So much style without substance
So much stuff without style
It's hard to recognize the real thing
It comes along once in a while...
- Rush, "Grand Designs"
Geddy Lee sits in the Toronto offices of Anthem Records, cross-legged, and Intense as he grapples with the Big Question. "Why has Pete Townshend, for example, been a great songwriter for a couple of decades?" he asks. "And what is it that he knows instinctively about putting a great song together? There are people who have these instincts and there are others that have to learn them, have to go to school. We do some things naturally, but basically we're students."
Rush, the inquisitive and persistent undergraduates of rock's international music academy, have logged more classroom hours than most triple PhD candidates.
Over the course of an 18-year career that nurtured itself on the Ontario bar circuit and gradually spiraled to headliner status on the world stage, the Toronto trio's well-intentioned experiments in musical scholarship have yielded, shall we say, mixed results.
As students, their biggest liability seemed to be a penchant for changing courses in mid-semester. Starting out with a major in blues-based rock 'n' roll (who can forget Lee's banshee shriek on the rhythmically primal "Fly By Night"?), they switched to the operatic grandeur of progressive rock, establishing a reputation for symphonic landscapes dotted with the purple prose of drummer/lyricist Neil Peart's epic narratives.
Everyone remembers this incarnation of Rush. Vilified by critics and worshipped by legions of heavy-metal acolytes, they were the standard-bearers of a musical style that reveled in unbridled pomposity. No apologies, then or. now.
"That period (2112, Hemispheres) was a very technical exercise, and a lot of the reason and motivation for doing those long pieces were technical," says Lee.
"It seemed easier to string a bunch of movements or suites together than to try to write a song with one musical theme or melody.
"It was bombastic music. Let's face it. It's orchestrally inspired, it's grandiose - and it was fun at the time."
Just when they seemed poised to issue the definitive thesis on Myth, Legend & Medieval Sorcery, the threesome grew restless again, abandoning the pomp and circumstance of their late-'70s period, tightening up their sound and embracing modernism, or something fairly close to it.
Power Windows, the group's 11th and latest album, continues the process. Recorded in England with pop producer Peter Collins (Blancmange, Tracey Ullman, Nik Kershaw) and utilizing the hip synth-trappings of Andy Richards (of Frankie Goes To Hollywood fame), Rush has delivered a record that blends the snap and immediacy of modern pop with the rich textures of their symphonic past.
In the four months since its release, Power Windows has racked up sales approaching 200,000 in Canada (the best numbers since 1981's Moving Pictures) and nearly that many again in the States, breathing new life into a band some had written off as terminally turgid.
"We're back to playing 'double houses' (two nights in one city), which we didn't do last year," says management spokesman Val Azzoli. "It consolidated a new Rush sound, so to speak."
Predictably, many of the old fans hate it, but reviewers are sniffing around with renewed interest.
Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone magazine, David Fricke writes: "While critics routinely dismissed Rush as pretentious operatic heavy-metal bozos, this indefatigable Canadian power trio was actually busy becoming The Police of power rock...Power Windows may well be the missing link between Yes and The Sex Pistols."
Lee, the group's singer and bassist, rather enjoys the comparison - Rush being the lost evolutionary step, as it were, in the chain of musical being.
But he shuns any suggestion that the trio's trimmed-down aural attack is necessarily the final solution. Canada's perennial undergraduates, at Maple Leaf Gardens next Thursday and Friday, have yet to earn their sheepskin.
"I don't know, maybe we never found our natural sound, maybe it's still to come, or maybe we passed it. But you keep looking for it, because you really don't know what you're doing until you've done it."
If we are guilty here of belaboring the student metaphor, understand that it is Lee himself who wrings it for all it's worth. Maybe it's the key to understanding what Rush is all about. Why judge a band when it's still in school?
"When you start out as a musician, you're very technical. You want to play good and you want to play fast, that's natural when you're younger.
"Then I think you reach a point where you say: 'Okay, I've done it. How can I turn my technique to another area? What is this thing called feel?
The search for feeling, particularly modern feeling, wasn't easy, says guitarist Alex Lifeson.
"I think we got lost for a couple of records. With Signals (1982), we tried for a different perspective on keyboards where the guitar played a lesser role. To me, it sounds imbalanced now.
"And with Grace Under Pressure (1984), it was a reaction to that. The guitar came charging through everything. As a result, I thought it had a very monotone sound. But with Power Windows, I think we've got the right balance."
Just as important to that balance is Peart's developing flair for the deft turn-of-phrase, in marked contrast to the undulating lyrical monstrosities he concocted on earlier albums. He has sharpened his wit, and it lends the music a cheeky quality that succeeds more often than it fails: "Some world views are spacious - and some are merely spaced," he writes in one song, saying more in two lines than he previously accomplished in two stanzas.
"With every album, Neil seems to make his writing more economical," Lifeson agrees. "He's more succinct. It used to be a problem with some of the songs - it could take 600 or 700 listenings (to figure out the intent)."
What has hurt the band most, during its ongoing "education," is the charge that it has sold out to the other side - abandoning the precepts of progressive excess for the filthy lucre of New Wave trendiness.
"We've lost a lot of the older group," says Lifeson. "I don't know how many times I've had someone come up to me and say: 'I wish you guys would make another record like 2112.'"
These, remember, are the same people who supported the group when most critics were assaulting the band for its bloated literary pretensions and overblown soundscapes - and there's a genuine sense of loss because of it
"I understand it," says Lifeson, sympathetically. As a teenager growing up in the Toronto suburbs, he had his heroes, too.
"I remember when Led Zeppelin 1 came out. Our band was just coming out, we were just starting to get gigs at that point.
"I had an (emotional) attachment to it. None of the other Zeppelin albums had that impact on me, although I enjoyed quite a few of them."
Void, a clone-band specializing in Rush's early metaphysical material - up to 1977's A Farewell To Kings - is meant to satisfy those fans who feel abandoned by the group's latter-day dabblings in New Age pop.
Says Lee, with a trace of irony: "I've heard they sound more like us then, than we did."
But Rush's loss is also its gain: "The last few years, especially since Signals, there have been a lot more females in the audience, attributable probably to the change in direction and the existence of MTV, MuchMusic and those sorts of things."
Maybe most significant in Rush's reformed sound is the group's recognition that extracurricular activities are just as important as musical studies.
This North American tour, which began in November and continues through May (with 10-day rest breaks penciled into the itinerary), is a far cry from the mammoth, globe-girdling world caravans of past years.
Lee, an inveterate baseball fan (once you get him started on the subject, the conversation explodes in a litany of ERA stats and Expos/Blue Jays bullpen-chatter), will sneak away to Florida in March to revel in the sun-soaked bliss of the Grapefruit League.
Lifeson has recently taken up oil painting, and this summer, Peart will cycle through parts of Europe.
"We've been a lot of places, as a band," muses Lee. "But we travel in a tunnel - occasionally you break out, but what you see is from a particular point of view.
"We realize, now, that we need the time to do things on our own."
And when they get back, rested and rejuvenated, they'll likely return to the studio with Peter Collins. He's a stern-but-friendly taskmaster, providing just the sort of discipline our perennial students need in order to keep pulling top marks in the School of International Rock.
"In Peter Collins, we found what we were looking for, a very hardworking, serious-minded song producer.
"When we were making Power Windows, he'd say to us: 'You know this part of the song here? It's okay, but don't you think it could be better?'
"As players and songwriters, we have tremendous potential, but a lot of times it has been left untouched. He pushed us to accomplish what we know we can accomplish."