With an unmistakable sound melding Geddy Lee's freakishly high-pitched vocals, Alex Lifeson's high-cholesterol guitar heroics and Neil Peart's ultra-complex drumming, this Canadian power trio are one of the most beloved progressive rock bands ever. In Rush songs, instruments wrap themselves around intricate, often epic-length musical structures that carry Peart's often mythological and philosophical lyrics. Once dismissed by critics out of hand (one Seventies writer said Lee sings "like a cross between Donald Duck and Robert Plant"), the band have since become respected rock elder statesman.
Rush's initial success was based on diligent touring, as the group established itself first in Canada and then the northern U.S., then gradually expanded its following despite limited airplay. The futuristic concept album 2112 (Number 61, 1976) made Rush a late-Seventies force to be reckoned with.
But a tentative accommodation with new wave pop structures, beginning with Permanent Waves (Number Four, 1980) caused the trio's popularity to soar. The album, Rush's eighth, marked a departure with its shorter compositions, which characterized the band's work into the Nineties.
The platinum Signals (Number Ten, 1982) introduced a refined sound: shimmering guitar similar to the Police's Andy Summers', warm synthesizer backdrops and, most notably, relatively subdued vocals from Lee, who by then sang in a lower register. That remained the blueprint for Rush's music throughout the Eighties and early Nineties.
Each of Rush's five albums through 1985's Power Windows sold at least one million copies, with Moving Pictures (Number Three, 1981) moving more than four million. While Rush remained the antithesis of a singles band, Signals produced an actual hit, "New World Man" (Number 21, 1982).
The group lowered its profile somewhat later in the decade, scaling back on touring. Yet the albums, from 1987's Hold Your FireDifferent Stages—Live (Number 35) still sold steadily. Counterparts (Number Two, 1993) recalled Rush's earlier, earthier sound, with Lifeson once again the instrumental focus.
The band then went on an eighteen-month hiatus. Peart worked on a tribute album to drummer Buddy Rich. With guest help from Primus' Les Claypool, Lifeson made an album under the name Victor. Nevertheless, Rush's next studio offering, Test for Echo, leaped to Number Five in 1996.
In 1998 the trio went on sabbatical again. Peart had lost his 19-year-old daughter in an automobile accident and wife to cancer, both within a year. The drummer coped with his grief by riding his motorcycle from Canada to Mexico. During that period, Lee recorded his solo debut, 2000's My Favorite Headache.
In 2001 the trio reconvened to begin work on Vapor Trails (Number Six, 2002). Rush followed with a tour and the live album Rush in Rio (Number 33, 2003), recorded in Brazil, where the trio is massively popular. In 2007 the band released Snakes & Arrows, which rocketed to Number Three, capped once again by an extensive tour and another concert album, Snakes & Arrows Live (Number 18, 2008).
Rush have altered more than just music over the years. Once perceived as a rather dour bunch (due largely to Peart's often weighty lyrics), Rush has long since revealed a sly sense of humor. In 1982 Lee sang on the Top Twenty hit "Take Off," by Bob and Doug McKenzie, the Canadian-bumpkin satire roles of Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis of the Canadian-based comedy show SCTV. Another SCTV character, Joe Flaherty's Count Floyd, introduced Rush via video during the trio's 1984 tour.
In 2007, Rush introduced its most famous song, "Tom Sawyer," with a South Park parody on huge screens; a year later, Stephen Colbert interviewed the band on The Colbert Report. The band often takes the stage to such pre-recorded self-deprecating bits as the Three Stooges theme or Pavement's "Stereo," which pokes fun at Lee's high-pitched vocals. And in 2009, Rush even showed up at an event promoting the Hollywood bromance I Love You Man, about two guys who find friendship thanks to their shared love of — who else? — Rush.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.
"Yes were my gateway band in so many ways," Alex Lifeson says of his prog-rock heroes
Bassist Lee performed with prog-rock inductees at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony