By 1980, Rush was ready for a new approach to their music. They’d taken their multi-sectioned epic-length jams about as far as they could go with 1978’s Hemispheres. The album included just four songs, and the title track took up all of side one. The 18-minute, six-part “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” was the sequel to 1977’s A Farewell To Kings’ “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage,” itself a ten and a half minute jam.
Hemispheres closed with a nine and a half minute jam, “La Villa Strangiato” which was subtitled “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.” Clearly the band knew they needed to evolve… and they did on their seventh album, Permanent Waves, released on January 14, 1980.
As Neil Peart said in the excellent Rush documentary, Beyond The Lighted Stage, “We agreed [that] we’re not doing this again, we’re not making this kind of record again.” Geddy Lee added, “The heaviness of Hemispheres made us want to run away from that kind of album, so we ran from Hemispheres straight to ‘The Spirit Of The Radio.'” It made sense: it was the start of a new decade, progressive rock bands were at a crossroads. Genesis adapted amazingly well, slimming down to a trio and successfully taking aim at mainstream rock radio and later top 40 and adult contemporary. Yes split up, and later reconvened with a younger member — guitarist/singer/songwriter Trevor Rabin — who wrote songs that gave the band new appeal to a younger audience.
Rush didn’t have lineup changes and they weren’t eyeing the top 40. But they — particularly Geddy Lee and Neil Peart — were big fans of “new wave” bands, especially Talking Heads and the Police. The economy of those groups’ songs, as well as their spirit of experimentation clearly inspired them. Talking Heads seemed to be an unlikely band to land multiple songs on the radio, yet they did just that with “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime.”
Like Talking Heads, Rush surely didn’t mind the idea of having a radio hit, but they weren’t going to pander to get it. It was a gamble to move from sprawling epics to tighter, more succinct songs, and it could have backfired.
But “The Spirit Of The Radio,” which opened the album, was so undeniably great. Alex Lifeson, the unsung hero of the band, launches the song with what is arguably the greatest riff in rock and roll. “The Spirit Of The Radio” is about what it is to love music the way a patriot loves their country: it’s a religious kind of love, the kind of love comes with expectations. “Invisible airwaves /Crackle with life /Bright antennae bristle /With the energy /Emotional feedback /On a timeless wavelength /Bearing a gift beyond price /Almost free.” Those lines are as powerful as anything Neil Peart have written; they hold up to Bob Dylan’s finest.
“The Spirit Of The Radio” is the album’s obvious highlight, but there’s no fat on the album’s other five songs. “Freewill” also became a radio staple; Peart writes about being an individual — a recurring theme in his writing through the decades — and comes close to criticizing organized religion. You didn’t have to agree with him, and you got the impression that he would respect you if you did, and that you’d have a fascinating and stimulating conversation with him if you ever came face to face with the man.
“Different Strings” starts out with a battle with a dragon, but it isn’t a throwback to the days of “By-Tor and the Snowdog” or “The Necromancer.” The dragon, here, symbolizes an actual, earthbound relationship. The lyrics — written by Geddy Lee, not Neil Peart — almost sounds like a therapy session between a couple who’ve been traveling a rough road. “All there really is
/The two of us/And we both know why we’ve come along.” Peart would later write about actual human relationships in the years to come; perhaps this song inspired him to do so.
Album closer “Natural Science” allowed the band to get their prog-rock on, a bit: the nine-minute mini-epic is an abbreviated history of the human race, starting by observing “microcosmic planets” existing in tidepools. But by the end, Peart rails against “superior cynics who dance to a synthetic band,” and looks to “art as expression, not as market campaigns,” which “Will still capture our imaginations.”
He still felt optimistic, despite the crass commercialism that has always motivated the entertainment business (and all businesses, really). “The most endangered species: the honest man/Will still survive annihilation/Forming a world, state of integrity/Sensitive, open and strong.” Surely, he was one of the few writers who would equate sensitivity and openness with strength. It’s a subtle touch, but something that set Rush apart from their peers. As powerful as their drums, guitars and basses may be, Rush was a thinking, and feeling, person’s band.
Even though the song was arguably less radio-friendly and more experimental than “The Spirit Of The Radio,” it carried some of the same themes. Make your own decisions, but don’t sell yourself out. “The Spirit Of The Radio” was a song that was an obvious radio hit that dared to call out the music industry, including radio: “One likes to believe in the freedom of music/But glittering prizes and endless compromises/Shatter the illusion of integrity, yeah.” After six years in Rush, Peart knew more than he cared to about the biz, and you could tell that he was determined to not let the fans, or himself, down. Of course, Peart and his bandmates didn’t have an “illusion of integrity” to shatter, because they had actual integrity, which never wavered; they called their own shots, up until their final bow.