“Against the run of the mill,
Swimming against the stream,
Life in two dimensions,
Is a mass production scheme. …”
Lots of different places I could start with a column about Rush, the Canadian power trio that has inspired numerous love-them-or-hate-them debates. But these lyrics from “Grand Designs” on their mid-1980s album “Power Windows” seems as good a place as any.
Swimming against the stream? While hard rock contemporaries such as Van Halen lusted after teachers and Whitesnake made videos with supermodels grinding away on sports cars, the guys in Rush sang about everything from resisting the repression of future dictators, the wonders of nature and science, and the role that chance and destiny play in one’s future.
There’s really no in-between or “meh” with Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and the late Neil Peart’s 40-plus years of musical output. Calling them prog rockers, heavy metal or synth rock (all three would be accurate at certain points of their career), the music of Rush was mocked, loathed and panned by many critics … but continues to be enjoyed by millions of fans.
They are now rightly recognized as some of the most talented musicians, songwriters and performers of the past 50 years, and are undoubtedly among my favorite rock bands of all time.
Before we get to “Power Windows” — certainly not the most beloved album of their career, but perhaps the best example of their 1980s musical output — let’s provide a little background for those who might have been obsessed with David Bowie or Patti Smith.
Barely out of high school, bassist/vocalist Lee and guitarist Lifeson joined forces with original drummer John Rutsey to rock Toronto-area pubs, parties and high school dances in the early 1970s. As Lee points out in the excellent 2010 documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage,” Rush’s early Led Zeppelin-esque music and Lee’s unique shrieking weren’t well suited for slow dances or prom royalty.
After making a self-titled album with Rutsey, Peart came aboard with his ferocious drumming and unconventional lyrics for 1975’s “Fly By Night,” which featured the title track and their first epic battle song, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” and the Rush we know and love was finally “finding their way” to winning over fans in the U.S., Canada and the world.
More epic-length songs followed on the “2112,” “Farewell to Kings” and “Hemispheres” albums as their concert venues grew from places such as Yakima Valley Community College (on March 26, 1976) to theater and arena shows in the late 1970s.
The 1980 album “Permanent Waves” and its popular opening track, “The Spirit of Radio,” began Rush’s transition to shorter songs and more rock radio-friendly fare, and that was just a warmup for the multiplatinum “Moving Pictures,” which contains two of their most popular songs, “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight,” along with concert favorites like “Red Barchetta” and the instrumental “YYZ.”
But because I don’t have that 1981 classic on vinyl (I bought it on cassette, then on CD when the tape wore out), we’ll fast-forward a few years to 1985. Rush is now filling outdoor stadiums on the summer tour circuit, which they would continue to do through their final tour about 30 years later. In a quest to incorporate new sounds into their music, synthesizers, guitar effect pedals and electronic percussion are now part of their repertoire — which drove away some fans of their earlier and simpler bass/guitar/drums, hard rock sound.