“I always thought of Agnetha and Frida [the female members of ABBA] as affectless, to the point where I made a joke about them in [Haney’s novel] Banned for Life, something about a German girl having a fixed expression that reminds the narrator of Raggedy Ann or ‘one of those girls in ABBA.’ I remember seeing them on TV when I was a kid, barely moving while lip-syncing their latest chart-buster, as if they were battery-operated mannequins; yet they don’t come across that way to me now. On the contrary, I see emotion flickering in their faces, Agnetha in particular.”
As a kid in the 70s, the women of ABBA struck me the same way. Despite loving their music—listening to it was like pouring sugar down my eight-year-old throat—there was something weirdly sterile about them. But since rediscovering ABBA’s vintage performances via YouTube, I now find the ladies captivating, even fun-loving. They actually seem to enjoy themselves. How can I feel one way about them back then and completely the opposite now?
First of all, I’m older, so I might now find appeal where I used to find fault. Second, the musical culture around my viewing of an ABBA video today has changed. No more does the foursome have to compete so directly with more freewheeling tunes of the likes of, say, James Brown or the Sex Pistols. Remember the band’s mega-hit “Dancing Queen?” Can you imagine that song played at a club in the 70s between “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” and “Anarchy for the U.K.? Third and maybe most importantly, our current era is far more computer-oriented, which seems to make us less funky. Like it or not, we’ve sacrificed a good portion of our mojo to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, perhaps making us more receptive to the “ice queens” of ABBA than in the past. (That we need computers to re-experience this past is an irony not lost on me.)
In other words, we’re older and more uptight now, and we were younger and less uptight then.
During their heyday in the 70s and 80s, despite selling out stadiums and their albums debuting in the top ten of the album charts, Rush were seen as, well, geeky. I didn’t see them that way. As a Midwestern teenager who played bass and dreamed of one day playing something that could be written out as 64th notes, the three members of Rush were just short of superheroes: Geddy Lee, the long-nosed guy with the otherworldly voice, who played ridiculously quick bass lines along with playing keyboards and something called the Mini Moog; drummer and lyricist Neil Peart—did you get that? drummer and lyricist—the super-brain of the band, who played drum patterns so intricate and precise I could picture scientists watching him as he performed, their hands on their chins, shaking their heads; and guitarist Alex Lifeson, the most mortal and likeable of the three, with his dazzling array of guitars, minutes-long solos, and a Puck-like insouciance onstage. All this and Canadians to boot! I wanted to be just like them. All of them.
I remember driving three hours to Chicago to see Rush in 1986 on their Power Windows tour. My friend Randy and I got there several hours before the show, the only car in the gigantic Rosemont Horizon parking lot. We had to turn the engine on periodically to use the heater to keep from freezing. When a limousine pulled in and drove up to the arena, Randy’s eyes grew big, no doubt mirroring mine. We scrambled out of the car and sprinted to the limo. A bob of blond hair—Alex Lifeson!—and someone else emerged and ducked into the arena. We were too late. “Why didn’t we park closer?” Randy lamented. I don’t know what we would’ve done if we’d caught them. Nervous handshake? Exclamations of affection? Digging around for a pen? I’m thankful we didn’t.
But to most of the rest of the world back then, Rush were somewhere between barely tolerated and unlistenable. The prevailing attitude seemed to be: Let the dorks have their computer rock, and maybe they’ll go away and play Tron soon.
As the decade flipped to the 90s, this public aversion to all things Rush only seemed to grow. Even I swore off my high school allegiance. I can remember drinking at a party and making fun of Rush’s “The Trees,” a song in which “the maples want more sunlight, but the oaks ignore their pleas.” Various pro-oak and pro-maple arguments are posited, and eventually:
The maples formed a union and demanded equal rights.
The oaks are just to greedy, we will make them give us light.
But now there’s no more oak oppression, for they passed a noble law.
And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.
Kind of funny, and low-hanging fruit for a guy in 1991 wearing a Replacements T-shirt. Still, it felt deceitful to turn on my heroes from just a few years ago. They’d given me so much to aspire to. I remember sitting in my basement bedroom, my Yamaha bass strapped on, my turntable spinning “Tom Sawyer,” trying like crazy to keep up with Geddy’s spritely lines. For some reason it had become important for me to separate myself from the band. I now preferred my singers’ voices more angst-ridden, my guitarists less openly talented, and for Christ’s sake, enough with the drum solos, Mr. Peart.
But the truth was, even in the Nirvana-90s, I still loved the band. I didn’t own their records anymore, but I remembered their music fondly, and I would crank up “Limelight” or some other Rush track whenever it came on the radio. Deep under the sway of post-punk bands like REM, I disqualified anything that might violate that formula, even a little. I was too young to understand the heart doesn’t lie. I was a fool.
People who don’t like Rush have their valid points. Geddy’s voice is of a reedy variety that could never be universally loved. The band doesn’t write much about interpersonal relationships, or in rah-rah platitudes that could land them on pop radio. They’ve written songs that take up entire sides of albums. They often play in odd times signatures. They’re the only band in the history of the world that can play a reggae beat and have it be un-danceable. In short, they have the nerve to create rock music as though the Beatles or P-Funk never existed.
Still, other more celebrated bands from their era also were un-danceable (Led Zeppelin) and played in odd time signatures (Zeppelin) and wrote about Norse gods and wood sprites (yep, Zep). Rush were no doubt prog rock, but there were plenty of hooks (“Working Man”, “The Spirit of Radio”, “New World Man”), and at least one great melody (“Closer to the Heart”). Come on, it’s not like they were Marillion.
Once the 21st century got rolling and computers started ruling the roust, Rush’s frenetic rhythms and idiosyncratic approach started sounding fresh again, and many Rush fans found their way back into the fold. The trio has lately played packed arenas all over the world, and—if the YouTube videos of those concerts can be trusted—their audience is filled with mostly white males with receding hairlines playing very precise air drums. I suspect many of them were like me, abandoning the band during the 90s in favor of the cultural emphasis on song and coming back in the 00s, hoping no one noticed they left.
And the band seems to be responding to this rejuvenated attention by being more approachable. No more avoiding guys in Rosemont Horizon parking lot! In their DVD Bio Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, the members are seen out and about, shaking hands with fans, joking around. (All except Neil Peart, who, God love him, might be the least gregarious guy in rock.) Geddy seems to have finally warmed to the idea of being “Geddy,” and Alex is downright charming. Their stage set-ups over the past few years have featured such down-to-earth elements as multiple clothes dryers spinning and multiple chicken rotisseries roasting. The video element of their show includes the characters of South Park mutilating their biggest hit “Tom Sawyer.” The band finally seems to get how funny—to go along with how talented—it is. They even shared laughs at their own expense as guests on The Colbert Report.
Rush is on tour in America again, their first date this past week in Manchester, New Hampshire, and I will continue to watch in awe as one of my favorite bands from my youth has become, for the first time in its forty-year history, cool.