Graded on a Curve:
Fly By Night

I have hated Rush with a passion since the first time I heard Rush, or for 40 years, give or take a year or so. Rush exemplified everything I despised about rock: it was a show-offish band eager to demonstrate its sheer technical prowess and prog chops, fronted by a lead singer who screeched like a giant bird of prey. I reserved my greatest loathing for Geddy Lee, whose voice drove me nuts and whose bio I always felt should include a wingspread.

But recently I felt it incumbent upon me to give the Canadian power trio a second chance, probably because I’ve been so dead wrong about so many metal bands (e.g., AC/DC and Black Sabbath, to name just two) over the course of my long, strange career as a music critic. So I did something I’ve never done before: I listened to a Rush album in its entirety. I huffed Rush the band with the same avid dedication that I used to huff Rush the drug with my pal Dan “I’m Wasted Incorporeal!” Baker underneath the railroad bridge (now gone, alas) by the Littlestown Hardware and Foundry during the daily 9 a.m. coffee break, returning to the unspeakable tedium of my grinding machine with one walloping fandango of a skull-splitter.

And I’ll be damned; Rush isn’t half bad. Then again, Rush isn’t half good either. Let’s just say that Rush is better than I expected. Then again, I chose Fly By Night because it was recorded before the band started to devise 20-minute prog-epics with titles like “The Fountain of Lamneth,” and before lyricist Neil Peart’s hard-right turn towards science fiction and fantasy themes, to say nothing of the despicable objectivist philosophical notions of Ayn Rand. Such detestable subject matter—I’d sooner associate with Hirohito than a Hobbit, and that goes double for Ayn Rand—kept me at arm’s length from the band for eons, and I wasn’t sure I could give their later work a fair shake even now. When I hear the words “fantasy” or “science fiction” I reach for my Revolver—the Beatles’ LP, that is.

Rush was formed in the Willowdale neighborhood of Toronto in August 1968. The early Rush included Geddy Lee (lead vocals, bass, and later keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitar, backing vocals), and John Rutsey (drums). However, health difficulties related to diabetes led to Rutsey’s replacement by Neil Peart following the release of the band’s self-titled 1974 debut LP, and a kimono-wearing triad was born. 1975’s Fly By Night was the first LP recorded by this new line-up, and Peart’s addition was reflected in the band’s first mini-epic, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” The band would not achieve widespread commercial success for another two albums, with 1976’s 2112, but they were on their way, Lifeson and Peart by fancy tour bus, Lee by personal wing-power.

“Anthem” exemplifies my ambiguity towards Rush; I don’t care for the repetitive opening, which seems to go on forever, but when Lifeson kicks in on guitar and Peart throws himself into the drums, well, it’s nice. But then Lee starts screeching and the song takes on a confounding duality—I like the instrumental action, especially Lifeson’s shredding solo backed by Lee’s bass and Peart’s drums, but whenever Lee opens his trap, the trouble starts. Although I also noticed the longer I listened to Lee’s caterwaul, the more my ears grew accustomed to it.

As for “Best I Can,” Lee sounds less screechy than defiant, and while the blues rock being purveyed may not be the height of originality, it has its strengths. Lifeson plays another excellent long-stemmed solo, and the slow sections are okey-dokey by yours truly. “Best I Can” sounds a bit like a KISS song, especially on the bridge, when Lee sings, “You can tell me that I got no class/Look around, you’ll see who’s laughin’ last/Don’t give me speeches ’cause they’re oh so droll/Leave me alone, let me rock and roll.” Except I’m not certain KISS could collectively define “droll,” and would probably tell you it’s a term for those short, hairy creatures that dwell beneath bridges, exacting payment for passage.

“Beneath, Between, & Behind” is one Zeppish number, only not as good. Lee is easily 10 times more annoying than Robert Plant could ever be, and “B,B&B” is undone by its prog pretensions. Indeed, other than Lifeson’s Page rips (hey, at least they’re good Page rips) and the tune’s sheer get-up-and-go, this one doesn’t have much to recommend it. That said, I bet it would sound good on crank. But crank isn’t good for you, except in reasonable doses over the holidays, and I don’t see why anyone would want to waste such a rip-snorting, good-honking high on such a derivative tune. You’re better off blowing that crystal on the Angry Samoans, or even Rush’s 2004 covers LP, Feedback, which includes such hoary old rust-buckets as “Mr. Soul,” “The Seeker,” and, God Help Us!, “Shapes of Things.”

“By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is one interesting tune, and derivative of absolutely nobody. It opens with that distinctive Rush sound, smooth and sandblasted clean, with Lifeson playing those familiar Rush chords and Lee blending right in, Peart drumming like mad. I like it when Lee sings, “By-Tor! And the snow dog!” but I like what follows even more: To wit, a long and groovy instrumental passage with lots of Lifeson’s corrosive caterwaul and Lee singing (or whatever you want to call it) in a super-heavily distorted manner, through his bass or some such. Whatever he’s doing, it beats his regular singing voice by a metal mile. Meanwhile Lifeson plays some stop and start, with Peart providing punctuation and even a couple of mini-solos, at which point the song comes to a false ending. I don’t much like the lugubrious passage that follows—too slow and “atmospheric” (yes that’s a pejorative) for my tastes—but fortunately it builds to a cool blues solo by Lifeson, whom I have to admit is one heck of a guitarist. Finally there’s more annoying repetitive stuff before the song returns to full throttle, with Lifeson kicking out the jams and Lee shrieking (there is a difference) rather than screeching, thank God.

Next up is the classic title track, which even makes me happy, although Lee is as screechy as a deranged owl. What makes this one a winner are the neat-o chorus and Lifeson’s most happening solo—along with the song’s winning melody, natch. I’m not much for Lee’s bout of solo singing, but the minute the band kicks back in all is capiche, even Lee’s frantic repetition (as the song fades out) of the despairing line, “My ship isn’t coming and I just can’t pretend.” “Making Memories” is a winner too, thanks to Lifeson’s nifty guitar strum and Lee’s decision to put a damper on the old screech for a spell. Amazingly, he sings almost like a normal Joe, rather than a pink monkey bird, and that and the song’s very pleasant melody—to say nothing of Lifeson’s two, count ‘em, two rip-roaring solos—make this one my favorite song on Fly By Night.

“Rivendell” sounds like the name of a medieval castle, and I expected the worst. But it turns out Rush’s worst is worse than any catastrophe I could have conjured up, and the song’s slow and pedestrian melody bring to mind Renaissance Faires and fat people in tight-fitting corsets devouring mammoth turkey legs as elves frolick and toot on recorders and human chess pieces die of sheer boredom while the smart people hang in the parking lot ingesting death-defying doses of dynamite-strong hallucinogens in order to render the whole loathsome experience almost bearable.

Lifeson’s guitar playing is oh so quaint and whimsical, Lee sings like a feather-boa-wearing fairy, and the song goes on and on, an interminable condemnation of the Renaissance and every abominable thing—such as merkins, bear-baiting, and theater-in-the-round—it represents. Other than Christopher Marlowe, the badass, rakehell, possible government spy, playwright and writer of “vile heretical conceipts,” and fatal stabbing victim, the Elizabethan Era was a colossal snore, and so is the dull-as-Hell “Rivendell.”

LP closer “In The End” opens with more stately acoustic guitar, and one can be forgiven for expecting “Rivendell Redux.” But “In The End” boasts a better melody, and before you know it Lifeson is pumping out big power chords, Peart is bashing away, and Lee is singing like he means bidness. A slow burner? Sure. But “In The End” has heft and a primordial power, thanks to Lifeson’s guitar bash and Lee’s curiously non-annoying vocals. At the 4-minute mark Lifeson fires off a menacing guitar solo, then Lee comes back, still sounding better than I’ve ever heard him, while Lifeson continues to hurl big booming thunderbolts via his electronical geetar, until the song ends with some cymbal-rattling by Peart. I like this one almost as much as I like “Making Memories” and the title track.

Rush went on to bigger (and depending on who you ask), better things, but having listened—in a state of barely suppressed hysteria—to the title track of 1976’s 2112, I rather wish the trio had kept their overweening ambitions in check. “2112” has just as many parts, and includes cannon fire, for Christ’s sake. It is my fervent belief that no song should last longer than the War of Jenkin’s Ear, and boast more artillery to boot.

That said, having listened to “2112” in its entirety I finally comprehend the kid in the class I taught in graduate school who would only write essays about the complete and utter spiritual, moral, ethical, and musical superiority of Rush over every other band that ever was or would be in the history of our planet. He was brainwashed by brouhaha, gob-smacked by gibberish.

Me, I’ll stick with early Rush—which whatever else you want to say about it, kept the high-falutin’ hobbit hokum and humbug to a minimum—and continue to consider classic period Rush the worst commodity to ever come crawling out of the great nation of Canada. I’ve loved some bad Canadian bands—Bachman-Turner Overdrive; Corb Lund, the yodeling troubadour who brought us “Mein Deutsches Motorrad”; and The Dinner Is Ruined, auteurs behind “Bobby Orr” and “Old Horse Whore”—in my day. But I can proudly say, to paraphrase the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, “To have committed every crime but that of being a Rush fan!”


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