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Rush: 40 things you didn't know about the legendary prog rockers

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Canada's rockingest band of all time is celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut album this week with a new box set of live DVDs called R40. In honour of Rush's 40 years of being awesomely uncool, here are 40 things you might not know about them.

1. Alex Lifeson was born “Aleksandar Živojinović” to parents who immigrated from Serbia.

2. Geddy Lee was born “Gary Weinrib” to two Holocaust survivors who immigrated from Poland as refugees.

3. Neil Peart was born “Neil Peart” to parents who owned a farm outside of Hamilton.

4. Of the three current members of the band, Peart is the only one not to have played on every album. The band’s self-titled debut features John Rutsey on drums.

5. Rutsey’s brother came up with the name of the band.

6. Rutsey is not the only “former member of Rush.” Original bassist Jeff Jones was replaced by Geddy Lee after one month in 1968, at which point all of them were teenagers. Jones went on to become a long-standing member of Red Rider.

7. Red Rider’s US album sales have averaged 60,000 to 70,000 copies. It takes 500,000 to be certified gold. To date, Rush has 24 gold albums, 14 platinum, and 3 multi-platinum albums. (This isn’t a value judgement; I’m just saying — teenage Jeff Jones backed the wrong horse.)

8. Despite not being released as a single, “Working Man” became a hit in Cleveland, when radio DJ Donna Halper listened to the record and realized it was the perfect song for the factory town that Cleveland still was in 1974. That was the band’s first significant radio breakthrough.

9. The debut album features the first of three Rush songs to be credited solely to Geddy Lee, “In The Mood.” The others are “Best I Can” and “Tears.”

10. Lee’s solo writing credits exceed Lifeson’s by one. Lifeson receives sole credit on only two songs: “Lessons” and “Hope.” (His mother always wished he was more ambitious.)

11. Shortly after Peart joined up, the band gave each other the nicknames Dirk (Lee), Lerxst (Lifeson) and Pratt (Peart).

12. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” from Fly By Night, was the band’s first song to exceed eight minutes in length. It is also the first of many Rush songs to be explicitly broken down into numbered sections — a prog rock trope developed by bands like ELP and Yes. (See, for example, “Tarkus” and “Close to the Edge.”)

13. On “Snow Dog,” Rush pushed that trope to another level by breaking down one of its numbered sections into even smaller numbered sections. This cemented their prog credentials for years to come.

14. The band privately referred to the tour promoting their third album, Caress of Steel, as the “Down the Tubes” tour, as they were all sure that their career would end, pending the failure of their next studio album (which, in practice, was the massively successful 2112.)

15. By this point, Neil Peart had established himself as one of the most allusive lyricists in rock and roll. Confirmed literary references in Rush lyrics include Ayn Rand’s Anthem (in “Anthem” and “2112”), J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (in “Rivendell” and “The Necromancer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (in “Xanadu”), Cervantes’ Don Quixote (in “Cygnus X1”), Richard Foster’s “A Nice Morning Drive” (in “Red Barchetta”), Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in “Limelight”), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls(in “Losing It”), and John Dos Passos’s The Big Money (in “The Big Money”). Oh yeah, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in “Closer to the Heart.” (I think that’s right.)

16. Rush’s conceptual piece “Cygnus X-1” is so epic that it straddles two different albums:A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres.

17. The track “Xanadu” from A Farewell to Kings follows the same musical structure as the later Rush track “The Camera Eye,” from Moving Pictures (instrumental intro — bit with lyrics — instrumental interlude — reprise of the bit with lyrics).

18. Rush is the kind of band whose fans notice that stuff.

19. “La Villa Strangiato,” probably Rush’s proggiest track ever, pushes the ol’ subtitle trope even farther than “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” Its nine-and-a-half-minute running time is broken down into twelve sections, each with its own roman numeral. Examples include “I. Buenos Nochas, Mein Froinds!” and “VIII. The Waltz of the Shreves.” The track as a whole is given the subtitle “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.” (I didn’t make that up, lest anybody misunderstand.)

20. “La Villa” took the band longer to record than their entire second album.

21. Permanent Waves was released on Jan. 1, 1980. It is therefore either the first album of the 1980s, or among a tiny handful of contenders.

22. The gradual shift towards shorter, more direct songs that starts on Permanent Waves was the result of the band’s conscious decision not to put themselves through another hellish misadventure like recording “La Villa Strangiato.”

23. The album’s signature song “The Spirit of Radio” marks the start of a new lyrical obsession for Peart: the state of the music industry. He’ll revisit that theme on 1985’s “Grand Designs” and 1990’s “Superconductor.” We can therefore assume that Peart is 50 per cent more preoccupied by this than by J.R.R. Tolkien, who only turns up in two tracks. (See number 15.)

24. Another of Peart’s lyrical fixations is the gender-neutral indefinite third-person pronoun: “One likes to believe in the freedom of music…” “One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact…”

25. To record the crowd noise at the beginning of “Witch Hunt” from Moving Pictures, the band just took some microphones outside of the studio, got drunk and started shouting.

26. “YYZ” is named after the identification code for Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The track’s opening riff is simply those three letters, rendered in Morse code.

27. Rush is well-known for using non-standard time signatures like 7/8 and 5/4. But these don’t only show up in their instrumental jams and album tracks. Many of their biggest hits contain an odd meter at least briefly. See: “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta” and “Subdivisions.”

28. “New World Man” from Signals was written and recorded in a two-day blitz, when the band realized they were short on material.

29. That track became the band’s first and only Canadian number one hit.

30. 1984’s Grace Under Pressure features “The Enemy Within,” which is subtitled “Part I of Fear.” (The roman numerals are back.) “Fear,” it turns out, was a trilogy of songs that rolled out in reverse order, with Part III kicking things off in 1981, and Part II appearing in 1982.

31. By the time Rush released Hold Your Fire in 1987, they’d become so reliant on synthesizers that they needed to have two banks of sequencers backstage at every concert, just in case one of them failed mid-song.

32. The singing, flying camerawoman in this hilarious video for “Time Stand Still” is none other than Aimee Mann, later of Magnolia soundtrack fame.

33. Neil Peart has an idiosyncratic understanding of David Lynch movies. In a 1994 interview, he referred to Blue Velvet as a “comedy classic.”

34. Geddy Lee is a major wine aficionado with a collection of over 5,000 bottles. Watch his expertise in action in this video of the entire band eating dinner at a hunting lodge. (Minor language warning. Slightly NSFW.)

35. We can also glean from that video that Alex Lifeson’s voice sounds like an American doing their "Canadian" impression.

36. 2002’s Vapor Trails uses the American spelling of “vapour” in its title rather than the Canadian. Seemingly, no one has taken the band to task for this.

37. Vapor Trails contains the track “Freeze (Part IV of ‘Fear’),” because even after all this time, Neil Peart can’t resist a good roman numeral.

38. On Snakes & Arrows, Alex Lifeson is credited with mandolin and bouzouki, in addition to guitars. He has, however, never played his first instrument — the viola — on a Rush album.

39. The documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage reveals that the band members, now in their 60s, still refer to each other as Dirk, Lerxt and Pratt.

40. Rush’s new 40th anniversary boxset — containing footage of the band playing the full, seven (VII) part version of “2112” — is out now.

Have I missed something crucial? Tweet to us @CBCMusic, and don't forget to tag it #Rushweek.


Rush FAQ by Max Mobley
Contents Under Pressure by Martin Popoff
Rush Visions by Bill Banasiewicz
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, directed by Scott McFadyen and Sam Dunn
The Canadian Encyclopaedia: Tom Cochrane & Red Rider 
RPM: 50 Singles, October 9, 1982 
Rush Backstage Club newsletter, January 1994
Entertainment Weekly: Three rounds with... Geddy Lee 

(Note: This post has been edited to correct an embarrassing mathematical error in number 23.)