In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson revealed the band is “basically done.” In honour of the iconic trio’s career, here’s our feature on them, which originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.
Early on a Tuesday morning in Toronto, a black Mercedes with tinted windows pulls into Anthem Records’ secluded back parking lot. The man who steps out has an unmistakable appearance —at least to legions of cult Rush devotees: the wavy dark hair, oval sunglasses, greying soul patch. The long nose.
“Geddy Lee!” screams a young man sprinting towards him. “You’re my hero!”
Lee smiles calmly and poses for a cellphone picture, unfazed by the wild-eyed twentysomething’s appearance from thin air, or the fact that someone his age would normally reserve that kind of enthusiasm for Kanye West, or Skrillex or the New Hot Thing being hawked at them by music marketers. What’s more, the fan looks nothing like what one might expect a Rush acolyte to look like: no pasty skin, no frizzy mullet, no Dungeons & Dragons t-shirt. Just a tan, muscular dude with palatable fashion sense, who probably talks to girls and, in all likelihood, doesn’t live in his parents’ basement
It doesn’t shock Lee because he’s aware that, for the first time in their 44-year career, Rush is a cool band. Since 2007’s Snakes and Arrows, there has been a Rush renaissance in pop culture, with the Canadian power trio edging increasingly into the mainstream after years of existing outside of it. An appearance on the Colbert Report — their first TV spot in 33 years — was cut comically short when Stephen Colbert “accidentally” walked on stage in the middle of “Tom Sawyer.” Then came the flattering Rolling Stone revival piece, a cameo in Judd Apatow’s I Love You, Man, and Sam Dunn’s acclaimed Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, all of which have amassed to a giant PR push for the holy triumvirate.
“We’re more successful than we’ve ever been,” says the 59-year-old Lee, sitting in the Anthem headquarters boardroom. That’s saying a lot, considering a slew of the band’s accolades — 24 gold and 14 platinum records — hang from every wall here. A clarification seems in order: while Rush’s cult following has long provided the trio with SoundScan success, they have never exactly enjoyed worldwide household-name status. They’ve been the musical equivalent to Star Trek: wildly popular to a small, devoted and maybe even a bit disconcerting group of fans. Until now. “Good things have happened to us that have just put us in a very optimistic frame of mind.”
Marvellous things, in fact: their 20th studio album Clockwork Angels racked them their highest chart numbers (debuting at number one in Canada and number two in the US) in a decade, while tickets to their fall/winter tour have been selling faster than iPhone 5s.
But the band could soon receive the most decisive mainstream validation of all: after being snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for seemingly an eternity, the trio finally received a nomination this year. The results will be announced in mid-December. Rush die-hards have long cried foul at the Cleveland-based institution for its omission of the band, arguing this stems from co-founder (and Rolling Stone publisher) Jann Wenner’s well-documented distaste for Canada’s prog-rock overlords. Some fans, in fact, are still fuming.
“Fuck the Hall of Fame,” says Jillian Maryonovich, creative director of RushCon, an annual Trekkie-style convention for Rush enthusiasts. Like many hardcore fans, she feels the band doesn’t need the notch in their belt, nor the status quo approval that comes with it. “Their music speaks to a certain set of fans that are outside of the mainstream…. It’s not a Britney Spears type of concert. Rush fans are serious and smart and into computers. We embrace nerdiness.” Within Rush’s new-found cool status there remains one glaring inconsistency: “It seems like the older we get, the goofier we get,” Lee proudly declares. “I’d say we still share nerdy qualities with lots of our fans, for sure.”
If there’s one thing that has kept Rush out of the hype circle for decades, it’s been their unabashed geekiness. Critics have yawned at their sprawling prog operas, while hipsters have mocked their Tolkien-esque lyrics. Lee’s helium-pitched voice has been likened to everything from “a hamster in overdrive” to “a cat with a blowtorch up its ass.” So why now, in their twilight years, is rock’s most tragically unhip band suddenly in the limelight?
“It’s not easy for someone on the street, who’s never been exposed to us, to listen to a Rush song and say, ‘Hey! Love that, man. How catchy!’ It takes a little effort to get into our music. We’ve marginalized ourselves in a way. We’re a strange little band.”
There is, after all, a high quotient of dorkdom in Clockwork Angels. Touted as the band’s “first concept album,” its ornate songs tell the story of a young man’s quest to follow his dreams in a future world of steampunk and alchemy, along the way encountering an authoritarian Watchmaker who imposes precision on all aspects of life. Drummer-lyricist Neil Peart penned the plot with sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson, and an accompanying novel was published in September. It’s dense, weird, geeky stuff — in other words, the stuff that Rush has built their name on.
“He goes out in the world with this naive belief and he’s kind of made to look like a fool, yet he still keeps this sunny disposition,” Lee says of Clockwork’s main character, based on the protagonist in Voltaire’s 1758 novel Candide. “He doesn’t let his fear prevent him from putting himself in harm’s way. But does he or does he not grow from that experience?”
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Peart’s freewill-obsessed character and a young Rush. That same quality of unswerving resolve drew fans to the trio back in 1976, when they released 2112, their breakthrough prog masterwork and fourth album. After the commercial failure of its predecessor, Caress of Steel, their label at the time, Mercury Records, pressured the band to ditch the concept songs and write something accessible. (“We were pretty high making that record,” laughs Lee. “We lost a little reality about it.”) Instead, they recorded a seven-part dystopian epic replete with interplanetary war, robotic vocal effects, labyrinthine instrumentals, and an Ayn Rand-inspired narrative about galaxy-wide revolution.
“We were young and didn’t have a whole lot of options, so we either had to give up or go down in flames while trying to do this thing we thought was right,” says Lee of recording 2112. The album tells the story of a young, guitar-wielding (obviously) hero who rebels against the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, a repressive regime that dictates all cultural life in the galaxy. “We didn’t agree with what the record company wanted us to be, but we just didn’t really know what we wanted us to be. We knew what we didn’t want to be, and that was what they wanted us to be.”
The album horrified not only record execs, but fellow musicians as well. “I did not like Rush or their music at all because I didn’t understand it,” said Randy Bachman of then-labelmates Bachman-Turner Overdrive. “We were all trying to get Top 40 airplay, and Rush clearly was not. Their music was cerebral, progressive, full of different time signatures and out-of-this-world lyrics. They seemed to be playing for themselves and a few select fans.”
But then the unfathomable happened: 2112 went multi- platinum. As the album gained word-of-mouth notoriety, a new brand of listener emerged from the woodwork: one with an affinity for convoluted rhythms, complex literary themes, 20-minute opuses and intrepid ludicrousness. Not only did 2112 earn Rush their independence; it became the bible for the most eccentric, detail-obsessed rock fan base in the world.
“There were some fans we had out there that got us,” says Lee. “Warts and all, they were attracted to what we were about. They liked where we were going with this thing and that we were over-reaching and complex. 2112 wasn’t about love and it had weird moments and this whole space thing. We appealed to the fan base that was looking for something different.”
Since then, Rush have written music solely on their own terms — not the record label’s, nor the Watchmaker’s, nor those of the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. To retain control over their work, the band formed Anthem with their manager Ray Danniels, relying on other record companies solely for distribution outside of Canada. Label execs are now forbidden from sitting in on their recording sessions — a rarity in today’s music business. “Nobody heard this record until it was done,” says Clockwork Angels producer Nick Raskulinecz. “No record company people, no managers. They didn’t hear it until it was finished, mixed and mastered. You tell me another artist that can go that far down the process and have no interference from anybody.”
Well, maybe Kanye can. But the difference between Yeezy’s beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy and Rush’s is the latter act’s dreams aren’t Auto-Tuned. “Eventually people are going to get sick of listening to computers play music,” says Raskulinecz. “That’s what’s happening right now. You have producers taking what somebody’s doing and turning it into something it never was. That doesn’t happen with Rush. They just play their instruments really fucking well.”
While Rush’s desire to march to the beat of their own 33-piece drum kit has won them followers, it’s also caused them to serve as a frequent punching bag for music critics. The band started finding its groove just as the punk movement began shaping the core standards of American rock in the late ’70s: three chords, short songs, simple lyrics. To tastemakers at the time, Rush’s nerdy excesses represented everything you weren’t supposed to like (“The most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit,” opined Robert Christgau in a ’77 Village Voice review).
“We’re not a Top 40 band,” says Lee. “So it’s not easy for someone on the street, who’s never been exposed to us, to listen to a Rush song and say, ‘Hey! Love that, man. How catchy!’ It takes a little effort to get into our music. We’ve marginalized ourselves in a way. We’re a strange little band.”
But the members of Rush were once also strange little kids. The sons of immigrant families in the sleepy Toronto suburb of Willowdale, Lee and Lifeson first met as awkward adolescents. “We were just kind of goofy suburban kids,” says Lee with an embarrassed chuckle. “We liked musicians that played fast. That was our bond. We were young musos, like so many young kids are today. Suburban kids that love to play and, somehow or another, that ability to play takes them away from their boring existence.”
Years later, alienated suburb-dwellers everywhere would come to identify with Rush. “Any teenage guy who was a drummer in Thornhill wanted to be Neil Peart, myself included,” says Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC radio show Q. “It was all about learning to play every fill in “Tom Sawyer” perfectly.”
In the academic tome Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class, ethnomusicologist Chris McDonald argues the trio owes much of their success to the anxieties and aspirations of middle-class youth. “Rock and roll is supposed to be an escape from the suburbs into a more vital world,” he says. Traditionally, artists have done that by looking to the underclass or the hip avant-garde. “But Rush did it in a bookish, middle-class way, opening up worlds into Greek mythology on Hemispheres or black holes on ‘Cygnus X-1.’ It wasn’t an escape into the energizing working-class culture that critics valued, like what the Rolling Stones did. It was an escape for people who wanted to think about big ideas, but didn’t necessarily want to read Tolstoy.”
By being their socially awkward selves, Rush spoke to masses of air-drumming, Heinlein-loving misfits just like them. Radio airplay be damned, dweebs worldwide would unite in their fanatical love for Canada’s purveyors of escapist dreamscapes. (“We never went to South America because we didn’t know whether or not we had any fans there,” says Lee. “And then we finally went down there and it was like, ‘Holy shit. Where are all these fans coming from?’”) The trio would amass enough of an underground following to sell 40 million records internationally — ranking third behind the Beatles and Rolling Stones for most consecutive gold or platinum records by a band. Rush-heads would shamelessly unite at fan expos and get flogged in high school hallways for wearing Fly By Night t-shirts.
According to Lee, it’s this same swarm of loyal weirdos who’ve kept Rush on top through four decades and allowed them to continue to thrive in the 21st century.
“I think part of it is payback from fans,” he says, smiling contently. “Rush was their secret; their personal love. It meant a lot to them. Then they get in powerful positions where they’re directors or radio programmers or reviewers, etc. And they feel their allegiance and the need to wave their Rush flags suddenly. I guess that’s led to this revisionist view of us. ”
Ghomeshi admits to being in on the Rush coup. “ There are a bunch of us who grew up idolizing Rush, who are now in more influential places,” he says. “As Gen X and even Gen Y have grown up, we’re able to assert ourselves.”
Adds Lee, “It’s the classic revenge of the nerds.”
To fulfill their mythic destiny, Rush has one door left to unlock: that of the Hall of Fame. Though the Hall’s body of critics has appeared anti-Rush in the past, the media’s recent change of heart indicates the band won’t have to wait until 2112 to get canonized in the rock and roll firmament.
“People now understand the importance of what they’ve done, the longevity and the fact that they’re still really good at what they do,” says Ghomeshi. “Even the most ardent critics have begrudgingly accepted this and have to give them props. From here on in, I think they will be considered the rightful rock icons that they should be.”
Otherwise, a guitar-wielding army of geeks is waiting to overthrow the oppressive old guard. This year, as it happens, marks the first time fans are allowed to vote for who gets in.
Not that Lee’s losing sleep over it.
“We don’t need validation,” he says. “We became what we are because we didn’t pay attention to that. It would be a little hypocritical to pay attention to it now.”