Background and Commentary

“The Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem ‘Kubla Khan: A Vision in a Dream’ inspired this epic, while opium induced dreams inspired Coleridge’s version. He wrote only 55 lines and left it unfinished. Neil’s lyrics paraphrase the poetry, which concerns the ancients’ obsession with immortality and the person who seeks it in the land of Xanadu. Honey symbolizes rebirth and wisdom, while caves of ice are definite metaphors for the unconscious. The eternity the person in the lyrics is seeking becomes frozen and stagnant (like death or coma): a precursor to ‘Time Stand Still.'”—Robert Telleria, Merely Players

Neil in his book Roadshow says the song was originally going to be about the Orson Welles movie Citizen Kane, which opens with a line from Kubla Khan, but when he started looking up background information on the Coleridge poem, he became more interested in the poem and reoriented the song in that direction. “In the end, there was entirely too much ‘honey dew’ in it—too much Coleridge, that is to say—and though musically the song was one of our earliest big ‘epics,’ I never cared much for the lyrics.” As a side note, Neil says a video of the band playing the song gave them their first exposure on British television, because the video was played over the closing credits of a music program called The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Neil in a March 24, 2011, Guardian interview says the power of the Coleridge poem overwhelmed him: “More or less against my will, I found the song being taken over by the poem, in a way that has never happened before or since. For that reason, the finished song has never been my favorite piece of work, lyrically––too derivative––but it made a good musical vehicle for one of our first ‘extended works.’ Also, it was portentous that I added the ‘adventure travel’ aspect to the song’s story way back then––‘I scaled the frozen mountaintops of eastern lands unknown/ Time and man alone/ Searching for the lost Xanadu’––before I’d ever traveled farther than the arenas and rock clubs of North America. It is also noteworthy that I portrayed the idea of immortality as a grim fate, a curse, because the first lyrics I ever wrote, at about age 17, were for a song by the band I was in, JR Flood, called ‘Retribution.’ (When I told my mother about the song, and the title, she cracked: ‘Who are you writing for––college professors?’ That was rich, said to a high-school-dropout wannabe drummer. In later years, having attained success with Rush, I once heard a disparaging remark: ‘Rush is what happens when you let the drummer write the songs.’ Pretty funny––though of course I’m not entirely to blame; I only write the lyrics.) “Retribution was a first-person story about a soul trapped in immortality as a punishment, foreshadowing the character I made up for Xanadu. It is further ironic that a dominant theme in Citizen Kane is the opposite: mortality as a punishment––symbolised by Kane’s dying word: ‘Rosebud.’ But in terms of the influence of Coleridge on my lyrics, I am much more fond of a less obvious reference, a line in our song ‘Animate,’ from Counterparts (1994): ‘Daughter of a demon lover.’ It pays homage to these powerful lines from Kubla Khan: ‘As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon lover!'”—Neil in March 24, 2011, Guardian interview.

Alex and Geddy both play double-necks on the piece. “‘Xanadu’ is the song that we really both used them in. [I used mine] just so I could go back and play a couple of guitar bits. Because I used to play rhythm guitar in the middle section.”—Geddy in Contents Under Pressure

“Geddy’s double-neck was heralded at the time as the first double-neck Rickenbacker, constructed in Los Angeles specifically for Rush. Neil bulked up as well, using keyboard percussion and a whole array of tubular bells and chimes.”—Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure

“The song relishes the splendour of Kubla Khans palace, but it emphasizes the consequences of overreaching and the explorer’s solitary endless quest [for immortality] in the fade-out at the end of the song. An epic stature is lent through reference to the Mongolian dynasty, but more importantly through the extended length of the track and its musical virtuosity.”—Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell, Beyond and Before

On the piece, the band has “absorbed the progressive rock influences they sought, but even more than on ‘2112’ they have created their own sound and identity. It is passionate, yet with a strong intelligence. The words convey the theme in a clear manner and the music supports the lyrics. The louder, more aggressive passages are not just there so the group can rock out; they serve the story.”—Bill Banasiewicz, Rush Visions

Two “Xanadu” tribute versions.


“To seek the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
To break my fast on honeydew
And drink the milk of Paradise.”

I had heard the whispered tales of immortality
The deepest mystery
From an ancient book I took a clue
I scaled the frozen mountain tops of eastern lands unknown
Time and Man alone
Searching for the lost Xanadu


To stand within the Pleasure Dome
Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste anew the fruits of life
The last immortal man
To find the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
Oh, I will dine on honeydew
And drink the milk of Paradise

A thousand years have come and gone
but time has passed me by
Stars stopped in the sky
Frozen in an everlasting view
Waiting for the world to end, weary of the night
Praying for the light
Prison of the lost


Held within the Pleasure Dome
Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste my bitter triumph
As a mad immortal man
Nevermore shall I return
Escape these caves of ice
For I have dined on honeydew
And drunk the milk of Paradise


By Charles Grogan (s3sijdp@sae.towson.edu)

Excerpted from Fretplay.

intro riff



main theme
2 3


long scale after main theme


chord work:

First time- guitar, percussion and synth come in
2nd-bass comes in
3rd-full drums kit, synth fades out


Fourth time:




Progression during lyrics (‘To seek…’)

8 9


In between ‘..Paradise’ and ‘I had heard..’



Then the chord sequence during ‘I have heard…’ etc. Here I’ve pinned
down all chords, for it’s not all repetition.


E G A G E B A G A E B A G A E G A G E|

The second one runs from ‘I scaled the frozen…’


E G A G E B A G A E B A G A E G A G E| E G

and going over in the picking passage.

13 14


For complete tab, go to Fretplay.


“Xanadu” guitar cover

“Xanadu” bass cover

“Xanadu” drum cover

Back to Rush Vault

~ by rvkeeper on February 3, 2011.

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