Updated: Feb 6, 2020
When Rush speaks, I listen. I imagine it’s the same for you, with your favorite and/or most influential band. I not only hear the music, but the message, the lessons, and the takeaways.
Years ago, I saw a Rush documentary called Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
As I watched, I realized that Rush were a band that fought for complete brand control. They were an entity that went far past their music. Beyond the lit stage, if you paid close attention, you saw a masterclass on creativity and integrity.
Rush was a band whose career spanned five decades, and whose albums span themes like philosophical thought, science fiction and the human condition. Rush songs exist along a wide spectrum: you’ll find them on the radio and rocking sing-a-longs in sold-out stadiums, or hit play on track one and hear a single literature-inspired 20-minute long prog-rock epic piece.
For Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart, being Rush wasn't always an easy road to travel. But, it was their highway, paved with their own intellectual and sweat work. Beyond the Lighted Stage explores the lessons of Rush through their history, their music, and their deep friendship roots. Here’s what I think all creatives can take from this band.
1. Connect with your supporters (i.e. your fans).
Rush had a direct connection with their fans. For years, they got to know their supporters by playing to small crowds - high schools and tiny venues. They took the time to build a loyal following. They knew what their audience felt and echoed that back. It wasn’t a rush (pardon the pun) to get to top of the charts; it was a steady base-building of loyalty.(1) When critics hated them, they looked to the fans. Guess whose input was always more valuable?
2. If (when) you feel stagnant, try something new.
When the old way wasn’t feeling good anymore, Rush changed up the routine. Their career was a 50-year demonstration in how to challenge or push themselves. Experiments might have failed, but growth didn’t happen in stagnation; it happened in times of change. When Rush went from Moving Pictures to Signals, their goal was to “find the better Rush.” Curious as to where you can find something new? Try what Rush did: they took their their influences and put them through the blender to attempt new and different outcomes.(2)
3. Don’t limit yourself: reach big to be big.
When Rush first began to construct the album Hemispheres, they wrote music that was beyond their playing capability. La Villa Strangiato was an intense struggle for the band in recording, but it didn’t stop them from pushing themselves in an attempt to lay it down in a single, live track. They weren’t afraid to stretch or try things that were beyond their ability, and were always overreaching. Pushing made them stronger, and it allowed them to blow through plateaus.
4. You can always learn (or re-learn) something new.
Rush weren’t afraid to do something different; something other. They went from Hemispheres to The Spirit of Radio, which was a huge departure in sound and concept. A prevalent theme with the band was that they could always reinvent themselves. You, too, can always reinvent yourself. Neil Peart “re-learned” drum technique with famed jazz drummer and teacher, Freddie Gruber, midway through his career, and after enjoying many years of success with Rush. With Gruber, Peart learned to play in a new style. Part of this band’s philosophy was that if you’re breathing, you’re alive, and if you’re alive, you’re learning. Make the best of your breathing time.
5. Be true your artistic vision and be unique.
In the early 1970s, Rush were a rising band, gaining attention in the States with the release of Fly by Night and touring with bands like Kiss. They hit a wall when they released Caress of Steel, a transitional album that was darker than previous albums and contained extremely long songs. Album sales and concert crowds dwindled. When it came time to release their next album, their record company pressed them to write an album that was more radio-friendly with shorter songs. Instead, they made 2112, where the title track was a 20-minute science-fiction song set in space that tells of a dystopian music future. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart all admitted that they would have rather gone back to their non-music jobs than sell-out to record companies.
There was fearlessness in Rush’s creativity, but there was a sense of bold uniqueness that made them a band entirely their own. To quote Kiss’ Gene Simmons: “What kind of band is Rush? Rush.”
6. Build on your strengths and your influences.
2112 builds on Rush’s past. In fact, it was the album 2112 that bought them their freedom as a band, unburdening them from record company dictation, which was their vision right from the heart. I mean, the start.
2112 is about the individual against the masses. It goes right back to core beliefs, and that’s both the fan that’s at the heart of it all, and honoring personal values over peer, societal, and business pressures. They always worked on developing themselves and pushing forward. They had motivation and an attitude to take over the world.
And, so, they did.
“‘This doesn’t suit Rush.’ Those words have never been uttered.” - Neil Peart
Often derided by critics and considered a musical dinosaur, I’d argue that this band, who were considered to be part of the elite rock establishment, were more punk rock than the hip bands that sneered at them. Maybe I showed you a glimpse as to why. Punk rock isn’t necessarily spikes, leather and ripped flags. It’s anti-establishment. It’s brand control. It’s self-expressionism.
I’ve wanted to write this blog post for years, but it wasn’t until the untimely news of drummer Neil Peart’s death hit me that I decided it was time. Maybe a lesson to be added to the list is this: don’t put off something creative that your heart is driving you to do now. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
Rest in peace, Neil.
(1) Kevin Kelly talks about this in his essay, 1000 True Fans.
(2) We discuss ways to do this in our blog post on The Pop Culture Mill.