Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins had this to say about the Canadian rock trio, Rush: “I believe when people step back and actually really look at who the great bands were, they are one of those bands. But somehow they were never popular enough that they get commonly name-checked as one of the great bands of all time. A lot of the other stuff has been over-explained. Zeppelin has been over-explained. The Beatles have been over-explained. It doesn’t tell the whole story. And you can say, why was this band marginalized? What was it? It doesn’t matter. At some point, they’re there, and somebody has to explain why they’re there.” Somebody indeed. Let me try.
What is it about this highly unusual rock band that gets them nominated for the list of the greatest of all time? I second the nomination, but why? Why do they belong in the same category as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, or the Who? I don’t know how many records Rush has sold over the last 40-some years or how this compares to other household-name bands, and I also don’t care. I’m a music lover, not a record company, so to me it doesn’t matter how many units have been sold, how many awards have been won, or whether mainstream success has been achieved. What matters is the music, nothing else. What is it about the music, the records, this band has produced that makes them one of the greatest of all time?
Let’s start with the obvious: the musicianship. I remember, as you probably do, the first time I ever heard a Rush album. It was 1976; I was just ten years old at the time, but already a lover of rock music and FM radio. One of my older brothers brought home a record called 2112, telling me I’d never heard anything like this before. Indeed I hadn’t. It sounded like three drummers playing at the same time. The guitarist sounded better than Jimmy Page, or so it seemed to me, and a high-singing bass man too. There was something happening here. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could feel it, or hear it. These guys meant business. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Instantly they were my favorite band and over forty years later they still are, and again one reason is the sheer quality of the musicianship. I’ve never cared for musicians who are technically good but whose playing doesn’t speak in any distinctive or original way and who are not equally adept as songwriters or lyricists. Technical proficiency is impressive in its way, but if you don’t have the songs, your music won’t grab people. Rush grabbed me and grabbed me hard, and millions of others too. You can think of other guitarists, bass players, and drummers who can play their instruments and play them well, but this band wasn’t only playing at the highest level but doing something more than that. There was a magic there, a transcendence, and it increased steadily for decades, through nineteen studio albums of original songs. Their sound changed over those years, and the songwriting improved. So, somehow, did the musicianship. How could that be? If you listened to an album like Hemispheres in 1978, about a hundred times like I did, you’d have wondered, how can the musicianship get any better? But it did. Listen to the playing on their latest studio album, Clockwork Angels of 2012, and listen for yourself.
Geddy Lee put it this way: “The nature of Rush has always been musicianship first. It just has. We’ve always tried to be the best musicians we could, and we tried to challenge each other, and I don’t think that’s really changed. A lot has changed. Obviously we’ve become much better songwriters and song arrangers and producers, and all those things have taken a more important role through the years. So that shows your growth and you’re expanding, but at the core of it we’re players and we love to play and we love to play well…. And that is a natural part of Rush, it’s a natural thing that Alex, Neil, and I share. We want to do things better. That’s what drives us, that’s always what’s driven us.” Lee’s words here will surprise no one who has ever heard their music. From the beginning, people have said the same thing about this band: how is it that there are only three of them? It sounds like at least twice that number, both on record and, even more bewilderingly, in concert.
The second point I want to make is about attitude. Great musicians—probably great artists in general—have an attitude about them, and I’m not talking about youthful disaffection. Gene Simmons of Kiss put it this way: “What makes Rush unique is fearlessness. It’s the quality of starting to write a song and not caring about what’s popular and what’s not. There’s only one band that sounds like that.” Mr. Simmons knows attitude when he sees it. What an artist of any kind needs, or so it seems to me, is conviction. They don’t need to have a chip on their shoulder, but they do have to believe in what they’re doing, as a kind of absolute. An audience that’s paying attention can hear this, and it’s infectious. Rush fans are believers, and they’re an intense bunch. The fans believe because the artists do. They believe what they’re saying; they know what they’re doing, what they have to say, and where they’re going. They mean it, and if you don’t like it then you can leave it. They’re going to follow their musical instincts and do what they will, and no music critic or record company executive is going to change that. We don’t need the musicians themselves to verbalize this; it’s right there in the music. What trend did they ever follow? How many top-20 hits did they write? How many poses did they strike? As Neil Peart has stated, “We know and the audience knows that we’re playing songs that we want to play, and songs that we’re proud of and that we enjoy playing. And that has to convey itself, I think, to the audience, that we’re never ever just going through the motions.” He didn’t need to say this. We can hear it. This band has taken far too much criticism over the years, but one criticism no one has ever uttered after either listening to one of their records or going to a concert is that they’re going through the motions.
In the end, songwriters are like any writers: either they have something to say or they don’t. There’s something timeless about a band of musicians or anyone else who’s able to stand before an audience and express something that’s worth expressing, something that matters, and express it well. We need that, and we always will. We know the genuine article when we see it, and Rush fans have known this from the beginning. Listen to the lyrics on their last few albums, Clockwork Angels, Snakes and Arrows, and Vapor Trails, and ask yourself, does the lyricist mean it? Does he have something to say? Has care been taken? Listen to the guitar or bass playing or drums from their first recordings to their latest and ask the same questions. These guys aren’t faking it. Lee’s vocals have also been too often criticized. The reason he’s still one of my favorite singers has less to do with the voice itself than, once again, what he has to say, not just lyrically but musically. The lyrics, of course, are not his own; Peart is the lyricist, but Lee has to bring them to life, make them speak and, once again, mean it.
There’s something inexplicable about any artist and the works they create. No one can explain an artist who’s any good in any complete way. There’s no code to crack. But for me what puts Rush on the list of the greatest rock bands of all time is the combination of musicianship, attitude, longevity, devotion to craft, authenticity, and single-mindedness. A great band needs to have the songs and a good many of them, the combination of melody, playing ability, and thoughtful lyrics. They have all that and plenty of it. Rush is a band of resolute perfectionists. They don’t just care; they care rather a lot, and anyone who’s given their music a serious listen can sense it a mile away. Don’t put these guys on a pedestal, as happens sometimes with famous musicians. No one belongs up there, but there are some overdue accolades that should come their way after a long and brilliant career.