2021 Song Draft: Round 2 Pick 7: A Sound Day selects-‘The Spirit Of Radio’- Rush.
So many songs, so few posts, LOL! For my second pick here, I’m taking “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush. The 1980 single hit #22 in Canada and by hitting #13 in the UK was their biggest hit there. But that has little to do with why I chose it. Nor do I think it’s one of my ten favorite songs ever – I like it but not that much. The song represents a lot of what shaped me and was integral to my childhood and youth. So what is it about this single off Rush’s seventh album, Permanent Waves.
Well, first let’s look at, or better yet listen to the song. Rush by then had already established themselves as premier players – Geddy Lee on bass, Neil Peart on drums and Alex Lifeson on guitars – and had a huge following among Prog Rock fans around the world. Growing up I often heard how they were more popular in Germany than right there at home in Ontario, Canada…which is where I grew up. However, Rush also had a penchant for grandiose pieces with abstract themes, like so many other ’70s prog rock acts – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, etc. By 1980 however, they’d started to expand their musical horizons. More on that later. Geddy had bought some synthesizers and other keyboards and was enjoying playing them, and while they don’t say it was intentional, they had begun to tip their toes in the waters of catchy pop music a little.
Which brought us to “The Spirit of Radio.” Yes, still a showcase for what each member could do as a virtuoso on their equipment and a little long compared to many of the contemporaries on radio back then, but undeniably catchy. Upbeat hook-laden pop mixed with ’70s Prog Rock with a capital “P”. There were guitar solos, but there were piped-in crowd noises ala Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and even a little reggae break late in the song. Neil Peart, who wrote the lyrics suggested it was supposed to suggest flipping around the radio dial… a rock station here, a reggae one there. Which brings us to those lyrics. Those great lyrics praising radio, that helps us “begin the day with a friendly voice,” radio, “a companion so unobtrusive, plays the song that’s so elusive and the magic music makes your morning mood.” That reaches me.
I grew up just outside of their home city of Toronto. By the time I hit junior high, several of my friends were huge Rush fans. I was little more than lukewarm to them. And with my last name similar to their band name I had no shortage of kids making jokes vaguely dealing with me being the singer of Rush or simply assuming they must be my all-time favorite band. It got a little tiring. But I liked this song when it came around, liked some of their later work even more, and now that I know the story behind the song… I love it.
The ode to radio would speak to me to begin with because as a kid I loved radio. Music was my savior when I was a kid prone to being ill and dealing with an over-protective mother. Many a day I’d come home from school and go straight to my room and turn on the transistor radio – or the little stereo by the time I was about nine – and lose my troubles in the sounds of the AM hits of the ’70s. Music I still adore by the way, perhaps because I remember how much they made me feel better back then. At the time, CHUM was the dominant “hit” station not only in Toronto but Canada. It published a weekly top 30 and put it out on a little pamphlet each week. Grabbing one at the record store or Eatons department store was a big highlight for me back then.
By the time I hit my mid-teens though, I’d realized FM sounded a lot better, and usually had the dial adjusted to stations like CHUM-FM (an album rock station basically although by now an easy-listening one) or Q107, a “metal station” that also appreciated acts like the Beatles or Pink floyd. And then there was CFNY. 102.1 FM… “The Spirit of Radio.”
Wait, what? That’s no coincidence. Peart admits readily that he wrote the song as a tribute to that one, then-small, Toronto station. “I remember coming home very late, and CFNY radio was on as I was cresting the Escarpment with all the lights below of Hamilton… a fantastic combination.” Indeed, many pressings of Permanent Waves have the company ID number 1021 on the spine as another tip of the cap to the station the drummer loved to listen to at night. You’ll also see several references to it in the animated video they put out for the song recently. And why not?
CFNY was the most eclectic and ground-breaking commercial station in Canada. Ironically enough, they never played a whole lot of Rush. But they played music from the left and right and everywhere in between. It was the place to hear new sounds back then. They let the Djs program their own shows, had actual correspondants calling in from Britain to let us Canucks know what was new and hot over in “Jolly Ol” and brought those acts in to play to sold out shows in town. As well they were the one station that paid attention to the clubs down the street and helped kick off many a Canadian band’s career including the Grapes of Wrath, Northern Pikes, Pursuit of Happiness and even Blue Rodeo… a band written off by most stations as “too country.” CFNY slotted them in happily with the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and everyone was the richer and happier for it.
As the ’80s progressed and mainstream music became less and less interesting to me I spent more and more time listening to CFNY. I still heard the “regular” acts I liked such as John Mellencamp or even Madonna (I admit it) easily enough on other stations or when I flipped on the TV. But CFNY opened up a new world to me. When near the decade’s end, I got a job working midnights in a hotel for close to two years, when the bar crowd cleared out 102.1 came on in the lobby. In slow periods I’d sometimes phone them and chat music with the on-air DJ. So it went that to me, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cocteau Twins, Smiths, Depeche Mode and Husker du are as much a part of the ’80s as Back to the Future movies or greedy Reaganomics policies.I heard U2 and REM long before they ever became “famous” and became heard on AM stations and bands like It’s Immaterial and the Silencers when they deserved to be famous but never got there. I feel so much richer, emotionally, for having the good fortune of growing up where the station’s signal reached.
There are a couple of postscripts to that. CFNY is still there, but is rather disspirited in my opinion. The passionate staff are long-gone and corporate takeovers has left it owned by a big company and sounding like every other station dubbed “The Edge” in North America. By 2000, if your idea of exciting, cutting edge music was Nickelback, CFNY was the place for your ears. More happily though, the guy who really orchestrated The Spirit of Radio in its glory days – David Marsden – is still rolling out the music. Just not there. He actually took his “free form radio” concept to a suburban station that was just a hop, skip and a jump from me in the early-00s, and he and I became friends. You can see some of him and his musical philosophies in the movie I Am What I Play. He now runs an online radio station doing its best to recapture the glory of the 1980’s CFNY in sound and spirit.
As for the Rush song, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame included it in their list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock”… a fitting honor for a song about a station that changed lives.
“The Spirit of Radio”
A little bit on 102.1 back when it mattered:
Dave, Rush isn’t a group I will listen to. That said, I love your write-up! Such a wonderful slice of life about you and what you must consider an iconic piece of music history. I watched the documentary youtube. I know you’ve talked about Marsden before and that he has an internet radio station now. After hearing him speak and learning his philosophy and place in the station’s history, I am checking out his station right after hitting send on this comment. Thank you for increasing my knowledge.
thanks Lisa. Well to each their own taste – it would be boring if everyone liked exactly the same things! I find some of Rush’s early material – they very prog, very pompous ’70s material – difficult to like much, but their more commercial streamlined ’80s stuff I like. But as you suggest there, the song was a pick because of its nod to both radio in general and the Toronto station that really changed the musical landscape there for awhile.
You’re welcome 🙂
I am with Msjadeli- I don’t listen to Rush- but what a great write up. Rush seems to be one of those groups you are fanatical about or don’t care for.
true enough! I had a lot of those fanatical friends when I was young, that wasn’t me. I might be unusual in that I am somewhere between the two extremes on them.
Good stuff Dave. Ill say it again, love those personal relationships to the music.
thanks Cinci – that is part of music’s magic isn’t it? What it means to us individually, what it conjures up.
Absolutely. When I see people getting joy out of music I think thats pretty good. Like you said folks tastes are different at times but lots of common ground also.
First thanks for the wonderful backstory on the song and your personal connection to it and what music means to you. I think all of us on this draft can relate. Personally, reading your story took me back to those late nights as a teenager listening to the radio on my stereo with a super long headphone cord that would stretch from my bed across the room to the stereo 😀. For me the stations that opened my horizons was WHFS in the DC area and then later WXPN in Philly
Re the song while I’m not a big Rush fan I have always loved this song – great guitar riff, love the brief reggae switch but most of all it’s an awesome song to air drum to! 😀
thanks Paul! Yeah, I liked those padded headphones with the long curly cords too!
It’s great that you had some stations that were a bit ground-breaking too. I think there are very few of them around anymore on the airwaves. The internet would be where it’s at now I suppose but that can also be a bit like finding the needle in a haystack.
I am a casual Rush fan (i.e., I enjoy their music but I’m not an aficionado), so this sounds good to me. I love knowing that it’s about a real radio station, and particularly one that served the listeners and artists so well back then. We had one of those stations, and like the rest, it’s gone now in spirit. The station is still there, but it’s corporate, and different format. Every so often one of the amazing DJs from the past resurfaces somewhere. They were bigger stars and made a bigger impact than they realized, I’m sure. Great job reminding us of the truly great radio stations, and the one you were privileged to hear in your region.
thank you RSR! Yes, it is too common a story – the corporatization and robotification of radio stations across the continent. A little before my time, the DJs were as big a star as the musicians they played at times, it seems. And a lot of that came from them having a love of music and some freedom to be themselves on the job. there are people I know who are/were commercial radio DJs who didn’t even listen to what they were playing (often because they were busy with other chores at the station). Very few like that.
I can definitely picture a corporate DJ not listening to what’s playing. I mean, how many times a day would a person want to hear Boston and Foreigner sing those same two songs? You are right, they’ve made it irrelevant to have a love for the music.
very few Johnny Fever types left in real life. One buddy in Canada, about 15 years younger than me, got a job DJ’ing on radio out of high school around start of century. He worked on a couple of stations for about a dozen years but as far as I know hasn’t been involved in radio for several years. I don’t know exact reasons but I know he has his own band and loves music and found his freedom to play music he felt worthwhile wwas being diminished by the year.
I never understood Rush’s music but as musicians… I have a ton of respect for them…As people… Lee and Lifeson seem like two of the nicest guys in the world. Everything I’ve seen them on they have been great.
We had Lightning 100 here and to their credit…they still play alt music. Love how we would connect to the DJ’s at that time and they would play the music they wanted to play.
I think they are good guys from what I know. As I said in the text and elsewhere here, I like their 80s stuff, especially the singles, but am not a huge fan of their early prog-rock “show off” type stuff, but they sure could play.
Good for Lightning and Nashville… a few decent or original stations still exist here and there. There is one “modern rock” station in this area but the few times I flip to it, it seems to be playing one of about six old Nirvana or STP songs or newer, noisy I don’t know what – the descendant of stuff like Limp Bizkit and Ontario’s own Sum 41 musically.
I’ve also seen them on the Trailer Park Boys…I love that show…they do have a great sense of humor.
They are far and few between…it’s a shame.
I’m not huge on Rush but I like them more when they stripped down their sound in the late 1970s. Helped that Lee’s vocals became a bit lower too.
true enough. His voice could be a tad annoying at times and I don’t often go in for over-the-top long pieces with solos galore . I think they got a lot better on ones like this, “Tom Sawyer” and “Subdivisions”
I love Time Stand Still, even though it’s cheesy. I generally like prog rock, but don’t really go for prog Rush.
that’s quite a good song; haven’t heard it for some time.
I saw a documentary on the band and the guys to me came across as very likable. I wanted to like their music- and gave them another listen. Just didn’t take. Great musicians no doubt.
nothing wrong with that – we all don’t like the exact same stuff (even in this forum, where I think everyone likes or loves the Beatles, there’s a huge difference in opinions about what era or what songs of theirs stand out). I think it might be fair to say Rush were better at playing the music than writing great bits quite often.
Well, I’m a bit late to this party, so there’s not much I can add here.
While there’s no doubt Rush were killer musicians, I never got into them. I’m very much into vocals and Lee’s very high voice definitely was a deterrent. In addition, I never fully embraced prog rock with a few exceptions, including Yes and Genesis. I also dig Pink Floyd.
With all of that being said, I enjoyed reading your background story.
thanks Christian. I think Yes and Genesis comparisons are fair (Yes especially since Anderson’s voice turned many off like Lee’s does) and with those two bands too, I didn’t go in for much of their early, ’70s over-the-top material but liked them when they got to be more pop-oriented with just a bit of panache put in there. I think ‘Abacab’ was Genesis at the very top of their game to me.
I’m not a huge Rush fan, but give credit to the members of the band. They were very talented.
My buddy is a huge fan. He introduced me to their music. I played this song and many other Rush hits when I worked at the classic rock station.
CHUM was a big station! My boss at Honey radio worked there. I want to say he went by Jack Hayes when he was there.
Neat story! Good write up.
what city did you work in ? CHUM was indeed, THE standard in Canada through the ’60s and 70s. Jack Hayes… sounds vaguely familiar, he might have been on air in the years I listened.
I worked in the Detroit area my first 10 years, then Flint/Saginaw area the last part of my radio days.
He was Richard D. on Honey radio when I worked with him.
I’m definitely late to this party, both figuratively and literally. Like many who’ve commented earlier, I never got much into Rush either, partly because I also found Geddy Lee’s vocals so grating. That said, I’ve liked most of their songs I have heard, and readily acknowledge their impressive songwriting and musicianship.
But I love your detailed description of listening to radio as a kid and young teen, which I think so many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s did, as radio was great back then. I too used to relish getting a weekly printed copy of the San Francisco AM station KFRC’s Top 30 at my local record store. I’d then compile my own Top 30, something I still do to this day, which I also publish on my blog. Great write-up Dave.
thank you… and believe it or not, I did the same for some years in the later-70s and early-80s, compiled my own chart based on how much I was hearing songs on radio (including all the stations I listened to) with a bit of personal preference mixed in I’m sure! Wish I still had those binders.