A Blue Collar Shakespeare: Philosophy in the Lyrics of Rush

Photo Credit: Redferns

I’ve been a Rush fan since I was about 15 years old when my friend introduced me to “The Spirit of Radio” and then “La Villa Strangiato”. The combination of sheer musical technicality, thoughtful lyrics and free-thinking nerdiness spoke to me as a lonely and introverted teenager living in a foreign country (our family had moved from Belfast to Chicago). “Subdivisions” was particularly close to my heart with its message of non-conformity (“be cool or be cast out”) playing out in the halls of my formidable high school.

With the lockdown, and with the recent death of Rush’s drummer and lyricist, the late and great Neil Peart, I’ve set about re-listening to the Rush catalogue and thinking about the philosophy (or philosophies) behind their songs.

The early lyrics of Rush, penned by Peart, are known for their thought-provoking references to literature, science-fiction and philosophy. Peart had a great way of speaking to rather than down to the common man (or we might say, “the working man” since the fanbase of Rush is predominantly, though not exclusively, made up of blue collar men). As Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, explains in the fascinating documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,

The thing I loved about Neil is that he took very complex metaphysical themes and was able to put them in a way that everybody could understand; whether he was ripping off Shakespeare or quoting his own heart, he was able to do it in a way that never felt snobby. It always felt like he was in the room talking to you.

Peart was a Canadian Shakespeare for the common person. Of course, he would have resisted such a grand title. He was simply Neil Peart.

In Peart’s own words,

we’ve always had the impression that people are just as smart as we are, so if we can figure this stuff out, they can too, that we’re not being (that terrible, damnable word) pretentious because we’re not pretending anything, this is really what turned us on this year. Lyrically, it’s always been a reflection of my times and the times I observed. But everyone is a reflection of me.

As any critic will tell you, the early lyrics of Rush are shot through with Libertarianism. While the prominence of the individual and individual freedom remained an important constellation in Peart’s lyrical galaxy, he moved beyond the Libertarian credo in interesting and insightful ways (though interestingly Peart, while critical of his earlier phase, maintained in his later years that he remained “a bleeding heart libertarian”).

Readers of this blog will know my own thoughts on libertarianism (suffice to say, I’m fairly dubious about the whole thing). I enjoy the fact that Rush’s lyrics reflect the importance of personal freedom (especially from totalitarian regimes) while also exploring the limits of that freedom. You only need listen to “Distant Early Warning” to see Peart’s ability to transcend categories, as he derides the “Red Book” while also recognising that “we need someone to talk to” before reprising with the chorus “I worry about you”. This is one of those places where Peart allowed a communitarian side to show in his lyrics. “Entre Nous” is another: while “we are secrets to each other”, nevertheless we are “joined in bonds of love / we’re linked to one another by such slender threads”. The words “alone and yet together” could perhaps sum up the mature Peart’s reflections on human social interactions.

It’s also important to note that where Peart’s libertarianism is overt, it was more of the social than the economic stripe. Hence songs like “Big Money” or “The Spirit of Radio” positively speak against absolute economic freedom and free-market fundamentalism.

My favourite three Rush songs also happen to speak of some of my own important ideals: conservatism, by which I mean the preservation and passing on of a common heritage (Red Barchetta), social activism and the pursuit of the common good (Closer to the Heart) and pessimism (or is it realism?) towards the notion that we will achieve infinite progress and immortal bliss through our own efforts (Xanadu, a heart-wrenching and tragic re-telling of Coleridge’s dreamy “Kubla Khan”). Of course, on the most important (and what I take to be the most true) philosophy of all, Christianity, Peart and I are worlds apart.

There are plenty of other songs that I enjoy and which are extremely meaningful but don’t reflect any deep philosophy as such (songs like “Marathon“, for instance which is simply an 80s banger about perseverance). The list isn’t exhaustive—I could have included “Time Stand Still“, for instance, which movingly weaves together reflections on being attentive to the present moment with references to William Blake on innocence and experience. Hopefully I’ll add to the list over time, particularly from some of Rush’s more recent albums as my knowledge of these is patchy.

Without further ado, the list:

1. Working Man (1974, Rush)- Pelagianism

“I have no time for living yeah / I’m working all the time”. 

2. Bastille Day (1975, Caress of Steel)- anti-totalitarianism

“la guillotine will claim her bloody prize”.  

3. Fly By Night (1975, Fly by Night) – neoliberalism

“leaving my homeland / fleeing a nomad / my life begins today”. 

4. *Closer to the Heart (1977, A Farewell to Kings)- social activism

“to mould a new reality / closer to heart”.

5. *Xanadu (1977, A Farewell to Kings) – pessimism

“Held within the pleasure dome / Decreed by Kubla Khan / To taste my bitter triumph / As a man, immortal man”.

6. A Farewell to Kings (A Farewell to Kings, 1977) – paternalism

“can’t we find the minds that made us strong?

7. The Trees – anti-socialism

“so the maples formed a union and demanded equal rights…and they passed a noble law / now the trees are all kept equal, through hatchet / axe and saw”.

8. Spirit of the Radio (1980, Permanent Waves) – anti-capitalism

“for the words of the profits were written on the studio walls, concert halls / and echo with the sound of salesmen“.

9. Freewill (1980, Permanent Waves)- atheism

“A planet of playthings / We dance on the strings / Of powers we cannot perceive”.

10. *Red Barchetta (1981, Moving Pictures)- conservatism

“down in his farm / my uncle preserves for me a new machine / for 50 odd years / to keep it as new has been his dearest dream / I strip away the old debris / that hides a shining car / a brilliant Red Barchetta from a better, vanished time”.

11. Limelight (1981, Moving Pictures)- isolationism

One must put up barriers / to keep one self intact”

12. Tom Sawyer (1981, Moving Pictures) – libertarianism

“No his mind is not for rent / to any god or government”.

13. Subdivisions (1982, Signals) – (suburban) nonconformism

“Conform or be cast out”.

14. New World Men (1982, Signals) – neoconservatism

“Learning to match the beat of the old-world man / Learning to catch the heat of the third-world man”.

15. The Body Electric (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)– transhumanism

“It replays each of the days / a hundred years of routine / Bows its head and prays / To the mother of all machines”. 

16. Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure, 1984) – communitarianism

We need someone to talk to / And someone to sweep the floors” 

17. Mystic Rhythms (1985, Power Windows) – transcendentalism

“Nature seems to spin / a supernatural way”

18. The Big Money (1985, Power Windows) – post-liberalism

“Big Money, got no soul”.