Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's all the Rush? - A short essay on the influence of Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand on the lyrics of Canadian prog rockers Rush

People often say to me: "Smudgie, I have heard that Rush's lyricist  Neil Peart is heavily influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. Can you tell me more about that?"

And I say "No. I know nothing about either of them."

But I like to find out things about stuff. And these are the things I've discovered about this stuff. And my opinions on the things I've discovered. About this stuff.

Ayn Rand. She looked a bit like Blixa Bargeld, don't you think

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born philosopher (1905-1982) who emigrated to the USA in 1925, escaping Russia's Communist regime on a visa to visit relatives then marrying a US citizen. Although Rand's family sympathised with the revolutionaries and Rand benefitted  from the regime in being among the first women in Russia allowed to attend university, her family didn't prosper that well under the Communists; her father's pharmacy business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, the family had to flee St Petersburg for the Crimea, and later her parents and sisters were refused permission to join her in the USA.

Rand's negative experiences of Communism appear to have impacted directly on her philosophical system of Objectivism and its focus on the rights and priorities of the individual over that of society. This philosophy was most strongly propounded in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, in which the most talented industrialists, artists and scientists go on strike and retreat from society, effectively "stopping the motor of the world" and leading to a collapse of the economy, and eventually the entire social structure of western civilisation. Rand's Objectivism can be seen as supporting a laissez-faire (free market), capitalistic approach to the economy and structure of society. Bet Thatcher loved her.

Rush. They looked like a Canadian prog rock band. And they were.

So, where do hairy rockers Rush fit into all this? The two Rush songs most obviously influenced by Rand's work are Anthem and 2112, for which lyricist Neil Peart directly credits Rand's inspiration. In fact, the lyrical source of both songs can be traced to the same 1938 Rand novel, also called Anthem.

Anthem the novel has a similar theme to George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, focusing on an individual's attempt to rebel against a totalitarian or dystopian regime (ie a nanny state gone bad). Such themes are also raised in the 1998 film Antz, and, to a lesser extent, A Bug's Life, released the same year. The Rush song Anthem (1975) appears to be a call to creative arms for those oppressed by the traditional expectations of society, while the epic 20-minute 2112 (1977) tells the story of a man living in a dystopian future who discovers a guitar from a previous time, only to have it destroyed by the priests who control his world.

Because of the credit Peart openly gave Rand and her Objective philosophy for its influence on his work, Rush were unfairly accused as having right-wing leanings by many, in particular by the left-leaning British music press. However, Objectivism is clearly at odds with all collective regimes, not just communism and socialism, but also facism. In its purest form, it is neither right or left-wing, but celebrates the freedom of the self to live and create as each individual so wishes. This appears to be the Objectivism that Peart reflects in his lyrics, and makes me consider that Rush were (and are) in fact the Liberal Democrats (pre-Conservative coalition) of the rock world.

Do you know, I might even read the book. Then I'll really know what I'm talking about.


  1. Hmmm. You obviously think long and hard about this stuff. So would you say that the lyrics to "The Trees" are anti-communist, pro-communist, or merely a story about a bunch of trees? It would be interesting to hear the opinion of a dedicated fan of Canadian prog-rock such as yourself.

  2. Interesting question, Grachman. I am of the opinion that "The Trees"(1978) is clearly a retort to those in the British press who accused Rush of being "junior facists". However, it is interesting to note that while clearly referring to communism (or more accurately socialism) in its lyrical content, it appears not to comment of the merit or either for such a regime, leaving it instead to the listener to make up their mind.

    Peart himself suggests that "The Trees" was inspired by a comic strip he read, about trees arguing, but there are certainly shades of Orwell's "Animal Farm" (1945, not to be confused with the 1981 adult film of the same name) which cannot be easily ignored. It is interesting that Peart highlights the inspiration of Rand, but not Orwell, in his work.

  3. I know where you are coming from with there being no direct comment on either regime, and you clearly know a great deal about the band and hold your opinions dear. For me, though, the political opinion is in the tone of the lyrics. Phrases like "the maples scream oppression" show a slightly mocking tone towards their socialist leanings, and there is a cruelty denoted in the oaks being "kept equal by hatchet axe and saw".

    It is clear to me which side of the fence Peart is sitting on even though he doesn't make direct comment.

    Good to see a true dedicated fan of Canadian prog rock on here. I'm sure you'd agree with me that bands like Triumph were merely a poor man's Rush. Great to see the boys influence clearly being shown in modern bands like Biffy Clyro (or however it's spelt) and Coheed and Cambria too. But there will always only be one Rush! I'm sure you agree.

  4. A very valid interpretation of the lyrics of "The Trees", Grachman. I believe you may have a point there.

    You are also correct about Rush's influence on Biffy Clyro, most pertinently in their most successful song, "Mountains" (2008), with the lyrics "I am the mountain, I am the sea, you can't take that away from me". Such an individualist statement must surely be considered to be an indirect reflection of Rand's Objectivism, via the influence of Rush.

    I will not comment to the same extent regarding Coheed And Cambria, as until recently I was of the impression that they were two bands who regularly toured together.

    Triumph were indeed a pale reflection of Rush, whose lyrics, while attempting to address social issues, and to a certain extent religious matters, failed to delve, or strike, as deeply at the heart of most listeners as those of Peart.