Progressive rock has always been the domain of the nerd. Since it was first established in the ‘70s by rock musicians looking to inject their songs with a higher level of musicianship and lyricism a bit more challenging than “I love you, baby,” prog has been a place for the thinkers and doers of rock-and-roll.
Fueled by jazz-fusion groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, bands like Yes, ELP, Kansas, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Focus and even Led Zeppelin began experimenting with shifting time signatures and adventure themes while – oddly enough —maintaining commercial success.
As the ‘80s crept in, those bands either fell out of favor and broke up or changed to a short-and-sweet pop format to ensure their survival. All of them except one band, which even now, four-plus decades since its founding, continues to release long, musically complex concept records with nary a love song to be found. There, atop Majestic Prog-Rock Nerd Mountain, resides the true kings of prog: the mighty Canadian trio, Rush.
First conceived as a blues-rock band in the late ‘60s, with original drummer John Rutsey, the installation in 1974 of Neil Peart as drummer and chief lyricist found the threesome moving not-so-slowly toward the prog-rock sound that would become their hallmark. The band’s second album, Fly By Night, saw the introduction of the epic tale with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” and from then on, it was nerd-prog all the way.
What the casual Rush fan might not realize is that the nerdy persona Rush embodies isn’t just a facade. These guys really are nerds. Bassist Geddy Lee is an avid collector of baseballs and baseball memorabilia, and can speak in depth about baseball statistics and history. Drummer Peart, as evinced by his lyrics, is a huge sci-fi literature fan, as well as a science-fiction and non-fiction author. And guitarist Alex Lifeson is, well … he’s just a huge dork.
I was a kid when I discovered Rush. The attraction was organic, having been a fan of all those aforementioned prog bands. It was 1980, and according to my friends, I was a relative latecomer to the Rush fold. Permanent Waves had just come out, and The Spirit of Radio was all the rage among us drummers, that insane intro giving us all a collective heart attack every time we heard it. It was an introduction that sent me spiraling backward in their catalog to albums like Caress of Steel and the classic 2112, investigating the intensity of a band cultivating a sound and style uniquely its own.
Children of the new millenium may never know the geeky glory that is Rush. They depend on us gray-haired torch-bearers to hip them to the magic that we experienced so long ago. Indeed, Rush is still making records, and their latest, Clockwork Angels, was even expanded into a science-fiction novel by Neil Peart. But in order to fully appreciate the band and its music, one must ground oneself in the early years, when the three boys from Toronto were laying the foundation for a life of prog.
Here are five steps to getting your little nerd into Rush:
1. Play the song By-Tor and the Snow Dog
If nothing else, your kid will appreciate that this is a song about a dog. Here we have the tale of the metaphysical battle between the evil By-Tor and his nemesis the Snow Dog. There’s plenty of adventure to be had, Peart’s lyrics are ridiculously literate, and there’s a big spacey instrumental section in the middle. Try counting the metric subdivisions within the big instrumental block. Get your tyke involved in the act of listening, not only to the music but the mood that the music creates. If all that fails, act out the tale. Take my word for it: Let the kid be the Snow Dog and kick your ass back to hell.
2. Show your kid this picture …
then explain that the first eight Rush albums are represented here. This image, the full fold-out graphic for the 1981 live album Exit … Stage Left encompasses the first decade of Rush’s then-rising career trajectory. A magnificent reproduction of Rush in concert, Exit should be played in its entirety for your kid, with full parental explanations of epic songs like Xanadu, The Trees and Tom Sawyer. Maybe one of Rush’s best albums ever, it’s a must for the budding Rush fan to experience in full. Watch the concert video from the same year for a visual treat.
3. Play the song Subdivisions.
One of Rush’s more commercial tunes, Subdivisions is no less literate for its attempt to garner radio play. An anthem to disenfranchised youth — the nerds of high school culture — Subdivisions juxtaposes the literal subdivisions in which we now live with the metaphorical subdivisions created by youth to give themselves identity. Coolness, regardless of how trite, is still important to kids. Give your kid a sense of independence from the need to be cool by pointing out that the guys in this video have never been “cool.” Case in point: Their consistently horrible haircuts.
4. Show your kid this video.
No explanation needed, right?
5. And this as a follow-up.
As serious as Rush could come across, what with sometimes overtly brain-busting tales of journeys and battles and introspective contemplation. But at heart, they’re just three dudes who got really lucky making music that influenced generations of musicians, sci-fi fans and nerds of all stripes. It is your duty to sprinkle a little of this magic on your unsuspecting offspring.