One of the Rush groups on Facebook had an interesting question: “What is Rush’ signature song?” Naturally, I couldn’t just comment on the thread and say “Dog Years, obviously” – I had to write something up. So here it is.
The way I see it, Rush’ signature song got to be one of a fairly large set of songs – with that mere fact itself being an indicator of how great Rush has been over its career.
To me, the signature song has to demonstrate every aspect of Rush’ best characteristics: incredible chops, intellect, appeal across the fanbase, and appeal in popular music. It doesn’t have to cover everything – I don’t think whether the song features synths or not is entirely relevant, but I guess it might help (although synth skill isn’t what makes Rush what it is – it’d be more like the integration of the synthesizer more than the actual playing of it.)
So offhand the set of possibilities would might look like this: Working Man, 2112, Xanadu, Closer to the Heart, La Villa Strangiato, The Trees, The Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Natural Science, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Red Barchetta, Limelight, The Camera Eye, Subdivisions, Distant Early Warning.
This is not to say that these are Rush’ only good songs; I’m just trying to think “If I offered you ____ as a ‘signature song’, would you wonder what was wrong with me?” I think all of these are understandable as ‘signature songs’ even though I don’t think some of them are.
So… Working Man. Great song, but it’s really too long, plus it doesn’t show off the virtuosity that we think of when we think of Rush; it doesn’t have Peart! A signature song, yes, but THE signature song, no.
2112: Great song, definitely, but too long; it’s a suite, not “a song,” so despite how awesome it is and how important it is to Rush overall, it’s out. I’d also say that 2112 lacks appeal in popular music; Rush people get it, non-Rush people… might.
Xanadu is a strong candidate, but I think it’s a little too niche for “signature song.” It’s also long for a signature song.
Closer to the Heart is a VERY strong candidate; it has simplicity, intellect, a great vibe, everyone plays deceptively well, and people like it even if they’re not into Rush. I think this is our best candidate so far.
La Villa… one of my favorite Rush songs, but no vocals. It’s an “exercise in self-indulgence,” for real. I don’t think an instrumental can be a “signature song” for a band that has fewer instrumentals than albums. Needs more cowbell- I mean, uh, Geddy, to be a “signature song.”
The Trees! Now here’s a song that really knocks on wood, if you know what I mean. Has synths, has fantastic motion, a deceptively simple message for the thinkers out there, rocks out really hard, has great dynamics… So far, Trees and CTTH are the best candidates in the catalog.
Now we hit a stretch where Rush seemingly could do no wrong… starting with The Spirit of Radio. It’s instantly recognizable (moreso than The Trees or Closer to the Heart), it’s short, it made it on the charts, it’s accessible, it’s incredibly hard to play well… it fits all of the characteristics I would think are necessary for a “signature song.” I think it edges out our earlier songs.
Freewill is on the same album, though, and it, too, is pretty popular. In fact, I think it has the same elements that make The Spirit of Radio so good… but it’s actually harder to play, I think (different musicians will feel differently, but the middle section is easy to pretend to play but really hard to actually do well.) However, I think the emphasis on virtuosity still gives the edge to The Spirit of Radio.
Natural Science is one of my favorite songs, but I think it’s too long and too intellectual to be a “signature song” – and it lacks that instant recognizability that The Spirit of Radio has.
Again, this is not saying that the “rejected songs” are bad in any way – I am just trying to think analytically about what makes a “signature song” for a band. In fact, a “signature song” doesn’t even have to fit the characteristics robotically – Led Zeppelin’s signature song is “Stairway to Heaven” and it’s long… but it has to be a song of Stairway’s caliber to violate the constraints. Luckily, Stairway to Heaven is a song of Stairway to Heaven’s caliber, so… there you have it.
Let’s get to Moving Pictures last, because it has a ton of candidates.
Subdivisions is fantastic – I don’t think it charted, though (I think “New World Man” did instead.) But while the guitar work on Subdivisions is perfect, it lacks the virtuosity I want in Rush’s signature song – and the emphasis on synths weakens the song overall.
Distant Early Warning has the same problem. Really hard song to play, but it lacks some essential edge that makes me think “Yeah, this is the stuff.” In fact, I would dare say that it’s the weakest candidate on my entire list. (Sorry, Grace under Pressure.)
So off we go to Moving Pictures, where we have a lot of candidates: Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Red Barchetta, Limelight, and The Camera Eye.
The Camera Eye is too long; fantastic song, but not a signature song. If you’re not expecting to hear a signature song played in every concert on every tour, it’s not a signature song. (Closer to the Heart didn’t show up in their later tours, but not only was that surprising, it was also well-overplayed. It deserved a rest. The Trees did, too. Those are examples of signature songs that you expect to hear every concert and every tour but you understand why you don’t.)
YYZ is an instrumental; like La Villa, I don’t think an instrumental has a fair shot at being a signature song. Rio de Janeiro adding vocalizations to the song doesn’t count.
That leaves us with Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, and Limelight as the front runners on Moving Pictures, to compete with The Spirit of Radio.
I wanted to say Red Barchetta, really badly – the song construction is so beautiful, the story is concise and well told, it’s got perfect production, everything… but no, Tom Sawyer and Limelight are just instantly more recognizable and, honestly, both have virtuosity that Red Barchetta does not.
I have a hard time picking between Limelight and Tom Sawyer, and I think both compete with The Spirit of Radio.
But the truth is, I think that while any of these three would be an excellent signature song, I think it has to be Tom Sawyer, because of how iconic it is in every way: shifting time signatures in the actual sections, every instrument (including the synths) is definitive. Talk to musicians about the “Tom Sawyer growl” and they know EXACTLY what you mean: an OB-X with all 8 voices using a really highly resonant filter, following the envelope down in varying rates by voice; mention the “Tom Sawyer lead synth” and they know exactly what waveform is used. The guitar is distorted but incredibly clear; the bass carries through everything; the drums sound perfect and are a fantastic example of what makes Peart who he is to drummers. Even the vocals are on point.
So there you have it: I think the signature song is “Tom Sawyer.” I wouldn’t argue against nearly ANY song, really (it’s a personal choice) but I think the most popular answer that can be justified would be “Tom Sawyer.”
And I’m happy with that.