Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

pw

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

Share

If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

muff1

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century plus one year ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

Share

Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

pw

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

Share

If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

muff1

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

Jethro-Tull-em-19721

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

Share

Rush’s Hemispheres: 36 Years Ago Today

hemispheres-2-s

Wow, 1978 was a long time ago, eh?

I still vividly recall procuring this one on compact disc (!) on the last day of school, in 1987 (!) back when CDs were still trickling out, one by one. And at the time, it was already a “classic”; not even a decade old. Yikes.

But let’s give it up for a band who, while Disco raged and Punk roared, and Prog Rock was already deep into its death-spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represented at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the ’70s.

Check it:

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

(The last words on all-things-Rush, according to me:

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.)

For a lot more on what they had done, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.

For more about what makes Hemispheres so amazing, all these years later, stop, look and listen to what is right below these words…

Share

Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

Share

If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Idiot

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. Almost a quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that  they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull  and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

Share

Rush’s Hemispheres: 35 Years Ago Today

Wow, 1978 was a long time ago, eh?

I still vividly recall procuring this one on compact disc (!) on the last day of school, in 1987 (!) back when CDs were still trickling out, one by one. And at the time, it was already a “classic”; not even a decade old. Yikes.

But let’s give it up for a band who, while Disco raged and Punk roared, and Prog Rock was already deep into its death-spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represented at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the ’70s.

Check it:

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

(The last words on all-things-Rush, according to me:

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.)

For a lot more on what they had done, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.

For more about what makes Hemispheres so amazing, all these years later, stop, look and listen to what is right below these words…

Share