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Rush: Power From the People

Ignored by critics and radio, this hard-rock trio went straight to the fans

Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson of Rush
Fin Costello/Redferns
May 28, 1981

There are two schools of thought on the Canadian power trio Rush – for and against. Tonight, at the massive Montreal Forum, Rush are playing to yet another sold-out house and the lines are clearly drawn.

Taking the affirmative position are 14,000 French-Canadian fans, many of them wearing Rush T-shirts and scruffy denim jackets with the band's logo stitched across the back. They are vigorously pumping the sweaty, smoky air with their fists and yelling themselves hoarse as guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Neil Peart, and bassist-singer Geddy Lee roar through a two-hour set packed with tracks from nine of the group's ten Mercury albums – including their latest best seller, Moving Pictures. When Lee announces that the band is recording the show for an upcoming live album, the cheering and applause seem to shake the Forum to its foundation. And by the end of the lengthy encore, "La Villa Strangiato," the audience looks almost as exhausted as the musicians.

But one fan's meat is another man's poison. In the next morning's Montreal Gazette, reviewer John Griffin roasted the group mercilessly: singer Geddy Lee – whose banshee wail could pass the Memorex test – "sounds like a guinea pig with an amphetamine habit"; axeman Alex Lifeson, a master of high-volume licks, "is ordinary at best"; and Neil Peart's heady philosophical lyrics are summarily dismissed as "cosmic." Griffin signs off with one last slap, describing Rush as "one of the most tedious rock bands working the arena circuit today." The fans at that concert must have found it hard to believe this guy was at the same show.

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"Yeah, I saw that review," Geddy Lee sneers in disgust. In the thirteen years since he and high-school buddy Lifeson – whose blond, angelic features make him look like Botticelli's idea of a rock star – founded Rush, Lee has seen a lot more like it. Sitting in the back seat of Neil Peart's black Mercedes, which the drummer is racing across the Quebec-Ontario border on the way to that night's gig in Ottawa, Lee shrugs his shoulders. "I saw the headline [RUSH: POMP-ROCK TRIO HOT ON TEDIUM] and threw it away," he continues in a near whisper, a marked contrast to his bloodcurdling singing. "I didn't have to read it to know what it said.

Hey, the reviews we got in Toronto [their hometown] last week were the first favorable ones we'd ever gotten there." Bad reviews have been a way of life for Rush since Lee and Lifeson, both twenty-seven, and Peart, 28, first started touring America in 1974, hot on the heels of their Led Zep-alike debut, Rush. Now, despite the longstanding scorn of many critics, as well as radio station program directors who deemed the group's brand of progressive aggro-rock unfit for airplay, Rush are finally enjoying the fruits of seven years' labor on the road. Last year's Permanent Waves cracked the Top Five and even sired the band's first major hit single, "The Spirit of Radio."

But the big payoff is Moving Pictures, which peaked at Number Three barely a month after its release, aced out of the top spot only by REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity and Styx' Paradise Theatre. Already gold and certain to go platinum, the album has also set off a chain reaction: older albums like 2112 and the live All the World's a Stage have gone platinum in its wake. Rush has now sold more than 10 million records worldwide.

Compared to earlier Rush epics like 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, with their twenty-minute concept pieces and serpentine rhythm changes, both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures are paragons of heavy-metal commerciality. Five of Moving Pictures' seven songs clock in at under five minutes; the rougher edges have been shaved off Lee's voice; and on one number, "Vital Signs," the band even takes a shot at a Police-style reggae shuffle.

"The difference," Lee explains, "is in the organization of the music We learned a lot about composition and arrangement in making Hemispheres. Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures are the result of application, of saying, 'Okay, we know we can do this and we learned all this. Now let's see if we can make a song out of it that'll really have a lot happening in it.' It's not just that the songs are four minutes long so they can get on the radio. It's the quality of those four minutes."

But the real secret of Rush's success is that they simply eliminated the middlemen. When FM radio stations ignored them, the band took their cause directly to the people, touring America with a vengeance and often playing as many as 200 concerts a year.

"At our heaviest," figures Lee, "we were touring seven months of the year and recording two months. We'd have maybe a total of a month off – and never at one time. It was hard, but we felt we had to do that because we weren't getting exposure any other way. Besides, we enjoyed playing, and what better way to learn your craft – to refine what you're doing – than to do it?"

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