Every band has to start somewhere. What’s amazing about Rush, after listening to their self-titled first release, is that it’s so far removed from their later core releases, and they went through such a giant transformation by their second album. If you take their second or third album and remove the monster-solo prog-rock geekfests and the Tolkein-meets-Ayn Rand lyrics, you still aren’t anywhere near this one. It’s a miracle this obscure band, scraping by on a self-released album, even got the chance at a second one.
The easiest way to sonically describe this is Led Zeppelin clone with a chick singer. The band blows through eight numbers that are straight-up, simple, forgettable AOR rock. And I guess that’s forgivable. I mean, listen to some of AC/DC’s early stuff and it sure isn’t Back in Black. It’s barely metal as we know it today. Same with KISS, same with a lot of other bands that started before things really got categorized and defined. So here are some tracks of simple bar-band blues, and that’s fine. And Neil Peart wasn’t in the band yet, so you’re trading the all-time best drum wizard for regular old guy John Rutsey clonking away the basic beats. (Rutsey quit the band after their first release, saying that they weren’t going anywhere, and also citing his diabetes as being a problem with extended touring. He, oddly enough, got into amateur bodybuilding after he dropped out of music.)
Probably the biggest problem on this album is the big love-it-or-hate-it of Rush, being Geddy Lee’s vocals. Some people are immediately turned off by his high-register singing, which sounds slightly feminine or falsetto. I personally don’t mind his singing a lot of the time, but there are usually a couple of runs or notes per album that grate at me a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff on this first album falls under that category. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot more “oooh yeeah” phrasing in the hard rock style, and by the time they started singing more sedate stuff about Dungeons and Dragons and not “baby-baby” bar music, he stopped doing that.
There are a couple of gems in this album. One is the song “Working Man,” which became a live staple for a while, and rocks out well. It also, like many of the songs here, shows that Alex Lifeson is a damn good guitarist, and can really jam away like he just got done listening to a bunch of Hendrix and wants to do similar work. This song is the reason a DJ in Ohio started spinning the record, playing the song on Friday afternoons to their working-class fans. (This later resulted in the band’s deal with Mercury records, and the wider rerelease of this album.) “Finding My Way” is a good opener, and “In the Mood” is funny, but maybe a bit corny. The other stuff is so un-Rush-like it’s only interesting as a historical note. Probably the most interesting thing about this material is that it deals with straight-up, hey-baby sex stuff, which became taboo as the band went on to talk about inevitable nuclear war and starships vanishing into black holes.
The album itself has some interesting history, in that it was pieced together from two different studios. The band’s first release, a cover of the song “Not Fade Away,” was recorded with an original B-side. This work was done at Toronto’s Eastern Studios (where Gordon Lightfoot was putting down most of his mid-seventies albums, too) in a series of graveyard shifts, and included two other original songs, plus the versions of “In the Mood” and “Take a Friend” that ended up on the LP. The band also laid down some more skeletal work on other songs on the studio’s 8-track before becoming dissatisfied and moving to Toronto Sound Studios and self-producing the rest of the album. No record company would touch the album or the “Not Fade Away” single, so the band and manager Ray Daniels formed Moon Records to release both. When the album got picked up by Mercury, long-time Rush producer Terry Brown re-mixed the album into the form most of us have heard.
(Also worth noting: in 2008, the band found an old tape with a different version of “Working Man”, including an alternate solo. This was released directly to the Rock Band video game, and then later released on iTunes. It’s worth the 99 cents to hear this slightly different version if you’re a Rush fanatic.)
All I can really say about this album is that it got a lot better really fast. Completists will obviously want check this out, but it’s a tough sell for the casual fan of the later music. If you’re only familiar with “Tom Sawyer” and newer, a better dip into the old catalog would be starting with Fly By Night, and catching the couple of good tunes here on the first live album with Neil on the drums.
[I feel I need to put some kind of disclaimer on this for giving a Rush album a 6.5 and I’m sure I’m going to hear about it. So, sorry or whatever.]