Monday, September 08, 2008

Book Review: Contents Under Pressure

Anyone who follows this blog knows I am a lifelong Rush fan. Besides jamming with the guys at a soundcheck or something, one of my band fantasies would be sitting down with Rush and asking them what they thought of each of their numerous albums, from 1974 to date.

I heard that before one of the more recent tours, Geddy and Alex got together and listened to every one of their albums chronologically, trying to figure out what songs they could pull from the vault. I would have paid a LOT to have been a fly on the wall for those meetings.

But the book Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and Away, which came out right before the 30th Anniversary Tour, is as close as I’ll get. It’s an authorized book about Rush’s albums and tours, loaded with quotes from all the Rush guys, telling stories about what was going on during the making of every album over the course of the band’s first 30 years.

You get these nuggets (and much more):

--Neil Peart is not a fan of any of the band’s albums until Moving Pictures. I was pretty surprised at that, since many fans consider that early period the best of the band’s whole career. But in terms of his lyric writing, the bombast of the music, and the quality of the recordings, he says please, let’s skip all of that and just start the band’s career with Moving Pictures. Alex Lifeson, however, thinks that those old albums stand up much better than he thought they would, and he really enjoyed revisiting Hemispheres and even Caress of Steel and Fly By Night.

--Lifeson is not a big fan of the keyboard heavy albums Signals and Grace Under Pressure, and feels that there was a much better balance on Power Windows and Hold Your Fire. After those four albums, even Geddy Lee got sick of the keyboards in Rush and tried to wean them away more and more every album after that. They talk in detail about how hard it was to bring those overdub-heavy albums into a live setting. This includes their first foray into triggering samples of keyboards, vocals, guitars and effects that play along with the band, and how unreliable the technology was back then. And yeah, let's be clear - they don't play to a click or pre-recorded track a la Won't Get Fooled Again. Rather, they trigger finite snips of sound using foot pedals or drum triggers. Maybe it will play for a couple of bars, or maybe through a whole chorus. That requires a lot of onstage dancing and focus, and is why they don't visit Power Windows or Hold Your Fire that much in the live set these days.

--Some albums have been very, very hard to record, due to tight timelines, band disunity, uncertainty about producers, etc. Hemispheres, Grace Under Pressure and Counterparts were the three that were really hard to make. For Hemispheres, they wrote the album without checking how the keys of the songs were for Geddy, and when he went to sing them, they were all too high. That album was a nightmare for him to sing. The easy albums to record were Moving Pictures, Test for Echo and even though it’s not included in the book, from other interviews we know that Snakes and Arrows was a joy for them to make.

--None of the band really like Presto all that much. They think Roll the Bones has better songs but isn’t produced very well (I’d agree with that one).

--The band carves up their recorded history like this: The first few albums were all about becoming ripping musicians – hence the crazy prog-rock structure of their songs and epic album-side long mini operas. Come Moving Pictures through the 90s, it was more about songwriting and arranging. Hence the keyboards, catchy choruses etc. Now it’s about combining all of those elements, while getting back to their power trio roots.

Anyway, this is the tip of the iceberg. If you dig Rush, you’ll love this book.


Chris said...

I might have to check that out. I've always thought Geddy and Alex would be cool to hang out with, but Peart has always seemed like a pretentious ass who is really hit and miss with his lyrics. He'd be the last guy I'd want to sit down with.

Isorski said...

Yeah, and based on what I've read about Neil, we'd be the last people HE'D want to sit down with too! We'll call it a truce.

Dr. John said...

May have to add this one to my list for Santa...

Don Capone said...

Good review. Thanks. I'll look for this in my library.

Chris said...

Yeah, and based on what I've read about Neil, we'd be the last people HE'D want to sit down with too!

Ha! That's great.