Neil Peart: Essential Songs, From “Tom Sawyer” to “2112” - Rolling Stone
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Rush’s Neil Peart: 12 Essential Songs

From “2112” to “Tom Sawyer,” we look back at some of the legendary drummer-lyricist’s high-tech highlights

“Neil Peart, that’s a whole other animal, another species of drummer,” Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2018, responding to a question about whether he could ever sit behind the kit for Rush. It’s a sentiment pretty much unanimously agreed upon in the rock world: Peart’s feats on his instrument, the way he powered Rush’s brain-bending songs for 40 years, with a combination of jaw-dropping technicality and artful eccentricity, did make him seem downright superhuman. Add in his lyrical gifts, which fueled both the band’s conceptual prog-era epics and its heartfelt hits in the Eighties and beyond, and you have a polymathic talent with no real peers in his field.

It would take dozens of tracks to represent the full scope of Neil Peart’s genius as a percussionist and wordsmith, but consider these 12 — which stretch from the first Rush album he appeared on in 1975 to the trio’s final LP close to four decades later — as an invitation into the wider world of the man they called the Professor.

QUEBEC, CANADA - 1st SEPTEMBER: Drummer Neil Peart from Canadian progressive rock band Rush recording their album 'Permanent Waves' at Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec, Canada in October 1979. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

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“The Spirit of Radio” (1980)

The 1980s were a very cruel time for most prog bands of the Seventies, but Rush managed to avoid the fate of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer by releasing Permanent Waves weeks into the decade and earning a whole new audience thanks to leadoff single “The Spirit of Radio.” The screed against the corporatization of radio (“Glittering prizes/And endless compromises/Shatter the illusion of integrity”) became an unlikely hit and helped move Rush into arenas. Neil Peart was listening to a lot of the Police in this time period, and the reggae-inspired beats he blends into his signature busy attack here echoed the influence of Stewart Copeland. ‘”The Spirit of Radio’ could be called ‘The Spirit of Music,'” Peart said in 1980. “That particular song was written about a radio station that is a paragon; it’s called CFNY-FM and it’s in Toronto. And they are still what FM radio was 15 years ago. So I listen to it constantly when I’m home, and it represents something, maybe the precious last stronghold of something.”

LONDON - 1st JUNE: Canadian Progressive rock group Rush posed in a studio in London in June 1980. Left to right: bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

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“Tom Sawyer” (1981)

Rush’s unlikely career as radio hitmakers continued in 1981 with “Tom Sawyer,” which charted all over the world and became the band’s signature song. Peart wrote the lyrics with songwriter Pye Dubois. “His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful,” Peart said. “I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be — namely me I guess.” The mind-boggling, kit-enveloping drum fill midway through the song ranks with the break from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” (released just weeks earlier) as one of the most celebrated — and air-drummed — fills in the history of rock. Countless amateur drummers have attempted to recreate the part in their garages and basements, but nobody has come close to topping the original. “It’s still challenging and satisfying to play,” Peart said of “Tom Sawyer” in 2012.

Neil Peart performs live on stage at Wembley Arena in London on November 5th, 1981.

Neil Peart performs live on stage at Wembley Arena in London on November 5th, 1981.

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“YYZ” (1981)

The airport code for Toronto (a city with neither Y nor Z in its name) became the title for a gleefully off-the-wall Moving Pictures instrumental. The song is a mere four-and-a-half minutes on the record, but it nearly doubled in length on tour when Peart inserted a daredevil drum solo in the middle. (Check out live record Exit … Stage Left for the definitive version.) It remained a concert staple for decades and a perfect forum for all three members of the group to demonstrate their chops. “That song came from in flying into Toronto one time and we heard the morse code rhythm coming in from the cockpit,” Peart said in 2012. “We felt it would make a good introduction to a song. And then cinematically we decided it was a song about airports, so we have exotic moods shifting around and the the gigantic crescendo of people being reunited.”

Neil Peart

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“Subdivisions” (1982)

Rush streamlined their sound brilliantly on Moving Pictures, and follow-up effort Signals found them pushing even further into a radio-friendly Eighties soundworld. Lead track “Subdivisions,” driven by a pulsing Lee synth riff in 7/4, showed how Peart, and the band as a whole, could operate comfortably in a pop format without sacrificing any of the nuance that made them prog legends. It also featured maybe the most poignant set of lyrics Peart ever wrote, an account of suburban alienation, and the adolescent pressure to “conform or be cast out,” that seemed to give voice to the quiet discontent of the archetypal Rush fan, forever out of step with the cool crowd. Asked in 2017 if the song was autobiographical, Peart replied, “Extremely! How we turn out as adults has a lot to do with the way others saw us in high school.”

Neil Peart from Rush poses on a video shoot in Battersea, London in April, 1984.

Neil Peart from Rush poses on a video shoot in Battersea, London in April, 1984.

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“The Enemy Within” (1984)

By their 10th LP, Grace Under Pressure, Rush had proved that they could thrive in the New Wave era — embracing shorter, simpler song structures and sleeker production while maintaining their muso prog chops. As always, Peart’s percussion was essential to that evolution: The tympani and temple blocks of his late Seventies set-up were in the rear-view, allowing him to play with more economy and precision. “The Enemy Within” perfectly sums up Peart 2.0: In the verses, his dancing hi-hats fill the spaces between Geddy Lee’s funky bass and Alex Lifeson’s ska-styled guitar riff. The track — part one of a thematic trilogy on the subject of fear, but the last to appear chronologically — demonstrates the influence of the Police’s Stewart Copeland, whom Peart referenced in interviews of that era. “There’s a band called the Police and their drummer plays with simplicity, but with such gusto,” he told Modern Drummer in 1980. “It’s great. He just has a new approach.”

Neil Peart performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, on May 3rd, 1992.

Neil Peart performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, on May 3rd, 1992.

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“Stick It Out” (1993)

After their synth-heavy mid-Eighties phase, echoes of which lingered in well-written but brittle-sounding albums like 1989’s Presto and 1991’s Roll the Bones, the hard-rock Rush roared back on 1993’s Counterparts, one of the heaviest records of the band’s entire career. Lead single “Stick It Out” flaunted a dark, imposing heft that seemed perfectly in step with the grungy Nineties. And Peart was up to his old tricks, syncopating his hi-hat part in the intro to throw the listener off and then crashing in with a thunderous backbeat. His lyrics, which caution against burying your true emotions, round out a track that epitomizes the band’s leaner, meaner modern incarnation. Peart himself, a musician seemingly allergic to rock machismo, saw the track a little differently: “That song, I would say, both lyrically and musically, verges on parody,” he said.

Neil Peart performs during a sold-out show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena September 21, 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Neil Peart performs during a sold-out show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena September 21, 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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“One Little Victory” (2002)

Rush took an unplanned five-year break in the late Nineties and early 2000s after their drummer suffered a pair unimaginable losses: the deaths of his daughter and common-law wife within the span less than a year. Peart later wrote that, at the time, he told his bandmates “consider me retired,” but after a long, cathartic motorcycle journey, he returned to the band. His first notes on record after his hiatus — a thrash-metal-worthy double-kick-drum barrage, topped off by nimble snare accents — showed that at age 50, he was still a seemingly superhuman force behind the kit, a sensation driven home by the song’s carpe diem lyrics. During the writing of “One Little Victory,” Peart initially had a subtler drumming approach in mind, but his bandmates encouraged him to come out swinging. “I’d been working on that tune and came up with that double bass part,” Peart told Modern Drummer. “I thought it worked perfectly for the end of the song. But Geddy said, ‘That’s a great part. You ought to open the song with it. That would just kill.’ Frankly, I wouldn’t have done it that way — I don’t think I would have been so assertive — but Geddy suggested it and I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.'”

Drummer Neil Peart of Rush performs in concert at the AT&T Center on November 30, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas.

Drummer Neil Peart of Rush performs in concert at the AT&T Center on November 30, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas.

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“BU2B” (2012)

In retrospect, the end of Rush, both in the studio and onstage, seems like a master class in how to wind down a legendary rock career with dignity fully intact. Their last album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, fused the punch of their Nineties and 2000s catalog with the epic narrative sweep of their Seventies masterpieces. “BU2B” was a clear standout: a bruising hard-rocker driven by a steely, determined Peart groove. As monolithic as his drumming felt here, you could also hear his beats breathing more, reflecting the influence of his mid-career mentor Freddie Gruber, who he paid tribute to on Clockwork Angels track “Headlong Flight.” Lyrically, “BU2B” (an abbreviation for “brought up to believe”) found Peart championing freewill and rejecting the idea of blind faith, notions that captivated him throughout his career. The album’s steampunk-esque setting was new for the band, but the basic theme — the individual’s struggle against conformity — stretched all the way back to the “Anthem” days. “This is more about his personal upbringing and values that were instilled into this character,” Lee said of how “BU2B” laid out the background of the album’s protagonist, “and this is what you find when he goes out and faces this world that is not so cool.”

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