze in extra beats and fills where there doesn’t possibly seem to be enough room.
The initial trio of short songs if is finished off by the almost funky number “Beneath, Behind and Between.” Now, it is true that the only band out there who may be less funky than Rush is perhaps – PERHAPS – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but this song has a syncopated rhythm – the kind of rhythm that Rush seems to be able to write and play in their sleep – that almost has a danceable beat every few measures. The lyrics are a reflection on the lost promise of The United States as its Bicentennial celebration approached.
The title track of the album is one of Rush’s best-known (i.e. “radio-friendly”) songs.
It’s a catchy number that sounds pretty simple, until you listen to the (as usual, awesome!) playing behind the melody. This is also a good song to point out the fact that Geddy Lee plays some of the trickiest, wide-ranging bass parts in rock, and does so while he sings! In later years, he also played keyboards and synth-pedals (AND BASS!) while he sang! And he plays the parts live, too – it’s not recording-studio manipulation. As someone who has played bass and sang (neither even a quarter as well as Mr. Lee does) I can attest it is extremely difficult to do what he does! “Fly By Night” is a classic rock staple, and the lyrics about movin’ on are a well-established musical theme. It also had a renaissance of sorts a few years ago when Volkswagen used it in a commercial.
The album has a couple songs, “Making Memories” and “In the End,” that are nice, classic-rock songs, the type that I tend to forget about, but when I hear them I think, “Hey this one is pretty good!” “Making Memories” is acoustic-driven, with a bit of a hippy vibe. “In the End” is a stomping, crunching slow rock song, the type of which would’ve scared the shit out of me when I was 10.
Fly By Night also includes a song that defines Rush and its music – an example that helps explain a) why so many people love this band and b) why so many people do not.
The song is an 8 minute, multi-part story/song about a fight between evil and good, as personified by two mythical beasts: “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.”
The album actually lists the parts of the song, as you might see movements of a symphony listed in a concert program (I imagine.)
I. At the Tobes of Hades
II. Across the River Styx
III. Of the Battle
a. Challenge and Defiance
b. 7/4 War Furor
d. Hymn of Triumph
The music includes:
– a simulated dog fight (MYTHICAL dogs, I should say – not Michael Vick insanity) as interpreted by bass and guitar (1:51 to 3:50);
– a crazy call and response of drums and full band, culminating in a complex riff that ends in a very nerd-satisfying pattern of six notes, then five, then four, etc, down to the final ONE NOTE (3:51 to 4:42);
– a quiet interlude of Lifeson coaxing haunting tones out of his guitar, and building to a slow jam, off which the scent of freshly sparked doobies can almost be detected (4:43 to 7:34); and
– a final reprise of the main melody and a final wind chime (which, on the vinyl version, was cut into the runout groove so that the chime would continue to play on if the listener didn’t have an automatic return. This is all very technical “vinyl” stuff you may not want to know) (7:35 – 8:39).
This creation, this eight and a half minutes of sonic wonder and power, is the type of song that inspires Rush-heads to create artwork of their own …
… and inspires most others to run for their nearest Lou Reed, Chuck Berry or Joni Mitchell album, hoping their bleeding ears don’t foul the headphones.
This type of Epic music causes many people to criticize the band for taking themselves and their music too seriously. However, what these people are missing is the fact that Rush are nerds – and as nerds, they are HAVING FUN! The song is not a serious exploration of good vs. evil! The song is actually based on a story one of their roadies told about being in a room with two dogs who didn’t like each other, and how scared he was. It was a funny story, and lyricist Peart transformed it into a tale of Mythical beasts with funny names (“By-Tor” = “biter”), the way nerds will do. Evidence that the band doesn’t take themselves very seriously includes the following animation that accompanied the “dog fight” movement during some concert tours, projected behind the band to amuse the audience while they played:
The virtuosity displayed by the band, to my ears, never sounds pompous or stuffy – it sounds to me like three guys who enjoy playing together, just HAVING FUN. I don’t detect a sort of “hey, look how great we can play!” attitude in the music. To me, it sounds like, “man, we sure do like to play our instruments!”
(The band is actually quite funny, and there are various clips of them being goofy all over the web.)
But many folks don’t understand. And they probably never will. They look at Rush, and hear them play, and they think, “Who the hell are THESE guys? And what the hell do they think they’re doing!!?? I just don’t get it!!!”
But maybe it takes a nerd to understand a nerd. If you know, you know. And being cool doesn’t really matter when you’re hanging out with your friends. If you’re having fun with friends, you’re as cool as can be.
Best I Can
Beneath, Between & Behind
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Fly By Night
In the End
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