Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Rush?
The Canadian rock band Rush has mainly explored an eccentric, album-oriented “progressive hard rock” style, sometimes bridging it with heavy metal (especially in the 1970s), new wave and synth rock (1980s), and alternative rock (1990s). In its music, lyrics, and career path, Rush has remained stubbornly individualist, and its several dozen albums (45 million sold) and major concert tours have appealed to musicians and others interested in certain types of structural complexities and serious issues. The group continued to pursue its own path well into the 2000s and in 2013 was inducted into the US-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The band is Geddy Lee (bass guitar and vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitars), and Neil Peart (drums & percussion and lyrics).
Vignette: Two friends from high school reconnect at a Rush concert after sixteen years, in 1997.
“Finding My Way,” Transition from Blues-Rock to Arty Hard Rock, 1974-75
Rush emerged as an early example of a power trio (guitar/bass/drums) and initially focused on a combination of heavy blues-rock and boogie-blues. The group independently released its debut album, Rush (1974), then a new drummer-percussionist replaced the band’s original one and helped solidified its interest in pursuing the hard-rock potential of “arty” British progressive rock. Rush’s Fly by Night and Caress of Steel (both 1975) explore such areas as: extended songs, lengthy sections of instrumental interplay, “poetic” lyrics, and unusual textures and rhythms.
Vignette: Certain music listeners and record label executives take some early chances on Rush.
“Let Them All Make Their Own Music,” Progressive Heavy Metal & 2112, 1976
For 2112 (1976), Rush decided on a focused, heavy, angry style, and the album provided a major turning-point for the band’s success. The opening title-work, “2112,” is an extended work of science-fiction, describing a world that outlaws individual contributions—somewhat similar to the socio-political contexts explored in the fictional writings of Ayn Rand. The album’s other progressive heavy metal songs are more modest in scope and favour such seemingly incompatible things as illegal drugs and a strong work ethic.
Vignette: Rush’s music breaks through to listeners in 1976, although many rock critics dislike it.
“The Blacksmith and the Artist,” From Progressive Hard Rock to Post-Prog, 1977-80
On its progressive hard rock albums of the late 1970s, A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978), Rush often applied its complex music to socio-political and strongly-individualist themes within extended works and mini-epic fantasy and sci-fi songs, but also to a fully-instrumental work. The band’s first post-progressive album, Permanent Waves (1980), bridges 1970s’ hard rock with such newer styles as post-punk and new wave rock. Songs on the album address those newer types of music, provide a renewed approach to individualism, and explore the mysteries of the natural world, science, and even interpersonal relationships.
Vignette: Rush listeners react to the band’s progressive and post-progressive approaches.
“Modern-Day Warrior,” User-Friendly Progressive Rock & Moving Pictures, 1981
Rush’s best-selling album, Moving Pictures (1981), begins with the band’s best-known song:
“Tom Sawyer,” which is a modernized version of Mark Twain’s 19th-century misfit. The song includes a prominent guitar-chord progression, as well as an extended instrumental section that includes both a synthesizer component and a guitar solo. The album’s other “user-friendly” progressive rock songs include: a near-future “mini-epic” about the pleasures of illegally driving a sports car, a texturally-varied instrumental named after the code signal for Toronto’s main airport, and concise reflections on such things as fame and intolerance.
Vignette: A larger number and wider range of listeners temporarily embrace Rush, in 1981.
“Be Cool or Be Cast Out,” Fusions with Synth Rock and New Wave, 1982-85
On Signals (1982), Grace under Pressure (1984), and Power Windows (1985), Rush more fully explored certain musical areas that it had only tentatively explored in 1979-81: synth rock and new wave, including electronic drums & percussion and samplers. In addition, the band released “MTV-style” music videos, such as for songs about: a young person’s “love/hate” relationship with the suburbs, living in the era of the Cold War, and mixed feelings concerning corporations. Other songs address such issues as: growing up, accepting new ideas, artificial intelligence, mortality, perseverance, territoriality, and—not surprisingly—an anxiety over technology.
Vignette: Rush listeners ponder the band’s synths and videos as being possible “sell-outs.”
“I Want to Look around Me Now,” Rock / Technology Balance & Hold Your Fire, 1987
Rush felt that Hold Your Fire (1987) achieved a suitable balance of technology and hard rock, but the album also includes collaborations with a string section, a brass band, and the voice of singer-songwriter-bassist Aimee Mann. The music video for “Time Stand Still” incorporates fanciful
in-studio effects of unexpected movements, including the participation of Mann. In most cases, the band used keyboards and samples just for the textures of certain song sections, including a song that incorporates samples of traditional Chinese instruments to underscore lyrics derived from Peart’s bicycle tour there and another about having a kind of secular-humanist “mission.”
Vignette: Listeners react to Rush’s heavy integration of music technology and other sounds.
“It’s Hard to Play It Safe,” New Approaches to being a Power Trio, 1989-93
Into the 1990s, Rush tapered off its use of music technology and returned to a more power trio, guitar-oriented style for Presto (1989), Roll the Bones (1991), and Counterparts (1993). These were the band’s least-ambiguously hard rock albums since Moving Pictures, but also somewhat close to alternative rock, as well as the source of some of its best music videos. On the other hand, the band’s openness to other styles of music also saw it tentatively explore a section of rather eccentric “rap music” in one song and funk-like guitar gestures in several others.
Vignette: Older Rush listeners appreciate the band’s return to a guitar-based, power trio sound.
“To the Margin of Error,” Eclectic Rock, Test for Echo, Tragedies & Sabbatical, 1996-2001
Rush’s Test for Echo (1996) is extremely eclectic, with the title song addressing TV/media content saturation, “Driven” featuring a tightly-constructed riff influenced by the “math rock” that Rush’s earlier music had itself influenced, and other songs concerning geopolitics, the internet, and so on. Shortly after the band’s 1996-97 tour, Neil Peart’s daughter died in a car crash and his wife then died of cancer, and he responded to the dual tragedies by traveling tens of thousands of miles on his motorcycle and writing a “literary travelogue” book. The band mainly went on a “sabbatical” from 1998 to 2001, although it did release a fourth live album, following the pattern of four studio albums plus one live album that it had maintained for over twenty years.
Vignette: Rush listeners find the band becoming quite topical and perhaps too eclectic.
“A Willingness to Risk Defeat,” Post-‘Sabbatical’ Resurgence, 2002-11
The band resumed its work in the early 2000s and made the often-reflective, but still hard rock, album Vapor Trails (2002). For its 30th anniversary, Rush released an album (Feedback, 2004) of studio-recorded cover versions of rock songs that had influenced the band as young musicians, and it then returned to original music with Snakes and Arrows (2007). From 2002-11, the band toured internationally and released several new live albums (and videos), with those albums functioning as anthologies to supplement the various ones also released of selected studio songs. In addition, Rush made appearances on The Colbert Report (2008) and in the movie I Love You, Man (2009), as well as being the subject of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010).
Vignette: More music listeners, including younger rock critics, finally come to terms with Rush.
“Some will be Rewarded,” Clockwork Angels and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 2012-13
In 2010, Rush released two new songs: “Caravan” and “BU2B” (“Brought up to Believe”), which then also appeared as the opening songs of the lyrically-futuristic, progressive hard rock concept album Clockwork Angels (2012). The album also includes such newer songs as: “The Wreckers,” “Headlong Flight,” and the texturally-rich ballad “The Garden.” In late 2012, the US-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced that Rush was to be among its inductees for 2013. The band’s induction derived from a combination of intense voting by Rush fans (including musicians, people who run Rush tribute websites, and bloggers) and a younger generation of rock critics impressed by the band’s longevity, skills as musicians, and unusual vision.
Vignette: Rush’s music finally seems “cool,” although older rock critics can’t quite accept it.
Conclusion: “In the Fullness of Time”
Given the band’s uncompromising approach to its music and career, Rush has always produced a kind of “alternative rock.” Covers of Rush songs range across such areas as: progressive hard rock, death metal, electronica, classical strings, jazz piano, and world music, so the band clearly influenced a quite wide range of musicians. However, by avoiding Top 40 and other mainstream styles of music and instead folding various musical and lyrical influences into what it already did, Rush and the band’s music also made sense to millions of fans who adapted and evolved in their own lives.
Vignette: Revisiting the Rush concert friends, sixteen more years later, in 2013.
- About the Author
You will have noticed that Rush released quite a few lengthy songs between 1974 and 1980. The band’s fifteen longest songs in that period average 10:43, with two of the longest ones, “2112” (20:34) and “Hemispheres” (18:08) opening the albums named after them. However, in the same period the group also had twenty-eight songs averaging only 3:56. In 1980-81, though, Rush became more consistently accessible, opening its albums with distinctive, relatively-short songs.
Moving Pictures (1981) is the band’s best-selling album, eventually selling more than four million copies just in the US. The album opens with “Tom Sawyer” (4:33), Rush’s best-known song. It begins in a fairly straightforward manner, with the band at first acting somewhat reserved, in the same way that Mark Twain’s original character sometimes has to interact politely with others. Geddy Lee’s synthesizer filter-sweep and Neil Peart’s sparse drumming in 2/2, “cut,” or “march-like” time function like a fanfare, immediately marking the song as “different” from any of Rush’s earlier music. Lee’s vocal introduction describes the song’s modern-day Tom Sawyer as a warrior, with a “mean, mean stride” and a “mean, mean pride.”
The underlying music then changes to follow the idea of stride-meets-pride, mostly through Alex Lifeson’s guitar-chord progression that sounds, appropriately, like a confident “swagger.” Verse 1 suggests our hero’s “mind is not for rent,” but also clarifies that he doesn’t really mean to be arrogant. By analogy to the original’s raft, the new Tom Sawyer rides out his life on “the river” of complex, modern society. Extending the river/raft analogy, the song’s pre-chorus and chorus are more dream-like, with words about mystery; the world, love, and life are “deep,” and the skies are “wide.” The song also suggests that we are all a part of this depth and wideness, and a new version of the song’s vocal introduction suggests that Tom Sawyer gets his energy from “you”—as in, anyone listening.
An extended instrumental section further explores the ideas of confidence, depth, and looking outside of ourselves. It features one of the band’s uses of an unusual time signature: 7/4, instead of the rest of the song’s much more normal-sounding 2/2. The section begins with Lee’s descending melodic pattern on a synthesizer. However, it soon becomes “traditional Rush,” when he takes over his own pattern on bass guitar, in order to support Lifeson’s guitar solo. The solo is quite complex, with unexpected leaps and rhythms and with string-bends alternating with fast patterns. The solo ends when Lifeson joins in with Lee’s underlying pattern; and Peart’s drumming also sort of matches them. As with Twain’s Tom Sawyer, sometimes we have to do our own thing in eccentric counterpoint to what others are doing, and sometimes we have to come together and do much the same thing as everyone else.
To get back to the song’s earlier music (and “cut” time), the band restates the “swagger” progression. However, this time it features Peart’s drumming prowess quite prominently, in a kind of “mini drum solo.” Verse 2 refers to the quite libertarian notion of neither god nor government being worthy of our modern Tom Sawyer’s mind and also to the idea of him being “hopeful, yet discontent” and having change as a permanent, overall strategy. The instrumental verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all then each happen one more time, but note that the words of the pre-chorus and chorus are changed slightly.
An expanded, ending version of the vocal “introduction” then prepares the song’s exit, so that we can all get on with “the friction of the day.” Tellingly, the song ends with a version of its 7/4 instrumental section. The ending grooves along, but it also fades out—as though we’re all drifting away on modern-day river-rafts, while also still managing to cause some mischief of our own. (Indeed, the album’s very next song is a near-future one about the pleasures of illegally racing around the countryside in a powerful and well-preserved sports car.) Of course, we’re meant to understand that Rush itself is one of many possible, modern-day Tom Sawyers. But so are you!