Are Rock Critics Planning to Disorient Rush Fans?
Rush’s story isn’t over yet
An interview with Rush academic Chris McDonald
Chris McDonald moved Rush literature into an academic direction with the publication of his book Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class (Indiana University Press) in 2009, which looks at the band as a vessel of middle-class values. Up until that point, there were two kinds of books available on the band, biographies and lyric interpretations. McDonald took the position that middle class values are expressed in pieces like “Subdivisions” and “Middletown Dreams,” and they’re also expressed in the way the band members have conducted themselves professionally over the years, with their emphasis on musicianship and commitment to touring.
In his latest writing on the band, McDonald says Rush’s music is consistent with humanism and that it can fill an emotional void that’s left by the sterile rhetoric that humanists use to talk about their philosophy. That analysis is included in Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press), a compilation of philosophical essays on the band that came out earlier this year.
We caught up with McDonald this summer to learn a little more about his ideas and find out what he’s working on next. McDonald has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from York University in Toronto and is teaching at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where he’s starting to dig into the area’s rich history of Celtic music.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Rush Vault: What’s the genesis of your thesis that Rush is a vessel of middle class values?
Chris McDonald: I did my dissertation on Rush, and it didn’t actually have that middle class focus. I was trying to put a lot of fan reception into the discussion of the songs, and at the end of my degree, one of the readers of my dissertation said, “Have you really zeroed in on what the social need is for a band like this? What are they expressing and why are they expressing it? Is this a gender thing? Is it a whiteness thing?” I kept thinking, Yeah, there are all of those things, but they don’t quite tie it together, because you can apply those things to just about any rock band. About a year after I finished my degree, I was watching the “Subdivisions” video and thinking, Now, this is it. Right here. This lifestyle, this middle class kind of existence seems to really drive a lot of it, and I started to do a whole new round of research on middle class sociology and middle class history and I started thinking, Yeah, this is probably what it is that really drives Rush’s expression of all of these things, from individualism to science fiction and fantasy, to this drive toward virtuosity and professionalism. It all just started to come together.
RV: Does there have to be a social need for a band? Can’t people just like the music without it being anything more than that?
CM: Generally when you get any kind of cult following, like Rush has, it’s fulfilling some kind of desire to reflect or escape from a social position.
RV: The middle class isn’t homogenous. When you talk about the middle class, what do you mean?
CM: The social position that I thought Rush was really coming from is the small entrepreneur, shop owner, freelance professional. They’re not necessarily rich but they have a lot of autonomy, ownership of what they do. That’s the background Neil Peart comes from. His dad owned a small business. For that matter, Ayn Rand’s family came from that kind of background, and of course the band was into Ayn Rand early on. That social position has a particular perspective that gets expressed politically and aesthetically. I think Alex was the most blue-collar of the group. The only thing I remember finding out about Geddy was his mother was like, “Are you sure you can be a musician? Are you sure you can really prosper doing this?” She obviously had upwardly mobile aspirations for her children, and then she was very impressed when it turned out they could actually live well doing the whole rock and roll thing.
It’s interesting. There’s actually been a lot of discussion comparing the Rolling Stones with The Beatles, because the Stones were very much these kids from upwardly mobile British families wanting to get away from that middle-class context, wanting to explore that black American working class music and lifestyle. That contrasts with The Beatles, in which you had genuine working class kids from this decaying industrial center north of London who were getting into the rock and roll thing. The whole Beatle image was constructed around non-threatening, cute boys in their suits playing this innocuous rock and roll. There was almost like this upward mobility aspect to it. Whereas the Stones were in fact these upwardly mobile middle class guys pretending to be ruffians, playing at a working class identity.
RV: You link musicianship with middle class values. Let’s talk a minute about that.
CM: Rush comes out of the power trio tradition that was perfected by Cream, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. Cream especially was very jam oriented, as a lot of these bands were. It was very process oriented, improvisational. Rush started off that same way, but they really wanted to move in a different direction, one in which they were arranging things more. Their approach was more like that of the composer, where you take these discrete arrangements and join them together. That becomes the sequence and you don’t really vary it that much. You see that when you see them live. The songs are very close to the studio recordings. There’s a sense that the song as composed is not to be violated. And the fans are invested in that. They want to see whether Geddy can pull off that bass line while singing or whether Neil can pull off that crazy polyrhythm and the band will still land on beat one on time.
There’s a feeling that, we know these complex structures, we know these sections, where the meter is in odd number and the accents are unpredictable. People know that and there’s a pleasure in that. That’s a big part of the pleasures of music, of course. Rush was always expansive, too. That’s the idea that songs could be long, that one member could play every percussion item known, and another could be playing bass pedals and keyboards and singing and then going back to bass. It’s this feeling that you can have a five-man band with only three people.
RV: How does the band’s use of odd meters connect to musicianship?
CM: There’s a clever and cerebral aspect to it. Almost all of the popular music in the 20th century has tended to be in 4, this feeing of “1, 2, 3, 4—1, 2, 3, 4,” or in 3. There’s rarely been anything else. There’s a reason for that: it’s very easy to dance to, because everything is “1, 2—1,2—1,2,” and you have two arms, two legs, so there’s that sense of balance. I’m not saying playing in 4 is necessarily simple. If you listen to James Brown, that stuff is in 4, but the rhythm is wonderfully complicated. But if you deviate from that, if you do something in 7, where you have a feeling of “1,2,3,4—1,2,3—1,2,3,4—1,2,3,” and start trying to dance to it, it’s weird. You can’t find 1. It feels off-kilter. It’s unpredictable, yet there’s a repeating pattern, so that’s why I say it sounds rather clever or cerebral, and I think that’s why progressive bands like Rush, Genesis, King Crimson, and even later bands like Sound Garden and Metallica like getting out of 4 and trying something else.
It might have something to do with the nature of hard rock. You’re dealing with an ensemble that’s playing in single notes and power chords, so you can play with rhythm in a funny way. You can come up with a riff that’s “1,2,3,4,5.” It just works out. Like in jazz, you’ve got a bass player who’s doing a bass line, you’ve got a chords instrument like a guitar or a piano, and you have a soloist. In rock you can have this ensemble playing together and for some reason that makes it very easy to start screwing with the meter.
RV: The backbeat is a big part of rock. Does that go away when you start playing around with meter?
CM: You can still hear the backbeat in Rush. They don’t go away from that. But a lot of their songs don’t have that. Like if you listen to “Limelight.” Neil can’t really play that backbeat against that riff. I think that’s in 7/2. It goes “1, 2—1,2,3.”
COMPLETING THE CIRCLE?
RV: Rush just completed its Time Machine tour and the band has said its next steps are to complete work on Clockwork Angels. Where do you see them taking that?
CM: Well, “Brought up to Believe” sounds like its continuing the atheistic direction we saw in Snakes and Arrows, and we’re hearing that Clockwork Angels might be a big statement album, so whether they’re going to go out with a bang or they’re just working on another album, with another one to follow in, say, five years, is hard to say.
It’s interesting, though, in how their career has moved in a circle. They started off doing heavy rock as a power trio, and seemed to move very far from that, going progressive then adding some new wave influences, then getting really into synthesizer technology and sequencers, then gradually backing off of that. For the 90s, they said they were getting rid of the keyboards, but they really didn’t. Then, in the 2000s, they were like, “Now we’re really getting rid of them completely,” and they went back to being heavy again. They don’t sound like they did in 1974, but there’s this idea that they’ve come back to the power trio as the core idea. So, will they go around the circle again? Will they start to go more progressive, in the sense of longer, more conceptual songs? It sounds a little bit like that’s what they’re thinking with Clockwork Angels.
RV: When you came out with your book, you took Rush literature to an academic level. Before it was just biographies and some lyric interpretations. Now, there was this serious academic work on the band. What was the reaction to that?
CM: I followed the fan responses to just about everything for years online. There were definitely people who read it and, even if they didn’t agree with everything, were very entertained by and interested in the analysis and then there were people who were, like, it’s rock and roll and it shouldn’t be analyzed. There was just a range of responses and that was entirely expected.
One of the things that surprised me was when I was dealing with individualism. I was talking contextually, historically, and critically about the libertarian viewpoints in the music, knowing that libertarian discussions tend to be polarizing, so I was expecting to get crucified for what I said. But what I wasn’t expecting were positive libertarian reviews, and the book received some of those. That took me by surprise.
RV: Neil dismisses his early flirtation with Ayn Rand as just youthful over exuberance. Is the whole objectivism, individualist strain in the music a thing of the past, at least based on your research into their work?
CM: I would say the libertarian aspect of Neil’s writing has been declining since the 1980s. You see it prominently in songs like “Tom Sawyer” and Grand Designs” from Power Windows, which I think of as an individualist song more than anything. It sets up this idea of the run of the mill vs. the diamond in the rough, and that one should seek to be true to oneself and be nonconformist, swimming against the stream. Most people are stuck in this two-dimensional life, and it takes real courage and time to be different from that.
But from about the time of Signals and Grace Under Pressure, the sense of that influence was declining. I didn’t hear much in Vapor Trails or Snakes and Arrows that made me think, Oh, yeah, that sounds like a trope of an Ayn Rand novel or a non-fiction book. It seems like he’s moved far from that in some ways, although having said that, Snakes and Arrows almost thematically is very much about atheism and takes an anti-religion, very secular, humanist approach, and Rand would have agreed. Then again, I don’t think she spent a lot of time talking about religion.
RV: So, next year is 2012. Will that be the year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes the band that gave us “2112?”
CM: If the critics suddenly accepted Rush and inducted them into the Hall of Fame, as a fan I would feel a little disoriented. Rock criticism developed around social consciousness, Bob Dylan, the jam-oriented Grateful Dead, smart singer-songwriters. Rush was never any of those things, and the harsh critical reception, the feeling that this is something the mainstream doesn’t get, has been part of the Rush lore from the beginning. If critics suddenly turned around and started valuing the band, I’d be like, huh, that’s a big change. The first article I ever wrote on the band, “Making Arrows Out of Pointed Words,” actually was on their critical reception. I sampled a pretty big selection of writing on Rush, and it’s clear they weren’t taken very seriously, and I think that’s important. But the idea they were being dumped on horribly was a bit inflated. There are some doozey reviews, of course, the really bad ones, but there was also a lot of just so-so reviews, like, “Yeah, this band’s kind of interesting, but they’re kind of weird. They’re good players, but the songs are kind of empty.”
I started looking at what they said about other bands, and other progressive bands like Queen were reviled way worse. They were really dumped on. I read some reviews of Gino Vannelli and some were just horrendous. Then you get artists like Bruce Springsteen, who was like god. He could do no wrong.
I compared Rush’s critical reviews to all the writing that’s been done on the band in the musician magazines, which was generally very positive and even somewhat fawning, worshipful. That’s an interesting area of contrast, because there was this area of rock writing, mainly by drummers, guitarists, and bassists that was actually very positive.
That said, the number one biggest complaint the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gets is that Rush isn’t in there. I think in some ways it’s become a joke. I remember a while back the joke was that Susan Lucci would never get an Emmy for All My Children. She was nominated every year and never got it. I almost feel it’s gotten that way with Rush. They’ve been eligible for years now and every year there’s talk, “Will this be the year?” It never is. So, if they induct them, the running joke ends. I don’t know how much the band cares. The say they don’t. But here’s the thing with Rush. Even though they’ve been playing for as long as they have, their story isn’t over yet.
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault