Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense: they adapted and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day.
First things first. Just because Rush is finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it doesn’t mean that institution is not still problematic for reasons too numerous—and obvious—to require elaboration (Hint: Look who’s not in. Now look at who is in. Draw some conclusions).
Put another way, it’s not necessarily the bands, like Rush, that have thus far been denied so much as so many of the middling acts that have been admitted that made this particular delay such an affront.
Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.
Rush’s induction will spare us the spectacle of so many uncool and cast out acolytes storming the Hall like By-Tor on Bastille Day. Think of all the time and energy this simple act of justice has freed up now that veterans of the chat-room wars no longer have to rail against the power windows that be.
Full disclosure: I once wrote a college paper analyzing the Utopian impulse in Rush’s late-‘70s albums (the “Holy Trinity” that comprised 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, which was in turn followed by the holier trinity that includes Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals). (See "Emotional Feedback on a Timeless Wavelength: Rush's 'Permanent Waves", and "Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece".)
Assuming there will be haters and party-poopers who reserve the right to protest any kudos coming Rush’s way, let’s evaluate the evidence. There are so many angles to attack this from, that fact alone makes a fairly credible case. For starters, Rush tops a very short list of bands that have managed to stick together for 40 years.
Conversely and, for my money, compellingly, had Rush happened to be a short-lived band that put out Moving Pictures bookended by Permanent Waves and Signals--before a tragic toboggan incident claimed Geddy Lee’s life—Rush would have been first ballot material. Certain acts do themselves no favors by sticking around, just as certain acts get idolized all out of proportion based on a furious combination of potential, wistfulness and what-ifs (Exhibit A: Nirvana).
True, for most objective fans, it has been a long series of inconsistent efforts since (insert album here). For this writer, the last album that fully satisfied was 1989’s Presto. On the other hand, there are people not even born in the ‘80s who have jumped on the bandwagon upon hearing one of the albums released during the last quarter-century.
Their most recent effort, 2012’s Clockwork Angels has generated the most positive press the band has received in ages, proof positive that they can have a meaningful impact even as they approach sexagenarian status. The point being, Rush has continued to create new work and convert new fans over the course of multiple decades. In terms of longevity and relevance, this fact is more than slightly astounding, and all but a rock 'n' roll anomaly.
Perhaps instead of listing more of the pros, we could consider the alleged cons, many of which apply to prog-rock bands in general and are, not surprisingly, epitomized by Rush.
There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.
One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort).
Incidentally, and ironically, U2 take themselves much more seriously (and are much more insufferable) than any prog-rock sourpuss—with the possible exception of ELP. Naturally, Bono and the boys are worshipped by Rolling Stone, the same publication that until 2008 couldn’t be bothered to put Rush on a single cover.
But… Ayn Rand!
Okay. For the first few albums after Peart assumed writing duties (Fly By Night through 2112) the lyrics range from earnest to embarrassing, but it’s the fleet fortune hunt with Rand that, somewhat justifiably, dogged the band forever after. Acknowledging “the genius of Ayn Rand” in the liner notes is never going to win over many literate or discerning listeners (much less critics), so Rush became guilty by self-inflicted association.
Never mind that the accusations of being reactionary (misguided) or fascist (ludicrous) did not sensibly apply to a song cycle based on a future without music. Indeed, Peart & Co. have spent decades pointing out (quite credibly) that the material of 2112 had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements.
And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).
Let’s go to the audio tape: Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last 33 years. His love of language (the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art are a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. As one decade ended Rush had already made history: as another one commenced they were fully prepared to produce work that remains resilient—and relevant.
Okay. Even if one concedes that the music and the lyrics are top-notch, there is still Geddy Lee’s voice to get around. It seems to be a love/hate proposition (not unlike what many people experience with Neil Young and Tom Waits, to name two of the more popular polarizers in rock circles). Is it that upper register that throughout the ‘70s often escalated to a shriek what repels people (especially women)? Is there something to be said about a band whose songs and attitude could not be less “alpha male”, and whose singer sounds like a woman, having the smallest female fan base of any prog-rock entity?
Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV.
Discussion of Rush’s catalog calls to mind the way entirely too many people talk when (or if) they talk about jazz: strong opinions abound, and it’s soon revealed that the dissenter has listened to little (if any) of the work in question. For every skeptic who employs some or all of the objections listed above, it’s seldom acknowledged that the same band singing about necromancers and the Tobes of Hades went on to address decidedly un-prog issues ranging from AIDS (“Nobody’s Hero”), to bullying (“Subdivisions”), to suicide (“The Pass”). In fact, it may be the persistent positivity (of the band; of its material) that rankles the cynics and naysayers more than anything else.
In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it's very much about the here and now.
From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).
Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.