Like so many of the bands on this list, Rush made a false start: their self-titled debut of 1974 rocked hard but didn’t stand out much from all the other bands influenced by the likes of Led Zeppelin. But their drummer John Rutsey quit after recording the album, unwilling to tour. Singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson recruited Neal Peart as his replacement, and the classic line-up was in place. Here’s the lead-off track from that line-up’s first album, Fly By Night:
Peart’s influence was immediate, and showed in three main ways. First, he was an extraordinary drummer, and even now is possibly the most revered of all hard-rock drummers. (I’d say the only other real contenders for that title would be John Bonham and perhaps Mike Portnoy.) Second, he immediately became the band’s main lyricist — with mixed results, as discussed below. And third, the new line-up introduced elements of progressive rock into their sound, making them perhaps the first prog-metal band.
That’s apparent from the very opening of Anthem (above), which is in a complex time that I can’t even count. The numerous quick changes in texture and the high-pitched, exploratory bass part underline the prog credentials. On the same same album, By-Tor and the Snow Dog and Rivendell lean further prog-ward in their use of mythical/fantasy themes.
Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience (and arguably unlike Cream), Rush are another band that sounds much bigger than its three-piece configuration ought to let it, and that’s largely due to the complexity of the bass and drum parts, which have far more going on than in many hard rock bands.
To enjoy all this properly in Anthem, you have to ignore the very nasty lyric, which is drawn from the “philosophy” of the Ayn Rand novella of the same name. Rand’s writings are popular with certain kinds of teenager as a justification, with rationalist set-dressing, of the kind of selfishness that comes naturally to most of us as teens. Hence lyrics like “Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for / Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more”. Right, Ayn, that’s the way to live.
The same novella would subsequently provide the broad plot strokes for arguably Rush’s greatest song, the 20-minute multi-part epic 2112 which fills side 1 of the album of the same name. That song gives Rush’s prog-rock leanings their full head, and tells a far-future sci-fi story of a world under the control of a priest-technologist class who have outlawed music. Apart from the deus ex machina ending, it works superbly.
So: if you can look past the bad taste that the Rand obsession leaves — and if Geddy Lee’s, uh, unique vocal style works for you –then there’s a lot to love about Rush. At any rate, they would go on to become one of the major inspirations for the prog-metal bands of a later generation.