Canada's Finest in Rock: Rush

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All this machinery
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
It's really just a question
Of your honesty

(Rush, "The spirit of radio")

Some links

A Brief Guide to the perplexed

Q: Who are Rush?
A: Rush are a Canadian rock trio that so far has been around for three decades and still continue to break new ground. Their output has been received by the rare combination of sustained high album sales, a rabid fan base, and professional respect among fellow musicians.

Q: OK, who are the three guys?
A: The band started out as Geddy Lee (vocals, bass), Alex Lifeson (guitars), and John Rutsey (drums). After their debut album ("Rush", 1974), Rutsey left citing health concerns (diabetes and a spartan touring lifestyle don't mix well). Neil Peart (drums) joined, and the band stuck with that line-up ever since.

Q: Who is Geddy Lee?
A: Stage name of Gary Lee Weinreb, the world's most famous Jewish rock musician. Born in Toronto on July 29, 1953 (exactly 11 years before yours truly :-)), his parents were Shoah survivor immigrants Morris Weinrib and Manya Rubinstein Weinrib. [Their Shoah experiences and how they affected Geddy are discussed in this Canadian Jewish News article..] Geddy studied piano before picking up the guitar. When the bass player in his high school band quit, he switched to bass guitar. Initially influenced by John Entwistle RIP (The Who) and especially Jack Bruce (singer/bassist of Eric Clapton's 2nd band Cream), he almost single-handedly redefined the role of the bass guitar in rock music from a simple "thump-thump-thump" foundation to an equal partnership with the guitar. Imitation being the highest form of flattery, his influence can be heard in players as diverse as "Flea" (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Les Claypool (Primus) over Justin Chancellor (Tool) and Cliff Burton RIP (Metallica) to John Myung (Dream Theater) and studio bass virtuoso Tony Levin. Lee's bass playing won too many professional awards to list here.
Why "Geddy"? As the man himself explains in an interview: "The story goes: my mother is Polish[-Jewish] and she has a very thick [Yiddish] accent. When I was about twelve years old, I had a friend who, whenever he heard my mother pronounce my name, he thought she was calling me, 'Geddy'. He started calling me 'Geddy', and eventually, all of my friends started calling me 'Geddy', and eventually my mother started to call me 'Geddy', for real. And eventually, I changed my name legally to 'Geddy', so that's the story and that's my name, Geddy."
Geddy's high-pitched singing is an acquired taste, but the mock-Robert Plant shrieking of early albums gradually gave way to a more pleasant melodic style. Unlike many hard rock/metal vocalists, he never grunts nor sings off-key.
He is also a competent keyboardist, and the way in which he juggles complex bass parts --- often in odd meters! --- on a split-second basis with keyboards and bass pedals while singing lead the whole time simply defies belief. For that reason alone a live Rush concert is an experience not to forget.

Q: Who is Alex Lifeson?
A: Stage name of guitarist Alex Zivojinovic ["Lifeson" is a literal translation from the original Serbo-Croat], born August 27, 1953 near Vancouver to immigrants from what was then Yugoslavia. While Alex is not an ueber-virtuoso on the scale of Jimi Hendrix or [Dream Theater's] John Petrucci, he is a really good guitarist with an amazing variety of styles and sounds. While he can play quite a mean "shred" (rapid-fire "wall of notes" solo a la Jimmy Page/Eddie Van Halen/Yngwie Malmsteen/John Petrucci), he systematically puts the song first and his ego second. His distinctive approach to harmony (particularly a very atypical fondness for suspended chords) is an important part of the Rush sound. Alex cites influences ranging from Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) over the two Steve H.'s (Howe of Yes and Hackett of Genesis) and Allan Holdsworth to Andy Summers (The Police) and even Paco De Lucia.

Q: Who is Neil Peart?
A: Drummer and lyricist, born September 12, 1952 in St. Catharine's, Ontario. A living antithesis to the "dumb beefcake" stereotype of drummers, the bookish Peart is widely read and very articulate, and an award-winning prose writer (bibliography) as well as a lyricist of rarely matched and never surpassed power.
As a drummer, Peart developed a unique eclectic style with influences ranging from The Who's Keith Moon to jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Bernard "Buddy" Rich. The most important musical ingredient he brought to Rush was a fondness for odd meters (5/4 and particularly 7/8) and meter changes. Peart won the Best Rock Drummer polls of Modern Drummer magazine no less than eight years in a row, and was eventually given Hall of Fame status to give other drummers a chance :-) (They will have to do the same with Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater ;-))

Q: What makes Rush greater than the sum of of its parts?
A: Unbelievably tight ensemble playing, for one. Many prog-rock outfits (Dream Theater being the most obvious exception) sound like everybody is soloing through each other, and many hard rock outfits like the rest of the band is just backing for the singer and the lead guitarist. None of that with Rush.
Musical complementarity in every respect is matched by deep and lasting personal friendships.

Q: Are they typical rock "animals" or musician "prima donnas"?
A: The favorite liquid in the tour fridge is apparently milk. (The band also loves hot soups before going onstage :-)) All people who have ever had personal dealings with the band suggest that they are almost surrealistically polite people whose number one "vice" is music. Their #2/3 addictions: baseball and cinema for Geddy Lee (an amateur film maker in his spare time), flying and cooking for Alex (a licensed pilot with a reputation as a gourmet cook), reading and solo bike travel for Neil.

Q: What style of music do they play?
A: Rush's music has been labeled anything from "progressive hard rock" to "thinking man's heavy metal" to "just plain Rush". In truth, the band's output contains haunting ballads ("Tears", "Bravado", "Losing It"), long epic musical evocations ("Xanadu" [of Coleridge's famous poem "Kublai Khan"], "2112" [of Ayn Rand's novelette "Anthem"]), biting political satire ("The Trees"), driving hard rock ("Anthem", "Bastille Day", "One Little Victory", "Earthshine"), intensely personal material ("Subdivisions", "Afterimage", "Ghost rider"), pieces of musical documentary ("Manhattan Project", "Countdown"), singalong-friendly radio hits ("The spirit of radio", "Closer to the Heart", "Limelight", "New World Man"), blistering instrumentals ("YYZ", "La Villa Strangiato"), paeans to skepticism and free thought ("Freewill", "Show, Don't Tell"), philosophical reflections set in song ("Entre Nous", "The Weapon")... and any combination of the above.

Q: Does Rush enjoy respect of non-rock musicians?

Perhaps the following speaks for itself:
Several years ago, in the course of a Blindfold Test with the great jazz drummer Tony Williams, I decided to cross him up and play something different than the Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea tracks I had been feeding him. I let him listen to Rush's "Limelight" [from Moving Pictures]. "This is the first one that I've really liked," said Tony. "Even though it's a 7/4 here and goes into 3[/4] over there, it feels really relaxed. I get an emotional feeling from it..."
(article about Geddy Lee, Bass Player, November/December 1988)

Q: Why were some critics so hostile to Rush?
A: Part is the rock'n roll purism of many critics who cannot deal with a band as eclectic as Rush; part was the general punk/New Wave era antipathy to any musicians who could actually play and weren't hiding it, but part was purely ideological: Peart makes no secret of his Libertarian and anti-collectivist political views, which permeate his lyrics. As a rule, the less ideologically post-Marxist and/or the more musical the critic, the more likely (s)he is to "dig" Rush.

Q: Are any of Rush's lyrics about sex, drugs, or other controversial themes? Any love songs?
A: The naughtiest Rush ever got was "A Passage to Bangkok", which some people interpret as a paean to tetrahydrocannabinol. Peart has a visceral dislike of material dealing with sex or romantic love, and considers these subjects "done to death" by sheer overuse. The only two exceptions to his own rule that I know are the ballad "Different Strings" (of which Dream Theater's cover surpasses the original, if anything) and the reflective, darkly optimist "Ghost of a Chance". [The "Counterparts" album has several songs about relationships and even one about AIDS ("Nobody's hero"), but personally I consider the cover and the instrumental appropriately named "Leave that thing alone" to be the best part of that album. On second thought, the sound engineer did perhaps the best job of any Rush album, and I do like "Stick it out", with its demented diminished-chord riffs under the verse.]

Q: What about science and science-fiction?
A: References to sci-fi and astronomy litter the band's catalog. "Chemistry", "Countdown" (about the NASA space program), "Manhattan Project", and several other songs (most recently Earthshine) deal more directly with conventional science. The hard-driving "Superconductor" is actually about the less lovable side of the music business.

Q: What is the instrumental "YYZ" about? Genetics?
A: No. "YYZ" is the airport code for the band's home base, Toronto (Lester B. Pearson International Airport). At one practice session, Peart suddenly started tapping out the letters in Morse code (-.-- -.-- --.., which can be made to fit 5/4 meter). Before you knew, Alex started thrashing out a riff on a diminished fifth in the same rhythm, and Geddy fell in with a ghostly synthesizer line in the Locrian mode (which fits the dim5 harmony). The band started jamming, and eventually cooked up an instrumental.

Q: I heard something about tragedy striking the band.
A: Neil Peart, in the space of a year, lost his 19-year old daughter to a car accident and his first wife to cancer. In an attempt to keep himself together, he rode around half the planet by himself (an experience he wrote both the book and the song "Ghost Rider" about). Neil recently remarried (to photographer Carrie Nuttall). Always an intensely private person (who conveyed his mixed feelings about fame and the concomitant loss of privacy in the bittersweet "Limelight"), he keeps his distance a bit more than usual.

Q: Are there any Rush tribute bands?
A: Probably the largest number of any band known.

Q: Do they ever use extra musicians live?
A: As a strict matter of policy, neither onstage nor offstage. (As the band themselves put it: "The audience comes and pays to hear a trio, that's what they get!" :-)) For the most part, when recording, they restrict themselves to arrangements they can convincingly reproduce live by themselves. (Tracks like "Losing it", which has Ben Mink playing electric violin, are not played live.) In fact, many of Rush's most famous tracks were recorded live in the studio (i.e., without overdubs or "punch-in"s). Geddy has a bank of keyboards onstage, and both Geddy and Alex have organ-style pedal keyboards which they use for filling in slow synthesizer lines or (in Geddy's case) bass lines under a keyboard part. Neil has an electric marimba controlling synthesizers. Sequencers are used occasionally (e.g. the synthesizer pattern on "Vital signs") and unusual sound effects may be sampled and triggered live (from Geddy's keyboards, a foot pedal of Geddy or Alex, or a trigger pad in Neil's drum kit), and arrangements get reworked sometimes to cover up missing overdubs as best as possible.

Q: Have any of the band members done solo work?
A: Geddy Lee did a solo album entitled "My favorite headache". His singing is accompanied by himself on keys, guitars, and especially bass (overdubbing multiple parts of the latter in places), his old friend Ben Mink (of the band FM, later of K. D. Lang) on additional guitars and acoustic and electric violins, and [don't ask!] ex-Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. Perhaps because of the latter's playing, the whole thing has a definite "alternative rock" feel. One of the more played albums in my (sizable and diverse) CD/MP3 collection.
Alex Lifeson has recorded a solo album called "Victor" --- more about that when I can lay hands on a copy.
Neil Peart has been involved with the "Burning for Buddy" project, a series of multi-artist tribute albums of legendary jazz drummer Bernard "Buddy" Rich.

Q: You are very much into serious classical music. What draws you to Rush?
A: Many things. Three guys making music for five. The perfect synergy between the members. The combination of complete professionalism and total passion for their music. My being a sucker for odd time signatures (Rush has more "listenable" material in 7/8 than anybody I know) and time signature changes. in the same song. Neil's incredible way with words --- Bob Dylan minus the logorrhea --- and the way his lyrics "resonate" in me. The way the band's music complements the lyrics (e.g. on a tune like "Between the Wheels"). Geddy's belief-defying bass playing and level of hand/voice independence. Neil's virtuoso yet tasty drumming. Alex's versatility as a guitar player. I could go on for hours.

Q: What modern bands are influenced by Rush?
A: Too many to list, in a variety of styles. But just about every progressive hard rock or prog-metal band will list Rush as an influence.

Q: I know and like Rush. What other bands should I give a spin?
A: You should definitely check out the quintet Dream Theater. They started out covering other people's material(Rush and Yes prominently among them), but developed their own uncompromising "progressive metal" style. All of the members except the singer are conservatory alumni (keyboardist Jordan Rudess even from Juilliard), and I've never heard a technically more proficient rock band in my life. Not quite in the Rush league as songwriters (not many are), DT excel at extended, virtuoso instrumental ensemble playing.
There's an amusing parallel between their careers. Rush's third album, "Caress of Steel", fell a bit flat, as did Dream Theater's third "real" album, "Falling Into Infinity". Both bands were put under heavy pressure to make a more "commercial" record, or else! Both bands deliberately went in the opposite direction and made "concept albums" but worked on them as hard as they could, knowing this might be their last one with a major label. And in both cases, the resulting albums (Rush's "2112" and Dream Theater's "Scenes from a Memory") became both artistic masterpieces and the band's first megasellers.

Q: What's this "progressive" you keep talking about?
A: Nothing to do with politics :-) In the context of rock music, "progressive [genre]" means "willing to move beyond the limitations of [genre]", in particular a willingness to experiment with odd and variable time signatures, unusual harmonies,... often inspired by classical music and jazz. Yes and Genesis were archetypical "progressive rock" bands; one could call Rush "progressive hard rock"; Steely Dan could be called "progressive pop" but is so firmly rooted in jazz that most people call their work "jazz-pop"; and Dream Theater is probably the #1 "progressive metal" band out there.
If somebody were to ask me the difference between "art [genre]" and "progressive [genre]", I would say that e.g. "art rock" generally put extramusical "artistic" influences and pretensions before the music (e.g. the Velvet Underground and to a much lesser extent Pink Floyd) while "progressive rock"s primary aspiration was taking rock music out of its musical strait-jacket.

Q: What's a good first Rush album to buy?
A: Depends very much what other types of music you're into. If you like "nu-metal", you might like "Vapor Trails"; if you like high-gloss sounds with shimmering guitars and fat keyboard sounds, with occasional nods to pop and reggae beats, any one of "Signals", "Grace Under Pressure", or "Power Windows" will do. If you dig Led Zeppelin and/or long concept pieces, "2112", "A Farewell to Kings", or "Hemispheres" are good starts. Otherwise, you can't go very wrong with "Permanent Waves". "Moving Pictures" is another good starter, albeit less homogenous in quality than Permanent Waves. "Hold your fire", "Presto", and "Test for Echo" all have some great songs and some absolutely fabulous bass work ("Driven" probably has my favorite rock bass part of all time). "Counterparts" is my least favorite Rush album, but it may be your most. Finally, if 60,000 rabid Brazilian fans singing along every word of every lyric and imitating every note of every guitar solo or keyboard melody is your idea of a musical experience, get the just-released "Rush in Rio". (I prefer the cleaner sound of studio recordings, or perhaps of their previous live recording "A Show of Hands".) If you have a DVD player and a good pair of headphones, forget the CD version of "Rush in Rio" and get the DVD instead --- make sure to pick the "stereo" sound channel as the "5.1 surround" has way too much crowd noise. (If you think the mix sounds a little rough: as the accompanying "making of" DVD reveals, the setup crew arrived late and the band actually went onstage without a soundcheck, and Geddy played despite a repetitive stress injury in his right hand!!!)

Q: why does Alex change guitars, and Geddy bass, several times during the performance?
A: In Alex's case, presumably for different sonorities: also, I can imagine stringed instruments going out of tune during a 3-hour show in hot weather. In Geddy's case, at least one tune ("Driven") requires either a 5-string bass or a standard bass in drop-D tuning --- so it may be easiest to have another bass guitar already tuned to drop-D waiting on a stand (or in the hands of a roadie :-)).

Something sounds odd about the version of "2112" on the last few live albums.
A: Yes, because Geddy's voice can't hit the very highest notes anymore, they transposed all of "2112" a whole step down. (As far as I can tell from the Rush in Rio DVD, Geddy and Alex play instruments tuned down a whole step for the track.) If you have absolute pitch you'll notice it immediately. That's the only track for which they had to resort to this extreme measure.

Q: What are your favorite Rush lyrics? A: Roughly in chronological order, and arranged by subject:

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