By Glenn McDonald
For a small but passionate percentage of the rock and roll community, April 18, 2013 was a significant date in history.
That was the day that Canadian power trio Rush was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For years – more than a decade, actually – Rush had been denied a spot in the hallowed Hall. It had become a serious sore spot for the fans, although the band consistently claimed indifference. The induction process at the Hall of Fame is famously arcane. Performers are eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Rush’s debut album came out in 1974, so that put them into the mix in 1999. A nominating committee puts out a ballot each year, which is then voted on by 600 or so music industry people. The stated purpose of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation? “To recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”
Rush, of course, fit that bill five ways from Friday. They’ve sold 50 million records worldwide. They have 20-plus records certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum. They’ve kept the same lineup since 1974. And they have, arguably, the biggest, oldest and most loyal fan base in all of rock and roll.
So why was Rush kept off rock’s biggest stage for so long? The argument can be made that it was about fashion, essentially. For many years, in the critical establishment of rock music, it was decidedly unfashionable to like Rush. (And music critics make up a large portion of the 600-person nominating field.)
Rush was just never cool enough. They made music about science fiction and space gods and necromancers. Their fans were those goofy D&D-playing geeks who could never hang with the cool kids. The music was precise, complex and brainy – math rock, some called it. The band lacked the grimy looseness and the sex-and-drugs glamour required of rock stars.
Rush’s aura of uncool started to shift with the dawning of the new millennium. An entire generation of Rush fans, now all grown up and unapologetic, let their freak flags fly. Rush references started to appear in those places where pop culture stores its coolness signifiers: South Park. The Colbert Report. As media makers started to reflect back on their own childhoods in the 1970s and 1980s, they embraced their Rush fandom.
The Hall of Fame induction was a symbolic conclusion to a decade or so of cultural reassessment. Against all odds, it was finally cool to like Rush. The band that had endeavored and endured for nearly 40 years found themselves in a new kind of limelight.
In the Beginning
It all started in suburban Toronto in the late 1960s, when childhood friends Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee began playing together in local bands on the high school dance circuit. In 1971, the duo formed the first official incarnation of Rush with drummer John Rutsey. The band earned a solid regional reputation for their hard rock sound and ace musicianship.
The band’s self-titled 1974 debut album didn’t get much radio attention, although the single “Working Man” resonated with hard rock fans in lower Canada and the American Rust Belt. Just before the band’s first U.S. tour, Rutsey departed due to health issues. After a series of auditions, Rutsey was replaced with Ontario native Neil Peart, and a partnership was formed that would last for 39 years and counting. (As revealed in the excellent documentary film Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Lee and Lifeson still jokingly refer to Peart as “the new guy.”)
The trio’s first album together, 1975′s Fly By Night, introduced what would become the band’s signature elements. Peart took over as chief lyricist, and songs like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” superimposed sci-fi/fantasy tropes atop the increasingly complex musical arrangements.
The band’s follow-up LP, Caress of Steel (1975),traveled in a similar conceptual direction, but it went much, much further. Side two of the album consisted of a single 20-minute song, “The Fountain of Lamneth,” a six-part suite structured around a hero’s quest style narrative. Another cut off the record, “The Necromancer,” was clearly inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein and The Lord of the Rings.
This stuff was manna from heaven for that particular Rush fan subset of nerdy D&D geeks. I should know; I was one of them. Here was a band that was making music about the very books I was reading. It was a revelation.
After Caress of Steel came the albums 2112 (1976), A Farewell to Kings (1977), and Hemispheres (1978) – the band’s best three records and undeniable creative apex. For the discerning junior high hard rock fanatic, this stuff was bananas.
In fact, 2112 is considered by many to be the definitive Rush album. The entirety of side one is taken up by the title track – another 20-minute opus, this time broken into seven parts. The song is an epic science fiction fantasy, in which our guitar-wielding hero squares off against the nefarious Priests of the Temple of Syrinx.
If the storytelling is a bit broad – it’s all sophomoric Ayn Rand dubiousness, in retrospect – the sonic impact remains undeniable. The music is grand, bombastic and sounds like it’s being bounced back from another galaxy through some temporal wormhole.
A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres map similar territories, with detours into epic poetry (“Xanadu,” inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and Greek mythology (“Hemispheres,” the last of the band’s 20-minute epic musical suites.)
By this point, Rush had earned a worldwide fan base and the band toured extensively around the planet, playing upwards of 300 gigs a year. Their live shows were legendary in hard rock circles, among fans and fellow musicians both.
Peart was earning a reputation as the best drummer in the game, famous for elaborate solos and a drum kit the size of a small municipality. Lifeson’s guitar virtuosity was complemented by Lee’s increasingly multi-instrumental responsibilities on the other side of the stage. As Metallica’s Kirk Hammett wondered aloud in a clip at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: “How can three guys make such a sound?”
Rush had carved a specific musical niche in the rock world. Critics may have dismissed them, but they didn’t need the press anyway. They had the love and respect of the fans. And the band’s rising star was about to go supernova.
With the albums Permanent Waves (1980) and Moving Pictures (1981), Rush broke through into bonafide mainstream success. The shorter songs – tighter and more punchy – were friendlier to radio and to that new force in the rock landscape, MTV. The singles “Spirit of Radio,” “Freewill,” “Limelight” and especially “Tom Sawyer” would become the band’s biggest hits. Along with earlier singles “Fly By Night” and “Working Man,” they’ve become part of the canon of classic rock radio.
“Tom Sawyer” is probably the band’s single best-known song, and it’s worth dissecting a bit. The lead track on the Rush’s best-selling album (Moving Pictures), the song captures a band in transition, moving away from conceptual prog-rock toward a synth-heavy pop rock sound. It’s all in perfect, delicate balance on “Tom Sawyer.” The relatively simple and direct groove is deceptive. The track moves through multiple time signatures and features complex interplay between guitar, drums, bass and synth. VH1 would eventually name “Tom Sawyer” the 19th-greatest hard rock song of all time.
For the rest of the 1980s, Rush would explore new technologies and musical textures. Signals (1982), Grace Under Pressure (1984), Power Windows (1985) and Hold Your Fire (1987) brought Lee’s synthesizer work to the forefront of the band’s sound. Peart began experimenting with electronic percussion. And Lifeson’s guitars – for so long the driving force of the band’s hard rock sound – drifted into the corners, providing textured accents and open chord chimes.
Compare 1975′s Caress of Steel and 1985′s Power Windows, and you’ll find a startling difference in approach vectors. Yet the essentials somehow remain – Lee’s distinctive vocals, Peart’s articulate (sometimes over-articulate) lyrics, and the band’s intricate instrumental interplay.
Songs like “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” continued the band’s preoccupation with themes of outsiders and conformity. But new ideas kept flooding in from all directions: Cold War anxiety (“Distant Early Warning”), personal psychology (“The Enemy Within”), runaway materialism (“The Big Money”). The music swerves around as well, with elements of new wave, techno, funk and pure pop surfacing and diving again.
There and Back Again
The band’s next four records brought a return to the heavy guitar sound and stripped-down three-piece style of the past. Presto (1989), Roll the Bones (1991), Counterparts (1993) and Test for Echo (1996) marked yet another evolution in the band’s sound, with a move by Peart toward jazz and swing sounds in the percussion.
Then tragedy struck. Twice. In the space of a year, Peart lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife in a battle with cancer. Reeling, Peart embarked on a solo motorcycle trip across North America, documented in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. Rush went on indefinite hiatus. It was unclear for several years whether the band would return at all.
Rush did indeed return, with a vengeance, on the fast and furious album Vapor Trails (2002) which pivoted on a lean, mean power trio sound. Then came Feedback (2004) – the band’s first collection of cover songs – followed by Snakes & Arrows (2007) and 2012′s Clockwork Angels. In between, the band toured like mad, reacquainting themselves with fans worldwide.
If you’re a Rush fan, or even just a scholar of rock history in general, that documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage really should be required curriculum. Directors Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn were given unprecedented access to the band and the archives, and they use all the tricks of the filmmakers trade to tell the band’s story.
But the film, made in 2010, necessarily misses the celebration of last March, when Rush finally made it into rock’s hallowed halls. It was, by all accounts, a raucous and love-filled affair. In the opening statements by Hall of Fame chairman Jann Wenner, the very mention of the band’s name earned a two-minute standing ovation.
Rush was officially inducted by Dave Grohl: “Rock ‘n roll has forever been ensconced in mystery,” Grohl said from the stage. “But there’s one mystery that surely eclipses them all: When the f— did Rush become cool? … Their legacy is that of a band that stayed true to themselves no matter how uncool they seemed to anyone. Consider this mystery solved and it’s our honor to finally induct Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Joined by his smiling band mates at the podium, Peart reflected on the band’s impossibly long journey.
“We’ve been saying for a long time – years – that this wasn’t a big deal. Turns out, it kind of is.”