Rush aficionados are probably more well-read than your average rock fan. The band’s verbose lyrics—penned by professorial drummer Neil Peart—drew heavily from literature and continue to inspire library trips (or Google searches) to keep up with his sci-fi / philosophical references.
It stands to reason then, that if avid Rush listeners are willing to research Ayn Rand in order to better comprehend the meanings behind Peart’s “madness,” they’ve probably also pored over many of the biographies and critiques written about the band itself. Which suggests there’s probably precious little we “star man” disciples don’t already know about Canada’s greatest export.
But that doesn’t mean we’re no longing willing to “begin the day with a friendly voice” enumerating Rush’s greatest accomplishments.
In his new book Rush FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Rock’s Greatest Power Trio, writer / fan Max Mobley chronicles the history of the world’s best power trio, surveying its forty-year history and scrutinizing its still-growing catalog of acclaimed studio and live albums.
Rush have earned more gold and platinum albums than anyone save The Beatles and Rolling Stones, and few musicians have been as influential on today’s artists as Peart and his virtuosic companions, Geddy Lee (bass / keys / vocals) and Alex Lifeson (guitars). Nonetheless, they remain perennially misunderstood (or dismissed outright) by music journalists and mainstream audiences. In his book (subtitled All That’s Left to Know About Rock’s Greatest Power Trio), Mobley examines the Rush conundrum from start (Led Zep knock-offs) to finish (overdue Rock Hall inductees), charting the band’s musical evolution (and audience expansion) from 1974’s eponymous Rush to 2012’s Clockwork Angels.
Sure, we know (as does Mobley) that other compendiums have been published about Rush. But few boast the streamlined thoroughness that characterizes Backbeat’s ever-growing FAQ series. Tapped by Hal Leonard publishing, editor Robert Rodriguez—who assembled excellent FAQs on The Beatles—recruited other critics, musicologists, and experts to pen entries on other musical acts (KISS, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Neil Young), television icons (Three Stooges, Lucille Ball), and movie franchises (Star Trek, James Bond). Separating wheat from chaff (and fact from fiction), each author pores through his (or her) respective subject—checking dates and turning over taboo stones—and distills his or her results into a single portable volume. The resulting slim-lines contain only the most pertinent, crucial, and verifiable data, their pages answering the questions asked most often about the entertainers pictured on the book covers.
Rather than go with a day-by-day (or even album-by-album) approach, Mobley forgoes a rigid chronology when discussing Rush’s formation in order to make astute observations about where the band eventually took its music, and to comment on the events all self-respecting Rush scholars know would come to pass. Employing a wide lens for his mind’s “Camera Eye,” Mobley offers a broader view, a semi-omniscient (if subjective) take on the threesome’s career trajectory—the albums, songs, and concerts.
In his early chapters Mobley explores how “three nice kids” learned to rock, but he takes care to include fourth “kid” John Rutsey (the band’s original drummer), whose diabetes and contrary lifestyle ended his tenure after touring behind Rush’s eponymous debut. We’re given family histories—Geddy (Gary Lee Weinrib) was born to Holocaust survivors, while Alex (Aleksandar Zivojinovic) boasts Serbian roots—and the improbability of the two youngsters ever meeting (much less forming a band together) in in the Toronto neighborhood of Willowdale isn’t lost on the author.
We’re trotted through the musicians’ early bands and nascent versions of Rush (Hush, anyone?), and Mobley mentions a short-lived four-man version of Rush, how Lee was cut from the band early on, and how the bassist convinced buddy Alex to let the decidedly “uncool,” jazz-trained Peart supplant Rutsey behind the kit.
Instead of tiptoeing through every release, Mobley then discusses what he considers the three most pivotal albums, or “breakouts.” Having struck big with the first album—which contained “Working Man”—and enjoying a minor hit with the title track from Fly By Night, Rush hit a snag on Caress of Steel. Audiences dwindled on the subsequent tour (dubbed the “Down the Tubes Tour”), and the band was under pressure to deliver another hit to the record label. Rather than compromise their ideals by submitting a radio-friendly LP, the guys went all-out with the concept album 2112, whose multi-suite twenty-minute title track depicts a dystopian future where art (especially music) is suppressed. The album was an unexpected hit, and gave Rush unrestricted freedom to explore equally daring music and lyrical themes later on.
There’s no denying that Rush’s second major breakthrough came with 1981’s Moving Pictures, whose radio hits (“Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta”) added keyboards to the mix and planted the band’s feet firmly in the here-and-now of New Wave. A follow-up section dissects Rush’s use of keyboards and synthesizers over the years, with Mobley taking inventory of Lee’s Oberheims and Rolands and their “kludgy precursors”—as well as their applications. We learn how the “space race” of keyboard technology saw such devices evolve, how band artist Hugh Syme helped Lee implement the new toys, and how the advent of MIDI allowed Lee to interface and condense unwieldy racks of equipment into today’s more portable rig (one or two synths and a couple foot pedals).
Mobley argues that the 2007 album Snakes and Arrows constitutes a third Rush “breakthrough” because its release (whether as a result of the music or by chance) saw the general population rethinking their position on the geeky rockers. Suddenly it’s hip to be square; nerds now rule the Internet, bookstores, and film studios. Rush references turned up everywhere in pop culture (as in the Paul Rudd comedy I Love You, Man and Jack Black’s School of Rock). The authorized band documentary Behind the Lighted Stage was well-regarded (even by non-fans), the trio appeared on American television (The Colbert Report) for the first time in decades, and the group—as a live unit—was en fuego, selling out one gig after another.
We concur that Rush’s cool quotient was (and is) at an all-time high, but suspect it has less to do with the music on Snakes and Arrows than with the serendipity of chic in an increasingly electronic age: The world has finally caught up with what we Rush fans have known all along. Truth be told, this writer hasn’t been intimately familiar with a new Rush album since 1996’s Test for Echo; the Paul Northfield-produced Vapor Trails and Nick Raskulinecz-helmed Snakes and Arrows left us a little cold.
We’re still synchronizing with last year’s Clockwork Angels.
Nearly every Rush release has one (if not several) diamond-bright moments, but Mobley isn’t shy when taking stock of flaws. He grapples with the reduction of Lifeson’s guitars in the synth-laden mixes of the 1980s, ponders the band’s reasons for the trade-off, and discusses how Alex worked his way back into the midrange for Power Windows and Hold Your Fire. The biggest blight—the high-compression mastering of 2002’s Vapor Trails—had less to do with the band than their engineers, who tweaked the masters to compete in the “loudness wars.” The electronic indiscretion was finally put right with a 2013 remix.
Rush FAQ accounts for every one of the band’s many live concert albums and DVDs. We get a feel for the makes and models of Lee’s basses (Fender Jazz and Precision) and keys (Rolands, Yamahas, Taurus pedals), Lifeson’s axes (Gibson ES-335s and modified Hentor Sportscasters), and Peart’s massive kits (DW’s and Simmons electronic pads). We’re also introduced to the band’s technicians. Mobley pokes fun at Rush’s wardrobe faux pas (kimono robes, mullet haircuts, and shoulder-padded suits (hey, who hasn’t been a fashion offender at some point?) and devotes an entire section to Le Studio, the scenic mountain resort in Quebec where Rush recorded for many years. The book also features a comprehensive discography and bibliography, and scores of black and white images (album covers, concert flyers, ticket stubs)—including some rare, private moments.
Rush “patron saint” Donna Halper (who broke the band stateside as program director at WMMS radio in Cleveland) contributes an eloquent (and personal) forward, wherein she praises the fellas for their humility and friendship over the years:
“Rush changed my life,” she writes. “Knowing them—and calling them my friends—is a gift for which I will always be grateful.”
Halper notes that while many acts benefitted from heavy rotation at her station and others, only Rush (and Bruce Springsteen) ever bothered thanking her acknowledging her colleagues for their support. When the band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010, Halper was invited as their special guest. In 2012, they invited her to attend their induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We know Rush are a funny, down-to-earth lot, but they’re also notoriously private: You can’t get much closer to Geddy, “Lerxst,” and Neil than Halper has, short of being a blood relative or spouse.
So you may be a Hemipheres and Grace Under Pressure know-it-all already. You might even be an ex-patriot of Megadon who fought for the liberation of The Planets of the Solar Federation. Fair enough.
But when it comes to condensing forty-plus years of factoids behind the world’s most endearing rock trio into one reader-friendly volume, Rush FAQ is a “companion unobtrusive.”