Not only has Rush — bassist-keyboardist-vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer-percussionist Neil Peart — enjoyed a 30-year career, with 17 studio albums, five live recordings, countless accolades and awards, they’ve done it on their own terms, and with the same lineup. How many progressive bands, or bands, period, can say that?
Yes? No. Genesis? Ask Peter Gabriel. Dream Theater? Dream on. Kiss? Even on their umpteenth farewell tour, at full bore they’re 50 percent of the hottest band in the world.
There were times when a fourth member seemed necessary, with all of the instrumentation gone wild, and it never happened. Then there were the well-documented tragedies of the late ’90s (Peart lost his daughter in an automobile accident, and his wife to cancer), the solo projects by Lee (My Favorite Headache) and Lifeson (Victor), and cloudy skies regarding the band’s future. Of course, as evidenced by double-bass barrage of the opening bars of “One Little Victory” from 2002’s Vapor Trails, nothing was over, and the band enjoyed a long reacquainting tour that was documented on the Juno-winning CD/DVD Rush In Rio.
At press time Rush was putting finishing touches on a project they’re calling Feedback (“because when Geddy and Alex were working on demos they decided to have feedback and backwards guitar on every song”), an EP of covers that is slated to include The Who’s “Seeker,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and Cream’s “Crossroads.” They’re also currently celebrating their 30th anniversary with yet another world tour.
“The Professor” is back.
Hard to believe it was 1974, July if you want to be more precise, that Peart replaced Rush’s original drummer John Rutsey, who played on the band’s self-titled debut. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were looking to stretch their boundaries beyond the Zeppelin, Who, and Cream influences of their youth. To “progress” before there was anything really known as “progressive rock.” Luckily, the late ’60s and early ’70s afforded the band, and the young drummer, the freedom to do just that.
“It was so challenging,” Peart fondly remembers. “When I was starting to play drums in the early ’60s, all you had to know was a 4/4 backbeat and ’Wipeout.’ That really was all a drummer needed. But by two or three years later, suddenly there are odd-time signatures, complicated and ambitious arrangements, exotic percussion instruments coming into it, and as a teenager, I’m going, ’That’s what it takes to be a rock drummer.’ Then it ramps up again, ’That’s what it takes to be a rock drummer.’ To be a young drummer at the time, it was daunting in a way, but so stimulating. All the bands I was in, we were free.”
That freedom helped propel a new wave of rock musicians, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the word “musician.” It wasn’t a bad thing to put the two words together — yet.
“The idea of progressive rock,” he muses, “before its pejorative sense, probably I’m guessing, [began in the] early ’70s with the wave of keyboard bands — Yes; Genesis; Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That era was a little bit later, and definitely a post-’60s scene, and with whole other influences of bringing in classical and more obvious jazz influences into it, where I would say the late-’60s was very much blues-based and psychedelic. That change in the early ’70s, that’s when I think you started to hear the idea of progressive rock, and meaning something very true.
“As young musicians we were learning more and wanting to use it more, and wanting to apply it more, and nobody ever played down to the audience. There was no lowest denominator, no simplifying for the sake of the audience, no making the songs shorter for the sake of radio. So there were no compromises in the sense, [saying that the environment was freer then] sounds kind of clichéd and trite, but in fact it was truly true that we could make a living playing this ridiculous music.”
Peart smiles as he says the word “ridiculous,” recalling early gigs with cover bands around Toronto. “Once a week we had a jam session at the local alternative cultural coffee house, and we got paid $10 each to go there on Thursdays and jam. How perfect! $10 was several pairs of drumsticks, or a down payment on a new cymbal to replace that cracked one. But considering the fertility of it as a breeding ground: we were doing endless blues jams, endless freeform Doors epics and all that, getting modestly paid, and having an appreciative audience for it.
“That did die out. And when progressive rock became over-bloated, and as always too, when the true believers were overrun by fakers and marketers and all that, then too it started to get bloated beyond reason, and it had to be torn down.”