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The Story Behind the Song: How 'Tom Sawyer' sent Rush on a journey to stardom

Songwriters can usually look back at their career and pinpoint the moment their star truly headed skywards. For David Bowie, it was ‘Space Oddity‘ that launched his fame into overdrive, for Radiohead it was ‘Creep’, for The Beatles, well, it was pretty much any of them. The Canadian prog-rockers Rush can similarly point to the song that grabbed their career by the scruff of the neck and threw them into a new plane of pop music stardom; ‘Tom Sawyer’. The song, which is now entering its 40th year on the airwaves, has always been regarded as one of the band’s best efforts.

One of the band’s most widely adored songs was born in the most natural ways. After Peart had worked with Pye Dubois and Max Webster on the lyrics, next was the drumbeat which the late, great drummer Neil Peart, along with the rest of the band, improvised their way out of. “That song finds us at a time of such confidence that we were learning to make a song that was only six minutes instead of 12, 15, and use the same standards of arrangement,” Peart explained. It was a classic set-up for a band who rarely looked backwards.

“The drum is so detailed, but when we go into the middle to the odd time part,” Peart continued telling CBC, “It was improvised. I got lost and I punched my way out of it and somehow came back to the one. And that improvisation became a new part…. It’s one of those key parts that I love and it was absolutely a mistake that I just got lucky and got out of.” If there was one thing to typify Rush it is this comment — an improvisation leading to one of their most cherished songs but it was almost left off their 1981 record Moving Pictures.

Geddy Lee noted, when speaking with Entertainment Weekly, that the song almost didn’t make it on to the album: “There was some doubt as to whether it would even go on the record at one point, because we struggled with it for a long time. [Engineer] Paul [Northfield] came up with this weird way of mic-ing [Alex Lifeson’s] amp that created that super interesting ambient sound,” he said.

“That’s really when the song took off. There’s always a track that just drives you effing crazy, and that was the one on [1981’s Moving Pictures]. I never thought it would end up being the most popular song we’ve ever written.”

Lifeson said of the track in the same interview: “It’s a quirky song. It was so hard to get it to feel right — but in the end, we clearly did.” The track has since become a shining beacon of the group’s ability not only to improvise and evolve but make songs that still sounded good on the radio while doing so. Prog rock has often been seen as a dirty word, the kind of pomp that only jazz-influenced rock musicians can say without wincing, but somehow, Rush made it all work seamlessly.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that Geddy Lee and Co. wholeheartedly adore the song. Like many of the aforementioned acts, the band has since turned their back on the track a little, acknowledging it as one of their best songs because “it changed our lives” rather than being a true favourite. But perhaps the song’s lasting legacy will be how easily it has transferred the band’s sound into a modern arena using pop culture.

The track has been endlessly featured on classic rock radio since its release, but it is the way the song has infiltrated films and TV shows that has really resonated. Futurama, The Colbert Report, Freaks and Geeks, Family Guy, South Park have all featured the song in some form or another. But perhaps its biggest showing was in the 2012 film I Love You, Man which featured Paul Rudd and Jason Segel geeking out over the song.

Lee told The Guardian of the moment it was suggested for inclusion in the feature film: “When [the director] John Hamburg approached us about it, our instincts were to say no. But we were going through a phase where we decided to take the George Costanza approach to our career. We decided that anything we were going to say no to instinctively, we would now say yes to. It served us very well.”

The song’s inclusion in these cultural touchstones not only says a lot about the band’s timeless songwriting but also helps to introduce Rush to a brand new audience. The strange thing is that, after 40 years of being on the airwaves, ‘Tom Sawyer’ still sounds as fresh as a daisy.

Like ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Creep’ and countless others, this is the song that launched the career of Rush into a permanent state of stardom. The curious thing, however, is that it is still doing it to this day, acting as a continual booster pack to their iconography.

Listen below to Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ the song that kickstarted their career.