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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rush "Tom Sawyer" Song Analysis

Rush in concert image
We haven't done a song analysis for a while, so here's an excerpt from my Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock Vol 1 book. It's Rush's "Tom Sawyer," a perennial FM radio favorite and the first single from their breakout Moving Pictures album from 1981. The song is a part of the defining moment in the band’s history when they finally broke out to world-wide superstardom.

The song was written on a band summer rehearsal holiday spent on a farm outside of Toronto. Poet Pye Dubois presented the band with a poem entitled “Louis The Lawyer,” which drummer Neil Peart then modified, and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson set to music.

As with everything Rush, "Tom Sawyer" is complex and doesn't follow a standard form, but that's why they're so well liked, right? The form looks something like this:

intro/chorus ➞ verse ➞ B-section ➞ C-section ➞ chorus ➞ interlude ➞ solo ➞ 
intro ➞ verse ➞ B-section ➞ C-section ➞ chorus ➞ outro

You can dispute exactly where the chorus is, but the popular thinking is it's where the "Tom Sawyer" lyric is mentioned. None the less, the song is as unconventional as it is interesting.

While most of the song is in 4/4 time, the solo begins in 7/8, then switches to 13/16. It then returns to 4/4 until the outro, where it again changes to 7/8. 

The lyrics are poetry set to music, instead of the other way around. There’s no overt need to rhyme if it doesn’t fit the thought, which is a whole lot better than forcing it and having an awkward lyric or cadence.

Rush's songs are fairly bare-bones in that they're meant to be played live, so there's not a lot of obvious layering. The guitars are doubled and heavily effected to make them bigger, but you can hear how they effectively use only a single less effected guitar in the first turnaround of the solo, then the second has the full guitar sound to change the dynamics.

Arrangement Elements
  • The Foundation: drums
  • The Pad: synthesizer on the intro and outro, high register synth in solo beginning and outro
  • The Rhythm: high hat
  • The Lead: lead vocal, guitar solo, 
  • The Fills: none
Rush uses synthesizers very creatively, from the Oberheim OB-X swell in the intro and outro, to the Moogish sound in the interlude and outro. Also, the lead vocal is doubled in the C-section, which differentiates it from the other sections.

The mix of “Tom Sawyer” is as interesting as is the song form. Neil Peart's drums are way up in front and the snare has a nice pre-delayed medium room on it that you can only hear in the beginning when the drums are played by themselves. All of the other drums are dry. The snare is fairly bright, as is the high hat, which is featured in the mix since it keeps the motion of the song moving forward. The kick and snare are compressed well to make them punchy and in your face without seeming squashed. The cymbals are nice and bright but pulled back in the mix.

Geddy Lee's vocal has a timed delay with a medium reverb wash that blends seamlessly into the track, which also has a bit of modulation that you can hear as it dies out. Once again, you can only hear it during the intro when the song is fairly sparse. His bass has that Rickenbacker treble sound yet still has a lot of bottom, despite the distortion.

Alex Lifeson's guitar is doubled using a short delay, and slightly chorused with a medium reverb wash for the huge sound that glues everything together. In the case of the solo guitar, the reverb is effected and then spread hard left and right. It also uses the same guitar sound as the rhythm guitar, which is unusual, since solos usually have a different sound on most records. 

Listen Up:
  • To the modulation at the end of the reverb on Geddy Lee’s vocal.
  • To how large the stereo synthesizers on the intro of the song are.
  • To the stereo effect on the Moog synth at the beginning of the solo and the outro.

Any power trio has to have great musicians to have everything sound big and cohesive, and Rush does just that. Peart's drumming is absolutely rock solid, without a beat ever feeling like it drifted even a microsecond out of time, yet still feels organic. The way he’s placed in the mix totally holds it together, yet it never feels as if he’s the one featured. As with most other hits, it’s the energy of the track that pulls you in, which goes to show you that without a near perfect basic track, it’s difficult to keep the track interesting.

You can read additional excerpts from the various Deconstructed Hits volumes, as well as my other books on the excerpt section of



Anonymous said...

This was the second album recorded in Le Studio outside of Montreal. That studio made all the difference. The band was at their best with PW and MP. Alex sounded great with Hiwatts and Marshalls and even Boogie MK1 in PW. Tom Sawyer is Neil Pearts hardest song.

Anonymous said...

Nothing on the rhythmic/melodic palindrome in the 7/8 section. (2+2+3 , 3+2+2) !

Anonymous said...

Found out, it's actually a Fender on Tom Sawyer! See: Cheers! Liking the song deconstruction and blog!


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