Backbeat Books presents the latest in the FAQ series: Rush FAQ! This book will tell the reader everything there is left to know about the world’s greatest rock trio. Despite the band’s overwhelming success, however, many music fans seem to be barely familiar with the Canadian trio’s existence. In the first chapter, therefore, author Max Mobley attempts to answer the question: Who the hell is Rush anyway?
Loud and Polite
How Three Nice Kids Learned to Rock Big and Loud
Who the hell is Rush, anyway? They’ve been described as the world’s most famous Canadian prog-rock power trio of all time. But then, name the second-most famous Canadian prog rock power trio of all time. No doubt the name Triumph comes to mind for a handful of music fans—okay then, name a third.
Rush is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the band is hardly a household name by the standards of popular music. They may be known in pop culture, but mostly as a joke, thanks to The Colbert Report or the hit comedy I Love You, Man, or maybe in reference to one of a dozen FM classic rock staples, or even the game Guitar Hero. In fact, their level of fame is actually at odds with their level of success, as told by the following stats. They have sold well over 43 million records worldwide—over 25 million in the US alone. Only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have more gold and platinum records than Rush, who have an astounding twenty-four gold records and seventeen platinum (including three multi-platinum) records earned over their forty-plus-year career. They have played nearly two thousand concerts in North America alone, most at sellout or near-sellout capacity. Not bad for a band far from the mainstream.
And yet, if, ten years ago, you asked most Americans to name a popular artist who hails from Canada, they’d probably offer names like Alanis Morissette or Celine Dion, or if older than fifty, Gordon Lightfoot or Anne Murray. A few musos may have offered the name Neil Young, who hails from Toronto, although he has lived in Northern California for so long he is considered a California native by many Americans.
Pose the same question to Americans today and you’ll likely get the same names, plus Justin Beiber. The point is, it’s unlikely anyone will mention Rush’s three members (and proud Canadians): bassist, vocalist, keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart, unless, of course, the person you are asking happens to be wearing a Rush concert T-shirt.
Rush is perhaps the modern world’s most successful enigma, and certainly the world’s most popular cult band. Their Canadian roots, which they proudly cling to much the way U2 remains stubbornly rooted in Ireland, is part of the reason.
For many fans of rock and roll, Rush is as much a mystery as the territories between British Columbia and Ontario (i.e., the bulk of Canada). Their music is fiercely original and defiantly anti-pop (really, anti-categorization, for that matter). It often takes even Rush fans a few listens to fully get all that is looming and lurking inside one of the band’s highly arranged tunes. The rhythm section (Lee and Peart) is considered one of rock’s best, and it’s often one of rock’s busiest, yet they strive to make it all work—and it works like nothing else in rock and roll. Guitarist Alex Lifeson has the rare ability among guitarists to play only what the song needs—no more, no less. He is revered among well-known guitar heroes, and yet hardly a household name. The three men of Rush are sponges when it comes to absorbing musical and technological trends, and yet they are fanatical about serving their own muse, always insistent on following the noble equation: art over commerce. The band also invented another equation; let’s call it the Rush equation: Bigger = Better. And by any measure, not just the aforementioned stats, Rush is big indeed—in musicianship, in songwriting, in performance, in substance, and as an influence.
With one well-known exception (among Rush fans), Rush songs are not about sex or drugs, but fantasy realms, dystopian futures, steampunk adventure, and more often than not, the hopes and fears of humanity at its noble best and self-destructive worst. The band members are not handsome enough to be on the cover of their own albums (not that they’d want their mugs featured anyway), nor are they ugly enough to be considered outlaw-cool, like a Ramone or a Sex Pistol. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart are the ultimate anti-heroes and anti-rock star muso nerds. For anyone keeping score, in rock and roll, the difference between a true anti-hero and a quasi-anti-hero is that most true anti-heroes never end up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Rush never sought fame or fortune, they just wanted to play their interpreta- tion of rock and roll the best they can on bass, guitar, and drums, and then go home and be exceedingly normal. They don’t need fans; they need the music. But since they have fans—a devout and faithful legion millions strong—they insist on taking good care of them by playing three-hour concerts, sometimes fifty or more in a year, and offering loads of content and special features on their albums and DVDs.
Despite Rush’s considerable financial success (thanks to one of the most loyal fan bases in all of music), they have never ever taken for granted what they get to do for a living. The band’s work ethic has as much to do with their success and fan base as does their talent. That is at the core of their body of work—over forty years of touring, twenty studio albums, twelve live albums, nine live DVDs, and, thankfully, there is no end in sight.
Not bad for three tragically unhip kids from suburban Toronto.
Like Liverpool to the Beatles, Dublin to U2, Southern California to the Beach Boys, and countless other examples, Rush’s homeland and their family ties have played a huge role in who they are and how they seized the day.