This song taught me the limits of woodshedding. Every other song I had learned, I started by playing it slow, but through gradual practice, could get up to recorded speed in a few weeks. With YYZ, even with the published tab in front of me, I could never get half speed. I got so frustrated that I struck my bass with my fist, which broke one of the pickups. That taught me the importance of controlling my temper. I think that must be a landmark in my emotional development, since I don't know that I've truly lost my temper since.
Anyway, the song. The distinctive opening cadence, in which first Neil and then the entire band tap out the letters Y, Y, and Z in Morse code, must be built into the auditory framework of every true fan. I use it when I knock on doors as a matter of habit, and I don't think I'm the only one. With headphones on I can clearly hear the sound panning around at the opening, but it stabilizes in the center once the band joins in. The keyboard plays pedal tones in the background, laying out a melody which the band returns to periodically.
At 0:35 the magic starts, with Geddy and Alex playing a heinously complex figure in perfect unison. That goes right into the riff commonly identified with the track, which cannot be played by anyone without a comprehensive mastery of their intrument. At 1:10 they change into a more typical Rush approach, with Alex slowing to quarter notes while Geddy gives a little impromptu clinic. The line he plays at 1:22 almost defies the ear, and it's not even a proper bass break, it's just a little something he does for fun.
At 1:37 they move on to a new movement, and this time it includes some featured bass and drum breaks. The 1:56 bass break always gets a cheer at live shows, and I like the way the 2:12 break ends with a little ringing harmonic. I must also give Alex his creative props; the tone of the guitar remains consistent, but the way he changes from a very smooth, sustained style to the staccato shows the way he brings creativity to the table without relying on raw chops. At 2:18 Neil gets to show off a bit, which is only fair in a song where he often has to play a simple 4:4 line to anchor the band and let the guitaristas play their little game. Anyway, after that bass break, around 2:24 it's back to about what we had at 1:37, but not quite the same. (Why be the same when you can be different?)
At 2:47 Alex uses one of his beautiful descending spiral riffs to move the song into a slower-paced, keyboard-drenched movement, but at 3:19 they resolve all themes and pound straight into the rif we heard at 0:35.
I should probably walk back my earlier remarks about the drums. If a Rush cover band played this song at a bar, the drummer could probably manage a straight 4:4 beat, and as long as he had the one and the three right, the audience would let it all slide. However, Neil never just slides by. When I listen carefully, I can pick out the spots where he throws in little embellishments here and there. I really appreciate the way he does that. To me, it says that he knows he plays in a trio and has to support the rest of the band, but also that he can play in back and support the band without having to be boring. The guy writes his lyrics as pantoums; he understands that sometimes, having to fit into a structure can be an aid to creativity.