Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #34: Rush

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Second Note: This is actually the 38th installment of this series, but I realized that I had mis-numbered and skipped the 34th installment, so I am back-filling here.

Who They Are: Canada’s finest smart/hard-rock trio, formed in 1968 by guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey, and (after a period with various other early members), stabilizing as a trio with bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee around 1971. Rutsey departed after the group’s self-titled 1974 debut album, to be replaced by drummer-lyricist Neil Peart. The Peart-Lifeson-Lee trio went on to release 18 studio albums over the ensuing four decades. The group were officially retired in 2020 after Peart died from brain cancer; they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

When I First Heard Them: 1976/1977-ish, undoubtedly on the radio on Long Island’s amazing WLIR (92.7 FM), where I first heard many of my still favorite groups and artists in that era’s free-form radio milieu. I saw them live at Nassau Coliseum a couple of years later, but I wasn’t really there for them, having purchased my tickets because The Good Rats were opening the show. True to advance expectations, The Rats blew them off the stage in front of their hometown Island audience, but I still enjoyed seeing Neil, Ged and Alex do their thing, and began to happily explore their catalog more fully. The group peaked for me, and earned their place as a favorite group in my personal pantheon, in the early ’80s, when their synth-fortified, muscular power trio rock was a relative constant in both my self-programmed listening at home, and on the radio when out and about. I saw them live again in Albany in 1996, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I also had the chance to interview Neil Peart around that time, and he was just delightful; it was one of the best experiences I had as a music critic in talking to musicians I admired and respected, and where the normal paradigm is “Don’t dare talk to your heroes, they will disappoint you.” I stayed abreast of the Rush catalog in the years that followed, and I had tickets to see their 40th Anniversary show in Kansas City, but was unable to get to it as the gig fell right on top of our move to Chicago. Unfortunately, missing that gig meant that I missed the chance to see them again, as Peart retired (and then died) soon thereafter. Big bummer.

Why I Love Them: When I last saw Rush in 1996, it was something of a special show for me. My full newspaper review of the show is here, but when discussing what most made the show magical in another article on my own website, I explained it thusly:

Rush
October 1996, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, New York
The first time I saw Rush was at Nassau Coliseum in the 1979 to 1980 range, when they made the tragic mistake of letting Good Rats open for them, and got well and thoroughly dusted by the home team. I wasn’t as much of a Rush fan at that point, as it was their early ’80s albums that worked best for me, and then got me to go back and listen to the back catalog again, more appreciatively. Fast forward to 1996, when, after years of dutifully dragging opening bands around the country, paying back karmic debt to the bands that dragged Rush around in the ’70s, Peart, Lee and Lifeson finally decided to undertake an “evening with” type tour, where they filled the whole evening with two, long sets. The first show of the tour was here in Albany. I interviewed Neil Peart a couple of weeks before the gig for Metroland, and he noted that the longer format was going to allow the group to do things they’d never done live before, like playing the entire 2112 suite as it was recorded for vinyl, not as it had been truncated for the concert stage over the years. I called my Rush-fanboy college room mate, Jamie, to let him know what was going on, and he cashed in some frequent flyer miles to come up to Albany to see 2112 played live in its entirety for the first time ever. It was a gloriously over-the-top show, and the sound of 16,000 people screaming “salesmen!” at the appropriate moment was giggle-inducing grand. Years later, watching the protagonists in I Love You, Man building their bromance over a shared fondness for Rush, I could totally relate. But I will punch you if you tell anyone.

Rush made great music, for sure, but there was something about them that went deeper than that with the fan base, inspiring a degree of affection and connection that always seemed more earnest and deep than the relationships listeners often have with the artists who move them. Maybe it was a Canadian thing: they were just nice, and seemed to be approachable as regular dudes and appreciative of their fans in ways that most rock stars never are. The group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is priceless, as their fans packed the hall for the event, and it was perhaps the most “regular dude” fan boy moment in that organization’s history; you can check it out here, it’s worth watching in its heart-warming goofiness. Peart’s lyrics were always clever and literate (yes, his youthful dalliances with interpreting the works of Ayn Rand can feel problematic these days, though to his credit, he outgrew that phase), and he was an utterly killer drummer, technically and visually. Lee and Lifeson always did yeoman work on the front-line, adamantly hewing live to the concept that people paid to see the trio, and not a bunch of supporting players, so that they always worked hard to reproduce their album tracks without supplement, which was fun to watch and hear. Peart experienced a deep set of personal tragedies just after I talked to and saw him last, losing both his wife and daughter within a very short time span, then walking away from the band, taking to the road on his motorcycle, and documenting his travels and travails in a series of excellent books. When he returned to the group, it somehow made everything they did thereafter feel most special, like we fans were getting a precious bonus gift that could be taken away at any time, and so deserved our warm regard and appreciation for as long as it lasted. That sense, of course, made Peart’s early death and the band’s dissolution all that more poignant. I’m grateful for what he, and they, left behind for us. It’s a worthy canon, from worthy dudes. And that can be precious rare in the often-awful music business, where good guys winning is not the normal trope.

#10. “Working Man,” from Rush (1974)

#9. “Freewill,” from Permanent Waves (1980)

#8. “New World Man,” from Signals (1982)

#7. “Test For Echo,” from Test For Echo (1996)

#6. “Digital Man,” from Signals (1982)

#5. “Limelight,” from Moving Pictures (1981)

#4. “One Little Victory,” from Vapor Trails (2002)

#3. “Subdivisions,” from Signals (1982)

#2. “Tom Sawyer,” from Moving Pictures (1981)

#1. “The Spirit of Radio,” from Permanent Waves (1980)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #37: Roxy Music

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An English art-pop band formed in 1970 by singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bryan Ferry, running as a recording concern (bar one late-’70s hiatus) through the early ’80s, with occasional live reunions since that time. The original version of the group included synth player Brian Eno, while Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, reeds/keys-man Andy Mackay, and drummer Paul Thompson provided the core of the group throughout its studio and live career, with support from a variety of bass players and keyboardists along the way. Roxy Music were big, important, and influential in the UK in their early years (aligning with the peak of the glam period), but didn’t score a (mild) crossover hit in the United States until “Love Is The Drug” (barely) broke into the American Top 40 in 1975. The group went into hibernation for a few years after that breakthrough, then re-emerged in 1979 for a three-record run that culminated with 1982’s Avalon, their biggest seller in the States, and the source of their most widely played and popular single, “More Than This,” which featured notably in the 2003 hit film Lost in Translation. Bryan Ferry has maintained a solid solo career during and since Roxy’s heyday, while Phil Manzanera has long been a go-to session guitarist and support player, atop his own interestingly eclectic solo career, including his stint (with Eno) in the group 801, which issued one of the finest in-concert albums (801 Live) ever recorded in 1976.

When I First Heard Them: When “Love Is The Drug” was a demi-hit on pop radio in the mid-’70s. To be honest and frank, it didn’t do anything for me, and still mostly doesn’t. Given the group’s name and cheesecake album cover art, I sort of mentally lumped them with the likes of, say, The Average White Band, or The Ohio Players, or Ace, or The Climax Blues Band, or the Atlanta Rhythm Section, all of them pleasant enough one-or-two-hit wonders, but not of a variety that seemed to be of any particular interest to me. But over the next few years, as I got deeply into Eno and King Crimson, and discovered that the former had been a founding member of Roxy, that the latter’s (then)-final bass player depped in Roxy for their last pre-hiatus tour, and that Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield had produced Roxy’s debut album, my curiosity was duly piqued. My first Roxy purchase was their 1977 Greatest Hits collection, and I must say that my mind was well and fully blown by what its grooves contained, requiring me to go back and nab their original five albums, the first four of which are still, to my mind, stone-cold masterpieces, the fifth of which (Siren, of “Love Is The Drug” fame) left me a bit cold. My experience with the three post-hiatus albums was similar: I enjoyed the first two (Manifesto from 1979 and Flesh And Blood from 1980), but their final studio album, Avalon, seemed way too slick and dull to me. That said, it was immensely popular among my peer group at the time, so it is definitely a key sonic piece of its era in my life, and I’d wager that for most Americans my age, if they know anything by or about Roxy Music, it’s based on that album and its singles. Sigh.

Why I Love Them: Nobody has ever merged experimental art noise, iconic visuals, and pop music as thoroughly and effectively as Roxy Music did at the peak of their powers, and my favorite songs of theirs are all pretty much culled from their potent collection of weird wonders. Eno’s synthesizers were most extraordinary on their first two albums, and his replacement, Eddie Jobson, did a fine job of integrating strings and orchestral touches into the group’s dynamic to replace his predecessor’s bleeps and bloops and whooshes. Ferry was also, at his best, a deeply unique songwriter, with profound and clever lyrics and curious song structures and chord charts that rarely hewed to standard pop-rock verse-chorus-bridge structures. But I’ve always felt that somewhere around the time of Avalon, somebody pointed out to him that his songwriting was wrong, somehow, and that he’d be better off positioning himself as a crooning song-stylist of the Frank Sinatra variety, rather than as a truly exotic musical beast of his own insular and inimitable style. And, sadly, Ferry seemed to accept that advice. (Most of his earlier solo albums were largely or wholly composed of covers; they’re not bad, but it’s as if David Bowie chose and replicated Pin-Ups as his defining album of the early ’70s, in lieu of Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust). So while there’s a fair volume in the Roxy catalog that I’m not particularly wild about (and in the case of their cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” I actively, positively loathe it), I remain a fond and fervent fan of the group on a macro basis, and still spin their best bits regularly, experiencing them just as enthusiastically and with as much wonder as I did in the late ’70s.

#10. “Flesh and Blood,” from Flesh and Blood (1980)

#9. “Editions of You,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#8. “Virginia Plain,” from “Virginia Plain”/”The Numberer” single (1972)

#7. “Do The Strand,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#6. “Manifesto,” from Manifesto (1979)

#5. “The Thrill Of It All,” from Country Life (1974)

#4. “Beauty Queen,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#3. “Casanova,” from Country Life (1974)

#2. “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#1. “Mother of Pearl,” from Stranded (1973)

Best Albums of 2021 (First Half)

It’s been six-plus months since I posted my Best Albums of 2020 list here, so the time seems right to offer a first-half albums report for 2021. I’ve found and heard some amazing things this year, though I will note that the Anno Virum has certainly impacted the music world, as I’ve found fewer brilliant albums thus far in 2021 than is typical for this time of the year. That said, it seems that things have been picking up over the past couple of months, so here’s hoping that there’s a tremendous backlog of brilliant new music out there awaiting release, as artists are able to collaborate in person and/or tour their latest creations after long periods of creative isolation.

As is my typical practice for these sorts of lists, I restrict my recommendations to full-length albums, though I do want to call out and celebrate Jed Davis’ series of EPs as 2021 highlights, as discussed in depth here. I suspect he’ll issue them in album form at some point, and the songs contained therein are all winning regular and enthusiastic spins hereabouts, so they merit your consideration, even if they don’t technically qualify as long-players on their own. For each of the albums below, I provide a link for further exploration, and the albums are listed in the order that I acquired them this year. Happy listening! And let me know what I’ve missed and need to hear in the comment section, please and thanks!

The Body: I’ve Seen All I Need to See

Black Country, New Road: For the first time

Alice Cooper: Detroit Stories

Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark

Paul Leary: Born Stupid

Mexican Institute of Sound: Distrito Federal

The Heartwood Institute: Witchcraft Murders

Xiu Xiu: OH NO

Intercourse: Rule 36

Les Conches Velasques: Celebración Del Trance Profano

Genghis Tron: Dream Weapon

Kasai Allstars: Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound

Buggy Jive: You Won’t Like the Answer

Micky Dolenz: Dolenz Sings Nesmith

Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg

Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend

Billy F. Gibbons: Hardware

If 2021 ended today, this one would be my Album of the Year. We’ll see if it holds its spot for another six months.

With Which I Am Well Pleased X (Years Gone)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #36: Swans

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An intense experimental ensemble formed in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1982 by stalwart member and visionary Michael Gira, following the demise of his former band, Circus Mort. The group’s early music was grinding, brutal, and violent, with some truly horrific and debased lyrics adding to the transcendent discomfort of their work. In the mid-’80s, Gira’s creative and personal partner Jarboe joined the group as a second vocalist, songwriter, arranger and keyboard player, and the pair slowly moved the group toward more traditional song-based structures, though the darkness of the words and music remained potent, even in more acoustic or melodic settings with Swans and/or their side project of the era, Skin. Swans dissolved in 1997, with Jarboe and Gira embarking on satisfying solo careers, and Gira launching the influential Young God Records. While the group’s following in its initial run was fervent, if small, by 2010, their legend and influence had grown to a point where Gira’s announcement of their re-activation (without Jarboe) was warmly covered by the likes of such “respected” outlets as National Public Radio and The New York Times. Swans have issued five studio albums since their reformation to critical acclaim, and their epic live shows have come to carry legendary status as thrilling, exhausting, exhilarating exercises in creating other-worldly experiences for audiences through battering repetition, volume, and intensity. A 2019 documentary called Where Does A Body End? provides an absolutely stellar overview of their career, catalog, and creative processes, and I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer:

When I First Heard Them: 1984-ish, around the time of their second long-player, Cop, and the game-changing Young God EP. While the value and impact of album cover art has been dramatically diminished in these our sad streaming days, I often bought records way back when based solely on imagery and close reading of liner notes on exterior covers, without having any idea of what the grooves inside the record sleeve actually contained. Swans’ cover iconography grabbed me immediately; it was stark, scary, and striking, and the presence of early song titles like “Big Strong Boss” and “Weakling” and “Butcher” and “Thug” and “I Crawled” and “Raping A Slave” gave a dark preview into what one was going to experience within those records’ tracks. The first record of theirs I actually purchased was Filth (1983), and, Holy Moly, was that dark preview sense borne out in garish, painful audio-technicolor when that and subsequent records were actually acquired and consumed. The group went into a highly prolific period over the next few years as they stabilized around what I consider to be their greatest line-up: Gira, Jarboe, guitarist Norman Westberg (the only close-to-permanent member of the band throughout its history, other than Gira), bassist Algis Kizys and drummer Ted Parsons. After their sole flirtation with a major label on 1989’s atypical, Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World, Swans went on to issue a steady series of stellar releases that balanced the beautiful and the debased throughout the remainder of their original run, with a variety of rhythm sections working around the Gira-Jarboe-Westberg core (except for a brief period when Clinton Steele served as the featured guitarist in Norman’s place).  The post-2010 group has featured Gira and Westberg with a mostly-stable collection of superior collaborators and colleagues, and it’s been pleasing to see Gira earning so many well-deserved plaudits from “reputable” media outlets after decades of personal and creative struggle in the dark spaces of the musical underground. Best of all, while the structures and sounds of his songs have evolved over the years, their intensity (lyrically and musically) has not faded, and that’s an accomplishment truly worthy of respect and honor and admiration.

Why I Love Them: Just before I discovered Swans, I had written and recorded a song called “Meat,” (I’m dismayed to discover today that I do not have a digital copy of that song to share), which featured these words as its final verse:

Meat, soul. Soul, meat.
All we are is where they meet.
God can satisfy the spirit.
Hear His message? Hear it? Hear it!
Meat is happy stimulated.
Through sex and pain the meat is sated.

Without delving too deeply into the dark spaces of my personal psychology, then or now, I’ll note that explorations into extreme physical vs spiritual dynamics were deeply important to me at that time, and highly relevant to how I viewed and experienced the world around me. So it was an utter thrill to discover Swans, who took such explorations to the deepest, hardest, darkest places, where bodies and souls were punished, or pleasured, or processed in ways that combined those two states, blurring the distinctions between them. Gira’s early lyrics were often truly horrifying, and his musical settings were sublimely suited to framing them, punching their impact and their meaning into your body with sledgehammer power and dental drill precision. When Gira and Jarboe (a fellow native Southerner, which I always appreciate) began to openly blend the language and culture of my own strict and strange Christian upbringing into Swans’ music with 1987’s Children of God, it raised the impact of their work and music to fever-state levels for me, speaking to and through me in ways that few other artists ever have. And saying that, I also have to note that early Swans were possibly the one and only group that nobody in my personal circle of music nerds could stomach or tolerate, so they never played on any communal stereos anyplace that I lived through the ’80s, further cementing their status as a deeply personal obsession and inspiration for me. On a slightly lighter note, while there were few things to be tickled about during the Anno Virum, I did very much appreciate the fact that Michael Gira produced protective face masks inspired by the cover of my very first Swans album, Filth, all those years earlier. My favorite mask, without question.

While I’ve diligently followed Swans’, Gira’s and Jarboe’s careers and catalogs over the years, the profoundly personal impact of their early albums and songs means that my personal top ten list below certainly skews harder in that direction than toward their more contemporary releases. But sometimes that’s how music works, speaking to us just where we are, profoundly, in specific moments, ages, and places in our lives. It remains deeply cathartic and satisfying to occasionally pummel myself with these great Swans songs (and many others), uplifting in their debasement, righteous in their wrongness, and healing in their hurt, then, now, always.

#10. “The Great Annihilator,” from The Great Annihilator (1995)

#9. “Failure,” from White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

#8. “Time Is Money (Bastard),” from Time Is Money (Bastard) EP (1986)

#7. “A Screw (Holy Money),” from Holy Money (1986)

#6. “Stupid Child,” from Greed (1986)

#5. “Weakling,” from Filth (1983)

#4. “The Other Side of the World,” from Love of Life (1992)

#3. “Your Game,” from Body to Body, Job to Job (1991)

#2. “Thank You,” from Filth (1983)

#1. “A Hanging,” from Holy Money (1986)

10,000 Words On A Chair (Sedona #8)

(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)