Rush, Anthem (February 1975) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 12

Like so many of the bands on this list, Rush made a false start: their self-titled debut of 1974 rocked hard but didn’t stand out much from all the other bands influenced by the likes of Led Zeppelin. But their drummer John Rutsey quit after recording the album, unwilling to tour. Singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson recruited Neal Peart as his replacement, and the classic line-up was in place. Here’s the lead-off track from that line-up’s first album, Fly By Night:

Peart’s influence was immediate, and showed in three main ways. First, he was an extraordinary drummer, and even now is possibly the most revered of all hard-rock drummers. (I’d say the only other real contenders for that title would be John Bonham and perhaps Mike Portnoy.) Second, he immediately became the band’s main lyricist — with mixed results, as discussed below. And third, the new line-up introduced elements of progressive rock into their sound, making them perhaps the first prog-metal band.

That’s apparent from the very opening of Anthem (above), which is in a complex time that I can’t even count. The numerous quick changes in texture and the high-pitched, exploratory bass part underline the prog credentials. On the same same album, By-Tor and the Snow Dog and Rivendell lean further prog-ward in their use of mythical/fantasy themes.

Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience (and arguably unlike Cream), Rush are another band that sounds much bigger than its three-piece configuration ought to let it, and that’s largely due to the complexity of the bass and drum parts, which have far more going on than in many hard rock bands.

To enjoy all this properly in Anthem, you have to ignore the very nasty lyric, which is drawn from the “philosophy” of the Ayn Rand novella of the same name. Rand’s writings are popular with certain kinds of teenager as a justification, with rationalist set-dressing, of the kind of selfishness that comes naturally to most of us as teens. Hence lyrics like “Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for / Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more”. Right, Ayn, that’s the way to live.

The same novella would subsequently provide the broad plot strokes for arguably Rush’s greatest song, the 20-minute multi-part epic 2112 which fills side 1 of the album of the same name. That song gives Rush’s prog-rock leanings their full head, and tells a far-future sci-fi story of a world under the control of a priest-technologist class who have outlawed music. Apart from the deus ex machina ending, it works superbly.

So: if you can look past the bad taste that the Rand obsession leaves — and if Geddy Lee’s, uh, unique vocal style works for you –then there’s a lot to love about Rush. At any rate, they would go on to become one of the major inspirations for the prog-metal bands of a later generation.

19 responses to “Rush, Anthem (February 1975) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 12

  1. I’ve somehow managed to go through my entire life to date without listening to any Rush. This has encouraged me to remedy that immediately :-) I’ll try to ignore the lyrics though.

    Mike Portnoy is an astonishingly good drummer. I was gutted when he left Dream Theater :-(

  2. Must! … Resist! … Talking! … Prematurely! … About! … Mike Portnoy!

    All I’ll say for now is that, while he’s no longer drumming for DT, he’s certainly not slacking off! His work for Transatlantic, the Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs and several more bands is just beautiful. He’s not just technically astonishing, but by far the most musical drummer I know. Also: a really nice guy.

  3. “I’d say the only other real contenders for that title would be John Bonham and perhaps Mike Portnoy”

    I’d say Danny Carey has hustled himself a place in that list. Both in the sense of being revered, and in deserving it :)

    Speaking of the intersection of Rush and DT, the latter did a medley of Different Strings and La Villa Strangiato that I couldn’t stop listening to continuously for a while, bootleg quality notwithstanding. (It helps that those are 2 of my favourite Rush tracks too). Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oitdzMKpl0w

  4. “Nasty lyrics” and “bad taste”. There you go, excelent arguments agains Ayn Rand. Or not. And I’m not a teenager, I’m 46.

  5. You’re quite right, Mário. I should have said something along the lines of “lyrics that I, along with every single major religion and the great majority of atheists and agnostics, consider nasty”.

    Meanwhile …

  6. FYI: The opening is in 7/8 time.

    And, whatever you think of Rand’s philosophy, Neil makes the same point in 120 words that takes Rand half-a-million, so there’s that.

  7. Pingback: AC/DC, It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock and Roll) (December 1975) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 13 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. “I, along with every single major religion and the great majority of atheists and agnostics”

    A hyperbole methinks…. But anyways: we should be drinking blood, billions of mosquitoes cant be wrong. Perfect argument.

  9. Nope, not a hyperbole. One of the interesting parts of C. S. Lewis’s difficult but rewarding book The Abolition of Man is an appendix that shows how surprisingly similar the moral codes of numerous great religions are — not just the ones you’d expect (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) but also Buddhism, the ancient Babylonian religion whose name escapes me for the moment, and possibly others. On this, they all speak with one voice: the kind of selfishness advocated by Rand is abominable.

  10. — Start Digression —

    I was so intrigued by Ayn Rand that I started to read Atlas Shrugged a few weeks ago (I’ve only read a third so far).There was something strange about having a large set of people I admire love the book, but also a large set of people I admire absolutely hate it (as well as almost everyone else).

    The book is at times elating, when you actually follow the heroes in “flow” and beating the odds, and at times infuriating, when it depicts a totally unrealistic society of selfish socialists who enjoy nothing except maybe bringing other people down. It’s the literary equivalent of being stuck on the head with a stick.

    I’m curious though about what Rand was really thinking. The worldview presented seems overly simplistic, so I guess it should be read more like a parable. The problem is that the book steers clear of any difficult choice. Self-interest and the good of society are always aligned (there’s no wall street bankers selling shady commodities in Atlas Shrugged); and the heroes are never faced with hard ethical choices. I wonder how the mood of the time also influenced her and what she would have to say today.

    But in the end, I’d rather have too much socialism than letting people die on the street like in the US (seriously, that’s the impression I have each time I go and pass through rows of homeless people in various state of decay).

    Maybe a bit less entrepreneurial shaming would be good however. Not to be taken in the silicon-valley sense, where the “make crap app, sell for a profit” mentality seems, if not prevalent, solidly ingrained.

    — End Digression —

    Let me just say that, as an amateur of hard rock, but not really knowledgeable in the area, I enjoy this series immensely :)

    And in another category, I’m eagerly awaiting your opinions on the new Doctor!

  11. Thanks, Nicolas. I’ll be interested to know what you make of it if you struggle through to the end — I hear that John Galt’s speech is often a sticking point.

    Glad to know you’re enjoying this series. It’s hard to read the general response, and it doesn’t seem to be attracting an awful lot of comments. Nice to get a bit of feedback.

    On the new Doctor: for logistical reasons, I missed the chance to review the first couple of episodes shortly after they were broadcast, and so I’ve not made any effort to catch up and do the rest in real time. I have a half-formed plan to write about them all some time during the winter or spring, when there’s less Doctor Who material appearing on the Web. But I will say this much now: loving the new Doctor!

  12. Okay, this is the time to chime in and thank you, Mike, for the very enjoyable musical education. I have enjoyed all of the series. Some of the songs are old favorites considered in a new light, some I’m less familiar with but enjoy, and some are not to my taste but interesting in the context you put them in.

    On the other hand, I like Anthem. It’s a nice short dystopian novel and it gets naturally self-obsessed teenagers thinking about constructive ways to be self-obsessed. And the lyrics here are fine.

    Rand’s philosophy is genuinely new and therefore different from older ethical traditions and that is fine. She couldn’t have articulated it the way she did before the industrial revolution and enlightenment since it’s so deeply rooted in a vision of progress.

    The angryflower cartoon is cute, but Atlas Shrugged features the philosophy professor and the inventor as good fry cooks and a farmer and fisherwoman as among the thirty-six identified characters in the titans’ Colorado mountain retreat.

    Atlas Shrugged is subtle and polysemic. The villains are handsome and smart and elegant and persuasive while the heroes are socially awkward and obsessive but deeply competent. The narrative voice focuses on a set of less superficial values that bring readers to feel affection for the latter. Your choice to follow the narrator’s values over traditional ones is a clever effect. People claim the book is one-sided in favor of the heroes, but the literal text is just the opposite; Rand is fishing out what readers value against what they claim to and they can’t even see the trick being done.

    Nick says, “self-interest and the good of society are always aligned,” but Orren Boyle and Jim Taggart are successful to deliriously wealthy businessmen the book deplores for being the equivalent of modern subsidized, coddled, and bailed out Wall Street bankers. They’re wealthier and more powerful than any of the heroes. Robert Stadler and Wesley Mouch also pursue their self-interest to the point of disaster. And the second half of the book is all about personal ethical crisis for the heroes.

  13. Thanks, Brian, both for your encouraging words and for your take on Anthem (the novella) and Atlas Shrugged. Yes, Stephen Notley (the cartoonist) admitted in an annotation that’s not online, only in the printed version:

    A reader wrote to me to say that I was oversimplifying the book, and that in fact the Atlas Shruggers did actually till the soil and all the rest and were happy to do it. Pretty damn unlikely, I think, especially considering all the extra work you have to do to make up for the fact that you don’t have access to all the productivity of the rest of society.

    That last point nails it for me, I think. It’s the reason why the Randian “philosophy” is not just morally bankrupt but stupid. People on the top of society love to portray themselves as “wealth creators”, whereas what we more often see is that they are parasites benefitting from the underlying economy far more than they give to it. The illusion of the self-made man (who can’t see that he was able to make himself because of the stable, law-abiding society that taxes pay for) is crucial here.

  14. People always respond so strongly to Anthem because it’s Ayn Rand. Taken as a science fiction story, it’s one of the best science fiction novellas of the year–helped, of course, because 1938 was just before the birth of the golden age of science fiction. A classic story of individual against totalitarianism.

  15. Good point behiker, although my understanding was more that James Taggart and Orren Boyle were successful in spite of themselves. At least so for James, since the books imply that Taggart Transcontinental is having difficulties (notably because of James’ decision to invest in Mexico), and that it barely manages to stay afloat thanks to Dagny’s handling of the company.

    Even voting the Phoenix-Durango out of Colorado would not benefit James, since his rail is breaking down. In the real world, it would actually cost him money because of the lawsuits.

    But like I said, I’m still early in the book, maybe they will turn out to have some kind of base cunning later down the line.

    And I rather agree with Mike. However, I think there are some real wealth creators at the top, but you generally don’t hear them bragging about it. The problem is when robber barons just use this rhetoric to justify themselves.

  16. Right, Nicolas — sorry if my comment was sloppy enough to imply that there are no wealth creators at the top. Obviously not true. But all the evidence says that they’re greatly outnumbered, and part of the problem with Rand is that her work gives the bloodsuckers an intellectual-sounding rationalisation for their own behaviour.

    And, David, my reaction to the lyrics of Rush’s Anthem are not so much because of their source as because of their content — particularly that couplet I quoted, “Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for / Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more”. I can’t get fully behind any song with that attitude, however fine the musicianship.

  17. Pingback: Scorpions, I Can’t Get Enough (February 1979) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 15 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  18. Pingback: Dream Theater, Under a Glass Moon (July 1992) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 22 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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