When Rush emerged with their self-titled debut album in 1974, many looked upon them as nothing more than Led Zeppelin (opens in new tab) clones. Indeed, when music director and DJ Donna Halper and her team dropped the needle on Working Man on Cleveland radio station WMMS, the station’s switchboard was inundated with calls asking if this was a new track by Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham.
Now, more than 40 years later and after 19 studio albums, 11 live records and an acclaimed career which saw the band inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013, it’s harder to judge which is more unlikely: (a) that they lasted so long or (b) that they did so on the strength of hiring drummer/lyricist Neil Peart to replace John Rutsey.
Rush’s four decade run is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma that was the famously fan/limelight-avoiding and sadly departed Peart (opens in new tab). Yet Rush were a three-piece band of equal parts, and similar attention is long overdue for vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee (opens in new tab) and guitarist Alex Lifeson (opens in new tab).
Although frequently derided for his occasional choice of high-register singing, Lee has a fine, folky voice; he’s no slouch on a synth, either. Moreover, as his excellent solo album My Favorite Headache (2000) proves, much of Rush’s often overlooked mastery of melody is down to him. And all that before the best bass playing you’ll find this side of Jack Bruce (opens in new tab). Lifeson, too, is an under-appreciated player, and deserves to be ranked alongside David Gilmour (opens in new tab) for his fluid soloing, and Jimmy Page for other-worldly riffs.
Lee and Lifeson’s qualities added to Peart’s prodigious talents for rhythms usually found outside the rock sphere have inspired a collective ambition to improve and expand their abilities, and to make music that is always evolving, never safe.
Rush’s first 25 years can be viewed in three (unplanned) cycles, each comprised of four studio albums then a double-live set which seemed to herald a change in direction. From 1974-76 they rocked like bastards while peddling sword, sorcery and sci-fi – often on side-long epics. From 1977-81 they entered a purple patch when they discovered synth bass pedals, keyboards, and songs lasting less than 10 minutes. Cycle three, 1982-89, began with more of the same, but is typified by an initially unsettling penchant for reggae-style rhythms. They also fully embraced the 80s vogue for electronica.
After the third double live album, the cycles ended and studio output became sporadic – just six albums, one set of covers, and two more live sets for good measure. Over these they steadily stripped away the trimmings and went back to basics. For those of us who grew up with Rush, their later albums are friends we’ve chosen, but the older ones are like family members. Some are harder to love, but we remain loyal to all. Here, then, are some of the toughest choices I’ve ever had to make…
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #115.
Hugh Syme, Rush’s long-standing Art Director, chooses his favourite Rush covers.