Instinct to survive
Stirs the higher passions
Thrilled to be alive
As many of you might be aware, I LOVE Rush! They were my “gateway band,” not just to prog, but the music world at large. Geddy Lee’s powerful bass tone and insane licks inspired me to pick up my primary instrument, the bass guitar. Alex Lifeson’s riffs and solos stay stuck in my head for days. Neil Peart’s intelligent, conversational lyrics, reminiscent of such writers as Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov, and William Shakespeare, resonate with me in a way few lyrics can. Many Rush songs have what I call the “living-room” quality: listening to them feels almost like having a thoughtful conversation with Neil in your living room, thanks in part to Geddy’s clear delivery. Yes, Rush is important to me-especially their 1987 effort, Hold Your Fire.
Rush’s 1980s “synth-pop” period is often maligned by fans and critics alike, and of their ’80s albums, Hold Your Fire seems to take the most crap. The guitar was less prevalent than it had been on any previous album. Gone was the neo-Romantic proggae of Signals, the dystopian new-wave of Grace Under Pressure. This album and its predecessor, Power Windows, disappointed many fans and caused some to say that they were joining contemporaries Yes and Genesis by selling out to the demands of the day. Yet, Hold Your Fire is my favorite album of all time, featuring poignant songwriting, lush production, and (best of all) heart-pumping bass tone throughout the record. Let’s explore the music and lyrics of Rush, song by song.
1: Force Ten
“Force Ten” kicks off the record with shimmering synthesizers before segueing into a fast, hard-rock rhythm section beat, featuring one of Peart’s simplest drum grooves and Lee’s most complex bass lines. The song feels rushed and chaotic, until the tranquil chorus, designed to represent the eye of the hurricane: “Look in to the eye of the storm/Look out for the force without form/Look around at the sight and sound.” The lyrics were co-written with Pye Dubois (who also contributed to “Tom Sawyer”), and they don’t resonate with me quite like Neil’s lyrics. But it’s still a great song and a great way to kick off the album-especially considering that it was a last-minute addition to the record. The opening lines, “Tough times demand tough talk/Demand tough hearts/Demand tough songs,” are a perfect introduction to Neil’s straightforward, objective lyrics. It’s a classic.
2: Time Stand Still
“Time Stand Still,” one of the most beautifully relaxed songs Rush has ever written, is up next. It’s the most guitar-based song on the record. The lyrics are about the passage of time and feature beautiful verbal imagery, exemplified by the second verse: “I turn my face to the sun/Close my eyes, let my defenses down.” The chorus features guest singer Aimee Mann and the words, “I’m not looking back, but I want to look around me now,” which is, perhaps, a partial recantation of a line from their song “Anthem”: “Keep on looking forward/No use in looking round.”
After the second chorus, we hear an instrumental section in 7/8 which is one of the coolest parts of the song, followed by the bridge: “Summer’s going fast, nights growing colder/Children growing up, old friends growing older/Freeze this moment a little bit longer/Make each impression a little bit stronger.” Neil is expressing, with remarkable austerity, his feeling that time travels too quickly for one to fully experience each moment. It’s one of my favorite Rush songs and a great track to use to introduce your friends to Rush.
3: Open Secrets
This song and the one after it are not extraordinary musically, but their lyrics are extremely powerful. This one seems to be about an experience of Neil’s in which he says something he regrets and tries to reconcile a damaged relationship. My favorite lyric from the song is found in the first verse: “I was looking out the window/I should’ve looked at your face instead.” The subject was giving nonverbal clues to her feelings, but Neil was, apparently, trapped in his own little world, looking out the window. In the brief pre-chorus, he addresses his statement directly: “I never meant what you’re thinking/That is not what I meant at all.”
Finally, in the bridge, he offers a solution and attempts to reconcile the relationship: “You could try to understand me/I could try to understand you.” These lyrics speak to probably the most uncomfortable of human experiences: the misunderstanding. I think most of us have, at some point, unintentionally hurt someone we care about; I certainly have. But rather than simply complain about the event, Neil takes the initiative to clear up the incident and elucidate his words. The song he wrote about the occasion has served as a point of reference for approaching reconciliation in my experience. In short, this song shows a lot of maturity. If you’re someone who loves mature lyrics, this song (and album) are for you!
4: Second Nature
“Second Nature,” the purest ballad on the album, begins with a piano chord, a rarity for Rush. The lyrics begin by explaining the purpose and context of the song: “A memo to a higher office/Open letter to the powers that be/To a God, a king, a head of state/A captain of industry.” The lyrics of the song are an appeal to the powerful. What is the appeal, you ask? “Let’s talk about this sensibly/We’re not insensitive.” In other words, the message of “Second Nature” is that the adults had better start acting like adults! At the end of the first chorus, the problem is summarized neatly: “No one is blameless, but we’re all without shame/We fight the fire while we’re feeding the flame.” We’re so quick to air out each other’s dirty laundry that we ignore our role in the problem. We fight others’ hatred while we ourselves are hateful. We attack corruption while we ignore our own corruption.
The second verse begins with one of my all-time favorite lines: “Folks are basically decent/Conventional wisdom would say/But we read about the exceptions in the papers every day.” Zing! It’s a pretty universally accepted idea that all (or, at least, most) people are basically good. Neil points out the state of the world in this lyric, as if to say, “Really?” We relentlessly attack the people in the papers (or on Fox News and CNN), but are you and I really so much better than the public figures we love to criticize? I don’t think I am and I don’t think most people are. It’s a sobering thought.
5: Prime Mover
Next up is “Prime Mover,” one of my very favorite cuts from the record-and undoubtedly the happiest. It begins like all good days begin-with a fantastic bass lick. The lyrics are exuberant, poetic, and beautifully constructed, and they owe a lot to the work of Ayn Rand (“prime mover” was the term she used to describe the geniuses that, in her philosophy, make the world go round). The lyrics describe a journey-not a lackadaisical, meandering excursion, but an intentional struggle to reach a goal, and the excitement a prime mover feels at the beginning of such an undertaking: “From the point of conception to the moment of truth/At the point of surrender to the burden of proof/From the point of ignition to the final drive/The point of the journey is not to arrive.” The lyrics and the music alike crackle with joy, optimism, and freedom. I think if Ayn Rand had lived to see 1987, this would’ve become her favorite song. There’s no way I can begin to describe the feel of this song; just listen to it!
6: Lock And Key
“Lock And Key” is possibly the least optimistic track on Hold Your Fire, and opens with grand, mysterious synthesizer chords. It’s about the social constructs that attempt to control our most basic survival instincts-namely, the “killer instinct.” If “Prime Mover” is about what Ayn Rand called the “life premise,” surely this song examines the “death premise.” Neil Peart, however, disagrees with his literary inspiration in one respect: while Rand believed that each person has either a life premise or a death premise (Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead being her examples of each), Neil’s lyrics seem to be written from the standpoint that each of us has both “premises:” that which enables us to live and that which enables us, in worst-case scenarios, to kill.
The first verse examines our instincts’ delicate balance: “We carry a sensitive cargo below the waterline/Ticking like a time bomb with a primitive design.” But sometimes, “strong emotions can tip the scale.” In other words, it’s not all that hard to trigger the time bomb, arousing the killer instinct. The chorus explains that, under normal circumstances, we suppress our instincts and emotions to keep up a “civilized veneer,” and the end of the song explains why “We don’t want to be victims/On that we all agree/So we lock up the killer instinct/And throw away the key.” The song also features my second-favorite guitar solo album. What’s my favorite, you ask? Keep reading…
Here it is! The song that made me a music lover! This was the first Rush song my dad showed me, on December 23rd, 2015, and I was hooked from day one. The synthesizers, the bass line, the drums, the guitar solo at the end…the whole song is perfect. I’m not sure if I’d call it my “favorite song,” or even my favorite Rush song, but there’s a very marked difference between “Luke pre-Mission” and “Luke post-Mission.” The lyrics are about a creative vision-a strong desire to accomplish amazing things-and to make his point, Neil outlines many different forms of art: “I hear the powerful music/Read the words that touch my heart/I gaze at their feverish pictures/The secrets that set them apart.” In the second verse, he mentions architecture and cinema: “I watch their images flicker/Bringing light to a lifeless screen/I walk through their beautiful buildings/And I wish I had their dreams.”
The chorus summarizes the drive of the prime movers: “Spirits fly on dangerous missions/Imaginations on fire/Focused high on soaring ambitions/Consumed in a single desire/In the grip of a nameless possession/Slave to the drive of obsession/A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.” After two verses and choruses, we hear a frantic instrumental section, followed by a serene outro: “It’s cold comfort to the ones without it/To know how they struggled/How they suffered about it.” Meaning, basically, knowing how much people with grand creative visions suffer for their art doesn’t make those without them feel any better. It is a human tendency to create, and those who really want to will do anything in order to fulfill their vision. “We each pay a fabulous price for our visions of paradise/But a spirit with a vision is a dream…” cue the greatest guitar solo in rock and roll history! Everything about this song is gorgeous, but the ending really is the icing on the cake. You have to listen to this!
8: Turn The Page
The next song is easily the proggiest, hardest-rocking, and most technical of the bunch-sure to please any fan of 70s Rush who isn’t impressed with their 80s work. It begins with an insane two-handed tapping bassline in 5/4 that would’ve made Jaco proud. The lyrics discuss our tendency to dissociate tragic events on the news from our personal lives, or, as Neil puts it, “We pretend things only happen to strangers.” The opening line is one of the most interesting in the Rush canon, and (curiously enough) a lyric that my little siblings have taken a liking to: “Nothing can survive in a vacuum.” At first, I thought that this was a reminder of our codependency and inability to survive without support from others, but I now think there is a different, and much darker, meaning. I think Neil is saying something to the effect of, “The tragedies we see on the news don’t happen in a vacuum. They affect each one of us, and something may happen to you or someone you love someday!” Still, “We shake our heads at tragedy.” The lyrics are sobering, which contrasts from the upbeat melody, pounding guitar riffs, and uplifting synth licks. “Turn The Page” is another solid, lesser-known Rush song that you need to look up!
9: Tai Shan
Of all Rush songs, this is the one that catches the most flak. Better known than “Dog Years,” less popular than “Roll The Bones,” this is the song that 70s-centric Rush fans point to in order to prove that synthesizers ruined Rush. Yet, it’s a song I’ve come to appreciate over the years. It sounds like no other Rush song, and it evokes a very unique mood.
It tells the story of an experience Neil Peart had climbing a mountain in China. The intro is grand and atmospheric, and introduces quasi-Asian elements to the famous Rush sound. The first verse tells the basic story of the song: “High on the sacred mountain/Up the seven thousand stairs/In the golden light of autumn/There was magic in the air.” My favorite lyric has to be “In the peaceful haze of harvest time.” It evokes the atmosphere of the mountaintop and makes you feel like you’re standing there! It’s a great (and very underappreciated) song.
10: High Water
“High Water” is the last and most ambiguous track on Hold Your Fire, and it closes out the album very nicely. The drum performance from Neil is one of his best, evoking “The Big Money.” While the lyrics are much more mysterious than the rest of the album, they seem to be about some sort of experience with nature; water in particular. My favorite line is “It flowed into our blood.” It really creates an interesting contrast between the image of blood and the images of water throughout. It’s certainly not my favorite song from the album, and honestly I would’ve preferred it at number 9, making Tai Shan or perhaps Mission the closer. But it’s a solid song: Rush rarely wrote a bad track!
Hold Your Fire is undoubtedly my favorite album, and from the more objective standpoint, it’s one of the best albums in my collection, musically and lyrically. If you’re a longtime Rush fan, I hope I’ve given you an added appreciation for this diamond in the rough. If you’ve never listened to it, what are you waiting for? There is no way my words can be anywhere near as good as Rush’s music! Listen to it: You will not be disappointed!