SOUNDTRACK: RUSH-Caress of Steel (1975).
Despite the fact that this album is largely considered a failure, it’s one of my favorite Rush albums. There’s so much weirdness about it that I can see why it isn’t terribly popular but there’s so much goodness that it makes me a bit bummed that some glorious tracks are overlooked.
It opens with the one track people know from the disc: “Bastille Day,” a rough raw rocker that is heavy and really sets the tone for the first side of the disc. The heavy heavy riff is reminiscent of Black Sabbath and other early metal pioneers. I also learned that they were touring with Kiss around this time, so maybe that’s where they got some of their heavy riff ideas from. I of course cannot imagine Rush and Kiss touring together. That must have been a real trip.
The second song, the amusing “I Think I’m Going Bald” is rather obvious, especially the way he delivers the title line, but man the guitar solo just rocks and rocks and rocks. “Lakeside Park,” a real location outside of Toronto is a gentle tribute to youth. This quote amuses me no end, and is something I just read about.
The first real highlight for me is “The Necromancer,” a wacked out 12-minute mini epic. It opens with a spoken word introduction, setting the tale of three travelers fording a river. The first part is pure psychedelia, with screaming guitars going from ear to ear. The second part is heavy with a slow pounding riff and Geddy’s screamed vocals It features a long headphone-happy guitar solo. And just when you think it’s over, there’s some crazy sound effects and, yes more guitar soloing.
The third and final movement sees the return of By-Tor from “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” By-Tor is now a good guy and he scares off the Necromancer. I always enjoyed playing this part on the guitar as the chord progression is really pretty.
Side Two is one song, a full side, their first proper epic. Called “The Fountain of Lamneth” it focuses on a man’s quest for this elusive Fountain. It has six parts. The first, “In the Valley” is a pretty, acoustic ballad that expands into a loud rocker. It introduces our anonymous narrator, and by the end its sets the tone with a loud/quiet explanation of his satisfaction and dissatisfaction with his life.
It’s followed by the insane “Didacts and Narpets” (Teachers and Parents (anagram on Narpets). It’s just drums and shouting. Evidently it’s designed to show a young man fighting with teachers and parents, and sure why not. It’s pretty out there, but it’s only 90 seconds long. (I’ve always enjoyed it).
The middle sections are really quite mellow. More of that beautiful classical guitar that Alex does so well. The songs don’t remain mellow the whole time, with “No One at The Bridge” adding some loud aggressive bits. But “Panacea” stays quite mellow, with some beautiful guitar harmonics. The next bit, “Bacchus Plateau” is a really pretty song despite its ultimately downer message, and probably could have been a hit if tit weren’t part of 20 minute song..
The song ends with him finding the fountain. And yet rather than rejoice, he’s exhausted. But I’ve always enjoyed the “message” of the song: “Life is just a candle but the dream must give it flame.” It’s inspirational and depressing at the same time. It ends with a reprise of the opening acoustic bit. It’s a tidy song and a wonderful first attempt at an epic track.
The only reason I’m surprised this didn’t sell well is that it works so well as a trippy 70s disc, ideal for sitting around with headphones on in one of those round chairs. I assume its the heaviness that turned away fans of Pink Floyd and the like. And, well, probably the downer message and really weird title of the disc (what does Caress of Steel mean anyhow?) might have had something to do with it.
[READ: March 10, 2010] Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class
I read about this book in an article from The Walrus. And I thought to myself, it’s geeky enough to love Rush, but how about reading an academic treatise about Rush? I’m so there.
Well, I haven’t really read a truly academic (as in published by a University Press) book in a while, but it didn’t take too long to get back in the swing of things. Plus, if I may be so bold, ethnomusicology seems like a lot more fun than philosophy.
As the subtitle implies, this book looks at Rush as music for the middle class. The only thing I had a hard time with the book was the definition of middle class. It is specifically aimed at a U.S./Canadian middle class (although the UK does enter into it too), and with all of the definitions thrown around, middle class seems very broad. The easiest breakdown to see was based on employment and the most prominent type of employment among Rush fans was “professional” (including librarians and IT people). So, evidently I am middle class. I only say this because for the most part classes are hidden in the US (they aren’t, of course, but there are many attempts to try to keep them hidden).
This concept of class obviously pervades the entire book. But before we get too hung up on that, we must not forget that the real focus of the book: the music of Rush.
The first chapter focuses on the desire to escape suburbia. Using “Subdivisions” as a jumping off point, McDonald discusses the blandness of suburbia and people’s desire to escape it. He then looks at Rush’s songs of escape: “The Fountain of Lamneth” (I LOVE that he talks about Caress of Steel!), “Cygnus, X-1″ and “Red Barchetta.” For a fan of these earlier songs, it’s wonderful to see them dissected (and if I do say so, to hear them taken seriously).
The first two were obviously escapist but I wasn’t sure about “Red Barchetta.” Of course, as soon as he talks about it, it was very obviously an escapist song, in the tradition of great driving songs but with a neat sci-fi twist.
The second chapter focuses on other themes in Rush, specifically individualism in the earlier tracks and the global nature of working together that show up in the later songs. The earlier songs fall under the influence of Ayn Rand. This concept of Objectivist lyrics was pretty pervasive for most critics, especially in the UK, where Rush was labelled crypto-fascist or worse.
As a Rush fan who doesn’t really agree with Ayn Rand (especially now that she has been adopted by the fringe) I never really got that Randian aspect of the earlier lyrics. I’ve always been very interested in and a strong proponent of noncomformity (which those songs espouse) but I’ve never taken it as far as Rand suggests. (I’m actually quite a socialist at heart. I believe that a country is only as string as its weakest link. And when we neglect the poor, it adversely effects the entire country. A merciful government can do so much more than corporations or even individuals would ever do in ensuring the overall health of a nation).
Neil Peart balked at the fascist comparisons. You get the sense that he was like a young kid dabbling in this new theory (of Objectivism) rather than a firm believer in it. And, as if you can watch Neil growing up, you can see him turn away from these individualist songs towards songs that espouse community and love. This section was helpful in opening my eyes to aspects of Rush songs that I never noticed before. “Tom Sawyer” for instance, is their biggest hit, but I don’t think I ever really thought about what the words meant, Hearing different interpretations of the song (both by the author and by some fans who are quoted) really made me think about this song that I’ve sung so many times.
The third and fourth chapters talk about Rush’ musicianship. Their virtuosity is well known, and most Rush fans are muciisnas themselves. The chapter looks at how the band doesn’t jump around a lot onstage, rather, they are working hard, showing off what they can do as the main focus of the concert experience.
The fifth chapter is subtitled Representations of Rush Fandom. This section is full of demographic information as well as samples from surveys McDonald did. It also looks at frequent users of fan sites and listservs to find out what the middle class fan looks like. While in no way comprehensive, it is a fun look at demographics.
The final chapter looks at Rush’s critics. The general consensus is that rock critics dismiss Rush pretty well out of hand, but that proves not to be the case across the board. One of the biggest critics has been Rolling Stone. Rush has never appeared on their cover (once when they were offered, they refused to drop what they were doing (touring) to make it for the photo shoot) and they have never been offered since. And since Rolling Stone has a pretty big input into who makes the Hall of Fame, it shows why Rush has never been considered (of course the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a stupid joke, so getting upset about who gets in is an exercise in futility).
So overall, this book was fascinating. It’s likely too academic for some people (even Rush fans). When he started talking about Mixolydian scale, even I had no idea what he was on about, and I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years.
If you’re looking for a book that explains Rush in detail, this is sort of the book for you. There’s very little in the way of biography (which is by design) and while he doesn’t tackle the entire Rush canon, he does spend a great deal of time talking about certain songs in depth. McDonald is also a huge Rush fan so he knows a lot about the band and has been working on this book for years (early chapters appeared as published articles). He also interviewed Alex Lifeson at one point, and Alex seems like a fun interview, frankly).
If you don’t like Rush, there’s probably very little reason to read this book. However, if you’re interested in ethnomusicology or even surveys about the middle class, he offers insights that you won’t find in many other places.
I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would. McDonald is an engaging writer, and, although many of the chapters are designed to reiterate the basic premise of the book (such is the way of academic works), the flow of the chapters was quite manageable.
Good for Rush for getting a proper academic treatise written about them. And good for the middle class.