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What Makes Rush Special?

I’ve been a Rush fan for close to four decades now – since 1983 or so. In that time I’ve probably absorbed every lyric multiple times, and hundreds of musical nuances (with thousands to go, with my luck and attention spa- hey, look, a squirrel!), and despite what I think is a pretty absurd level of investment in the band, there’s still a lot to figure out.

And in all this time, I don’t think I’d really figured out what it was about Rush that differentiated them so much for me from other bands I like, like the Beatles, Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Tool, Yes, The Who… among many others.

A few days ago, though, something struck me: in nearly every song that Rush created, there’s something for every part that a musician who plays that instrument would wish they’d played.

Like… if there’s a guitar line in a song, a guitarist is going to find something in that part to really resonate with. Every part shines somehow, whether it’s in restraint (as in “Different Strings”) or dexterity (as in “Analog Kid”) or brute strength (think “Working Man.”)

Likewise, on bass, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bass player of any merit who’d listen to a typical Geddy Lee baseline and think “… eh, coulda been better.” Maybe it could, if you preferred harmonic or melodic lines to holding down the song relative to the other instruments… but, you know, I’ve heard covers of Rush songs that tried amping up or down various parts, and they just don’t work as well.

On percussion… the late Neil Peart was a master of that method of playing that says “You wish you could have done this,” in so many ways, to the point where aspiring drummers wonder how he cheated (he didn’t) and skilled drummers add to their toolboxes using techniques Neil demonstrated. You can legitimately argue about whether John Bonham was a “better drummer,” but I don’t think a sane musicologist would be able to defend the idea that Peart was not more influential on the art of drumming for drummers.

That approach of “What would a musician want to play?,” in every part, in every song, means that Rush is exhausting to play – and incredibly enervating. As a listener, you know you can focus on any part and get something out of it.

It’s also a recipe that’s incredibly difficult to replicate. I’m a multi-instrumentalist myself – guitar, bass, drums, synthesizers, vocals – and I write and record my own songs. I’m even proud of most of them, in various ways.

But the truth is… I don’t meet that “every part has merit” bar. It might be because I write every part myself – having found few musicians with whom my vision can truly be shared such that we’re a partnership and not either a leader or a slave – but I find that I tend to emphasize the energy around two aspects of the song (guitar and vocals tend to get the nod) and the other instruments serve the song, so to speak, such that their roles are diminished in the final product.

There’s nothing inherently bad about this; think about Ringo Starr’s percussion! He served nearly every song he played on with the Beatles. (I say “nearly” because there’s a possibility he didn’t… I just don’t know about it.) But rarely did he write his parts such that a musician would say “Gosh, I wish I could have done that!” You don’t often see someone air drumming to the Beatles like they do nearly any song Rush ever recorded. (If you see me air drumming to the Beatles, it means Dear Prudence is playing, even though Starr is probably the most directly influential drummer for me.)

But still… it means that Rush has a musical impact unlike nearly every other band out there, because no other band had every musical line push itself like Rush’s music does. The Who would probably be the closest to this ideal; perhaps Yes, but I think The Who – being a smaller unit – did a better job of it. (Yes had to fit a master of keyboards into the mix, and the music just ends up being too dense for every instrument to be played at full speed and power.)

Even Led Zeppelin “served the song” in such a way that instruments took a back seat to the song. The same goes for Pink Floyd (whose musicians were not always of the same caliber as Rush’s musicians).

What got me thinking along this line was the idea of Peart playing electronic drums.

I’m not a fan of electronic drum kits; they never feel right, they never respond properly. Mesh heads are better than plastic heads, of course, but then you have to content with cymbals not responding the same, and the sample sets are rarely done as well as I’d like; they feel electronic, fake. I don’t mind as much when they commit to the electronic mode and sound electronic, but still… they don’t feel right.

Yet they’re easier to play. An electronic trigger doesn’t require you to play as hard as a “real kit” does, especially in a concert setting.

What if Neil – whose shoulders and elbows suffered greatly towards the end of his career – had switched to an electronic kit that allowed him to simplify his playing and therefore extend his musical shelf life, so to speak? (This is obviously not factoring in the cancer that eventually took his life; my own father passed away from the same type of cancer, and being able to play an “easier kit” wouldn’t have affected that tragedy. That should go without having to be said… but I’m saying it anyway.)

The thing is… he’d still have to actually PLAY the drums, and to do that like Neil Peart requires a certain level of commitment that would preclude taking the easy way out. He himself said that he had the option of becoming Charlie Watts – without insulting Charlie, who’s the best drummer for the Rolling Stones – but that he couldn’t become Charlie Watts without losing Neil Peart in the process, a remarkably astute statement that testifies for his values.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to achieve the level of intensity Rush had in my own music. I’m not sure I can, and honestly, without collaboration, I’m not sure I even want to – you really want to have a contrast of approaches and I’m not quite schizophrenic enough to meet that bar.

But … you know, I love Rush all the more for it.

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