Raised On Radio: Rush Makes A Statement

by Kevin Burton

   The Band Rush made a musical comment on the state of radio in 1980’s “The Spirit of Radio.”  It took me more than 40 years to get wind of it.

   Though they made reference to the lyrics of two of my heroes, Simon and Garfunkel, in the song, they didn’t sound enough like my heroes for me to give the song a chance.

   At the time in Columbus, Ohio,  the “phrase that pays” for me was  “WNCI means more music.” Most of us who listened to rock music started there with that station’s playlist of Top 40 and former Top 40 songs.

   But some of my mates at the Ohio State School for the Blind had turned to stations such as QFM that played music with a harder edge.  They perhaps would have heard The Spirit of Radio.  I did not. 

   Only now that I am looking for songs that paid tribute to radio as it used to be, or lamented its demise, am I zeroing in on the Rush tune.

   The first part of the song tells the radio story as it was in the good period:

   “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.”

   “Off on your way, hit the open road
There is magic at your fingers. For the
spirit ever lingers. Undemanding contact in your happy solitude, invisible airwaves crackle with life.”

   “Bright antennas bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength, bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”
   “All this machinery making modern music
can still be open-hearted, not so coldly charted, it’s really just a question of your honesty, yeah, your honesty.”

   So far so good. But then you begin to get the band’s disenchantment with the drift of radio with the lyric, “One likes to believe in the freedom of music. But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity, yeah.”
   Then the song’s most memorable lyrics (in what I guess you would call the bridge) let you know exactly how the band feels:  

   “For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall, concert hall. Echoes with the sound of salesmen, of salesman, of salesmen.”

   This of course is an homage to The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel. The lyric sheet I found expresses it as words of the “profits” instead of “prophets,” which fits in perfectly with the sentiment.

   “That song was really a statement of where radio was going, where it had been,” said Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, quoted on iloveclassicrock.com. “Growing up in the early 70s, FM radio was such a free forum for music; you’d have DJs who would play stuff for an hour.” 

   “They’d just talk about the songs; there were no commercials or anything. So free-form, really a platform for expanding music at the time. And then it was moving more towards a format, and away from that freedom, becoming more regulated, more about selling airtime. It just speaks about that, really,” Lifeson said.

   “Written as a statement about the demise of radio’s sense of adventure, Rush’s classic The Spirit Of Radio was a surprise hit,” wrote Greg Prato on loudersound.com. 

   By “hit” he meant in Canada, where the song reached  number 22 and/or the UK where it went to number 13.

   The song stalled at 51 in the US.  I have vague memories of hearing it and turning away from it before I could even absorb any of the lyrics.

   Actually The Spirit of Radio represented a stylistic change for Rush, away from lengthy, sprawling epics, often with sci-fi lyrics, according to Prato. I would have been even less likely to listen to those.

   “Fitting in with the song’s lyrical meaning, Lifeson had a clear vision of what he wanted the opening guitar riff to sound like,” Prato wrote.

   “I just wanted to give it something that gave it a sense of static – radio waves bouncing around, very electric. We had that sequence going underneath, and it was just really to try and get something that was sitting on top of it, that gave it that movement,” Lifeson said.

   “I think it’s a fairly catchy song. It’s got some good pace to it, got a good chorus; I think the guitar riff and the sequencer underneath it is a very catchy musical moment.”

   “I think it does have a lot going for it, in terms of construction and the way it plays out. The verses have a particular feel to them that is classic in a way. The choice of notes and chords,” Lifeson said.

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  1. I am glad I read this one despite my negative reaction to your headline. From the headline, I was afraid you were promoting the right wing radio stylings of Rush Limbaugh, and I never found much to like in that side and style of talk radio.

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