Here’s what funny about Rush, the band that accounts for the largest block in my CD and iTunes collections: The music recorded at the height of their popularity is the music least likely to mentioned in a “best of” collection or a current Rush set list.
This is evident on VH1’s Hangin’ With series, in which Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson talk about the band’s history and VH1 rolls a bunch of videos from the early ’80s, all of which were MTV staples at the time but have been pretty much forgotten.
The early ’80s were a collision of things for Rush. They recorded their biggest album, Moving Pictures, just as MTV was coming into its own. And as we all know from watching MTV in those days, this was the heyday of the synthesizer. So they recorded synth-driven songs on Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows, and they made videos that were just as slickly produced as anything else from that era. Their earlier output was a staple of rock radio at the time, particularly all the songs from Moving Pictures and its predecessor, Permanent Waves. (Think Tom Sawyer, The Spirit of Radio, Limelight, Freewill, etc.) Part of the spectacle of a Rush concert in those days was seeing Geddy Lee juggle his bass and synthesizer duties, often standing with a bass behind two stacks of keyboards with his feet on a sprawling array of pedals, perhaps wishing he had more hands.
So why is that it takes a VH1 special to air all those old videos, why has that music disappeared from the radio (while the Moving Pictures/Permanent Waves material lingers), and why does Geddy Lee spend a bare minimum of time anywhere near a keyboard?
Yes, it’s a little dated. The same tinny sound that dragged down many a Depeche Mode song in that era drags down Rush songs. The synth riff in Tom Sawyer works because it has a little bit of nastiness to it that fits the song. The synth effects in Distant Early Warning, The Big Money and Mystic Rhythms — well, perhaps if they re-recorded them today with different sonic textures …
Sometimes, the songs continue to work in a new context. If my memory of my 2002 Rush concert experience is true, Distant Early Warning was one of very songs from the 1982-1999 era played at the show, and it was perhaps more powerful then than it was back in the old days. The song title clearly refers to an old Cold War nuclear fear, and the video hits the same theme. But much of the song resonated in a post-9/11 world as well.
But that’s a rare exception from the ’80s. And in hindsight, I’d agree with AllMusic’s assessment that Rush slid downhill during the decade, relying too heavily on synthesizers and Neil Peart’s electric drums. Perhaps it’s no wonder that such electronics featured less heavily on Rush’s output in the ’90s and are barely visible onstage now.
(I can hear one objection — the electronics aren’t as prominent on stage because the technology is better. Peart can use one drumpad to replicate most of what he did with an entire electronic kit as he had in the ’80s, back when he would switch from acoustic to electric on a drum riser that rotated. And there’s no reason for Lee to have more than one keyboard on stage when he can grab any sound he needs.)
So the synth era is less fondly remembered than the classic rock era or the modern, guitar-driven era, though that’s when Rush got the most media exposure of its career.
But wait … apparently the new “R30” DVD/CD set includes forgotten synth-era favorite Between the Wheels.
Should’ve asked for that for my birthday, though I think Mrs. MMM doesn’t like to encourage my Rush fixation. Something about Geddy Lee’s voice. And probably those cheesy synth sounds.