40 years on and in the wake of Neil Peart’s unexpected passing, we look back on the Canadian power trio’s first foray into New Wave
The death of Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart on January 7 serve to remind us all of one simple but still surprising fact: Somewhere between 1979 and now the Canadian trio’s affability and unpretentiousness had transformed Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Peart from the high priests of terminal un-hipness to ambassadors of cool. This happened in the same space in which “geek” and “nerd,” terms once used to denigrate the cerebral and sincere were transformed into badges of pride.
That’s a popular notion anyway. Rush wasn’t ahead of its time; Rush merely outpaced the masses. We finally caught up with them. But Rush never lived entirely outside the margins.
That said, 1980’s Permanent Waves, issued within the first two weeks of that year offers us a glimpse of the group that Rush would become as well as a snapshot of the one it had been. Between Peart’s arrival in 1974 and 1978’s Hemispheres, Rush largely shed its Led Zeppelin-dependent boogie rock identity and embraced loftier themes and weightier time signatures.
But Rush never existed without the knowledge that people still came to shows to shake their asses and sing along to the chorus. Fly By Night’s titular track is hook-laden but sophisticated and listening to it today leaves little question as to why it has become a staple of classic rock radio. The album featured the epic “By-Tor & the Snow Dog,” yes, but “Anthem” and “Making Memories” remind us that this was a band that could hold its own with Ted Nugent and Kiss as well as Hawkwind.
VIDEO: Rush performing “Lakeside Park” at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ 12/10/76
With Caress of Steel, Peart, Lifeson and Lee began the tradition of offering up one side-long epic via “The Fountain of Lamneth.” That would carry over the following year with 2112’s title track and ultimately conclude with Hemispheres’ “Cygnus X-1.” Along the way, there was more accessible and more earthly fodder. “Lakeside Park” would find Peart looking back on the burning embers of his youth:
Days of barefoot freedom racing with the waves
Nights of starlit secrets, crackling driftwood flames
Drinking by the lighthouse, smoking on the pier
Still we saw the magic was fading every year
Days of barefoot freedom racing with the waves
On 1977’s A Farewell To Kings, “Xanadu,” heavily inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, coexisted beautifully with “Closer To The Heart,” a call for humankind to “mold a new reality.” The former may have inspired a few sophomores to visit the library while the latter made its way into more than a few college and high school commencement addresses.
By the band’s own admission, Hemispheres brought about the natural conclusion of the pattern established just three years before. The material was becoming increasingly complex and there were hints that the three friends knew their modus operandi had its detractors (“La Villa Strangiato” bore the parenthetical phrase “An Exercise In Self-Indulgence”).
Enter Permanent Waves. The total running time, just over 35 minutes, proved barely leaner than that of any previous Rush album but there was evidence of a band full embracing the times in which it lived and its commercial potential. Opener “The Spirit of Radio” acknowledged not only a medium perhaps more ready to embrace the likes of Kansas and Styx but sounds that were more in tune with The Police and Ultravox than Genesis and Gentle Giant. At a time when other artists were proudly exclaiming the absence of synthesizers on their long-players, Lee was reminding listeners that machinery making modern music could still be open-hearted. Technology and trends were not the enemies; it was the intentions of the operators and programmers that could be benign or malevolent.
VIDEO: Rush lampooning “The Spirit of Radio” on the Time Machine Tour
The tune wonderfully encapsulated the oncoming zeitgeist perfectly. In the coming decade, Rick Springfield would complain that too many people were talking to computers and dancing to drum machines as he begged for a human touch. But Rush recognized that these machines still required humans to operate them. Art and science could still coexist.
The song would be one of two songs released as singles. The second, “Entre Nous,” which opened the LP’s second side, demonstrated Peart’s apparent continued interest in author Ayn Rand as the phrase (meaning “between us”) appeared in her novel The Fountainhead. An intriguing and pleasant song, it seems unlikely that it would have become much of a hit on the American airwaves, though, ironically, a weightier and perhaps more controversial number, “Free Will,” which would become one of the group’s most enduring compositions.
Read by some as a ferocious declaration of atheism and libertarianism, “Free Will’s” soaring choruses (to say nothing of Lifeson’s blistering guitar work) penetrated the psyche of millions of listeners. With references to celestial voices and ready guides, it proves surprisingly easy to sing along with even if one initially misses some of the crueler tendencies of its author’s political/philosophical leanings:
There are those who think that
They’ve been dealt a losing hand
The cards were stacked against them
They weren’t born in Lotus-Land
A prisoner in chains
A victim of venomous fate
Kicked in the face
You can’t pray for a place
In heaven’s unearthly estate
But Peart’s particular leanings never stood in the way of his audience: Rush fans were devout Christians as often as they were avowed atheists; they were bleeding heart liberals as often as they were free market conservatives; they were steely in their rational leanings as frequently as they were heart-on-the-sleeve poets. Under the umbrella of Rush, these tendencies could coexist peacefully, mostly because Peart was never explicitly asking us to embrace a particular ideology but, rather, asking us to consider why a particular ideology had merits for some. After all, in “Free Will,” he declared that he would choose that path not that his listener must.
As commendable as the move forward was, Permanent Waves may stand as one of Rush’s most popular and yet least cohesive albums. “Jacob’s Ladder,” which closes the first side, carries evidence of a group striving for new territory but never quite reaching its destination. The expanses of previous compositions are hinted at, then inexplicably abandoned. The second side’s “Different Strings” and the nine-minute closer “Natural Science” have attracted their devotees over the decades but neither feels particularly revelatory today.
That Peart was a genius lyricist remains undisputable but with Permanent Waves the full reach of that genius was just beginning to reveal itself. By 1981’s Moving Pictures it would come into full view and remain an ever-evolving and continuously original and generous source of inspiration for others.
Perhaps that’s the most inspiring part of his legacy and the legacy of Rush, the ability to grow, to change and to think for and believe in one’s self.
AUDIO: Rush Permanent Waves (full album)