Fly By Night, the first of two 1975 releases from Rush, is the band’s second album but is the first to feature drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart, which in many ways makes it the band’s first “real” album. Peart brought so much to the table — more literary allusions, deeply personal and philosophical lyricism, highly dynamic drumming — that the difference between the 1974 debut album and this one is ridiculously palpable. The band began to introduce more sophisticated, progressive musicality to their songs. The quality of the production is a noticeable improvement. The unapologetic crunchy blues-hard-rock was broadened with a more expansive palette of sounds and styles.
The resulting album Fly By Night is certainly more in line with Rush’s evolutionary march than the debut record. It has the band’s first “epic” tune (the 8-and-a-half minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog”), their first odes to classic objectivism and/or celebration of the individual (“Anthem”, “Fly By Night”), and allusions to fantasy storytelling and environments (“Rivendell”). But scattered amid all the nascent Rush seedlings are songs that are part-and-parcel of the mid 1970s hard rock scene: the mighty power-ballad-ish album closer (“In The End”), the radio rock hit (the title track, again), and a few solid album deep tracks holding everything together.
So it’s a balanced mix of Rush beginning to become “RUSH!!!” with the band still dabbling with established power trio norms of the day, but how does it work as an album? Mostly it works pretty gosh darn well. There’s much to admire about Fly By Night that it’s altogether to easy to pronounce this as Rush’s true debut. But, if you’ll pardon the callback to the opening track of their previous album, the record still feels at times like the band is finding their way. Take “Best I Can”, which to my ears sounds like Geddy took a few musical notes while touring with Kiss. This number feels like a Gene Simmons tune from the Hotter Than Hell era, albeit with infinite better musicality than that band was ever capable of achieving. Still, it’s an interesting track (penned by Lee) that yet remains firmly rooted in the band’s earlier era, rather than being indicative of where they would be heading.
Neil’s ode to the American dream and its contrast against overt militarization couldn’t be more obvious in “Beneath, Between & Behind”, a straightforward rocker with hints of broader reach but not yet reaching them. It’s one of my favorite no-fuss rock tunes from the band with an instantly catching chorus. Speaking of no-fuss rock tunes, the title track “Fly By Night” was the big radio hit from the album and (according to Wikipedia) their highest selling single to date. It’s a steady, soaring rock tune that seems to take flight almost instantly as Lifeson’s guitar riff memorably opens the track. Few songs about knowing when to make your big move could be more succinctly summarized by the declaration that “it’s time I was King now, not just one more Pawn”.
“Anthem” is of course the opening shot across the bow, the vanguard that announced what would be coming later in the epic 1976 “2112” album suite: prog-influenced hard rock taking its lyrical and storytelling cues from the work of Ayn Rand. As the album opener, it instantly heralds the band’s new direction with intricate time changes, tight musicianship, and starkly immediate declaration-of-principles lyricism. Of course, Geddy couldn’t resist throwing in a few Plant-like wails over the chorus.
“By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is the centerpiece of the album, a near nine-minute action movie draped in mythology, in which the canine hero battles a Demon-Prince from Hell in a no-holds-barred epic assault. Or something. It’s a little silly but it’s great fun, especially during the extended middle section, with growls and howls and an instrumental depiction of the clash of titans, and the eventual uplifting fanfare of Snow-Dog’s victory at song’s end. Oops, spoiler alert. “Natural Science” it is not, but taken on its own terms, it’s a sweet tune.
“Making Memories” is an acoustic shuffler about life on the road that is an agreeable if inconsequential addition; it’s a decent album track in and of itself that neither stands out nor drags the record down. The album does however make a major misstep with “Rivendell”. An overt reference to the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, the song is a bit of a treacle that doesn’t work, really. The lyrics are clunky and maudlin, the music flat and unmemorable. Which is a shame, as I do enjoy the softer, acoustic side of the band. A song featuring Geddy Lee on classic guitar and vocals, with no bass or drums and just a few other guitar embellishments, is definitely a step away from the expected, and Rush is at least making the conscious attempt to expand their sound. But the song is just… not good. Tediously slow, it clocks in at five minutes in length and seems twice as long. This is rectified by the album closer “In The End”, which opens with Alex’s 12-string acoustic introduction followed by rolling cymbals and Geddy’s soft vocals, exploding into nearly seven minutes of an electric mid-70’s power ballad opus. I find it a welcome piece, a bit long at its running length but with just enough Zeppelin-styled crunch mixed with tasteful restraint to keep it in the Win column and an enjoyable end to the record.
Fly By Night starts strong and even if it does sag a bit towards the end — “Rivendell”, yeesh! — it still represents a quantum leap forward for Rush, one that will almost destroy them commercially on the next album and bring them great success (and firmly reveal their mission statement to the world) on the album after that. But for all intents and purposes, and with all respect to the debut LP (which I enjoy on its own terms), this album remains pretty much where Rush really “begins”.