Rush could be described in a number of ways; they are rock gods, storytellers, and virtuosos. They are the rare band that evolved without trading away complexity or progressive tendencies and yet became incredibly successful, their popularity waxing rather than waning in the 1980s and beyond. As most readers will know, there is a question now as to how many more times Rush will play live, whether a one-off or a proper tour, given the status of the three band mates, and the vagrancies of time.
I missed seeing Rush in the 1970s and was first introduced to the band by my hard-rocking college roommate Dave Kain, who was a major fan. I really liked parts of Farewell to Kings (1977), and had no exposure to Hemispheres (1978), instead I identified most with the sound and lyrics on Moving Pictures, released in 1981. Here is what I’ve learned while researching my book, on late 70s Rush.
Geddy Lee (bass, vocals) and Alex Lifeson (acoustic and electric guitars) formed Rush with drummer John Rutsey in Toronto in 1968. In 1974, they released their first album, Rush, which sounded a little like Led Zeppelin. It included the first classic Rush song “Working Man.” Rutsey left after the first record and was replaced by ace stick-man Neil Peart. With that, Rush recruited not only one of the world’s greatest drummers, but also one of rock’s best lyricists. By 1977, Rush was bringing their epic songs and instrumental virtuosity to arenas in the US, Canada, and Europe.
The band’s fifth and sixth studio albums, A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978), are two of a kind. They were both written in the Wales countryside and both contain lengthy compositions on grand themes such as space travel (“Cygnus X-1”) and Greek mythology (“Hemispheres”), and songs inspired by Romantic poetry (“Xanadu”) interspersed with short, intimate pieces (“Closer to the Heart”). The two albums are also connected by one long song in two parts. A Farewell to Kings ends with “Cygnus X-1,” the first part of a two-part epic that lasts 28 minutes. The second part, titled “Hemispheres,” kicks off the next album, Hemispheres.
Rush’s concerts for the two albums were a feast for the ears and eyes. The success of 2112 (1976) had allowed them to buy some shiny new instruments. Peart added a wide array of percussion to his arsenal: a gong, orchestra bells, tubular bells, temple blocks, and crotales. These expanded his sound palette and helped him to become one of the most versatile drummers of the period. In addition, Lee bought some new synthesizers (a Minimoog, an Oberheim polyphonic) and a Taurus foot-pedal keyboard. Lifeson showed his versatility by switching from acoustic to electric guitar, playing foot-pedal keyboard and changing his sound with a wide array of effects pedals. Watching Lee sing, play intricate lines on his bass guitar, and play a pedal keyboard with his feet all at the same time was riveting. No matter how complex and cerebral their albums were, when they played live they were always raw and visceral, and no one ever seemed to make even the slightest mistake!
The tours for these two albums were reportedly extremely difficult for the band, not only because of the complexity of the music, but also because of the everyday circumstances of being on the road in the 1970s. They headlined both tours, but, unlike Led Zeppelin, Rush didn’t have a snazzy jet to fly from gig to gig. Driving in a van 300 miles each day across the vast expanses of Canada and the United States to reach their next destination, they dubbed the Farewell to Kings tour the “Drive ’til You Die” tour. These die-hard musicians never wanted to disappoint their fans, playing when they were sick and sleep-deprived, rarely missing a gig.
Fans recall these performances as legendary in great part because of the backing films by Nick Prince, the swirling smoke effects, and the band’s high-powered performances. The wider array of instruments expanded the overall complexity of the material, but the band still rocked hard, wringing emotion from Peart’s two-part science fiction epic. These rock gods embodied the story’s new deity, Cygnus, the god of balance: a perfect blend of Apollo (the logical thinker) and Dionysus (ruler of emotion). Mind and heart united, a balance of brain and boogie… Rush triumphed at the end of the 70s, perfectly positioned for the mega-success the experienced in the 80s.
Exit … Stage Left (1981)
Replay X 3 box set
Mercury (2006), 59 min., 1.33:1
Although short clips of early Rush concerts have been included in documentaries and as bonus material on DVD sets, the best way to see them during their epic period is to the watch Exit … Stage Left, filmed in Montreal. This concert video is on Disc One of the box set Replay X 3, released in 2006 (each of the three discs from the set is also available separately). Although the concert was filmed in late 1981, after they had released Moving Pictures, the band plays three classics from their epic period: “Xanadu,” “Closer to the Heart” and “The Trees.” Geddy and Alex’s double-necked electric guitar and bass can be seen in action in “Xanadu,” as well as Peart’s wide array of percussion instruments. The sound is a bit muddy and the lighting could be brighter, but it hardly matters in this epic display of creativity.