Subdivisions in the Hour of Chaos: Rush and Public Enemy

Paul Wells on news from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

When Maclean’s published a list of the best albums of the ’00s at the end of 2009, the most common complaint from readers was that we had left Rush out. Since the only two complete studio albums of original music the Toronto band produced in the decade in question were Vapor Trails and Snakes & Arrows, arguably not the finest products of the band’s oeuvre,  I had to admire the fans’ loyalty, at least. But then loyalty is one quality Rush’s fans have always delivered, usually in excess. It was the fans’ ardour that persuaded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to include Rush among its 2013 inductees.

There’s no accounting for taste in these matters, but I think the hall’s honour roll this year is pretty strong. If disco mattered at all, Donna Summer was its best ambassador. Randy Newman was one of the finest piano men and singer-songwriters of the ’70s. The band Heart, I admit, seems an odd fit, but Quincy Jones has earned a place among the hall’s non-performers with five decades as a leading record producer.

Tonight I’m going to write about Rush and Public Enemy, intending no disrespect to the other inductees. I’m tickled that the two bands were named in the same year, because it’s hard to imagine two less similar products of North American popular culture. If these two bands fit together in any hall, it must be a big hall.

On a scale of Rush fandom from 1 to 10, I was usually about a 4, with gusts to 7. The stuff that drives the fans crazy — odd time signatures, instrumental virtuosity, literary aspiration in Neil Peart’s lyrics — was intriguing, but you didn’t have to look far afield to find more of any of those qualities in some other music. And soon enough, you find that the audience for any band peddling virtuosity (Flecktones, Return to Forever, Metallica, the 10 million saxophone-shredding lesser sons of Michael Brecker) is made up largely of (a) failed musicians who are (b) tiresome. What kept Rush from being the ultimate nerd band was Geddy Lee’s and Alex Lifeson’s melodies, Lee’s helium-fuelled but beguiling vocals, and the band’s stubborn optimism. Rush was always wildly uncool, but so were most of us, especially in the early ’80s when the band peaked with Moving Pictures, and it confirmed what those of us who weren’t cool kids knew but hardly dared say: that the uncool kids were interesting too, or full of heart anyway.

Many of Rush’s lyrics affirmed the everyday reality of kids like me in southern Ontario. I’m happy to learn “Spirit of the Radio” was written in honour of CFNY, a Toronto radio station that in those days seemed to define the outer limits of rebellion simply because they didn’t play a lot of Captain and Tenille. Anyone who makes great claims for the lyrics is fooling themselves: “Begin the day with a friendly voice/ A companion unobtrusive/ Plays that song that’s so elusive/ And the magic music makes your morning mood.” But that guitar riff stuck in my head all the same, for decades. Some of the more ambitious songs are frankly ridiculous (“There is unrest in the forest/ There is trouble with the trees/ For the maples want more sunlight/ And the oaks ignore their pleas.” Don’t you get it, man? It’s a metaphor).

The peak of my interest in Rush coincided with my last few years of high school, a time when kids often seek confirmation that they’re not alone. I turned to Public Enemy in university, a time when kids often reach out for something beyond their immediate experience. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back sure qualified. “You’re quite hostile,” a voice says on “Prophets of Rage.” “I got a right to be hostile, man,” another voice replies. “My people are being persecuted.”

So much for beginning the day with a friendly voice. You didn’t have to be a white Canadian to find P.E. overwhelming, bewildering and fascinating. Even Soul Train wasn’t sure what hit it when they came on. (“That was frightening,” Don Cornelius tells the band when they’re done.) Public Enemy rose at a time when a lot of black America felt like it was under assault; the band’s music felt like a counterattack. Everything about it was disorienting, from DJ work that often seemed to be referencing Stockhausen or early-70s Miles Davis to the astonishing front line of Chuck D, the most serious man in America, and Flavor Flav, the least.

Public Enemy kept going for several years, and some of its later songs — “Welcome to the Terror Dome,” “Fight the Power” — extended the band’s early victories. But fundamentally it wasn’t built to last. Public Enemy existed to put some things on the record, to etch them in acid. If Rush’s music was an expression of confidence, Public Enemy’s was a show of defiance against desperation. (When the Barenaked Ladies covered “Fight the Power,” it was a return ticket to Rush’s neighbourhood.) I wouldn’t have put either band into a Rock Hall of Fame in its first year, but both bands’ induction this year suggests a Hall of Fame is still worth having.




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