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31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush


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Moving Pictures. Rush.
1981, Anthem. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rush is a band that has divided people for years, but I’ve always been firmly on their side! Moving Pictures is a record that displays the band’s virtuosity, but also packages it in a more radio-friendly, catchy style. It’s still easy to get carried away by the grand displays of talent; it takes me back to my awkward teen years when I knew I had discovered “The Greatest!” Amazing bass and drums, cool guitar, and great songs.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I am not the greatest. Whatever category you have there, I’m not the greatest. I don’t box or play baseball or paint, so I’m certainly not greatest at those pursuits. But even among the things I do, and the things I’ve done and the things I am, I’m not, and never was, the greatest. I’m not the greatest writer[ref]Okay, okay, I guess I am. Please, stop it people, you’re embarrassing me. Look, for the sake of this entry let’s just pretend I’m not the greatest writer. Thank you. Thank you, all.[/ref]. I’m not the greatest bass player. I wasn’t the greatest comedian or actor or playwright or chemist. I’m not the greatest QA guy or husband/father/son/brother/friend.

Don’t worry! I’m not spiraling down a depressive pit of despair! I’m generally satisfied with my abilities, or my abilities to improve my abilities. It’s just that I think any discussion of a person as “greatest” at anything is, practically speaking, silly and not worth my time and energy.

Perhaps it’s my career in science that provides me with an analytical view of such things, but to my mind the term “greatest” implies something measurable. “Among his friends, Roy has the greatest number of guitars.” We can all get together, count guitars and there can be no dispute. The term “best” is a little more slippery, but in a scientific setting it can be (and is) tied to actual data. Statisticians use “best fit” to assess data points. Drug researchers review study results (data!) to select the best drug candidate.

Given the inextricable relationship between measurements and assessed hierarchy, it’s clear that the further away from science (measurable things) one moves on the continuum of human pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to proclaim something “best” or “greatest.” And since art is about as far from science on that continuum as possible[ref]Generally speaking, of course.[/ref] calling something the “greatest” in art simply doesn’t make sense. What are you measuring to call it the best?

In this modern, commerce-obsessed, capital-worshiping era, there is at least one measurable aspect of art: sales. However, when most people are speaking of “great art” or “great artists,” I don’t believe they’re basing the assessment on money. For example, the highest-grossing films ever don’t have much overlap with best films selected by critics or the general public. Unless you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll rarely hear many serious debates over whether The Avengers or Furious 7 is the better film. The same goes for best-selling albums vs. critics‘ and listener picks, although there seems to be more overlap in this arena. Best-selling books vs. critical picks align very closely over history, but this is because the books critics love are purchased over and over for centuries. But year-by-year the best-selling books are rarely the winners of well-known literary prizes.

Whenever I hear an artist, or a work of art, called “The Greatest,” or “The Best,” I nod along and grit my teeth like a high school English teacher hearing a stranger use the malaprop “for all intensive purposes.” I understand it’s my own pet peeve, and I have enough wherewithal to keep it to myself that I wish The Oscars® awarded “Most Well-Liked Picture” instead of “Best Picture.” But it’s everywhere you look, particularly in music writing. “Greatest Album.” “Best Guitarist.” “Greatest Songs.”

I get what people mean when they say “greatest.” When people talk about the Great Guitarists, for example, they usually mean somebody whose style and ability blows you away. So I recognize that people will say The Greatest guitarist is Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix or Prince or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Brad Paisley or Albert King or Keith Richards or Randy Rhodes or Yngwie Malmsteen or Catfish Collins or Stevie Ray Vaughn or John Mayer or George Harrison or Billy Gibbons or … or … or … I mean, come on. It gets ridiculous after a while. Especially when you consider the question: “Who gives a shit?” The Ramones did this, and it was awesome, so who cares whether or not Johnny Ramone played a solo? The Edge played three notes in this song, big deal! Technical ability is impressive, and it’s fun to discuss the styles and merits of all types of artists – writers, composers, dancers, sarangi players – but when it comes right down to it, art is not a contest. Artists are not contestants. No artist can be “the greatest[ref]Unless the term is clearly defined in the context of its use.[/ref].”

That’s how I feel about it now. But there was a time, as a teen, that I had no doubt about who were the greatest and I had no problem letting you, or anyone else, know who they were and why. And the Greatest Band was Rush. And the Greatest Guitarist, Bassist and Drummer were Alex Lifeson[ref]Actually, I probably always thought Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix was the best, but I’d argue for Lifeson sometimes, just because he was in Rush. Which brings up the question of how objective “best of” lists of any art, prepared by anyone, really are. But I digress.[/ref], Geddy Lee and Neil Peart, respectively. And I would argue all day with you about that.

There is little doubt today why I had so few girlfriends as a teenager.

I’ve written before about first getting into Rush via the drummers in my high school marching band, about long teenage hours spent in my basement, letting their music take me away. Their songs were attractive to a kid like me: socially awkward, interested in puzzles and games, confident about little besides my schoolwork, always feeling stuck on the outside looking in. Their songs and lyrics made them sound like they were just as awkward and outsider-y as I was, yet they reveled in it! They were dorks like me, but were proud to be dorks, churning out album-side-long, hard-rock epics in the days of 2-minute, 3-chord punk songs and repetitive disco beats. They were happy to be respected by their fans even if the cool kids (i.e. critics) mocked them. They were a fantasy of self-confidence brought to life for a kid like me, idols for reasons beyond simply their music.

And when things like “greatest” mattered to me, as individuals they were always ranked highly in all the lists I could find. Neil Peart on drums[ref]Also here and here.[/ref]. Geddy Lee on bass[ref]Also here, here, here and here.[/ref]. Alex Lifeson on guitar[ref]And here.[/ref]. This seemed to validate my appreciation of them despite their lack of cool-kid-cred.

The band has embraced their nerdiness, playing it up in a Hollywood movie, I Love You, Man. Their equally-nerdy fans are known to be a bit obsessive and do things like bring glowing drumsticks to concerts to “play” along. Family Guy loves poking fun at the band’s fans, who include the guys from South Park, who produced a video to introduce the band at concerts in the late 00s.

Even though I’ve changed a lot since those teenage years of proclaiming “the greatest!” and even though my tastes have broadened and changed, the deep bond I formed with the album Moving Pictures remains. I’m no longer worried that I won’t fit in, I’m no longer seeking excellence outside myself to validate what’s inside myself. But I still love this record. I still get a tingly sense of awe when I hear that swirling synthesizer chord I’ve heard a million times, the one that opens Moving Pictures, and their most well-known song, “Tom Sawyer.”

That synth growls beneath Peart’s tight drum beat, and right off the bat I’ll just have to say it: You’re going to have to deal with Geddy Lee’s voice. Many folks can’t get over that hump, and if that’s you, well, this write-up is going to seem twice as long as usual. The bass and drums really carry the song from the beginning, on those majestic four-note motifs after each verse (starting at 0:14) and the snaking bass line that begins at 0:39. While playing bass, Lee also plays foot-pedal synths (as shown in a glimpse of his funky shoe at 0:45). You may wonder why you have trouble out on the dance floor with “Tom Sawyer” after the synth solo at 1:39. That’s because during the solo the song shifts out of the comfortable 4/4 time signature into the two-left-feet-generating 7/4 time signature. The song hangs there during Lifeson’s amazing guitar solo at 2:01, while Lee’s pulsing bass and Peart’s flurry of drums move through changes with ease. It builds to a satisfying conclusion around 2:36 and sticks the landing like a gold-medal gymnast back in 4/4 for the final verse.

It’s these instrumental freak-outs, with deft transitions between parts and time signatures, played by three guys who seem to be loving what they’re doing, that endear the band to fans. That and the lyrics, by drummer Peart, which are typically about self and art and people, and sometimes present his convictions very directly. They are lyrics that are at times ripe for parody, but those of us who sang along as teens never found them funny. “Tom Sawyer” was a message to us fans to stay true to ourselves.

Another style of lyrics that Peart writes are stories, particularly of the futuristic, sci-fi variety; for example a society in which driving a car is against the law, and the thrill of breaking that law. That’s the story of “Red Barchetta,” always my favorite on the album.

This is the song that made me want to be a bass player, and for years I thought of it as my “second-favorite song” behind only “Strawberry Fields Forever.” From Lee’s opening runs behind Lifeson’s ringing harmonics all the way through his little bass solos during the outro of the song, I air-bass-guitared along to this one a million times. Lifeson plays a subtle line behind the verses that I love[ref]Made the more remarkable because there’s very little this band does subtly.[/ref]. The song really kicks in, and I get my flashbacks to youth, after the first verse, at 1:16. The story of the freedom of driving, and the thrilling music behind it – back then it sounded like escape to me, and even though I didn’t realize it, escape was what I wanted. The drums are amazing – the 20 seconds between 1:30 and 1:50 show Peart’s inventiveness, supporting a simple 4/4 back beat with brilliant kick drum fills. It’s got “lead bass” (as opposed to “lead guitar”) throughout, creating a dual lead situation during the wonderful guitar solo of Lifeson at 3:24. Peart’s drums behind the last verse, around 4:00, just swing, with that cymbal on the upbeat and the couplets on the kick drum. This song meant so much to me 35 years ago, and it’s wonderful to listen nowadays and to experience bits of those feelings once again. As hard as those teen years could be, this song brings back only the good vibes.

We’ve established that the three members of the band are quite proficient, but like true nerds everywhere – comparing calculus solutions or topping off their friend’s robot with the perfect flame-shooting nozzle – the band wallows in their virtuosity on the wonderful instrumental “YYZ.”

“YYZ” is the three-letter airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport, the Canadian band’s home airport, and the main riff is actually built on the Morse Code signal for the letters Y-Y-Z. (I told you they’re nerds.) I don’t have much to say about the song other than “holy moley, it’s so fucking good!!!” I love the back and forth, as the band trades solos; I love Lee’s inventive playing; and I particularly love Lifeson’s Middle Eastern sounding solo, beginning around 2:20.

The band returns to a more grounded, standard pop format, yet still with a Rush spin, on the AOR radio hit “Limelight.”

Of course, as “pop” and “radio-friendly” as the song is, once again dancefloor denizens would be stymied by its odd time signatures, switching deftly between 7/4, 3/4 and 6/4 with a few odd 4/4 bars thrown in. It’s got a strong melody, and while Lee’s high-pitched voice is front and center, it’s a tame version, with few screeches. Lifeson’s guitar solo at about 2:42 is one of my favorites of all time[ref]As a Rush nerd, it’s standard that I have ranked his solos and that I have a “favorite” solo, which is on “Freewill,” from their Permanent Waves album.[/ref]. It begins with long, atmospheric sounds which gently progress, with more distinct notes added. It shows a guitarist who doesn’t hue to the Classic Rock formula of “more notes=better solo.” The lyrics express Peart’s ambivalence about stardom, thoughts on how a shy, introverted man makes his way through international acclaim from millions of fans. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

By Moving Pictures, the band, which had been routinely placing album-side-length, 20 minute songs about dystopian futures on their albums, had scaled back these efforts to 10 minute songs about Coleridge poems and nature. On this album, an 11-minute epic comparing New Yorkers and Londoners is featured: “The Camera Eye.”

The song starts with gurgling synthesizers that bubble beneath the entire song. I haven’t pointed out yet, but you may have noticed, the band really likes introductions and fanfares to their songs, and this one is no different. I love how it builds through the first 2:20 to the alarm-bell synth, which begins the main guitar riff. The song stays in standard 4/4 until the verse at about 3:35, where it switches to either alternating 6/4 and 5/4, or simply 11/4[ref]I’m sure there’s a musical distinction between alternating 6 & 5 and straight 11, but hell if I know what it is.[/ref]. It’s stuff like this that makes us fans love them, as it just seems like they’re having a great time. Plus it sounds really cool! I love stuff like the bass at 4:00, and the switch to a mellow interlude at 4:40. And Peart’s drumming: I mean, come on. I haven’t said much about it, as what can really be said? He’s a student of drum history and technique, and his own creativity and ability are overwhelming. His speed across well-tuned toms is one thing, but check out the perfectly phrased fills between 5:50 and 6:00, slowing the song’s pace with an intricate tap on the breaks, then the funky high-hat and kick drum between 6:10 and 6:20 as the song revs back up. I find it so much fun to listen to.

I think the band is at their best when they’re fun[ref]As this instructional video shows, they’re fun guys![/ref], and through five songs they’ve been that. However, “Witch Hunt” isn’t fun, and isn’t a song I really connect with. Of course the playing is brilliant, and the anti-hatred lyrics are excellent and particularly relevant today given the state of American policy efforts. But it’s slow pace and repetitive nature leave me a bit cold.

The closing piece, “Vital Signs,” steps up the fun once again.

The band has said they were big fans of all kinds of music, and that fandom was reflected in what they wrote. In the late 70s, new wave and ska were happening, and this song sounds like the band’s spin on The Police or Talking Heads. I love Lifeson’s chopping guitar, and the slinky bass line Lee plays throughout. (As an MTV fan in the early 80s, I loved this video for Peart’s Montreal Expos hat!) The snare sound at about 0:40 is very strange for Peart, very 80s/Casio sounding. After 1:10 it’s back to normal. It’s a fun, catchy song with more burbling synth, and it’s nearly danceable, as it stays in 4/4 throughout! They are living their lyrics here, deviating from their norm!

I’m comfortable with my fandom now, despite the fact that cool-kids of a certain generation may still regard my love for the band as a bit silly. I can laugh about the earnestness with which I devoured their lyrics and learned their sounds, and argued with all-comers about their musical brilliance. I get it – they could overdo it, and we fans could overdo it as well. But the fact remains that they were important to me, and I still love a lot of their music. Back when an assessment of “The Greatest” was important to me, I thought Rush were the greatest. And now I finally understand why: they made me feel great, too.

Track Listing:
“Tom Sawyer”
“Red Barchetta”
“The Camera Eye”
I. New York
II. London
“Witch Hunt”
“Vital Signs”


92nd Favorite: Fly By Night, by Rush


Fly By Night. Rush.
1975, Mercury. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown
Purchased ca. 1984.

fly by night

nutshellIN 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.”


just like plannedNo 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.
reject rainbow 2

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, sad nerdyou 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. funThe 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, nerd-dara 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.

slack ropeBut 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. eggheadSo 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. martinMrs. 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.

bonesIf 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.

amishMy 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.
orange chuckhawaiian shirt
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. spnge pat

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 sexy drumthe 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.

rush double

The first two things you notice about Rush are 1) the singer tends to sing like a frightened teen girlslasher 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 heart rush

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 rush 1 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. peart 1 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, gekkoand 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!!!!metal dude 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.

rush 2The 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. geddyThis 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
c. Aftermath
d. Hymn of Triumph
IV. Epilogue

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 coaxingrush pot 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 …

fan art

… 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.

ear pain

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. guitar funI 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.

dan me

Track Listing
Best I Can
Beneath, Between & Behind
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Fly By Night
Making Memories
In the End

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