First things first: Rush is not a photogenic band. They may be the only band that looks better now that they’re older than when they began. But for Rush fans, there are certain inescapable truths beyond their cosmetic exterior that are accepted: 1. They are Canadian, 2. They are consummate musicians, and 3. They have legions of well-earned, diehard fans ready to defend their every musical exploitation.
Which places Martin Popoff’s Rush: The Illustrated History in a category with the most criticism-proof, built-in audience available. Rush: The Illustrated History is, at its essence, a coffee table book tailor-made for Rush fans only. Rush lacks the crossover appeal and ubiquitous recognition of other artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan—all of whom have had similar illustrated histories compiled about them. Rush have the same longevity and work ethic of these artists, but they exist within their own niche; somewhere on the edge of progressive rock and rock mainstream, in a category of their own creation.
Much of Rush’s appeal can be attributed to their tireless work ethic and touring schedule, which Popoff does well to highlight in a career retrospective. The band has toured endlessly to remote regions, earning their acceptance one fan at a time, losing bulks of them along the way, gaining them back, and navigating the destructive shifts in the musical landscape. If anything, Rush: The Illustrated History, works as a time capsule buried long before the digital age. The memorabilia that Popoff has assembled (most of it from his personal collection) is fun to explore, but better to reminisce on. Early record label advertisements, album release announcements, tour posters, and concert ticket stubs offer an in-depth view into Rush’s life on the road, as a heavy-hitter in the bygone era of 70s pomp. It also documents a time when record labels were invested in artists and their product and willing to put money into advertising for them.
Popoff doesn’t cast much of a critical eye towards Rush in this text. Instead, he writes much of it from a fan’s loyal perspective. Popoff worked full time on the 2010 Rush documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, so his foremost expertise in all areas Rush never comes into question. He allows interviews and quotes from the band to comprise the bulk of the text, with sidebar album reviews from various writers.
But the text is bulky, rudimentary, and laid out like a maze around the “illustrated” portions of the book. The sidebar record reviews don’t contribute anything to the legitimacy of Rush’s already-established catalog. Most of them are just opportunities for reflections on Rush’s lengthy backlog and a rehashing of synth-based Rush vs non-synth-based Rush. (Although Popoff does take down Rush’s 1989 LP, Presto in a scathing review—notable because it was considered Rush’s first rock album after the synthesizer years.)
Rush: The Illustrated History is a neophyte’s introduction to Rush. There’s no deep dive into the 40 plus years of Rush lore, only about 200 pages of surface-level history, what amounts to a Reader’s Digest version of a literary classic. Which isn’t a problem given that the subtitle is The Illustrated History, but the “illustrated” aspects are merely on par with the text and, aside from the early nostalgic Rush memorabilia, most of it never rises above to catch the eye. Do we really need to see the covers of Neil Peart’s travel memoirs? Or the poster for Rush: Live in Rio when it is exactly the same as the album cover? And the band photographs often display the trio is the most hilarious and unflattering poses. (There’s a few images of Geddy Lee that shouldn’t’ have seen the light of day, let alone be full page color photos.) The displays that show the magnanimity of Rush are the ones in the back of the book; the magazine covers that Rush members have graced and their extensive discography are the most impressive pieces.
Rush fans will easily snatch this book up based on its subject. Non-Rush fans can glean all they may need to know from the band by watching the 2010 documentary. There’s no in-between audience that Rush: The Illustrated History will appeal to, although reading it might revive interest in Rush’s vast back catalog and potentially grant “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” a few more spins on classic rock radio.