It sometimes troubles and mystifies me why certain music artists did not appear clearly on my radar until I approached middle-age. One of these is the Canadian rock group Rush. When I was first becoming seriously immersed in music in the early 1980s, Rush was one of the biggest bands on the planet, by virtue of the sales of their albums "Permanent Waves" and "Moving Pictures". Looking back, everything about them should have appealed to my musical instincts, but they largely passed me by. I was aware of their existence, but little beyond that. Only in recent months have I begun to recognize what a talented and under-rated band they are.
What is the secret of their success and appeal, beyond identifying that they are exponents of well-crafted, melodic and intelligent rock music? Well, they overlap several "constituencies", sharing some of the characteristics of "progressive rock". In addition, their capacity for writing catchy melodies with universal lyrics has helped to secure some mainstream acceptance. The "power trio" format gives their music an energy and agility, permitting the music to breathe, and the individual members to express themselves. The muscular and vibrant rhythm section is at times reminiscent of the Yes sound of the early 1970s. Of course, Neil Peart's lyrics add another dimension. All of these factors somehow coalesce to give Rush a distinct identity and flavour, almost a separate genre by themselves.
The early material shows the band evolving, with a more homogeneous style owing much to Led Zeppelin. The debut album clearly lacks the stamp of Neil Peart, both rhythmically and lyrically. It would be easy to dismiss that first record as "meat and potatoes" hard rock, but this charge is negated by the clearly stylish and superior musicianship. "Before and After" does offer some pointers to the future, sonically at least, and "Working Man" too shows hints of being a prototype for later endeavours.
On "Fly By Night", a glance at the song titles alone is evidence of an advance, with the signature Rush sound gradually emerging; that uncluttered, almost crystalline thing which is less futuristic than timeless. The drumming of Neil Peart adds dynamism, and the rhythm section as a whole is more propulsive and prominent. On this second album, there is a more varied palette, and more finesse and subtlety is clearly evident. There is more scope for improvisation and virtuosity, but within a recognizable framework.
Quickly, the recordings show a band blossoming and gaining in confidence and musical ambition. Longer tracks co-existed on the albums with more concise musical statements, and even the "epics" avoided many of the pitfalls of other "progressive" acts, the energy and spontaneity doing much to ward off any charges of self-indulgence. The mid-to-late 70s witnessed probably Rush's most fertile period artistically, with grandiose lyrical themes fusing appealingly with that distinctive instrumental fabric.
As already highlighted, the early 1980s was probably the group's commercial zenith, and this period saw the recording of perhaps their best known composition, "The Spirit of Radio". Purists may derjide this as a "sell-out" and a compromise, but for me it is a consummate rock single, breaking the rules without really drawing attention to itself in that sense. The song has instant appeal, in its evocative subject matter, but this tends to obscure the fact the song has depth, melodically speaking. Packing several genres into just under five minutes - hard rock, prog rock, new wave, power pop, reggae etc. It sounds as exciting now as it did over three decades ago.
I also feel that the members of Rush have not been given due recognition for their individual instrumental prowess. In a three-piece group, there is no place to hide, and each musician has to hold his own and play a central role in the action, bearing an equal share of the burden. This was very much exemplified by Rush. Alex Lifeson in particular is under-estimated by the critics.
It is heartening to see the respect and affection with which Rush are still viewed by people around the world, even if the musical "establishment" seems slow to accord the same accolades and deference. A band whose talent and integrity are an example others could follow.