There was a moment, a few years ago, that struck like a harbinger of death; I should have recognised it at the time. In a record shop I asked for the new album by Rush, Test For Echo, and the shop assistant and I both agreed that more people should listen to Rush.
It turned out to be the last Rush album I would ever buy and a twenty year appreciation teetered on the brink.
In the history of rock music there are few bands as peculiar as Rush. Three of ’em: the lead singer sounding like he’s on helium, an intelligent drummer, and a guitarist who never makes sense when he opens his mouth. (Introducing the band to a crowd in Sao Paulo he described himself as Stan Getz.)
In the late 1970s, with the New Age of British Heavy Metal battling with punk for supremacy, word got out that Rush were to appear on Top of the Pops, the pre-eminent music television show in Britain. Word got out months before the show was to be broadcast.
They played Tom Sawyer and for a brief moment Rush were no longer the biggest cult band in the world; they were mainstream. The oddballs had become normal.
Starting out as a band in thrall to Led Zeppelin, complete with Geddy Lee’s Robert Plant-ish perma-squeal, they gradually evolved into proponents of epic rock singing about gods, fanatical pseudo-religious regimes, black holes and Ghenghis Khan. Under pressure from their record label for commercial songs and hit singles they delivered Hemispheres. A concept album that gave Tales From Topographic Oceans a run for its money.
But far from alienating the audience Rush grew in popularity. They grew from big to bigger to enormous, until by the time they were featuring on Top of the Pops, they were an arena band. All without losing their cult status.
I first saw them in the flesh at Birmingham’s NEC. Mid way through the show a light shone from Alex Lifeson. A broken string. The shadowy form of a roadie appeared at the side of the stage; Lifeson undid his guitar strap; two guitars flew through the air, passing each other like battling birds; new guitar in place, Lifeson continued . . . without missing a note. Only those close to the stage would have known there was a problem.
That anecdote illustrates Rush’s attention to detail, committment to professionalism and reliance on technicalities to ensure the show always went on. It applied to the music, the arrangements and in particular Neil Peart’s lyrics that covered everything from legends and myth to squabbling trees, suburban planning policy and the Space Shuttle. (Inspiration for Red Barchetta came from a short story by Ayn Rand of all people.)
Rush had a pattern. Four studio albums would be followed by a live album and a change of musical direction. And you can see it in action. All the World’s a Stage saw the move away from their rock blues origins. Exit Stage Left marked the turn towards a more synth driven sound. A Show of Hands saw them turn away from that synth driven sound. In Roll the Bones the slabs of guitar were getting slabbier and we would soon come to know that Alex Lifeson wasn’t happy.
In 1996 he released the solo album Victor, consisting of dense, almost grungy sounding guitar driven rock. The track Start Today had its neck rung by a visceral solo that announced in no uncertain terms how he thought rock should sound. Perhaps it was the reggae-influenced New World Man from the Grace Under Pressure album that broke the straw on his camel’s back.
In 1997 Neil Peart lost his daughter Selena in a road traffic accident, and as if the cruel gods he had once written about weren’t cruel enough, within ten months he lost his wife, Jacqueline, to cancer. Peart took off to clear his head, deal with grief and prioritise his life.
The band displayed a different mindset. An utterly unrecognisable musical direction, to my ears at least. But somewhere along the way the suitcase containing their musical talent had been left on the roof of a taxi. I came home from the record shop with my Test For Echo CD, stuck it in the drive and listened to an hour’s worth of tuneless rubbish!
On this album the Rush approach to songwriting adopted a system of singing the same note for seven bars and warbling the final note in the eighth. Track after track of aimless dribbling. To describe it as a disappointment was to seriously undermine the whole concept of what disappointment means. It was as if the band had not just run out of ideas, but forgotten music theory, even music notation. It was a noise. An Alex Lifeson noise.
Chucking out the synths meant chucking out harmonisation, ejecting counterpoint and layering. There was no sense of substance found on Hold Your Fire or Power Windows. Songs like Time Stand Still and Middletown Dreams could have written by somebody else.
More albums came and went and they promoted Vapor Trails with another tour that brought them to Manchester – the third time I had seen them live – and then a new DVD: Rush in Rio.
I watched it on Christmas Day, 2003. Sat enthralled for two hours by a band electrified by a crowd so insane they sang along to the instrumentals. Arriving at the stadium late there wasn’t enough time for the road crew to set up and test the sound equipment, which led to a mix that was audience heavy. And it was all the better for it.
As experiences go, the silver lining had a cloud: the stark contrast between Rush pre-Test For Echo and the post-Test For Echo songs. Hearing Limelight, Spirit of Radio, Marathon, Signals, YYZ simply reminded me of the band’s contribution to the Great Song Rockbook. No rock fan worth his or her salt hasn’t heard The Trees or Closer to the Heart. They’re almost as famous as Kashmir and Whole Lotta Rosie…
In 2012 Rush were inducted into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame. Alex Lifeson gave an acceptance speech that consisted of him saying blah blah blah for ten minutes. Those of a cruel disposition would say his speech summed up Rush’s music from 2004 onwards, but in spite of my objections, I’d have to let them off the hook because no one can go on forever and Rush had performed just about every musical trick in the book.
On the Signals album they performed a song called Losing It which includes the line ‘for you the blind who once could see, the bell tolls for thee.’ Maybe Lifeson’s solo album should have been the full stop.
This is supposed to be a tribute to one of the greatest bands of all time, so I don’t want to end on a negative note. Instead I’ll leave you with what was special about this band. From 1980’s Exit…Stage Left ‘this is living in the Limelight.’