Monday, October 28, 2019

Spirit: The Spirit of Radio

Rush: The Spirit of Radio

I’ve openly discussed my love of prog-rock in on this blog, so you might be surprised to discover that I’m not a big fan of Rush. They are one of those bands who I’ve never particularly gotten into, maybe in part because I have never spent much time really listening to their substantial output, but there are a handful of Rush songs that I like. One of them is “The Spirit of Radio,” from the 1980 album Permanent Waves. Why this Rush song as opposed to any other? I can’t give you a good answer, but I think that it is probably a combination of the song’s relatively straightforward structure, the somewhat surprising reggae touch at the end, and most of all, its message.

When I first got interested in music, you could still find relatively free-form radio stations that weren’t afraid to play deep tracks and long songs, and there were still DJs creating thematic sets and talking, knowledgeably, about the music. I learned so much about music from listening to, mostly, WNEW-FM during my high school days. The three members of Rush are all 8 or 9 years older than me, and came of music listening age during a time when radio was even more wide open.

But like so many things, once someone realizes that money can be made, people, or more likely, companies, with big bank accounts step in, and the distinctive character of whatever it is gets lost in favor of standardization and the profit motive. The days of free-form radio are mostly over, at least on the commercial part of the dial, and that’s a shame. Most stations play a very circumscribed set of songs, narrowly formatted, and often the DJs are just people with good voices, without the knowledge, or love, of the music that they play. At the time that Rush released “The Power of Radio” this trend was speeding up, and it was certainly something that I, sitting in the dorm-basement studios of WPRB, was acutely aware of.

As Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson said about the song:

That song was really a statement of where radio was going, where it had been. 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. 

The irony was that the song that attacked radio became a hit, and presaged a move by the band toward more radio friendly music, at least for a while.

Not only is “The Spirit of Radio” a shot at radio programmers, it is also an attack on bands that Rush believed were more in the business for the money, and not the art. In one of the most well-known lines from the song, which consciously echoed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” Lyricist Neal Peart wrote: ‘The words of the profits are written on the studio wall, concert hall/Echoes with the sounds of salesmen.’ The salesmen, in his opinion, being the disingenuous front men of bands who told each city that it was the greatest, or that its fans were the best.

These days, of course, we don’t have to rely on radio stations to discover music anymore. There are tons of other places to hear music—streaming services, the Internet in general, satellite radio, and so on. On one hand, that’s great, because access is now in the user’s hands. But on the other hand, this model has made music much less profitable, preventing some artists from having the resources to create their art to the fullest (although it also has probably cut back on a good deal of excess). Maybe worst of all, though, is that this model makes it easy for listeners to stay in a rut. Most Sirius XM stations, for example, play a small slice of music, and when you choose music on streaming services, it is easier to pick music or artists that you already like, than to search for something new and good in the mass of available songs. That curatorial service that a good FM DJ provided, which allowed me to simply tune to 102.7 (or to have listeners tune to 103.3, when I was on the air….) and have my musical horizons broadend is mostly gone.

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