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: