Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Rush

Rock and Roll Lyrics

Rock and roll lyrics run the gambit, from positively poetic to brazenly banal.  A friend of mine once made the claim that song lyrics are never poetry, which is a pretty bold statement and a pretty dumb one, I think, but there’s no denying that often song lyrics are embarrassingly bad:

Time to find the right way
It seems to take so long
When I find the right way
I know I will be strong

- Head East, “Lovin’ Me Along”

But it in the hands of a gifted lyricist, meaning and imagery jump from the speaker and grab you by the gut:

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets

- Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

Sometimes lyrics can reach us on a very personal level and describe us more succinctly than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.  A woman once gave me a hand-written copy of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Code of Silence,” explaining that the words described her “to a T.”   I had already owned Joel’s album, The Bridge, but had never really studied the lyrics before, and upon reading the feminine script on a pink sheet of notepaper with no musical accompaniment, I was given insight into a human being who was clearly wrestling with a difficult past (I never found out what it was, but I can take a wild guess).

But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?

Many times lyrics – even good ones – are unimportant to me.  As a rule, as long as lyrics don’t overtly suck, then it’s the tune that matters.  So, for instance, the band Yes typical composes songs whose lyrics are so esoteric and so stream-of-conscious that they’re virtually meaningless.  Take the opening lyric for Yes’s “Going for the One”:

Get the idea cross around the track
Underneath the flank of thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as the river flows.
Would you like to go and shoot the mountain masses?

I don’t know exactly what goes on in Jon Anderson’s head, but I suspect it’s been aided by lots and lots of drugs.  But his lyrics lead to images that are malleable, subject to the listener’s own experience, so that as long as the words aren’t blatantly bad, to me it doesn’t really matter what they say.  But what if, for instance, the opening lines to “Going for the One” were the following:

Get the idea come and take me back
Underneath the sheets like thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as my love blood flows
I would like to go and shoot your mountain masses

Well, now, that would lead to a very different image, and it would suck!  There’d be nothing left to the imagination except an overwhelming desire for the song to finish as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t matter how good the tune is, the lyrics would make it completely unlistenable.  Ridiculous lyrics are the main reason why I could never get into the big-hair metal bands of the 80s; the words were so pitifully bad that I couldn’t possibly excuse them.

The lyrics to Prince’s “Darling Nikki” were no doubt titillating to me when I first heard them as a sixteen-year-old:

I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine

Hearing it today, it may turn you on, it may turn you off, but there’s no denying what the lyrics are about.  There’s nothing left to the imagination, and really, there’s nothing to be moved by.  It’s just…there.

But then I consider a pop song like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” by ELO, and I realize that even the worst words in the world can sometimes be rescued by a great melody:

I was searchin’ on a one-way street
I was hopin’ for a chance to meet
I was waitin’ for the operator on the line
She’s gone so long
What can I do?
Where could she be?
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
I gotta get back to you

Pretty soul-grabbling stuff, huh?  And yet, it’s a fun song!  Why can I overlook terrible lyrics in some instances but not in others?   What’s the secret?

And then, why can I overlook great lyrics in some cases but not in others?  Take “Limelight” from Rush, a fantastic tune whose lyrics I never really thought too hard about until I saw the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.  Sure, I had known some of the words and I got the Shakespearean reference, but I never knew that the chorus had the word “seem” in it, as in:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream for those who wish to seem

Didn’t know it, never thought about it, didn’t care.  I just knew that Geddy Lee was singing Neil Peart’s lyrics, the music was unbelievable, and the message was something about fame or something.  It didn’t really matter to me.  And even now, the lyrics aren’t so important to me. I just know the song rocks and the lyrics don’t suck, and that’s enough for me in this case.

But then I look at another Rush song, ”Subdivisions,” whose lyrics are so strong and whose message of suburban conformity is so relatable to me, that they elevate the song to new heights:

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

When I consider lyrics that have reached me over the years – songs like like “The Logical Song,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Read Emotional Girl,” etc., – the words are simple, direct and heartfelt.  Take Elvis Costello, an undeniable wordsmith, but who often packs way too many words into a song, with too many syllables, too many metaphors, and stories that are too abstract to understand just what the hell he’s so pissed off about.  Ah, but then he offers us a respite in a song like “Painted from Memory,” co-written by Burt Bacharach, and you have – in my mind – lyric perfection: simple, meaningful, relatable:

Such a picture of loveliness
Didn’t you notice the resemblance?
Doesn’t it look like she could speak?
Those eyes I tried to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else

And that’s often what it takes: simplicity and directness, not only for the lyric, but for the tune.  Sometimes the simplest forms of human expression are the most pure and most effective.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my favorite power pop album, On by Off Broadway, and sing along to the deeply moving “Full Moon Turn My Head Around”:

We got a beat, we got a good good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good good band, we got a good band.

Does It Matter How a Record is Made?

Watching Peter Bogdanovich’s extremely thorough yet watchable documentary on Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream, I was struck by something Petty said about his work in the early 90s, during which he and producer Jeff Lynne began to use the studio as an instrument and recordings became less about a live performance. "I like whatever makes good records," he said. "I don’t care how it’s made. Nobody cares how a record is made. They care if they like it or not.”

I’ve thought about this quote often as I struggle mightily to complete my current album and employ studio tricks that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Yesterday I wanted a cymbal where there wasn’t any recorded during my day-long studio session in late February, so I simply copied a cymbal from one section of the song and pasted it onto another section. On the same song, I noticed that several of the notes I sang were slightly out of tune, so I simply shifted key notes into tune. As for the acoustic guitar I’m currently recording, this I have to do section by section, and sometimes measure by measure, as my playing is so poor that I can’t complete an entire verse or chorus without accidentally deadening a string or striking an unwanted open string. Even my piano tracks – definitely my best instrument – needed a little tweaking, as yesterday I erased an erroneous low note that was clashing with the bass part.

Clearly, I’m not recording a live “performance.” Is this cheating?  Does it matter if it is?  Is Tom Petty correct that nobody cares how a record is made?

In his illuminating book, Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick writes about late-night sessions during which Paul McCartney would record bass parts over and over until he had the perfect track. Impressive, though I've no doubt that were Emerick recording The Beatles today, he would splice together various bass tracks to create one usable one. Is one technique more pure than the other? Does it matter?

For Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s first several albums, they would track everything live at once until they had a perfect take, effectively rehearsing until they got a great performance. This is in stark contrast to the recording of Into the Great Wide Open, during which a musician like Benmont Tench would be asked to play a particular keyboard part during a few measures of a song, and then leave the studio.

On his recent interview on the radio show Sound Opinions, Geddy Lee of the band Rush discussed recording the album Hemispheres. The band initially tried to perform the ambitious side-long title track in its entirety, but ultimately had to record it in sections. Does this fact make the recording any less impressive?

Even Steely Dan, who employed arguably the best musicians on the planet to play on the album Gaucho, used recording tricks to the get the sound they wanted, as producer Roger Nichols created a drum machine called a Wendel to perfect drums parts initially recorded by the likes of Jeff Porcaro! 

Clearly, even getting past today’s largely sterilized recording techniques, we can come up with multiple examples of musicians and producers doing whatever it took to get the sound they wanted.  But is Petty correct when he says nobody cares how a record is made?

I suspect it depends on the listener, on the band, on the era, and on the circumstances. For guys like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, who get to play with the greatest musicians known to Man, I like to think that the albums they record are more performance-based and less studio-trickery, and I would hope that studio guys like Steve Gadd and Michael Landau would insist upon it. And part of the joy of listening to, say, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, is knowing that I’m listening to a live performance. Something would surely be lost if it came to light that “So What” had been recorded track by track. 

It's also kind of sad that our ears have gotten used to hearing perfection, because there was a time when the performance was more important. Keith Richards’s fuzz guitar errors on “Satisfaction” can be heard loud and clear fifty years after the song was recorded. Would the song be any better if it had been recorded in 2015, when no doubt Richards would have rerecorded the guitar part (or, more likely, would have recorded the tune several times and then spliced together various parts for the perfect take)? Do the mistakes take away from the song, or somehow make it more endearing? I don't know.

For now, I continue to plow through what has been a somewhat grueling recording process and attempt to make the best-sounding record I can using the resources available to me. And some of those resources are digital. The Palisades will be complete by summer’s end, and God-willing, it’s going to sound great thanks in large part to modern technology. I’ll take this over a bad-sounding "authentic" record any day.

Maybe Petty has a point.

Rush's Last Stand

Watching Rush last Friday at the United Center in Chicago for what will likely be the last time, I was torn between the tale of two sets: one predictable and lackluster, and one that left me wishing the band would stick around for another tour or two.  The trio performed a reverse chronological set, but rather than mining deep into their catalog during the first half, they relied heavily on songs that were mainstays of their concerts for years (and they also skipped too many stops along the way).  The second set helped redeem the evening, and if this is truly the band’s last stand, it was an impressive way to end a forty plus year run.

One can forgive Rush for wanting to play three songs from their highly regarded last studio effort, Clockwork Angels, and though “Far Cry,” off of Snakes and Arrows was an uninspired choice since they just performed it two years ago, it’s still a great track.  So far so good.  However, the inclusion of “The Main Monkey Business” off the same album was a complete waste of time – an uninspiring instrumental that pales in comparison to some of the band’s other work.

Then Rush did what they often do, relying on what I refer to as the “first-track syndrome.”  Literally every other track of the first set (and the first of the second set) was taken from the first track of one of their albums, so instead of getting a surprise or two, we instead heard songs that have been performed numerous times in the past:  “One Little Victory,” “Animate,” “Roll the Bones,” “Distant Early Warning” and “Subdivisions.”  How much better would the concert have been if Rush had instead performed “Ceiling Unlimited,” “Between Sun and Moon,” “The Big Wheel,” “Kid Gloves” and “Digital Man”?  On alternating concerts, Rush has been performing “How it Is” from Vapor Trails and “Between the Wheels” from Grace Under Pressure, and both would have been better choices the night I saw them.

On a night that could have showcased each album of the band’s career, the most glaring error of the evening was skipping entirely the albums Test for Echo, Presto and Hold Your Fire.  Ignoring Power Windows made sense since the last tour highlighted five songs from that effort, but leapfrogging over the other three was unfortunate, especially since these are all strong albums that could have offered some interesting selections.

Then the band came out for the second set, and though I would have preferred a few additional surprises, the truth is that it was incredible from start to finish.  I also got lucky and got to see them perform both “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” whereas on other nights they’ve substituted the former for “The Camera Eye” or for nothing at all.  My second set went as follows:

Tom Sawyer

YYZ

The Spirit of Radio

Natural Science

Jacob’s Ladder

Hemispheres, Part 1: Prelude

Cygnus X-1, Part 1 and 3

Closer to the Heart

Xanadu

2112: Overture, The Temples of Syrinx, Presentation, Grand Finale

Lakeside Park

Anthem

What You’re Doing

Working Man

Geddy Lee had to screech his way through much of the latter part of the set, and I would have been just as happy hearing an instrumental medley, but overall he did a pretty solid job with the tunes.  The big surprises were “Jacob’s Ladder,” which hadn’t been performed live since 1980, and “Lakeside Park” and “What You’re Doing,” which hadn’t been played since 1978 and 1977, respectively.  It was also very cool hearing the first part of “Hemispheres” for the first time since the Counterparts tour.

Visually, the concert was appealing in that the band’s crew gradually simplified the stage, so that what started as an intricate steam punk theme slowly evolved into a simple stage with a few amps on chairs and a screen backdrop make to look like a gymnasium, a sort of Benjamin Button for the stage, if not for the performers themselves. 

As always, the band employed a great number of prerecorded tracks triggered via foot pedals, from backing vocals to keyboards and sound effects.  I’ve learned to accept this over the years, though it detracts from the musicianship of the band.  I would have much prefer to see three guys on stage playing everything live.  Nonetheless, the band will largely be known for its solid live performing, and last Friday’s show was no exception.  I bid Rush a fond farewell.

My Rush Wish List

The band Rush is notorious for sticking to the following script: play most of the new album, the first track off of another 11 or 12 albums, one or two surprises, and call it a tour.  Though I’ve seen them do this eight times (82, 85, 90, 91, 94, 02, 12, 13), rumor has it that the current tour could provided more in the way of surprises, and since this will be the last time I see the band I’m hoping to go out on a high note.  While I could check the set list on-line, I’ve decided to go to Friday night’s show at the United Center in Chicago cold, because anticipating what song comes next is half the fun.

Recognizing that I’m reaching here, below is my Rush Wish List, and I’ll check back after Friday to see what part of my wish comes true.  I suspect very little, but one never knows.  I’m going to go in reverse chronological order.

20) from Clockwork Angels: Headlong Flight

19) from Snakes and Arrows: nothing really, but if I had to pick, Spin Drift would be okay.

18) from Feedback: nothing.

17) from Vapor Trails: Ceiling Unlimited

16) from Test for Echo: Half the World

15) from Counterparts: Between Sun & Moon, Everyday Glory

14) from Roll the Bones: The Big Wheel

13) from Presto: almost anything, but Chain Lightning and Superconductor would be cool.

12) from Hold Your Fire: Prime Mover

11) from Power Windows: Territories (yeah, they played this song on their last tour, but it’s soooo good)

10) from Grace Under Pressure: Kid Gloves

9) from Signals: Analog Kid (again, yeah…played on last tour, but…)

8) from Moving Pictures: Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, YYZ

7) from Permanent Waves: Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Jacob’s Ladder, Natural Science

6) from Hemispheres: would love to hear the Prelude and The Sphere from Hemispheres, maybe part of La Villa Strangiato

1-5) Look, it’s no secret that Geddy Lee can no longer hit the night notes, which is fine.  So rather than screech his way through a bunch of old tracks, I’d love to hear a musical medley that includes some of the following:

5) from A Farewell to Kings: A Farewell to Kings, Cygnus X-1

4) from 2112: A Passage to Bangkok, Something for Nothing

3) from Caress of Steel: The Fountain of Lamneth

2) from Fly By Night: Fly by Night

1) from Rush: Before and After

So there you are.  I understand that on this tour there are a number of songs that Rush will be substituting between gigs.  I’ll cross my fingers that I get the better of the two setlists, but either way, it’s been a hell of a ride for this band and this fan.  My son and I will take it all in one last time.

Rush Recap: 20 Albums in 20 Days

Well, it sure has been a fun journey.  Rush is a band that for forty years now has pushed the envelope, evolved with the times, challenged themselves, and produced some terrific albums.  Simply put, there isn’t one original album they’ve released that doesn’t have some redeeming qualities.  Even the worst Rush (except for Feedback) is better than many other bands’ best efforts.

Comparing all twenty albums is a bit ridiculous, because it’s like comparing four or five bands in one.  It’s like contrasting The Beatles of 1964 to The Beatles of 1968 (and that there’s only four years separating “She Loves You” and The White Album is absolutely mind-boggling to me).  When I’m in the mood for progressive Rush, A Farewell to Kings is the ultimate album for me.  A more poppy Rush?  Presto fits the bill.  Something in between, then Permanent Waves is just about perfect. A more rocking album, and you can’t go wrong with Counterparts or Clockwork Angels.  And if you want down-home blues rock, then Rush ain’t too shabby. 

Nonetheless, I will put in order all twenty albums, recognizing that moods and tastes can change on yearly, if not daily, basis.  Suffice it to say that my top five albums will probably be more or less consistent, and my bottom five albums are likely to stay the same (and even some of those aren’t all that bad).  Everything in between is open wide for debate depending on the day.  Here goes…

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#1 Permanent Waves.  Aside from a few production quibbles, a perfect album, the ultimate blend of accessible, exciting rock and roll, thought-provoking ballads and complex, progressive pieces.  

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#2 A Farewell to Kings.  Such an interesting, exciting album, full of intricatacies that keep the listener's attention, yet still melodic and accessible with some wonderful shorter pieces.

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#3 Moving Pictures.  Side two wavers just a bit, but side one is among the most perfect album sides ever recorded.  It's also a standout for it's clean yet full production.

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#4 Presto.  An accessible album that still has a bit of an edge to it.  Exciting and moving, with some especially poignant lyrics by Peart.  The band wishes they could record this album again.  I have no idea what they would change.

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#5 Hemispheres.  A close second to its predessessor for best progressive album by Rush. The band manages a couple of short pieces as well, along with their best instrumental (or is it YYZ?  Close call).

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 #6 Test For Echo.  Yeah, I could have picked Counterparts, and maybe should have.  Both are great albums as Rush began to explore a harder-edged sound.  This is an oft-overlooked album that deserves a second look

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#7 Roll The Bones.  Good almost from start to finish, with relatable lyrics about fate and chance.  Don't think it belongs here?  Think again.  

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#8 2112.  The first side is almost as good as Moving Pictures' first side.  A near-perfect epic.  Side two not as much, but a terrific album that turned things around for the wavering band.

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#9 Counterparts.  A great album whose middle sections loses it just a bit for me.  "Double Agent" gets my vote for the worst original Rush song ever recorded.  Holy crap.

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#10 Clockwork Angels.  That Rush can still produce an album of this quality is remarkable.  A great effort, with shifting moods and instrumentation, with melody and riffs to boot.

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#11 Grace Under Pressure.  One of those albums that used to bug me.  I still don't like "Afterimage," but oh well.  A great bridge between guitar-Rush and synth-Rush.

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#12 Hold Your Fire.  A great poppy album with inspiring lyrics.  The band may vote for "Tai Shan" is its worst song, but I accept it as a mild hiccup on a terrific effort.

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 #13 Signals.  A better album than I expected, with some songs I'd forgotten about and perhaps didn't appreciate years ago.  Men and boys rule the album - be them digital, analog or new world.

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#14 Rush.  A surprisingly good effort, with ridiculous lyrics but oh so sweet riffs and guitar solos.  Better than most of the rock drivel that sold millions in the 70s.

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#15 Power Windows.  Some wonderful tracks that suffocate under the weight of exhausting synth-heavy production.  I'm a keyboardist, and I know a thing or two about the synthesizer, but this goes way over the top.  "Territories" is the standout here.

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#16 Fly By Night.  Yes, a few hiccups here and there, but some terrificly accessible rock songs and a few lengthy numbers that set the stage for what's to come. 

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#17 Vapor Trails.  A tiring, endless album that sabotages its finest moments with terrible sections.  The first two tracks save this album from last place. 

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#18 Caress of Steel.  Some interesting parts, but ultimately an inconsistent release.

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#19 Snakes and Arrows.  I know several Rush fans who would put this album in their top five.  For me it's an endless, morose, unvarying effort.

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#20 Feedback.  Absolutely pointless and unredeeming.

 So there you are.  Disagree?  Chime in and let me know.  After all, Rush fans can disagree.  As Peart penned, "Everybody got to deviate from the norm."

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved