When I did the Favorite Band series on this blog, I got a lot of static about leaving out certain bands? Why no ELP? (I got bored with them in the 80’s.) Why not Slayer? (I never listened to Slayer.) Why no Oasis? (I don’t like them.)
The band I got the most static about was Rush. And it’s not that I didn’t like Rush. Hell, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart are frequently cited in other music articles here about bass and drums respectively. About the time the Favorite Bands series ended, I DVR’d Rush: Time Machine in Cleveland off of Palladia. (If you don’t have Palladia, find your cable company or satellite office and say rude things about their mothers until they fix the problem.) Two things struck me. First was the skits between songs, all of which featured Alex Lifeson in a really bad fat suit. Second, the band sounded even tighter and fresher than they did when I was i junior high.
And junior high was when I became aware of Rush. I remember “Tom Sawyer” got a lot of airplay on Cleveland’s WMMS and WGCL. Not surprising. Their 1974 song “Working Man” caught the attention of WMMS’s music director and went on heavy rotation, making Cleveland the first city outside of Toronto where Rush’s albums sold in appreciable numbers. Cleveland has a soft spot for Rush. Rush has one for Cleveland. They’re Cleveland’s band; Rush is grateful to have broken out there. So when Moving Pictures came out, “Tom Sawyer” automatically became the number one song in the city. When they came to the old Richfield Colosseum, many of my eighth-grade classmates would come up to me and say, “Jim, Rush is coming to town! Are you going to see Rush? It’s Rush, man!”
And none of that changed throughout junior and senior high. Even at ten-year reunion, many of us were still Rush fans despite a few “soft” albums following the synth-heavy Power Windows. The odd thing about Rush is that everyone liked Rush. For some reason, my farm-heavy, factory-heavy high school also took to Genesis in a big way as well. But Genesis was transitioning from prog to pop, and we reached where teens become musically obsessed just as those guys released Duke. Rush, on the other hand, was perfectly schizophrenic. They were a power trio modeled after Cream, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, and they could ring out the power chords whenever they wanted. But they were a prog band and heavily into science fiction and fantasy. So you had this odd conglomeration of metal heads and prog nerds getting into the same band. By 1984, even girls, who were drifting more towards hair metal and synthed R&B music, were getting into Rush. It’s entirely possible that some of you were conceived on prom night to the strains of the music of Signals. (Not quite as romantic as, say, The Honeydrippers cover of “Sea of Love” or maybe a Phil Collins ballad, but it happened.)
One song that resonated with my classmates heavily was “Subdivisions.” Half of us lived in subdivisions, and it was like Neil Peart knew. Of course, he did. He grew up in the same suburbs of the same dying industrial city 200 miles northeast of us. Only he called his Hamilton while ours was Cleveland. When Rush recruited him to replace original drummer John Rutsey (who left over creative differences and, more importantly, health problems), they found Peart working in the parts department of his father’s farm equipment dealership near Hamilton, Ontario. The lyrics bemoan the monotony of leaving between “the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.” And we, my friends, lived on the very fringe of that unlit unknown. They shoot parts of a fake reality show, Amish Mafia, less than thirty miles from where we grew up. We all knew the pressure to conform or be cast out. Ironically, in high school, I found my niche as the roving token outcast in most cliques. But then my phase of “Subdivisions” alienation took place in junior high, or, as I like to call it, “junior hell.”
The thing about Rush is that they never sit still. At their core, they’re a power trio and forever will be. Two guys who wanted to be Led Zeppelin in high school (Lee and Lifeson, as well as Rutsey back in the day) teamed with a guy who could be both John Bonham (powerful, yet deft and meticulous) and Keith Moon (style and flash) at the same time.
But watching the 2010 documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage reveals that they never really changed their approach to music. Every album is different. They’re not precious about their style. Name me a typical Rush album. There isn’t one. Their only misstep seems to be in the mixing and mastering of Vapor Trails, their first album after Neil Peart took some time off following the deaths of his wife (cancer) and daughter (car accident). They recently had the album remixed and remastered for release. But they try anything. Peart even took drum lessons well into his forties from drumming legend Freddie Gruber. That’s almost unheard of. Can you imagine Dave Grohl or Greg Bissonette or Chad Smith (All drummers who clearly listened to Peart growing up, especially Smith) taking drum lessons in their forties? Peart, however, summed it up best when he said, “We never say ‘That’s not good enough for Rush.’ In fact, those words have never been uttered by us.” It’s allowed them to go from prog to new wave and back to their hard rock roots.
And that’s why, after almost forty years, they’re still relevant.