My Beginner’s Primer to Rush

Rush has a long and varied discography: 19 studio albums (18 all but the first with Neil Peart on drums), 11 live albums, 2 EPs, live videos, singles, compilations . . . there’s a lot of stuff broken up into a lot of eras. For example, you have the early 70s hard-rock stuff, the mid- to late-70s epic prog, the early 80s prog-pop, the mid- to late-80s synth-pop, the 90 heavy guitar renaissance, and their 2000s comeback era which is an uptempo, mutli-layered blending of the heavier guitars with the early 80s pop sensibilities merged with the complicated song structures of their 70s heyday . . . and no, the keyboards never “went away.” They were just less prominent.

This latter era sounds like a cop-out, but it’s inevitable, since for any band that had been around as long as Rush, constantly exploring new frontiers of sound to incorporate into their music, at some point a brand new beast emerged. That’s one of the many things that was so special about this band, but also one of the things that is so daunting. Bassist/vocalist Gary “Geddy” Lee Weinrib, guitarist Alexandar Zivojinovic, aka Alex Lifeson, and late drummer/lyricist Neil Ellwood Peart were able to change their sound several times during the course of their 40-plus career without losing that special something that made Rush Rush.

Some would say that special thing was dorkiness, and you know what? I totally agree.

Rush were dorks, end of story, full stop. They didn’t party, they weren’t a drug band, they weren’t detached or ironic. They were three men who loved writing music, playing music, and writing and playing music with each other. Oh, they also loved their fans too. That was apparent from every single two-hour-or-longer marathon Rush concert where they never, ever phoned a performance in. It was apparent that they had very few gaps longer than two years between studio or live albums, and even when they got older that their output of studio albums slowed down they still released EPs, live albums, videos, and new compilations. And sold a whole lot of albums.

Rush are a true anomaly in the music world: a critically reviled group of earnest, goofy, easy-to-mock music geeks who stuck around long enough for their fans to be the tastemakers and members of cool bands who now sing their praises. So take that.

Two quick examples of how Rush became a band the critics loved to hate:

  1. 1976’s breakthrough album 2112 was dominated by a side-long suite of songs discussing the power of music to overthrow a socialist dystopia. It was clearly inspired by novelist/political philosopher Ayn Rand, who had provided fodder for many of Neil Peart’s lyrics. How do I know this? The album’s dedication “to the genius of Ayn Rand” helps. See, Rush weren’t cool. So Neil, being a guy who thinks and doesn’t chase trends, likely had little idea what publicly praising Ayn Rand would do with his and his band’s credibility in the rock world.
  1. The rap on “Roll the Bones,” popular single from the 1991 album of the same name. Yes, there’s a rap in the middle, featuring Geddy Lee’s heavily deepened voice spitting rhymes about the night having a thousand saxophones and a fact being a fact from Nome to Rome, BOY. One imagines Neil Peart hearing a rap song on the radio and, with the endearing excitement of a young boy, going “Hey, this is cool! Maybe we can put something like this in a song!” And so they did.

So, the question then becomes, “Where do I start?”

Start here, with the song “Freewill” from Rush’s 1980 album Permanent Waves.

Why do I recommend this song? Because it is, for lack of a better term, very Rush-y: the odd-time riff in the Lydian mode, the absolutely insane middle section where all three members go crazy on their instruments while maintaining tight discipline, the lyrics about individuality and the primacy of choice over superstition, the catchy melody despite all the chaos, and the sheer weirdness of it all–Lee’s banshee-wail included–have lead me to call “Freewill” the quintessential Rush song, even over the more ubiquitous “Tom Sawyer.” If you like “Freewill,” you’ll probably appreciate everything Rush has ever done, in any era.

After, chase it down with “Limelight” from 1981’s Moving Pictures. This is one of the most perfect pop-songs ever made. 

Now, if you like both of these songs, my recommendation is neither Permanent Waves nor Moving Pictures. Instead, I suggest that a Rush neophyte start at the end, at 2012’s Clockwork Angels, the band did.

This album encompasses all aspects of the Rush sound. It’s heavy, it’s proggy, it’s rhytmically and harmonically dense, it’s lyrically ambitious, it’s a concept album, it has keyboards, it has instrumental freak-outs, and it is downright beautiful in parts. If “Freewill” is a very Rush-y song, then Clockwork Angels is their most Rush-iest album. 

Now, if you like Clockwork Angels, I’d suggest you then go back to either Moving Pictures or Permanent Waves, or even 1981’s live album Exit . . . Stage Left, which features the era of the band most people seem to like the most. But this remains how I introduce people to Rush:

  1. “Freewill”
  1. “Limelight”
  1. Clockwork Angels
  1. Permanent Waves/Moving Pictures/Exit . . . Stage Left

You might disagree, but this is my blog. Still, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 

Lastly, in case anyone is interested, here are my rankings of Rush’s studio albums. Each album is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 based on one criteria: “When it comes time to listen to Rush, which album do I grab?” and there is only one 10. Lastly, I’ll put what I think is my gun-to-head “Must Listen” track from each album, even though for most of these it’s really hard not to just say “All of them.” Here goes, and I eagerly anticipate your vehement disagreement in the comments below:

  1. Clockwork Angels (2012) – 10/10 – Must Listen: “Headlong Flight”
  1. Moving Pictures (1981) – 9.9/10 – Must Listen: “Limelight”
  1. Permanent Waves (1980) – 9.8/10 – Must Listen: “Freewill”
  1. Hemispheres (1978) – 9.7/10 – Must Listen: “La Villa Strangiato”
  1. A Farewell to Kings (1977) – 9.6/10 – Must Listen: “Xanadu”
  1. Signals (1982) – 9.5/10 – Must Listen: “The Analog Kid”
  1. Vapor Trails (2002) – 9.3/10 – Must Listen: “Secret Touch”
  1. Snakes and Arrows (2007) – 9.2/10 – Must Listen: “Far Cry”
  1. Hold Your Fire (1987) – 9/10 – Must Listen: “Turn the Page”
  1. Grace Under Pressure (1984) – 8.9/10 – Must Listen: “Between the Wheels”
  1. 2112 (1976) – 8.7/10 – Must Listen: “2112”
  1. Power Windows (1985) – 8.6/10 – Must Listen: “Mystic Rhythms”
  1. Counterparts (1993) – 8.5/10 – Must Listen: “Animate”
  1. Test for Echo (1996) – 8.4/10 – Must Listen: “Time and Motion”
  1. Roll the Bones (1991) – 8.2/10 – Must Listen: “Dreamline”
  1. Presto (1989) – 7.9/10 – Must Listen: “The Pass”
  1. Fly By Night (1975) – 7.5/10 – Must Listen: “Fly By Night”
  1. Caress of Steel (1975) – 7/10 – Must Listen: “Bastille Day”
  1. Rush (1974) – 6/10 – Must Listen: “Working Man”

I’ll have some news about a Rush-related project I have in mind soon, so stay tuned if that sounds interesting to you!


Neil Peart’s writing influenced my own. Check out my latest novel, The Last Ancestor, available on Amazon.

16 comments

  1. Alexander

    Thanks. The list is quite helpful and allows the readers to pick and choose.
    One thing that strikes me is how little read most contemporary bands and singers are. I suppose they need to regress harder and read more stuff.

    I’m very surprised that Anglophone music has never muscialized poetry. I’ve never heard of a singer or band sing say a T.S. Eliot poem or Syvia Path.

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Neil Peart was quite the well-read guy. I think he dropped out of high school and just played drums and read books. There’s a great documentary called “Beyond the Lighted Stage” where Neil’s mother talks about how he was a weird kid, and just read all the time. And while touring, he would go to bookstores and read. A real auto-didact.

      And he DID base some lyrics on poetry! I know “Xanadu” from A Farewell to Kings is loosely based on “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. There are others I can’t think of now but his lyrics are very erudite and thought-provoking, very rich with imagery and meaning. Talented guy!

      Like

  2. Alexander

    Interesting. But I’m still surprised that Rush never musicslize a poem in their repertoire

    Still i’s great that Neil still was inspired to incorporate a poem in Rush’s music.

    I’d be very interested to hear a band or singer to musicalize a well known poem. I wonder how it would sound sung.

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander

        I blame the Puritans and the various radical dissenters like the Plymouth Brethern.
        As a Mediterranean Catholic I’ve always been deeply contemptuous of the early Protestants. If you read them and look at their behaviour they’re very Moslem.
        I blame the English Protestants for carrying out a cultural revolution avant la lettre ensuring poetry would never be musicalized

        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

      • A lot of hardcore Puritan/Protestant prohibitions on things like dancing, music, alcohol, and fun always struck me as utterly non-Biblical and unsupported by tradition. Life is not suffering. It HAS suffering, but it also has joy. Our bodies aren’t prisons to be mortified and our existences aren’t meant to be brutal.

        Like

  3. I had to come here and rave about Limelight, especially the guitar solo. The way the whole band makes that solo work is absolutely sublime.

    And the guitar solo itself is the essence of Lifeson’s style. It’s not super flashy or fast…but how many guitarists have the ear, the control, the *feel* required to come up with a solo like that? It’s also, for me, the quintessential example of a solo that actually adds something to the song instead of just being a break where some guy shows off.

    If I’m introducing somebody to Rush, it’s probably the first song I’d play. Freewill would be a good second song. After that, Clockwork Angels (which I think might be the single best song they ever wrote). Anybody that likes those three is going to have an amazing time discovering the rest of the band’s catalog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such a great solo—I love how Alex uses the whammy bar to make the notes sing—and it’s such a great song. It’s interesting we have basically the same “three things to play for someone interested in Rush.”

      God, such a great band. Isn’t it amazing that Alex Lifeson is a pretty UNDERRATED guitarist? And he’s so good! Has he ever written an uninteresting guitar part in his life?

      That’s not a rhetorical question either. The answer is no. No he hasn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. —Mix up the order and hack off the following songs: finding my way/fly by night/what you’re doing/bangkok/bastille day/lakeside park/farewell to kings/new world man/big money/manhattan project/time stand still/mystic rhythms/show don’t tell and go with Chronicle.

    —-That leaves about 15 tracks. Left Working Man on there since it shows the drastic change in style and content yet has enough of a tempo change to justify it being with the others.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a really interesting way to introduce a newbie to Rush. Sort of like a “best of the best” mixtape.

      Some of your omissions I think could HELP get someone into Rush (“Fly By Night,” “Big Money,” “Bastille Day,” and “A Farewell to Kings” among them), but Rush have so many songs there’s really something for everyone.

      I mean, I didn’t even recommend playing “Closer to the Heart” for someone, and that was one of their biggest hits!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think my favorite track they did is “Red Barchetta.” Not the most flashy or impressive, but the one that speaks to me the most. I spent the week after Neil’s death just learning the guitar part to it. Alex is a much better guitar player than he gets credit for, but when you’re in a band with Geddy and Neil, it’s easy to get overshadowed!

    And if you have anything Rush-related coming up that I could help with, just ask.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alex wrote: I mean, I didn’t even recommend playing “Closer to the Heart” for someone, and that was one of their biggest hits!

    —-I think Closer has some great lyrics. I also enjoy the funk/reggae or whatever they did during the outro of some live versions. This from a less-than-casual Rush fan. I think cutting down Chronicles gives a new listener a variety without overwhelming them.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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