Counterbalance: Rush's '2112'

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. Our great computers fill the hallowed halls. And it's time to talk about Rush, and their 1976 concept piece. Also, attention all Planets of the Solar Federation: we have assumed control.



US Release: 1976-04-01
UK Release: 1976-04-01
Label: Mercury

Mendelsohn: There are two types of people in this world, Klinger — people who love Rush and people who don’t. Rush was the band that introduced me to rock 'n' roll, specifically their 1976 dystopian concept album 2112, so when we started working our way through the Great List, the first thing I did was check to see how long it would be before we got to a Rush album. I was sorely disappointed to find Moving Pictures, the band’s highest-selling and most well-regarded album sitting at number 867. Even worse was finding 2112 at number 1005. It seems the critics were mostly made up of people who didn’t like Rush. I may be a little biased here, but where’s the critical love for Rush? There are only two bands who have more gold and platinum records than Rush, you may have heard of them — the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rush has sold over 25 million records worldwide, putting them squarely in the top 100 in that category. But yet critical love seems to elude them. The reasons, I suppose, aren’t all that hard to ascertain. They do have a tendency to write complicated suites that regularly top ten minutes and eschew pop constructs for extended jams that are heavy on the riffs but light on the things that the critics love. Honestly, I wasn’t all that surprised to find them languishing on the Great List.

Still, for a band that has such a devoted following, it seems that fate (or the industry itself) has done everything it can to keep Rush down. Rush finally got the nod from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, despite years of eligibility (and unit-shifting numbers that most of the other inductees could only dream about). Not that the Hall of Fame really means anything to rock 'n' roll, but it could be counted as one of many slights against the band. But before I ramble off into oblivion, Klinger, I only have one question for you — what type of person are you?

Klinger: I know I'm stepping on a landmine here, but I must place myself in the latter camp. Throughout high school I had friends who were into Rush, and I spent a lot of time watching them listening to the title suite and nodding their heads. Never could get into it. Maybe a little something for their poppier numbers like "Limelight", but that's about it. What can I say? Blast away, Rush fans.

But this isn't about me — it's about the critics, man. And you're right when you say that critics have never liked Rush either. In fact, that whole Hall of Fame kerfuffle was years of critics and other industry types sticking it to Rush (and by extension, their fans). Why? Two words, Mendelsohn. Ayn. Freakin'. Rand. Neal Peart drew great inspiration from her Objectivist notions of the self above all and whatnot, and that's a philosophy that's pretty much diametrically opposed to the Utopian hippie collectivist dream. I'm not saying who's right or wrong here, but these guys were walking into a minefield not all that different from the one I wandered into two paragraphs ago. These guys got called fascists for this stuff (which was a pretty low blow considering that Geddy Lee is the son of Holocaust survivors. Seriously, guys.), and while the rhetoric may have died down, the suspicion has remained largely intact.

Mendelsohn: I think there is a little more to it than just Ayn Rand. I could understand if the title character in the 2112 suite was named John Galt, but the album’s lyrical content lifts only loose ideas from Rand’s earlier work Anthem. It wasn’t until her later novels, Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, that she really got into the Objectivism. I read Rand’s books because of 2112. I enjoyed Anthem, found Fountainhead to be entertaining if not a bit overbearing, and I contemplated suicide as I slogged through Atlas Shrugged. Having read Rand and listened to a lot of Rush, I can tell you that Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Lee are anything but Rand acolytes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a bit Objectivist, especially when it comes to recording their music. After Rush’s 1975 effort Caress of Steel flopped commercially, their record label pushed the group to record something a little more radio-friendly. Instead, Rush went into the studio and put together 2112. If that isn’t a least a little self-centered, I don’t know what is. But I think that is the real stumbling block for critics when it comes to Rush — the band just does whatever they want and most of the time it takes the form of a ten-minute song with several extended solos.

There is something admirable about that approach to music that I thought would resonated very well with the sad outcasts who make up the ranks of the criterati. But it never came to be. Rush just isn’t cool enough. That’s the problem, Klinger. Rush isn’t cool.

Klinger: Well, the liner notes do make a dedication to "the genius of Ayn Rand", which is about as clear as you can make it. Plus there's that nekkid guy on the cover, who represents some sort of übermenschy individual up against the big collectivist star machine and so forth. And that'll pretty much do it as far as the hippiest of the critics are concerned. But as for the next, less hippier wave of critics, you're definitely onto something. By 1976, critical hero Bruce Springsteen was weaning himself off nine-minute opuses, and the rock nerds were in heavy thrall to the short sharp shock of CBGBs. So, yes, cool was at the center of the critical universe, and in a world of three-minute odes to the Brill Building, there's not much cool about a 20-minute story-song that features about a minute of a guy tuning a guitar near a waterfall. It’s just one of those immutable laws of rock physics.

Mendelsohn: That pretty much hits it on the head. And yet, Rush has one of the largest, most devoted followings of any band, past or present. You don’t sell 25 million records on a fluke. You don’t rack up gold and platinum records to keep pace with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rush continues to sell records and concert tickets at an astounding rate. They are an industry onto themselves — a separate entity apart from the rock establishment. They don’t court the critics, they don’t pander to the charts, they don’t try to be hip (Geddy Lee wears a Rush t-shirt on stage — he is that guy at the concert and he’s in the band), they just continue to make rock music and it pleases their legion of fans, which, by the way is now three generations deep and showing no signs shrinking. That all started with 2112 — even with the 20-minute sci-fi opus, the chop suey lick at the beginning of “A Passage to Bangkok”, and the rest of the songs, that, despite having listened to the record hundreds of times, I’d be hard pressed to recite from memory.

As a non-Rush fan, do you think the perception of this band will change enough to see them rise in the rankings?

Klinger: I have no doubt that they will gradually make their way further into the pantheon, although they're really too polarizing in their appeal to reach this Beatles/Rolling Stones level of general acceptance you keep alluding to. Part of that has to do with just what you're suggesting now—this second side of 2112 is about as plain as it gets, as if they realized their magnum opus was only going to cover half an LP and they scrambled to get the rest of it together. Over time Rush could, I reckon, hit a level closer to the Who (although I may have just made Dave Marsh poop in his pants just a little bit), a group who set the template for these guys in a lot of ways—the emphasis on virtuosity, the general will-to-bigness, the tendency to aim right at the pituitary-fueled neuroses of the teenage boy. (You may recall our discussion of Who's Next from a few years back, and it's pretty clear to me that the Who : Klinger :: Rush : Mendelsohn.)

The intricacies and excesses of progressive rock, waters where Rush has been known to tread, are no longer the personae non grata that they once were, and I think that also helps Rush's case. But those '60s and '70s critics are going to have shuffle off their coils before the group will be heard through completely fresh ears. Then we'll have a better sense for it. As someone who calls himself a fan, how do you see this playing out? And (much as my feelings about Who's Next have evolved over the years) I'm curious what 2112 means to you now?

Mendelsohn: I too see Rush rising a little bit, but not much. They’ll never be on the same level as the Beatles or the Stones (or Led Zeppelin or David Bowie or Bob Dylan — maybe the same level as the Who). The stigma of Rand has faded a bit and Rush is finally getting some of the critical accord they deserve (side note: I find it hilarious that the GOP has picked up the Rand banner and is running with it. That poor old lady must be doing somersaults in her grave). I do think it’s telling that you hardly see Rush mentioned as a major influence on up-and-coming bands. They’ve never been one of those touchstone groups. Young bands can play the Beatles, Bowie, the Stones. Knocking out a Neil Peart drum part, Geddy Lee baseline, or Alex LIfeson guitar riff is a daunting task for the young musician.

I still love 2112. I love the bombastic guitar licks, I love the waterfall, I cringe whenever “A Passage to Bangkok” starts up but it never fails to put a smile on my face. Hell, I even love the nondescript songs at backend of the album. “Lessons” is as close to sunny pop as Rush gets and “Something for Nothing” just plain rocks. This album will forever remain dear to my heart and I think I love it even more now that I understand its failures. But then, that’s just Rush. They made the music they wanted to make and people seem to dig that.

Klinger: And I can dig that, even if I can't quite dig it. Dig?

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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