by Sean Highkin
I gave a complete stranger a high-five on the street recently. He was wearing a Rush shirt—one from 2007’s Snakes & Arrows tour, one of far too many that I own. There’s no other rock band I’d feel compelled to do this for, but there’s no other rock band quite like Rush. The career and body of work of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are nothing if not unconventional. They are at once enormously influential and entirely marginalized in the classic-rock canon. The trio (and Peart in particular) are heroes to the types of people who read musicians’ magazines and dismissed by almost everyone else as soulless technicians. To publicly come out as a Rush fan is to invite a whole host of unfavorable associations, be they with the geeky, fanatical devotion of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man or with the Ayn Rand-and-D&D reputation that hasn’t had any basis in their recorded work since the mid-1970s but that the band has never quite been able to shake in the decades since. Lee’s characterization of Rush as “the world’s biggest cult band” is as accurate as any. This is a band with more gold and platinum and records than any other besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and KISS, who remain a huge concert draw in 2012 and count Dave Grohl, Jack Black, Lance Armstrong, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker as fans, but they never seems to “count” in any discussion of the rock elite.
They’re also the only band whose entire catalog I have committed to memory. It’s no small undertaking—this is a body of work that involves 19 (20 in a few weeks) studio albums, nine live albums, nearly that many video releases, and several lengthy books by Peart. I’ve bought every one of these, most twice or more. I’ve probably given these three men enough of my money over the past decade to put Peart’s two-year-old daughter through college. I owe some of my most meaningful friendships—not to mention some pretty significant work opportunities—to my teen years spent on the band’s forums, debating the merits of Caress of Steel and Vapor Trails with total strangers much like the one I briefly encountered the other day. However, I have yet to put a definitive version of my thoughts on Rush’s music and my own experiences with it down on internet-paper. With the trio set to release its 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, on June 12 (check out the terrific first single, “Headlong Flight,” here), that’s what this series will be: part history, part reflection, and hopefully fully educational and entertaining.
I’ve often wondered how Rush’s career would have played out had original drummer John Rutsey stayed in the fold. Peart’s drum-god designation, even among the band’s many detractors, can be credited in no small part for their sustained cultural cache. The fact is that Rush’s self-titled 1974 debut album is derivative as hell—the origin story that former Cleveland radio DJ Donna Halper tells, which consists of her playing “Working Man” to a flurry of calls from listeners asking when the new Led Zeppelin album was coming out, checks out on record. But “Working Man” has endured as a canonical Rush song in large part because of the playing. Lifeson’s two searing guitar solos show emphatically that, whatever the trio lacked in originality as barely-out-of-their-teens Zep devotees, they made up for in raw talent. All over Rush, there’s a maturity and refinement about their playing, Lifeson’s in particular, completely uncharacteristic of a band that young. Lee’s vocals, probably single greatest deterrent to Rush’s prospects of mainstream acceptance over the course of their career, still betray a heavy Robert Plant influence. Lee had yet to develop Plant’s capacity for nuance (that would come in a few years), and his performances are occasionally clumsy (“Take a Friend,” “Before and After”), but on songs like “Here Again” and “What You’re Doing,” he showed a mastery of that kind of bluesy howl.
As for Rutsey, the de facto Pete Best of Canadian prog rock (who passed away in 2008), he does fine on Rush. His ouster from the band grew out of his reluctance to share Lee’s and Lifeson’s interest in Genesis and King Crimson, and certainly nothing on the album indicates that he would have been able to handle material that complex. His drumming is perfectly adequate for this album’s aims—it’s just hard not to be marginalized by history when your replacement happens to be one of the two or three most influential drummers in rock history.
Neil Peart is, unabashedly and unequivocally, the most important musical figure ever to enter my life. It was Ringo Starr and, later, Keith Moon that prompted me to beg my parents for a set of drums as a fifth-grader, but my introduction to Peart was something akin to discovering the existence of a higher power. It wasn’t just the gigantic drum kit or the seemingly limitless technical prowess—it was apparent even to my preadolescent self just how perfectly he utilized these resources. What sets Peart apart from imitators such as Mike Portnoy of the band Dream Theater (someone many Rush fans hold in equally high regard, but whom I do not), is how economical his drumming is, even as he plays parts that are insanely complex. He never gives off the air of showboating or attempting to shoehorn technical trickery into songs that don’t require it. “Bravado” and “Ghost Rider” are every bit as crucial in understanding his greatness as the flashier “YYZ” and “Xanadu.”
The opening bars of “Anthem,” the lead track on Fly by Night, signal the arrival of a band already light-years ahead of the one that made Rush. It’s a pattern Lee and Lifeson played during Peart’s audition, and they reportedly decided to hire him partially because of how quickly he latched onto it. This was Rush 2.0, a band that embraced unconventional time signatures and tricky instrumental interplay. But even their early dalliances with prog set them apart from contemporaries because of their unique musical upbringing. Many of the genre’s pioneers came from a place of classical music (Yes, ELP) or jazz (King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp); Rush, meanwhile, simply repurposed prog’s crucial tenets as a new method by which to attack their Sabbath-indebted blues metal. That’s why I gravitated to Rush in middle school. I was already into Yes and Jethro Tull by then, and Rush’s music was as complex as any of those bands. But they also fucking rocked in the way that matters to 13-year-olds.
Fly by Night is very much a transitional record. The addition of Peart radically transformed their approach and ambitions, and those growing pains were at times painfully evident on their early albums. In perhaps the most important development in the band’s history, Peart began taking over lyrical duties. His initial efforts drew heavily on literature and philosophy, with varying degrees of success. “Anthem” is a reference to the Ayn Rand novel of the same name (I’ll get to this particular association at a later date). The album’s strongest cut is “Beneath, Between & Behind,” a meditation on the American Revolution and the birth of the American dream. Its lofty lyrical aims are made all the more apparent by the fact that it directly follows the Lee-penned “Best I Can,” which comes off as little more than a throwaway from the debut album. In fact, I got this album shortly after the release of School of Rock, and the first thought I had upon hearing “Best I Can’s” chorus (“You can tell me that I got no class/Turn around and see who’s laughing last/Don’t give me speeches ‘cause they’re all so droll/Leave me alone and let me rock and roll!”) was that it sounded an awful lot like the kiss-off to No Vacancy that Jack Black taught to the fifth-graders at Horace Green. The band’s first extended epic, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” remains a Rush classic, but “Rivendell” is a stilted Tolkien homage on which Lee blatantly imitated Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. But despite the awkward place Rush were at in their development, Fly by Night stands as a fascinating snapshot of a band with off-the-charts proficiency discovering its identity.
The “transitional album” designation applies tenfold to their quickly-recorded follow-up, Caress of Steel. The black sheep of the Rush catalog for a variety of reasons, this album saw them further sharpening their instrumental chops while silencing any instinct to practice restraint. Caress of Steel features two extended pieces, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth,” each inspired in places and laughably dated in others. The former is a quasi-sequel to “By-Tor” featuring ham-fisted spoken narration sections and a set of Tolkien-biting lyrics every bit as forced as “Rivendell.” The latter, meanwhile, is a side-long suite, an art Rush would perfect in the coming years. But for as flawed as these pieces are in concept and execution, they’re backed by some of the strongest music the trio had recorded to that point. Lifeson in particular was blossoming as a guitarist: the “Return of the Prince” movement of “The Necromancer” and “Lamneth’s” “No One at the Bridge” are some of his best work to date even now, to say nothing of the still-killer opening track “Bastille Day.” Lee was still learning how to sing melodies, but “Lakeside Park” and sections of “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain” showed rapid improvement.
As crucial as Caress of Steel was in Rush’s maturation process, it was almost the last album they ever made. When it predictably bombed, they hit the road for a demoralizing series of shows the band has since christened the Down the Tubes Tour. Mercury executives were on their case to make themselves more marketable, which they did, albeit not at all in the way the label had in mind. I love these early albums in spite of their greenness, but also because of it. My 16-year-old self, who attempted to fashion himself as his high-school newspaper’s authority on all things music and fought tooth and nail to run 2,000-word album reviews with no regard for audience or place, is who Fly by Night and Caress of Steel still resonate with. Fortunately, Rush eventually learned how to work within the system.
NEXT: Rush’s commercial and artistic breakthrough, 2112, kicks off the most prolific, fruitful period of their career.