Rush was a rock n’ roll band out of Toronto. They are composed of bassist/keyboardist/lead singer, Geddy Lee, guitarist, Alex Lifeson and drummer extraordinaire, Neil Peart. Rush formed in 1968 and played as a trio right up until 2018, when drummer Neil Peart passed away. For their career, Rush ranked third (trailing only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) in terms of the number of consecutive Gold records they achieved. In all, Rush produced 24 Gold records, 14 of which went on to achieve Platinum status. They sold over 40 million records worldwide and were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. They are generally considered to be the best rock band to come from Canada and one of the top ten rock bands in the entire history of rock n’ roll.
For the first decade of their career, Rush were known more as a Prog Rock band. They were lumped in with other such bands as Pink Floyd, early Genesis, Yes and so on. Many of the songs on their earliest albums exceeded ten minutes in length each. The themes of their music often lay in the realm of fantasy, myth and legend. Because of the nature of their music, the members of Rush were often allowed to showcase their musical virtuosity by indulging in long drum and/or guitar solos which then led to tightly woven sonic tapestries created by three men who tended to sound like many more. Rush had a very dedicated fan base and could have spent their whole career creating epic Prog Rock masterpieces if they so desired. However, rock bands, like the fans who adore them, do not exist in a vacuum. There is a world of innovation and change that goes on and quite often those changes wash up upon the shores of even the most successful of artists. And so it was that the members of Rush made the decision to tweak their creative formula slightly and try to produce some songs that were more “radio-friendly”. Some fans cried that doing so was selling out but Rush had some very pragmatic reasons for making a mid-career course correction. Here is the story of why Rush moved slightly away from Prog Rock. It all begins with the nature of radio at the time.
Up until the early 1970s, home radio operated on an AM frequency. But, as the 1970s rolled along, the FM frequency started to become more in demand by the public. The reason for this has to do with the nature of how radio waves are broadcast and received. In very simple terms, radio waves are like x-rays or light waves. They are not the same as sound waves. Sound waves are waves that alter the pattern of the air around us. They hit our eardrums in a certain manner, our brain decodes the vibrations and tells us what we are hearing. Radio waves, on the other hand, do not cause ripples in the air. Our ears cannot detect radio waves. In fact, there are radio waves all around you as you read these words but, just like light waves or x-rays, our human bodies are not equipped to receive radio waves. To do that, we need a transmitter and a receiver. Therefore, in most homes and cars, we have radio receivers present. These receivers are built to detect the radio waves being broadcast by radio stations from their tall towers or else, their satellite dishes. Each radio station broadcasts at a certain frequency along the AM or FM band so, by letting listeners know what the frequency is, we can tune our radio receivers accordingly and pick up the signal. That signal is then played through speakers that we have and is turned into sound waves that we can hear with our ears.
Now, prior to the 1970s, most home radio receivers were built to receive AM radio waves only. An AM radio wave is different from an FM radio wave in many ways but the most important difference is that AM radio waves are “taller” and cover more ground. FM waves are wider or broader and operate on a higher frequency range. In basic terms, you can hear an AM radio station from a greater distance but the sound quality will be more tin-like and shallow. An FM station’s signal doesn’t cover as much geographic ground but the quality of the sound is richer and deeper. From a business perspective, it was more cost effective to broadcast on the AM band because fewer stations were needed to cover the land. Thus, companies that produced home radio did so with AM dials and tuners pre-installed. For a while AM radio was the de facto method used when people spoke of radio.
When I grew up in the 1970s, our main radio stations were all AM stations. There was a good mix of news, talk radio programmes and music in those days. AM stations indulged in more talk radio style programmes because the sound quality of what was being broadcast was not as important as the content of what was being broadcast. So, two people debating the news of the day did not require stereo sound quality. As a result, I grew up (like most people) not even knowing that the stereo sounding quality of FM radio even existed. But, for a band such as Rush (who were making a name for themselves at the exact same time as I was listening to AM radio in my kitchen back home), the quality of their sound was extremely important to them. They wanted the sound quality of their live concert performances to be replicated for their audiences at home. However, the tinny quality of AM radio’s sound didn’t do that for Rush. So, throughout the 1970s, Rush concentrated on their live shows and their record albums. They poured their creative hearts into producing the most intricate and elaborate sound experience possible, using the technology that they had available at the time.
But a funny thing happened in the world of radio broadcasting as the 1970s unfolded. A few FM radio stations began broadcasting in larger cities. These stations began attracting new listeners who were excited by the richer, deeper sound quality they were able to achieve. Initially, FM radio was the haven of audiophiles who possessed great sound systems in their own homes and cars. It wasn’t music for the masses just yet. But, like all things that become popular, the business world began to take note. As the demand for radio receivers with FM capabilities began to grow, companies stepped up their production. Soon, the per unit price of an AM/FM radio began to drop, making it more affordable to the average consumer. Before too long, sales of FM radio receivers equaled AM receivers and then, in jig time, they surpassed them. FM radio had become a commercially viable broadcasting alternative. Artists and bands such as Rush took note. With the ability of listeners at home to hear their music as they had intended it to be heard, bands such as Rush took to these brave new airwaves with their music.
One of the most attractive features of FM radio in the early days for bands such as Rush was that FM radio was a relatively uncommercialized soundscape. FM DJs had much more freedom to programme the music that was played and, as such, they were able to play long form songs by bands such as Rush without fear that playing a twenty-minute song was taking away from air time that could be spent broadcasting commercial advertisements. FM radio was, initially, broadcast in a way that was wide open. Any kind of musical taste was indulged. New bands and artists were allowed to be played. A regional FM station was allowed to reflect the Arts scene from the area they were broadcasting from without worrying if folks in other parts of the country got what they were doing and why it was important.. There were lots of live, in-studio performances, too. But again, like all things that start to become popular and gain a following, the eyes of the business world gazed longingly upon that FM broadcast real estate and slowly, but surely, the world of FM radio began to become standardized and commercialized.
It was as this transitory process was happening that Rush decided to enter the fray and make a statement of solidarity with those who believed FM radio should be more open and free. They did this in the form of an album called Moving Pictures and a song called “Spirit of Radio”. Although it never mentions this by name, “Spirit of Radio” is dedicated to radio station CFNY-FM in Toronto. When I first arrived in Toronto for university, it was CFNY-FM (102.1 on the radio dial) that always seemed to be playing the newest and most vibrant music. It was on CFNY-FM that I first heard bands such as Joy Division, Yaz, The Cure, Depeche Mode, along with local Toronto area bands such as Constantines, Breeding Ground, Rough Trade and so on. If I wanted The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, I could tune into Q107 for my classic rock needs. But, for more modern takes on the expanding music world around me, it was always CFNY-FM that I went to. Their slogan was “CFNY: the Spirit of Radio”.
So, Rush wrote their song called, “Spirit of Radio”. It is a love letter to CFNY-FM, thanking them for operating in a manner that supported new and innovative artists and bands. The second half of the song is a lament for the growing standardization of the medium. It is this standardization of decision making based upon profits and revenue streams, rather than artistic merit, that Rush believed would end up killing radio as a medium for meaningful music distribution. In fact, Neil Peart, who wrote the ending of the song by borrowing from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, when he mentions that the “words of the profits were written on the studio walls, concert halls”, along with the derisive line about “the sounds of salesmen”. “Spirit of Radio” went on to become one of Rush’s most popular and enduring songs. It remained a fixture of concert setlists throughout the remainder of their career.
I will conclude with a couple of bits of trivia for you. If you want to get a sense of what FM radio meant to artists such as Rush and their compatriots such as PInk Floyd and Yes, take a look at the iconic album cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The image of light entering a prism and exploding in a rainbow on the other side is a visual depiction of FM radio. It shows how ordinary AM quality sound actually had so many deeper, richer tones embedded within it, awaiting release. FM radio was that release. As well, in the late 1970s, Hollywood released a movie about FM radio called, imaginatively enough “FM”. The gist of the movie had the staff at one of these early, independent FM stations trying to hold back the forces of commercialization. Lots of great artists and bands appeared in the movie (such as Tom Petty in the video I will share with you below). The theme song “FM” was written by Steely Dan and mentions attributes of this new medium such as “no static at all”. This soundtrack is one of my favourite movie soundtracks ever. Great 70s music throughout! Finally, for the video listed below for “Spirit of Radio” by Rush, I am going to use the very important performance that they gave in 2003 in Toronto at the SARsFest Benefit concert at Downsview Park. Last week, I played a clip of Sam Roberts Band opening this concert festival. *(You can read that post here). Today, we will have hometown heroes, Rush, delivering a blistering performance of the classic tune, “Spirit of Radio”. One thing to note about it as you watch is how the song is constructed. Alex Lifeson has stated that the song is structured to replicate the idea of tuning a radio. He says that the original guitar solo that starts off the songs is meant to act as the static that typified AM radio. He says the smoother sections are to indicate the FM stations. This includes the brief trip the band takes into Reggae in the middle of the song. So, not only is the song about radio, it is designed to function like radio, too. It is attention to detail such as this that has helped make Rush one of the greatest bands of all time!
The link to the video for the song, “Spirit of Radio” by Rush can be found here.
***The lyrics version can be found here.
***Note: this particular video starts with Rush playing a bit of “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones. They did this as a Thank You to the band for headlining the SARsFest concert.
The link to the official website for Rush can be found here.
The link to the scene from the movie “FM” in which Tom Petty appears and the station programmer argues with his bosses about commercials can be found here.
The link to the official website for CFNY-FM (which is now called “102.1 TheEdge.ca) can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Toronto can be found here.
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