Thursday, July 22, 2010

SONG #137 & 138: Red Barchetta, Subdivisions

Rush, Moving Pictures, 1981
Rush, Signals, 1982

Hahahahahahahahahha!!!  Thank you, iPod.  I promise to be snarky in the next post, and you give me TWO Rush songs in a row?  Feed me, Seymour...

Let's just start with this question--  who of you reading this blog likes Rush?  Raise your cyberhands.  Go ahead-- no one can see you.

Thank you.

Here are my guesses about those of you who said yes.

1.  You are men.  Or, at least, males.  I have never met a woman who likes Rush.  Moreover, I have met several who HAAAAAAAAAAAATE them.  Give most women a choice between a long gynecological exam with Dr. Hairyarm and listening to two hours of Rush, and they'd say "Hmm... where did he get his medical degree?"  *

2.  You are musicians, and by that I mean that you had formal training on some instrument.  That way, you can appreciate the musical dexterity of Rush even when they're singing about celtic ruins, the apocalyptic future, or determinist philosophy.

2a.  If you are not a musician, you are at least 37 years old.  You had to be in middle school or above when this record came out to appreciate it as a pop record, something to listen to casually.

3.  You are a proud, defensive Canadian.

4.  You like at least two of the following:  science ficiton, 19th Century German culture, 70s horror films, independent comic books, Arby's Roast Beef.

5.  If you do not meet the above criteria, you are related to bassist/singer Geddy Lee, however distantly.

Rush is as much of a punch line as a band.  These poor guys are the band that NO ONE will invite to join the club.  They're like Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Cusack and the other guy in Sixteen Candles-- just not invited to the party.  And there's no Jake at the end to make them feel cool-- just a bunch of aging Star Trek nerds calling for an encore of "By-Tor And The Snow Dog."

They're not invited to the classic rock club with Zeppelin or the Stones or Aerosmith or even ZZ Top because they're too close to prog rock.  There is no Rush song about getting high or laid or sticking it to the man.  Lyricist Neil Peart is a smart, smart guy, and prefers to write lyrics about Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.  Not that his lyrics are good-- most are wonderfully awful in a totally egghead way.  

Normal person:  Dude, did you fart?

Neil Peart version: My olfactory senses indicate the release of toxins from your system in a most distasteful way.  Beware our technology-driven future!!!

For all of their prog-rock leanings, though, Rush is excluded from that King Crimsony club as well for being silly.  We'll talk about their sense of humor in a minute.  There's no room for humor in prog-rock, so while fans give the time of day to Emerson, Lake and Palmer (at some point, we'll get to Tarkus), Rush is on the outside looking in.

They're certainly not invited into the art-rock band pantheon either.  Bands like Queen are forgiven their symphonic leanings and musical decadence.  You can't tell me that Freddie Mercury isn't equally weird as a frontman as Geddy Lee.  But no luck for Rush.  They remain one of the most critically hated successful bands of all time.  

Though people have told me that apparently there are new bands who list Rush as an influence, I could find no evidence of that on the net after 45 minutes of solid searching.  I did find some hilarious Rush fan sites, though, and most of them are run and inhabited by... you guessed it... the people I described above.

Rush is not in the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame, and as long as Jann Wenner controls who gets in, never will be.  Say what you want about whether Rush deserves it, but my argument is that if The Eagles get in, than you've set the bar low enough for Rush.  Or Molly Hatchet.  Or A Flock Of Seagulls.

In the Megan Slankard Band, when you make a mistake, you are outed by having me work the bass line to "Fly By Night" into the song as a musical insult.

They are, perhaps, the most uncool rock band of all time.  Guys in The Little River Band say to one another, "At least we're not Rush."

AND YET:  here's some trivia for you.

1) Name the only bands in history to have more consecutive gold albums (500,000+ sales) than Rush.

Answer:  The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  That's it.

2) Which of these artists has sold the most albums: Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Green Day, The Police, Motley Crue, Steve Miller, Rush?

Answer:  you guessed it: Rush.

Rush is a HUGE band.  For all of the grief that they take, and for all of the people claiming to hate them, SOMEONE is buying Rush albums.  40 million of them and counting, to be exact.

So I find Rush both hilarious and fascinating-- they are the band no one will admit to liking who millions of people secretly like.  They are the "shameful 1am stop at a Quickie Mart to get a snack" band.  They are the Hostess Ding Dongs of rock music.

So let's try to figure out what the deal is here, dammit.  

And let's start with some honesty.  


I kinda like Rush.  Matter of fact, there are about three dozen Rush songs on the list.

I was surprised also.  I've always assumed that I didn't like them.  And here's the thing-- I don't, in a lot of ways.  For example--

a) Geddy Lee's voice.  Lee might be the only singer who has improved with age.  As rock singers age, they frequently have to lower the keys of the songs, and it's usually a bummer.  Have you seen U2 lately?  Bono's lost the top five notes of his range.  But with Geddy Lee, that's a WELCOME change.  He's never sounded better, because in his youth he had one of the most shocking screeches I've ever heard.  On early Rush albums, Lee's voice is almost cartoonishly high and whiny.  He ruins some early songs for me with his voice.  Check out "Bastille Day."  The vocal is just all kinds of grating.

b) Neil Peart's lyrics.  I'm about to defend the lyrics to "Subdivisions" in a minute, and I actually like the lyrics to "Freewill," but a lot of his work is just absurd.  We'll deal with the lyrics to "Red Barchetta" in a minute...

c) Production choices.  Look, I played a synthesizer in my first band (a Roland Juno 106, which is suddenly in vogue again-- thank you, MGMT), and I know that we were all fired up about them in the 80s, but man, have some of Rush's albums aged poorly.  Rush's mid-80s albums are exactly what music should NOT sound like.  I cannot hear them without cringing.  I put on "The Big Money" for the Blog Gal the other day, and she looked at me as if I had just peeled off my skin to reveal another human being underneath.  It was mostly a look of total CONCERN-- there must be something wrong with me even to know about that song, let alone play it, let alone ON PURPOSE!

d) The "Goofy" factor.  The band has a irrepressibly nerdy sense of humor.  In concert, songs are sometimes introduced by little comedy videos.  Rarely are they funny-- they most resemble a middle schooler's extra credit project.  The dichotomy between the super-serious album art and lyrics and then the live presentation of that material is just downright confusing.  One does not inform the other; instead, they end up detracting from both.

That should be enough nails for the coffin, right?

But then, it turns out there are these mitigating factors:

a) Rush has one of the most organized catalogs in rock history.  The band, for its first 25 years, followed this formula:  4 studio albums, 1 live album.  Go check it out-- it's a riot.  An album every year for four years, followed by a live album with songs from those four albums.  The archivist in me truly appreciates that kind of anal organizational apporach.  It's easy to keep track of Rush.  No b-sides, no lost sessions, etc.

b) Neil Peart's drumming.  This guy can really really play.  Every drummer I know can play the fills from the end of "Tom Sawyer" out of genuine homage.  Moreover, he's an inspiring figure.  When Rush is on tour, he has the bus pull over 100 miles before they reach the venue, and he road cycles to the gig, and then plays drums for three hours.  Moreover, he lost both his daughter and his wife within 10 months of one another, and wrote a moving book about working through his grief.  He's a good guy.

c) Production choices.  Unlike the 80s albums, Rush's 70s albums are fascinating to me in their simplicity.  This band is a trio, and on most of their 1974-1978 output, there are almost no overdubs.  Of any kind!  There's the occasional sound effect, but on some of their twenty minute, side-long songs, seventeen minutes of it is a three-piece rock band playing together, without any studio trickery.  They're almost like a punk band in their musical approach.  Once again, consider "Bastille Day"-- the music mostly sounds like The Damned from a few days ago.  I'm not kidding.  They're the only band of their kind that took that approach-- most bands approached the invention of 24 track recording in the 70s like kids in a candy store.  Old Rush music is actually, to my shock, aging well because it lacks the extraneous overdubs that clog a lot of the music of that period (and Rush's later efforts, sadly).

d) The "Goofy" factor.  Geddy Lee appeared on a Bob and Doug Mackenzie single (please tell me you remember the film Strange Brew) for SCTV at the height of his fame.  In the album version, the boys thank Geddy for appearing, and he says, "Well... yeah, you know, my manager called me, and well... ten bucks is ten bucks."  He's a humble, down-to-earth, friendly, funny guy.  Canadian to the core, I guess.

(Here's a clip from the film.  I still know it by heart from 27 years ago.

Best line in this clip: a tie between "Ok Ok, you boss me around..."  and "I believe they'll be no charge on this to for a... a beer, thank you."  Also love that the mouse they supposedly found in the beer is still alive.)

Max Von Sydow's greatest moment.

And finally-- Rush has been together now for 36 years with no changes to the lineup, no drug problems, no fighting, no Behind The Music embarrassments.  As we've all learned as we've grown up, nerds tend not to burn out and make for happy, productive adults.  Rush might be uncool, but they're one of the most high-functioning, happy success stories in rock history.  In interviews, they come off like a bunch of dorky junior high school friends.  They're the antidote for so many other sad outcomes.

So let's turn to two of Rush's biggest hits (the pod actually spit up "The Trees" instead of "Subdivisions," so I'm cheating a little bit).  "Red Barchetta" is from the band's biggest album, Moving Pictures.  It was everywhere when I was in fifth grade, and we knew it was a big deal because of the way the vinyl looked.  Most albums came with the normal corporate logo in the middle of the album, like this:


Check out Moving Pictures in contrast:

A specialty label!!  That's how you knew the band mattered.  Hell, even Dylan and Springsteen didn't get that treatment.

In the early days of MTV, the band provided videos for four of the album's tracks, and so they were on all the time (the channel didn't have very many choices yet, since it was totally racist in its programming until Michael Jackson).  We all knew this album really well.  It was a pop album for all intents and purposes, as hard as that is to imagine.  Even girls could tolerate it for a few months.

"Red Barchetta" starts with a chimey guitar figure, countered by Geddy Lee's oustanding bass intro.  Listen from about 0:15-0:35-- that is what I call a cool bass fill.  Things start to get dodgy quickly after that-- the song seems to be a ballad, and the lyrics seem to be telling a fictional story about an oppressive future:

My uncle has a country place
That no one knows about.
He says it used to be a farm
Before the Motor Law.
And on Sundays I elude the Eyes,
And hop the Turbine Freight
To far outside the Wire
Where my white-haired uncle waits.

Nothing more exciting than a song about an old man's secret farm.  Who's ready to rawk???  

The music picks up here, though.  Peart finally kicks in after a full verse of "Here comes the beat... Psych!" drum fills, and guitarist Alex Lifeson gets a chance to riff it up a bit.  No help in the lyrics department, though.

Jump to the ground
As the Turbo slows to cross the borderline.
Run like the wind
As excitement shivers up and down my spine.
Down in his barn
My uncle preserved for me an old machine
For fifty-odd years.
To keep it as new has been his dearest dream.

So it's a song about driving an old car.  Umm... that's sorta been done before, guys.  Like a billion times.  In iconic fashion.

I strip away the old debris
That hides a shining car:
A brilliant red Barchetta
From a better vanished time.
We fire up the willing engine
Responding with a roar.
Tires spitting gravel,
I commit my weekly crime.

Aha!  See-- in the horrible future, though cars are no longer allowed, our rebel character is going to pollute the air anyway.  Sorry, but in these days of global warming, a "Motor Law" sounds like a good idea to me.

At 2:30, we get the third musical idea in the song.  It's pretty cool, the kind of chordal riff that Pete Townshend likes to employ.  It's supposed to convey the thrill of driving, and it's certainly musically the best moment yet.  But--

In my hair
Shifting and drifting
Mechanical music
Adrenaline surge...

Well-weathered leather,
Hot metal and oil,
The scented country air.
Sunlight on chrome,
The blur of the landscape,
Every nerve aware.

Hoo boy.  If you have to say "Adrenaline surge" in a lyric, chances are there's not much surge happening.  The same rule applies to "Can I kiss you goodnight?"  If you have to ask, it ain't happening.

Out of the wreckage, though, comes the guitar solo at 3:20.  Here's the Rush sound I was taking about from the 70s.  There's just guitar, bass and drums.  The solo isn't even overdubbed!  Suddenly this song is completely empty, and you have three great players improvising together.  For about 25 seconds, Rush sounds like a badass, adventurous trio.  All three players are on fire.

Sadly, just as quickly, we're back to the silliness:

Suddenly ahead of me
Across the mountainside
A gleaming alloy air-car
Shoots towards me, two lanes wide.
I spin around with shrieking tires
To run the deadly race
Go screaming through the valley
As another joins the chase.

Now it's about an old, luddite car in a race with an air-car.  Damn technological advances.  Cars running on air.  How stupid!  The future is deplorable if we're not still dependent on fossil fuels.  Who's with me?  Peart seems confused at what he really wants here.

Drive like the wind
Straining the limits of machine and man.
Laughing out loud with fear and hope
I've got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm
To dream with my uncle at the fireside.

Just when you're ready to toss this song in the "forget me" bin, back comes Geddy Lee with another fantastic bass fill from 5:15-5:45.  As much as I think this song is absurd, Lee's playing on the intro and outro knocks me out every time.

So the song stays on the Pod, even though it makes me laugh, and not in the good way.

That leads us to "Subdivisions."  Here's where I reveal what an inconsistent person I am.  Sonically, this commits all the sins I was talking about earlier.  HUGE synthy keyboards!  The guitar is buried under a layer of murk.  There are even two keyboard solos later in the tune.  The album cover is a great combination of dumb and dumber.

It's my favorite Rush song.

Why?  What's wrong with me?  Why should you EVER listen to me about anything?  Here's the deal-- these are Peart's best lyrics.  They are pretentious as usual, but he is DEAD ON.  Here's the first two verses:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

That perfectly describes the American suburbs of 1982.  I lived near three large "planned communities" who were still advertising themselves on TV when I was a kid.  They were places designed so you didn't have to make any choices.  There's the grocery store.  There's the gas station.  There's the pizza parlor.  There's the green outdoor space.  There's the freeway ramp.  There's the school.  There's cable TV.  Don't like it?  What's your problem?  These lyrics strike me as the perfect summation of the insidiousness of that approach to life.

Crofton, MD-- staying white out later since 1964. **

The robotic, synth-driven backing track fits these lyrics like a glove.  You feel like you're gliding through this description without taking root.  Then, for the chorus, the band drops the keyboards and Lifeson comes in with a tough guitar lick (and Lee drops another outstanding bass fill at 1:40 as a lead-in).

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help disprove the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

And now it's a song about social subdivisions.  Obvious, sure, but still effective.  The song becomes a mirror for the song "I Love The Night Life" from Blog #98.  Here's the same idea five years later, but Reagan is president, the disco party is over, and now we're in basement bars and the backs of cars drinking warm beer and waiting to go see Footloose.  Depressing.  Just like this song. 

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights

"Subdivisions" is the perfect soundtrack for America's early-80s hangover and submission to the "Morning In America" pitch.  When Lifeson finally tears into a guitar solo at 4:20, it sounds like an angry, helpless performance.  And listen to the end when Peart starts hammering the cymbals off beat.  Great, but ultimately powerless to elevate the track to some kind of uplifting finish.  What would Shakespeare say?  The band is full of "sound and fury, signifying nothing."  Peart would say "The band fails to establish a suitable sense of catharsis."  I say "Dude-- cool tune."

Great, totally weird stuff, this song triumphs over its own worst impulses.  Is Rush a great band?  Kinda.  Sometimes.  For a bunch of Canadians.  Sorta.  

How's that for a firm critical stand?

LINK:     (Red Barchetta)      (Subdivisions)

* After writing the draft of this blog, I went out for dinner with friends, and my buddy's wife... loves Rush!  I was floored.  So now I have to add the addendum that you're either male... or Deb.  :)

** Credit to David Cross for the joke.  Also--,_Maryland


  1. Ok - I'm a woman and i LOVE LOVE LOOOOVE RUSH! seriously! 2112 changed my life! was also my foray into Ayn Rand. A FArewell to Kings is nothing short of divine, and Hemispheres good too in its mythological musings. so there!

  2. LOVING this blog post! I actually like all of these things: science ficiton, 19th Century German culture, 70s horror films, independent comic books, Arby's Roast Beef, so I am a particularly natural target for Rush. I'll note that their Wikipedia page says that Rush has "been cited as an influence by various musical artists, including Metallica,[1] Primus,[2] and The Smashing Pumpkins[2], which is a decent list of progeny.

    I was shocked to learn that Rush hadn;t been put in the R'n'R hall of fame. What a freaking joke. I assumed based on their membership they just let anyone who sold a bunch of records in, but apparently I missed out the small bore politics of the thing. This is exactly the type of info/analysis ONLY available here at 20k!

  3. OK, I'm trying to get into my happy place before I respond to your post, because I don't want this to be a rant against all the too cool music posers discussing which hipster band is more cool, the fiery furnaces or uffie... (barf)

    I know this must come as no surprise (cue the nerd soundtrack) but I am a huge Rush fan -- for a while in my teen years they were my #1 with a bullet, but I admit tastes evolve... but they remain firmly in my top five.

    Yes, their early stuff can seem overboiled when viewed through modern eyes -- but you can say that about Zeppelin and Genesis as well. Hell, Rush was touring as a hard rock act in those days with Kiss... from that perspective they were positively monastic.

    For the full story, you need to see Beyond the Lighted Stage:

    As is obvious from that rock doc, these guys have stayed true to each other, to their music, and to their vision. And holy crap can they play -- they can outplay any three other bands you can name. You must agree that Neil is the best rock drummer of all time. Geddy even says in the documentary to an interviewer who complains that their music is complicated compared to the sparseness of new wave-- "other bands criticize it because they can't do it."

    Plus they're just nice guys. Check them out on the Colbert Report:

    And of course, the lyrics. Sure, By-tor and the Snow Dog is ready made for parody. But it's modeled on Fantasy fiction, which I (and many other nerds) happen to love. That said, there's more thought put into a b-side Rush song than the whole catalog of some artists.

    "If you chose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
    "That those who know what's best for us
    must rise and save us from ourselves."
    "All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted"
    “Throw off those chains of reason, and your prison disappears.”
    “One likes to believe in the freedom of music, but glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.”
    “You can live in grace and comfort in the world that you transform.”
    “Different eyes see different things, different hearts beat on different strings”

    How incredible to have music that is intricately crafted, astoundingly performed, that makes you think, and that rocks out. In multiple time signatures. YYZ, baby.

    Rush is the antidote to the crap music culture relentlessly driving mainstream music to the anodyne lowest common denominator sludge you hear on the radio today. We need more bands like Rush. But who knows if there will ever be another.


    ps. I always loved the lyrics to Red Barchetta.

    1. yes and yes, colin!

      for my money, that bridge section on Red Barchetta is one of their finest moments ever ... "wind in my hair, shifting and drifting, mechanical music" ... man, i could just live inside those few seconds of music for years. sublime.

  4. Random fact I couldn't fit in the blog that I learned this week-- Peart's cymbal introduction to YYZ is in fact morse code for... Y-Y-Z. Somehow that tells you so much about this band.

    Can't wait to see that DVD.

  5. GO Colin GO! Loving the full throated defense of Rush and I recognized (and like) every lyrical quote above. That said, I can't go with you on the fantasy lyrics. My favorite books of all time are the Lord of the Rings and I re-read them every two or three years and I've even written serious "scholarship" about Harry Potter, so I'm totally with you on the fantasy literature thing, but it just doesn't translate to lyrics very well. This is a particularly mean thing to say, but the goofy Zeppelin lyrics are just much easier to swallow than the goofy Rush lyrics. I sort of assume Plant was high and just scribbled down whatever random words he could from Lord of the Rings, which works better than Pert carefully crafting By-tor. I am, however, a huge fan of passion in all its forms, so I'm really digging your post.

  6. well, passion I got, Barton :)

    here's Billy Corgan speaking about Rush (with Alex and Geddy right there) when they got their star on the walk of fame last month:

    and here's a good interview with the film makers:

    YYZ is also the airport code for Toronto International Airport... so the song is kind of a celebration of homecoming, the happy feeling they get coming back from the road.


  7. Andrew ClevengerJuly 23, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    You guys are huge dorks.

  8. Jeff:

    When I helped my wife (Kathleen) move to our new home together, I was carrying stuff out of the basement when I came across an old boom box. I opened the casette player, and I pulled out "Caress of Steel". I knew I picked the right woman.

    Kathleen walked up, took the casette, and said "THERE it is!" Happily, our truck still has a casette player...

  9. AWESOME story. Nothing starts a new romance like "The Necromancer." Obviously, the Facebook group "Women Who Love Rush" is begging to be started.

  10. Don't forget about the song Rivendell off of Fly By Night... Or "FBN" as it's known in Rush's byzantine network of secret societies.

    "Sunlight dances through the leaves
    Soft winds stir the sighing trees
    Lying in the warm grass
    Feel the sun upon your face
    Elven songs and endless nights
    Sweet wine and soft relaxing lights
    Time will never touch you
    Here in this enchanted place

    You feel there`s something calling you
    You`re wanting to return
    To where the misty mountains rise and friendly fires burn
    A place you can escape the world
    Where the dark lord cannot go
    Peace of mind and sanctuary by loud water`s flow"

    Spark some hash, don't judge and just let the Rushness coarse through your veins...

  11. Dude, just went and downloaded all the Rush tracks I love, but didn't have on my new computer. Dammit.

  12. I am a 24 year old female and I dig Rush!! My dad used to play their tapes when I was younger, and I really still enjoy them :)

  13. Good band. Great post. Excellent movie. Brilliant Canadians! I should know because I can see Canada from my house.

  14. another great post on your incredible blog, Jeff.

    it is rude to try and improve upon this exacting analysis, but i had to add another category to your "those that like Rush" post above... players of D&D.

    when moving pictures was released in early 1981, D&D was taking college campuses by storm and the sound and the game went together like cheese on a burger. i was years away from college, but the local Rutgers students put on an annual D&D convention for all the kids and it caught fire in my town. so many hours we burned swilling soda, rolling dice in someone's dank finished basement and flipping this cassette over and over and over and over.

    there's something about the sheer epic-ability of the tunes and clever playing that set the exactly right musical tone for exploring dungeons, despite the incongruity of the lyrics.

    fast forward to today, and the sort of "secret shame/guilty pleasure" quality you rightfully point out with Rush is also true for D&D... everybody played it but few readily volunteer this info unless they know they have a receptive ear.