Rush: Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  At other times, I have used this space to honor artists who recently passed away.

Truth be told, I haven’t been much of a fan of Rush over the years.  They’ve been around since 1974, they have a catalog of 16 studio albums, and they were recently inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   But if I were to list 50 artists/bands who I believe are “worthy of focused attention” as subjects for my blog posts, Rush would probably not be on that list.

The recent death of celebrated Rush drummer Neil Peart, however, justifies a fresh look at Rush’s music and Peart’s contributions to their legacy.

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I have recently been introduced to a profound quotation from 19th Century British

rush

Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson

philosopher Herbert Spencer that I find very relevant for this week’s post:  “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — and that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

 

I must confess that I fell victim to this principle when it came to my attitude toward Rush.  Perhaps I didn’t exactly hold them in contempt, but I was at best ambivalent and never really investigated their albums to learn more about them and see if there might be at least a few songs I liked.

And here’s why:  From the first time I heard Rush’s early single “Fly By Night,” I was immediately turned off by the voice of lead singer Geddy Lee.  It’s high-pitched and often incredibly irritating, and it made me want to lunge at the radio knob to change channels.

And that’s a shame.  I was a big fan of the progressive rock genre in the ’70s and ’80s, especially the musical works of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis, among others.  Rush was Canada’s representative to the overwhelmingly British genre, and if I’d given them the time, I might’ve found some great stuff.

When Peart died a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help noting how many rock music fans mourned his death, calling him one of the best four or five rock music drummers of all time.  This caught my attention and made me wonder:  Maybe, just maybe, I haven’t given Rush a fair hearing over these 40-plus years.  So I have made it my business the past week or two to dive headlong into Rush’s catalog to see if there’s anything to my liking.

Unknown-136I’ll tell you this:  Lee’s voice is still a major obstacle for me.  But I will also acknowledge that the music — the instrumental excellence of guitarist Alex Lifeson, Peart’s stunning drum work, Lee’s bass and keyboard contributions — can no longer be ignored by me.  This was one tight musical trio.

Lee and Lifeson were Rush’s songwriting team throughout the group’s tenure, and they evolved from writing straight-ahead rock in their earlier years to a more dense, stretched-out progressive rock style and, later, to more radio-friendly pieces that favored more synthesizer and less guitar in the arrangements.  I’m pleased to report that I’ve discovered some really amazing tracks in each phase of Rush’s development.

Interestingly enough, Peart was the band’s chief lyricist.  You don’t often hear of rock drummers who also write lyrics, but it turns out that Peart had a deep interest in fantasy, science fiction lit and classic English poetry that he adroitly used in his allegorical story-telling.  Later on in Rush’s catalog, he dwelled more heavily on exploring humanistic, social, and emotional issues.

Rush’s roots were in the suburbs of Toronto, where Lifeson, Lee and original drummer John Rutsey were high school classmates in the late ’60s.  They honed their chops at school dances and clubs for a couple of years before releasing their first single — a cover of Buddy Holly’s classic “Not Fade Away” — in 1973 on an independent label.  When they Unknown-140had assembled enough original tunes to fill an album, they released their debut LP “Rush” in early 1974, which showed a strong influence and resemblance to early Led Zeppelin (check out “What You’re Doing” and “Finding My Way” in particular).  The album perked up the ears of music director/DJ Donna Halper at WMMS, a highly influential FM station in Cleveland, who put the blue-collar rocker “Working Man” in heavy rotation.  That caught the attention of Mercury Records, who re-released the album in the US that summer.

Health difficulties and a distaste for touring caused drummer Rutsey to resign from the band at that juncture, but they had the good fortune of landing Peart as their new drummer in time for their first US tour, warming up for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann.  As Lee and Lifeson steered Rush’s music more to prog rock with 1975’s “Fly By Night” LP, cd2014864a3ee93f850c2d5e92d16c10Canadian fans pushed the album to #9 on the charts there, but it stalled at an unimpressive #113 in the US.  I still cringe at the title-song single, even though it got decent airplay in major markets, but I’m drawn to “Anthem” and “Rivendell.”

The “2112” album, which included a complicated 20-minute title track as well as a handful of shorter tracks, was the first Rush album to make an impression in the US, peaking at #61 in 1976 and eventually reaching triple-platinum status (three million units sold).  I found it interesting to hear how, on slow-tempo tunes like “Tears,” I found Lee’s vocals far more listenable in the lower registers where they were free of the high-pitched warbling heard on most Rush tracks.

Now firmly on their way, they chose to resist Mercury’s request that they write more commercially accessible tracks and instead maintained their prog rock approach, which was influenced by the likes of King Crimson and Yes.  Rush headed to England to record their next two albums (1977’s “A Farewell to Kings” and 1978’s “Hemispheres”), where they broadened their palette of instruments.  Said Lee, “We were so influenced by those British bands.  They made us eager to write and record more interesting, more complex music.”

Unknown-139Lifeson experimented with more classical and 12-string guitars and Peart diversified his kit to include triangles, glockenspiel, wood blocks, cowbells, chimes, even timpani and gong.  A sampling of YouTube video clips of Rush performances from this period dramatically show why Peart was developing such a great reputation as a dynamic drummer.

From these albums, the track I found I liked best was the nine-minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato,” and I liked it best precisely because there were no Lee vocals to endure.  It got me ruminating on the notion that, if Rush had chosen a singer with a more appealing voice — someone with pipes like Jon Anderson, perhaps, or David Gilmour, or Peter Gabriel — it’s entirely likely I might’ve been a Rush fan all these years.

By 1980, Lifeson and Lee decided that, as much as they enjoyed indulging in protracted-length songs, they might also like to enjoy the rewards of commercial success that came with songs the radio might actually play.  They wrote tunes like “Freewill” and the rather Unknown-142obvious “The Spirit of Radio,” which featured elements of the increasingly popular reggae and New Wave genres, and the resulting album, “Permanent Waves,” zoomed to #4 on the US and UK charts.  Rush’s 1981 follow-up, “Moving Pictures,” continued this pattern of more commercially aimed tracks, with similar success on the charts (#3) and in ticket sales for their now arena-sized concerts.

Unknown-141I was as pleasantly surprised by the softer strains of “Different Strings” and the New Wave beat behind “Red Barchetta” as I was predictably turned off by the robotic inanity of the hit single “Tom Sawyer.”  Lee’s ever-increasing use of sequencers and synthesizers quickly became the band’s cornerstone, consequently pushing Lifeson’s guitars further into the background, and “The Camera Eye” from “Moving Pictures” would end up being Rush’s final lengthy track.

The synthesizer-based format, with flourishes of ska and funk, served Rush well through the ’80s, as their subsequent four LPs (“Signals,” “Grace Under Pressure,” “Power Windows” and “Hold Your Fire”) all reached the Top 10 in the US and the UK and, of Unknown-138course, their native Canada.  Rush seemed strongly influenced by The Police, U2 and Phil Collins-era Genesis at this point.  When I blocked out the worst moments of Lee’s vocals, I found some appealing songs on these discs, with “Losing It,” “The Enemy Within,” “Territories” and “Prime Mover” as the standouts.  Peart’s drumming on “Territories” is mesmerizing.

Beginning with “Presto” (1989), at Lifeson’s insistence, the band opted to abandon its keyboard-saturated sound and return to more guitar-centric arrangements and their original power-trio configuration.  From 1991’s “Roll Your Bones” LP, I found “Ghost of a Chance” very compelling, but then, not much memorable for me showed up on their next few releases.  Rush continued to chart in the Top Five, but in ever-decreasing sales numbers.  The band went on hiatus in the late ’90s after Peart lost a daughter and then his wife to tragic early deaths, but the band then resumed touring and recording in 2002, releasing the unremarkable “Vapor Trails” and “Snakes and Arrows.”

images-85Fans must’ve been delighted with what will apparently be their final LP, 2012’s “Clockwork Angels.”  I found three solid entries here — “BU2B,” “The Anarchist” and the title track.  After a career featuring several albums that contained multi-part suites, “Clockwork Angels” was actually Rush’s first bonafide “concept album” with all tracks part of a song cycle with lyrical continuity.

For his part, Peart considered the LP his finest work, both in terms of lyrical consistency and his drumming.  “In the sessions, I played through each song just a few times on my own, checking out patterns and fills that might work, and then called in Nick Raskulinecz (their new Nashville-based producer),” Peart said.  “He stood in the room with me, facing my drums, with a music stand and a single drumstick—he was my conductor, and I was neilpeartdw450his orchestra … I would attack the drums, responding to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part.”

In 2015, Lifeson’s struggles with arthritis and Peart’s challenges with tendinitis seemed to bring their touring days to an end, although they said they wanted to continue recording new material.  Sadly, though, Peart lost a three-year battle with brain cancer just three weeks ago.

The idea of Rush somehow continuing without Neil Peart is probably sacrilegious to many fans.  If Lifeson and Lee are nonetheless motivated to give it a try, they may want to go out as The Lee/Lifeson Band, or even as solo acts, instead of keeping the Rush brand alive with another drummer.  Still, the value of that name is enormous, and if Journey can play stadiums without Steve Perry, I suspect Rush can do the same without Peart.

 

 

 

 

If there’s a rock and roll heaven…

Four years ago, when this blog was still pretty new, it seems as if I was writing obituaries every other week.  Rock stars were falling left and right, and I felt compelled to write tributes to them all:  Glenn Frey.  David Bowie.  Keith Emerson.  Maurice White.  Prince.  Paul Kantner.  Leon Russell.  Leonard Cohen.  Greg Lake.  George Michael.  Aretha Franklin.

In Memoriam_0Thankfully, 2019 wasn’t quite as difficult a year.  We lost some giants, to be sure, but most of those who passed away over the past twelve months didn’t feel like as much like blows to the solar plexus as in previous years.

Nevertheless, the names listed below made important contributions to rock music in one way or another, and are worthy of remembrance by all of us who appreciate the stories big and small that make up the historical canon of rock and roll.

Rest in peace to them all.

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qZ6rMExbe4asd84nbtaXAN-320-80Ginger Baker, explosive drummer for Cream, Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force, died in October at age 80.  His work in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly his recorded and live work with Cream, earned him the reputation as “rock’s first superstar drummer” for a style that melded jazz and African rhythms, and he helped pioneer both jazz fusion and world music.  See my in-depth piece, “In the white room with black curtains,” published October 11.

merlin_160965711_6b6c984a-ac13-4005-9f67-8b65891f9053-articleLargeRic Ocasek, songwriter/singer/guitarist for The Cars, died from complications following surgery in September at age 75.  He was instrumental in putting The Cars at the forefront of the movement merging 1970s guitar-oriented rock with the new synthesizer-oriented pop that became popular and flourished in the early 1980s.  He wrote a dozen Top 20 singles and many more deep tracks on The Cars’ five multi-platinum albums.  Ocasek later recorded seven solo LPs and gained a reputation as a producer, working with No Doubt, Guided by Voices and Suicide.  See my in-depth piece, “Everything’s a mess since you’re gone,” published September 20.

merlin_151973049_36b84277-6e09-4133-9fbd-72653910cbd7-articleLargeHal Blaine, drummer with the L.A. session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, died in March at age 90.  Blaine was among the most recorded studio drummers in the history of the music industry, playing on an estimated 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles. His drumming is featured on 150 US Top Ten hits, including 40 that reached #1 on the charts.  He worked with everyone from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra, from The Fifth Dimension to Simon and Garfunkel, from The Ronettes to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, from Neil Diamond to Elvis Presley.  Between 1966 and 1971, Blaine played on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy Award winners.  See my in-depth piece, “The drummer of a generation of hits,” published March 22.

pete-tork-1550772846Peter Tork, bass player for The Monkees, died in February at age 77.  He was recruited to join the cast of the 1960s TV show about a rock and roll band after his friend Stephen Stills turned it down.  Tork joined guitarist Mike Nesmith and actors Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz in playing The Monkees, who enjoyed international success as recording artists (“Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Daydream Believer,” “Valleri”).  He occasionally participated in Monkees reunion tours in recent decades.  See my in-depth piece on The Monkees phenomenon, “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say,” published March 1.

https---bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com-public-images-ab96dcea-a552-4932-8346-8b674ebece15_1040x800Paul Barrère, guitarist for Little Feat, died in October at age 71.  He joined the band in 1972 and was still doing gigs with them in 2019 until illness prevented him from performing.  He was adept at blues, rock, jazz and cajun musical styles, and also recorded with the likes of Taj Mahal, Nicolette Larson, Robert Palmer and Carly Simon.  See my in-depth piece on Little Feat, “We can walk together down in Dixieland,” published November 1.

Dr.-John-portrait-1970-a-billboard-1548Malcom Rebennack Jr., better known as Dr. John the Night Tripper, died of a heart attack in June at age 77.  As a denizen of the New Orleans sound, he was known for performing lively, theatrical stage shows inspired by medicine shows, Mardi Gras costumes, and voodoo ceremonies.  Dr. John recorded thirty studio albums and nine live albums, as well as contributing to hundreds of recordings by other musicians.  He made the pop charts only once, reaching #9 in 1973 with “Right Place, Wrong Time.”  He won six Grammys over the years and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

13eddiemoney--superJumboEdward Mahoney, known professionally as singer-songwriter Eddie Money, died in September at age 70.  He enjoyed considerable success on the pop charts in the late ‘70s and 1980s, with 11 Top 40 songs including “Baby Hold On,” “Two Tickets to Paradise,” “Think I’m in Love,” “Shakin’,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “I Wanna Go Back,” “Walk on Water” and “The Love in Your Eyes.”

Photo of Clydie KingClydie King an in-demand session singer in the ’70s and ’80s, died in January at age 75.  In tandem with Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews, King sang background vocals on many dozens of classic rock albums, including Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “The Royal Scam” and “Aja”; The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”; Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”; Bob Dylan’s “Saved” and “Infidels”; Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get”;  Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and Barbra Streisand’s “A Star is Born.”

Leon Redbone in Concert at Symphony Hall in Atlanta - August 20, 1977Dickran Gobalian, a Cyprus-born singer-songwriter-guitarist known professionally as Leon Redbone, died in May.  His age was listed at 69, but a family member released a whimsical report that Redbone “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”  Recognized by his ever-present Panama hat, sunglasses and black tie, Redbone specialized in jazz, blues and Tin Pan Alley classics.  He made numerous “Saturday Night Live” appearances in the late ‘70s, specializing in songs he claimed to have written despite the fact they originated well before he was born.

237946080e3443a194e648d8f5a88a70_mdArt Neville, singer-songwriter-keyboardist from New Orleans, died in July at age 81.  Neville was a co-founder of the prototype funk group The Meters, whose musical style set the tone of New Orleans funk.  A three-time Grammy winner, Neville was also co-founder of the rock-soul-jazz band The Neville Brothers with brother Aaron, and performed on many recordings with other major artists including Labelle, Paul McCartney, Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, Dr. John and Professor Longhair.

Unknown-76Richard Mansour, known professionally as Dick Dale, died in March at age 81.  Dale was known as “the king of surf guitar” and was at the vanguard of the surf music sound, popular in Southern California in the early ’60s.  He also worked with guitar manufacturer Leo Fender and others to produce custom-made amplifiers.  He was one of the first to push the limits of electric amplification technology and reverberation.  “Let’s Go Trippin'” and especially “Misirlou” were Dale’s signature songs that eventually earned him appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  The use of “Misirlou” in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction” revived his name and gave him new recognition.

Robert Hunter, singer-songwriter-poet best known as lyricist for The Grateful Dead, died in September at age 78.  He enjoyed a successful collaboration with Jerry Garcia, The Dead’s primary guitarist, singer and songwriter, providing lyrics for such signature pieces as “Truckin’,” “Dark Star,” China Cat Sunflower,” “Ripple” and “Terrapin Station.”  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a lyricist in 1994.

Ian Gibbons, keyboard player with The Kinks from 1979 to 1993, died in August at age 67.  He played with various rock and new wave bands until being asked to join Ray Davies’ band just as the group was enjoying a resurgence in the early ’80s.  Gibbons also freelanced on recordings with Suzi Quatro, Ian Hunter, Sweet, Dr. Feelgood and Randy California.

Dave BartholomewDave Bartholomew, legendary songwriter-trumpeter-arranger-producer, died in June at age 100.  His partnership with the late Fats Domino produced more than forty hits for Imperial Records, including the #1 pop chart hit “Ain’t That a Shame” as well as “I Hear You Knocking,” “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’.” He remained a major figure in the New Orleans music scene from the 1960s through the 2000s until his health failed.

Gary Duncan, guitarist and singer with Quicksilver Messenger Service, died in June at age 72.  His complex interplay with Quicksilver’s other guitarist, John Cipollina, helped define the unique sound of the San Francisco-based band.  The group was known for counterculture classics like “Fresh Air” and “What About Me.” 

Ted McKenna, Scottish drummer for numerous bands, died in January at age 68.  His first claim to fame was as the drummer for The Sensational Alex Harvey Band from 1972-1977, followed by stints with guitarist Rory Gallagher, The Greg Lake Band and The Michael Schenker Group.

Stephan Ellis bassist for the ’80s arena rock band Survivor, died in March at age 69.  He joined the band in 1981 and was on hand when Sylvester Stallone approached them to write a hit for the film soundtrack of “Rocky III.”  The result was “Eye of the Tiger,” which topped the pop charts for six weeks in 1982, won a Grammy and secured a Best Song Oscar nomination.

Unknown-77Lastly, there’s Russ Kibb, who died in April at age 88.  He wasn’t a musician but a disc jockey who played a pivotal role in the notorious “Paul is Dead” hoax in the fall of 1969.  Gibb was a DJ at WKNR-FM in Detroit when he received an anonymous call claiming Beatle Paul McCartney had died in images-801966, and that clues about the death were allegedly hidden in Beatles album covers.  Spurred on by a satirical article published in the University of Michigan student newspaper two days later outlining additional clues, Gibb chose to air a special two-hour program a few days later called “The Beatle Plot.”  The story went viral, got picked up in newspapers around the world, and fueled the insatiable rumor for several weeks until Life Magazine tracked down a very much alive McCartney at his reclusive farm in Scotland.