Is Progression Allowed In Progressive Rock: How Rush's "Subdivisions" Divided More Tha
August 11, 2015
Updated May 17, 2016
In the fall of 2014, I came across the article “Periods In Progressive Rock And The Problem Of Authenticity” by John Sheinbaum, a musicologist at the University of Denver. It questioned the acceptability of the changes Canadian progressive rock band Rush and British progressive rock band Yes made to their music in 1982 and 1983 with Rush’s Signals and Yes’ 90125, particularly with the form and style of Rush’s “Subdivisions” and Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” singles. Being a fan of both bands and albums, I wanted to examine how musical change is understood and received by audiences, and postulate that if not initially successful, change is better received when listeners are able to fit the change into a chronological understanding of the band’s development. I believed that if the change is sudden or unpredicted, the audience has more difficulty as it contrasts with their expectations and desires. Through retrospection, however, an understanding can be reached, for the Signals album is currently understood among scholars, fans, journalists, and the band members themselves as one of the most influential albums in Rush's long career.
But first, who are Rush?
Rush is a Canadian progressive rock band from the Willowdale neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario. The band features a trio consisting of Geddy Lee (bass & keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (drums & lyrics), who joined the band in 1974. John Rutsey was the first drummer (1968-1974) but left the band due to health reasons and musical differences. The band formed in August of 1968 and produced their first self-titled album in 1974. Since then, they have taken musical change quite seriously. After their first four albums, a live album was produced stating in the liner notes “this album to us signifies the end of the beginning, a milestone to mark the close of chapter one, in the annals of Rush”. This pattern of four studio albums followed by a live one has remained consistent for their first sixteen studio albums. After 40 years of material consisting of 20 studio albums and 10 live albums, the band is still going strong in popularity, despite Neil Peart's re3cent decision to retire. I chose to focus on Rush for several reasons.
Firstly, it is rare for a band to have an extensive 40-year catalogue with the same members. Secondly, the band was originally considered a hard rock/progressive rock band. With the decline of progressive rock’s popularity in the late 1970s, it meant that many bands had to adapt to a changing world and music scene. The consequent changes in the band's sound has affected fans’ perception of what Rush is, and has even lead fans to question Rush’s authenticity as a progressive rock band. Thirdly, the fanbase of this group is incredibly varied in age, as Rush has catered to fans of 4 different decades, which allows for varied interpretations, understandings, and preferences. Lastly, it is within the album Signals that musical and media changes with the advent of MTV were starting to show, particularly with the single “Subdivisions”.
One of the reasons I chose to look at the single “Subdivisions” is due to its major change of instrumentation. For the first two albums Rush (1974) and Fly By Night (1975), the instrumentation mainly consisted of bass, guitar, and drums. During Caress of Steel (1975) songs were getting longer and more percussion instruments were being used, however the main focus was still predominantly bass, guitar, and drums. 2112 (1976) contained the first obvious use of a synthesizer as it opens the classic "2112" suite. At this stage, the synthesizer is only used for sound-effect purposes. It isn’t until Moving Pictures (1981) that the synthesizer contained hints of the melody lines. The synth has shifted from being a means of sound effects to accompanying the melody in the background. In complete contrast, “Subdivisions” (1982) uses the synth for the main melody, and for the first time, the guitar melody was pushed aside, signaling a new period for the band. Bowman (2002) suggests that Rush’s “later music” continued the band’s identity of “extended instrumental sections” by having “substantially moderated treatments” within “various shorter songs” (2002:213-214). Rush was not the only band changing their musical styles at the turn of the new decade. Covach believes that “by the early 1980s progressive rock was thought to be all but dead as a style, an idea reinforced by the fact that some of the principal progressive groups had developed a more commercial sound . . . What went out of the music of these now ex-progressive groups when the more commercial sound came in was any significant evocation of art music” (1997:5). Macan adds to this change by noting that this same moment was "marked by the fragmentation of the genre into simpler, more commercially mainstream subgenres such as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, as well as a noticeable decline in the creativity of the major progressive rock bands” (1997:179). Sheinbaum (2008) notes that for Rush, it was still important not to lose touch with who they were and where they came from: “The band members themselves placed a premium on not abandoning their own sense of ‘authenticity’ amidst their increased use of music technology. Peart writes:
"In the ’80s, we again discussed bringing in a fourth member, a keyboard player, at least for live shows. But we were . . . proud of what we could do with just the three of us. So we decided to carry on ourselves . . . We used whatever we needed—keyboard samples, background vocal effects, string parts, whatever. The line we drew was that they were all samples of us, and every note, every “event,” had to be triggered manually (or pedally, as the case might be) by one of us" (Sheinbaum 2008:75–76).
With the release of Signals there were tensions between the older “classic” sound of the band, and this new period, which according to Steinbaum, focuses on the “everyday” (2008:41). Rush’s classic sound emphasized complexity in form and metre. However in “Subdivisions,” an emphasis is put on the synthesizer. Since it was a staple of early 1980s pop, it alludes to the here-and-now aspect of “everyday.” Similarly, the lyrics of “Subdivisions” discuss the difficulties of living in a conventional subdivision, which was relatable to the Rush audience of predominantly white suburban male teenagers (McDonald 2009). Lyrics discussing fantasy, the unknown, and imagination were no longer prominent; a general shift towards exposing a harsh reality had taken priority. Similarly, the solos in “Subdivisions” are not improvised, but rather composed and repeated. The synthesizer solo appears twice with a four-bar phrase that largely repeats the material in other phrases. The song itself is based around a flat-VI-flat-VII-I chord progression in B Minor, a rock chord progression that Sheinbaum believes to be so common that it “borders on the mundane” (2008:41). This repetition and common chord progression seems to suggest routine, which relates to the lyrics and “everyday” theme of this new period.
Relating to Bowman’s (2002) earlier suggestion of Rush continuing their identity through moderated treatments, “Subdivisions” still maintains complexity through the use of difficult time signatures and mixing metres. For example, during the opening phrases of the introduction, the time signature 7/8 (2+2+3) is placed within conventional four-bar units. During the verse, conventional 4/4 bars are placed within three- and six-measure groups. These sections move from simple to complex metres and create a tension in the piece that emphasizes the lyrical tensions and the instrumental tensions of the time. Sheinbaum notes that:
"At times there are metrical changes from one iteration of a section to the next, which brings the moment-to-moment metrical play to bear on larger structural levels…for example, while the first verse uses a grouping of six measures in 7/8 time, the equivalent spot in the second verse alternates between 4/4 and 3/4 for those six bars; the total number of eighth notes is the same, but the metrical structure has a different feel. The chorus shows a great confluence of this metrical play. The governing meter is 3/4. Which organizes the vocals, bass, and guitar, and the metrical structure partakes of two-, four-, and six-bar groupings. Peart’s drumming, meanwhile, creates a pattern of cross rhythms by simultaneously using a duple-meter pattern reminiscent of a conventional 4 /4 rock beat; this is most audible in the snare drum hits every other beat. And if the drum part is considered structural, then the section would use even more surprising groupings of 1.5, 3, and 4.5 bars" (2008:41-42).
With these complex metrical changes along with the thick block chords and virtuosic drumming, it is easy to see how Rush can still maintain some progressive rock roots while introducing new concepts to their fans. This mixture of known and unknown aspects of Rush can help account for some of the mixed reactions from fans and critics upon hearing this single.
I wanted to get the perspective fans with regard to this change through fieldwork. Being a Rush fan myself, I already belonged to two Facebook fan pages called “Rush Rats” and “Clockwork Angels”. I posted to each group and asked what they thought about "Subdivisions," when they first heard it, how they feel about it today, when they first started listening to Rush, and what album made them a fan. I asked the last two questions because I wanted to find “first generation” Rush fans. What I mean by the term "first generation" is Rush fans that got into the band during their early “Progressive Heavy Metal” phase. I knew that Rush gained a lot of fans due to Signals and the albums that followed, but I wanted to hear from the fans that experienced the change in the music, after already relating to the sounds of early Rush. Within three hours of posting my question on both sites, I received over two-hundred responses through the post’s comment section and Facebook private messaging. I specifically chose to respond to people who had been initially hooked on Rush’s first five albums. Many of them had initially got interested in the band with the release of 2112 from 1976. I had asked if they had investigated Rush’s previous albums at that point, and confirmed that they were drawn to the heavy progressive rock sound of Rush that Bowman (2002) described earlier. The majority of people surveyed were in college or finishing high school in 1982. Contrary to my previous speculations, almost half of the survey participants were women, despite the preconception of Rush fans being predominately male.
After conversing with rush fans for a week, I categorized their responses into nine different types of reaction paths as a result of hearing “Subdivisions” for the first time. I also looked at how these first generation fans felt about the song now.
1. A reaction of many fans was to completely lose interest in the band and only listen to material up to and including Moving Pictures. While this may seem harsh, the subjects discussed how they believed the band had lost touch with their previous style, and were simply attempting to have increased radio play and popularity through MTV.
2. Others shared the same sense that Rush had gone commercial when they first heard “Subdivisions” in 1982. However, when asked how they felt about “Subdivisions” today, they realized that the change in instrumentation wasn’t about selling out, but rather a result of interest by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson into expanding the band's sound. They had more respect for the song today than they did upon their first initial hearing.
3. Some subjects admitted that although they didn’t mind the new direction Rush was going in 1982, they secretly hoped they would return to their roots and that the 80s synth period would merely be a phase. Needless to say, today they were quite happy with Rush's latest release Clockwork Angels (2012) as it revisits their 1970s roots.
4. The majority of subjects were quick to discuss their interactions with the lyrics. While some didn’t initially like the music, they immediately identified with the lyrics. “Subdivisions” discusses the feeling of isolation one has when growing up in a subdivision. There’s a pressure to succeed and fit in not just in the suburban setting, but in school as well. Since most of the subjects were in some form of education in 1982, these lyrics really spoke to them, and many found that the lyrics were telling their life story. Although some subjects didn’t like the musical aspects of “Subdivisions,” the connection the subjects felt with the lyrics helped them to accept the new sound and instrumentation. In the July 2015 edition of Rolling Stone Magazine, Neil Peart discussed the lyrical impact "Subdivisions" had on the fans and how it changed the subject of Peart's lyrics:
"A lot of the early fantasy stuff was just for fun because I didn't believe yet that I could put something real into a song. 'Subdivisions' happened to be an anthem for a lot of people who grew up under those circumstances, and from then on, I realized what I most wanted to put in a song was human experience" (Hiatt 2015:44).
Similarly, subjects were also relating to the MTV video, which showed a teenage boy trying to fit in whilst being cast out and alienated. Many subjects described this video as being an accurate representation of their teenage years, and were willing to accept the music that accompanied the video, even if the music had not been initially desirable.
5. Several subjects confided that they didn’t mind the new sounds and instrumentation in “Subdivisions.” For the fans, it was the albums that followed such as Grace Under Pressure (1984) and Power Windows (1985) that contained too much synth and shorter pop-oriented pieces for their likings. By comparison, “Subdivisions” was tolerable because it contained enough similarity with their previous work to allow the song to be relatable and enjoyable.
6. Another aspect that the majority of subjects brought up, aside from liking both the music and lyrics, was the idea of nostalgia when listening to “Subdivisions” today. For many, “Subdivisions” represents a separate time and place in their lives as youths that they reflect upon favourably. By contrast, other fans found the lyrics to be no longer relatable today. For example, one subject resented living in a subdivision growing up, and related to the idea of alienation and the pressure of being compared to everyone. Now this subject has a family of their own, and sees the benefits of raising a family in a subdivision. As a teenager, they could only see the negative aspects of the suburb, but now they are experiencing the positive aspects, and do not relate as cohesively with the lyrics. Other subjects mentioned how listening to the song brings back painful memories of how they fought against themselves to be something they weren’t, when in the end, none of it mattered. Some viewed “Subdivisions” as still having lyrical meaning today, despite not being teenagers. The lyrics remind them of the competitive nature of humanity and the petty fight for dominance in the working world. “Subdivisions” today reminds them to not only acknowledge where they came from nostalgically, but to critically analyze where they are headed, now that they are a part of a whole new form of community as working citizens providing for families.
7. Some subjects immediately accepted Rush's change of direction solely due to the fact that it was art produced by Rush.
8. Others discussed more personal reasons for their acceptance of “Subdivisions.” Several subjects discussed how it allowed them the opportunity to bond with a neighbor. Others discussed how unveiling Rush albums and discussing the music had become a tradition among family and friends and promoted bonding. Many subjects enjoyed hearing the new path Rush was taking with Signals, but even the subjects that didn’t enjoy the music at that time, appreciated the gathering that the album inspired. Today, these same subjects express gratitude for the album as it brought back memories of sharing the music and creating new friends. These Facebook groups and other forms of social media have created a similar sense of community and bonding over a common interest. Within these groups, people are expressing their own ideas and interpretations of songs, causing constant re-evaluation in opinion, perception, and interest when people listen to “Subdivisions” today.
9. Many subjects were artists and musicians themselves, and applauded the change for Rush. As artists and musicians, they understood the need for change, as it promotes growth. They believe it is worth the risk for an artist to try something different, even if it is not successful, because the experience itself could create art that the artist truly believes in. If an artist does not change, their art is likely to fade or die as the world itself changes. The musician subjects also discussed how the increase of keyboards gave them something to experiment with. Several subjects were excited about the changes in instrumentation, as it opened up possibilities of what they could do as a keyboardist in their own bands. Today these artists and musicians are thankful for the changes Rush made, even if some of these artists did not care for the changes personally. It showed that their favourite band was not afraid to take risks, which in turn inspired the subjects in their own line of work.
After conversing with fans, I wanted to know if critics had similar views and opinions on “Subdivisions,” and if those opinions had changed over time as they had with some of Rush's fans.
Signals was released September 9th, 1982, merely one year after what many fans, critics, and even Geddy Lee himself, deem to be Rush’s best album: Moving Pictures. There was a change in instrumentation and style that defined and separated Moving Pictures from Rush's previous work. Neil Peart explains "When punk and New Wave came, we were young enough to gently incorporate it into our music, rather than getting reactionary about it...We were fans enough to go, 'Oh, we want that too.' And by Moving Pictures, we nailed it, learning how to be seamlessly complex and to compact a large arrangement into a concise statement" (Hiatt:2015-42). Although Rush continued to change their style and instrumentation on the following album, the response from critics regarding Signals was mixed. On September 18th 1982, Billboard included "Signals" in its “Top Album Picks Spotlight”, and discusses its positive potential stating:
"Canada's platinum rock trio swings toward new musical influences in this latest concept set. If the songs' futuristic themes aren't new to the band, their delivery is: as previewed on "New World Man," already a fast add at AOR since its release as the first single, Geddy Lee reins his usually melodramatic vocals to a gentler, lower register, and punches up his synthesizer textures to give the new wave of techno pop bands a run for the money. Partners Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart likewise rise to the challenge. Lifeson's guitars hewing to cyclical figures more than howling leads and Peart's drums providing an appropriate array of off-center rhythms to underline the high tech sensibilities of "Subdivisions," "Chemistry" and similar topics" (“Top Album Picks: Spotlight”:1982-63).
Philip Basche, author of “Rush’s Simpler ‘Signals’” from Circus Magazine, began his review on November 30th 1982 stating: “If there's one thing rock journalists dread more than watery drinks at press functions, it's facing the wrath of Rush fans disgruntled over a less than favorable review.” That being said, Basche's article mainly consisted of interviews with Geddy Lee discussing fandom and the changes the band endured after their staple album Moving Pictures. Basche discussed how:
"The music's jagged edges have been softened and the rhythms are less frenzied. Synthesizers replace what normally would be solo space for guitarist Alex Lifeson, who enriches songs like "Losing It" and "Chemistry" with atmospheric sunbursts of color. Why the modification of sound? Lee credits some of the music the band has listened to during the past year, like one of Peart's favorite records, Ultravox's moody, layered 'Vienna' (Transcribed by George Rogic, 2112.net).
Basche also mentions how the album exhibits maturity in playing. Basche explains why there are sudden simplistic tendencies in Signals after the comparatively complex Hemispheres and Moving Pictures albums: “Rush were at a point where they no longer felt compelled to prove their proficiency by uncoiling songs into lengthy epics.” Although Basche highlights the change in instrumentation and roles of the musicians in the band, nothing else is said about the new album, particularly whether or not Basche likes the direction in which Rush was heading. Instead, Basche takes a neutral stance on the new album, perhaps to avoid the so-called wrath of Rush fans.
J.D. Considine of Rolling Stone Magazine, however, was not afraid of Rush fans or expressing his views on the new album. In his “’Signals’ Album Review” from October 28th 1982, Considine wrote:
"On their twelfth album, Rush makes a strong argument for the view that advanced technology is not necessarily the same thing as progress. Unfortunately, they do so by screwing up. Although Signals is chockablock with state-of-the-studio gadgetry, ranging from the requisite banks of synthesizers to the latest in digital recording and mixing, none of these electronic add-ons enhances the group’s music. If anything, Rush emerges from this jungle of wires and gizmos sounding duller than ever. The band’s chief error seems to have been emphasizing synthesizers at the expense of Alex Lifeson’s guitar. Because Rush’s concepts of synthesized sound is so narrow – consisting mainly of the vague whooshing sounds that are the aural equivalent of dry-ice fog – the band tends to sound like it is trapped in wads of lint. With no edge to work against, Geddy Lee’s congested vocals float through the songs like swamp gas. Ultimately, it’s up to the drummer Neil Peart’s hyperkinetic thrashing to hold the performances together. Ironically, Rush falls into this technological morass on an album that is otherwise their most poppish yet. By and large, the songs on Signals are tuneful and unencumbered by the sort of gratuitous flash that made previous albums seem like clearinghouses for worn-out art-rock licks. Even so, it’s mostly a wasted effort, and nearly all of Rush’s Signals come across as static. 2/5 stars (Considine 1982).
Since Considine was the only critic to give an opinion, I was curious to contact him and see if his opinions had changed at all. I was able to contact him through email and ask how he felt about Signals listening to it 33 years later. Considine responded:
"Having re-listened to it just now, I still think it's not very good thanks mainly to poor production and arranging. From the flabby, overlong synth intro to "Subdivisions" to the gratuitous sound effects in "Countdown" (the lyrics mention helicopters, so they dub in helicopter sounds? Really?), the overall sound is embarrassingly dated. And although there's much to admire in the songwriting, I prefer the performance of "Digital Man" on Snakes and Arrows Live to the version on Signals. Likewise, the rendition of "New World Man" on Rush In Rio has much more edge and excitement than the studio original" (Considine 2015).
As for “Subdivisions” itself, Considine noted:
"There are a couple specific things that I find continue to get up my nose there. There's something muffled about the overall sound, from the wall-of-marshmallow synth tone to the way all the phasing and flanging on Alex Lifeson's guitar seems to squish its sound into mush on the verses. Neil Peart's drumming has real vitality to it, but the sound of the drums is so keyed-down you'd almost imagine they were recorded with the mics in another room. There are some moments, mainly on the refrain, when Geddy Lee's bass pushes through the murk to kick things along, but the grit and daring of his bass playing stands in sad contrast to the bland competence of his work on keyboards. And that has got to be one of the lamest synthesizer solos I've ever heard" (Considine 2015).
Although Considine continues to not speak favourably about Signals or “Subdivisions”, he still admires and praises the strength, growth, and longevity of the band. In 2012, Considine wrote an article for the Globe and Mail newspaper on why Rush deserved to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To some, the urging of acceptance coming from Considine may seem a little surprising considering Considine’s 2/5 star review of Signals. However, Considine addresses the necessity of looking at a band’s career progression, rather than only focusing on album reviews from the past:
"It’s not as if I’ve since seen the light and want to recant that old review (I don’t), or that allegiance to Rush was part of some agreement I signed upon moving to Canada. Rather, it’s that Rush has gotten better over the years. Unlike most rockers, who peak in their first decade and spend the rest of their career either treading water or slowly sinking, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have continued to grow over the decades. They play better now than they did then, they take more chances musically, and they write more interesting material. Frankly, I can’t think of many other bands I could say that about" (Considine 2012).
Within our conversation, Considine addressed an important factor in the longevity of Rush that very few of my subjects discussed: the aspect of Rush’s live playing. Considine notes:
"Although the band certainly relies heavily on its back catalog in concert, I think it would be fair to say that both critics and fans are of the opinion that those oldies are better played today than they were then. (Why else would there be such a market for the band's live recordings, something that has grown considerably in the last 15 years?)...The real reason Rush has gotten more respect in recent years isn't because the critic's realized they were wrong, but because the band's writing and playing has steadily improved over the last four decades" (Considine 2015).
In July 2015, after 41 years, Rush made it to the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, causing many fans to celebrate the long-overdue acknowledgement. Senior writer Brian Hiatt wrote the "From Rush With Love" feature, and documented the months of preparation leading up to Rush's last tour, the "R40". Ironically contrary to Considine's opinions of "Subdivisions", this Rolling Stone journalist calls "Subdivisions" "one of Rush's best songs" (2015:44), and comments on his own Rush fandom:
"Long ago, I was a suburban teenage Rush fan, Roll The Bones tour tee and all. It is an intense experience, all these years later, to have the band five feet in front of me, playing that particular song straight into my earphones...As discreetly as possible, I wipe my eyes" (Hiatt 2015:44).
The Rolling Stone Magazine's recognition of Rush may have been long overdue, but so was recognition from scholars until quite recently.
In Steinbaum’s article, he commented on the lack of discussion of Rush by academics, stating that Edward Macan, who is often considered the father of progressive rock writing, didn't include Rush in his discography of progressive rock in Rocking the Classics (2006) because he didn't see them as being "purely authentic" (Sheinbaum 2008:40). Similarly, in Robert Walser’s study of heavy metal, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Rush “fails the standards of most metal fans” (1993:7). Alternatively, on February 21st 2015, Geddy Lee did two sit-ins for VH1’s That Metal Show, a show that proudly dedicates itself to interviewing heavy metal bands and artists. Similarily, the documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005) discusses Rush in great detail and their influences on metal artists. Since 1997, numerous books and articles have been published with Rush living in the limelight. In 2009, Chris McDonald, a musicologist at the University of Cape Breton, released his book Rush: Rock Music and the Middle Class. The book assesses the band's impact on popular music and their fans through Rush's critique of suburban life that reflected middle-class aspirations and anxieties. McDonald writes:
"‘Subdivisions’ fed directly into the dystopian myth of the North American suburb, describing the predictability, the cultural bleakness, the uneventful, unchanging landscape that endless residential neighbourhoods provided for the North American middle class" (McDonald 2009:3).
"In ‘Subdivisions’, Rush portrays the North American suburb as a place where quiet and comfort is privileged in place of stimulation; a place that traps young people in ennui and conformity; a place hostile to ‘dreamers and misfits’. The bureaucratic rationality and ‘geometric order’ of the suburb hold sway over the chaotic, unpredictable, but ultimately creative character which presumably resides in young people who seek escape. The video dramatizes the song’s theme through a narrative involving a young, white, male high school student who is studious, aloof, unable or unwilling to conform to the standards of his peers, pursuing any release he can find from the routines and demands of his environment" (McDonald 2009:27-28).
McDonald's points underline why so many fans connected to this particular piece. Whether through lyrical content or visuals in music videos, art contains more merit for the fans when art accurately represents reality. It is this connection to depicted reality that seems to have stuck with the fans, even to this day.
In summary, what defines the style of Rush, progressive rock, and heavy metal, seems to have changed over the last forty years judging by examples of the change in acceptance of "Subdivisions" by fans, recent critic reviews, and the increase of academic papers and journals on Rush over the last 20 years. As J.D. Considine pointed out, Rush have improved as musicians, performers, and songwriters, as seen with the increased interest in live DVD’s and the continuation of album releases. Considine argued that this growth deserves credit from the press, regardless of whether or not the critic is a fan: “I’m not really a huge fan of Rush..." explains Considine, but "...For my money, their current concept album, Clockwork Angels, isn’t just as good as the fan favourite 2112 – it’s an order of magnitude better. And that kind of growth deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (2012). What I have determined thus far, is that artists performing in the style known as progressive rock can overtime evolve stylistically without being considered unfaithful to their previous work by fans, scholars, and critics. All it took was time for Signals to make it through.
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