Rush Rush 1974

Finding Their Way: Rush’s Debut Album at 50

Fifty years after its release, progressive rockers Rush’s debut album remains an important stepping stone in the Canadian trio’s long journey to success.

18 March 1974

When Rush embarked on their final tour, R40, in 2015, the legendary Canadian power trio revisited a legacy stretching back to 1974 when drummer Neil Peart joined the band. Working in reverse chronological order, Rush began each show with recent material from 2012’s Clockwork Angels and ended with two songs, “What You’re Doing” and “Working Man”, from their eponymous 1974 debut album. A snippet of the riff from “Garden Road”, an early song from Rush’s bar band beginnings, capped off the set.

This grasp at the past by a band that had grown and developed so much was more than simple nostalgia. Rush was not a big hit upon its release, and few of its songs are among the group’s signature tracks. However, it established Rush as a hard rock band adjacent to heavy metal. Even though Rush never made another album quite like Rush, moving ever further into progressive rock throughout the 1970s, the debut album remains a crucial stepping stone for the iconic trio.  

R40 marked Neil Peart’s retirement due to chronic tendinitis that prevented him from continuing to perform at his peak. He later avoided public disclosure of a far worse condition, glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, prior to his death at age 67 on 7 January 2020. Rush’s other two members, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist-keyboardist-vocalist Geddy Lee knew about Peart’s illness but remained quiet to protect his privacy.  

Peart was the second Rush drummer to die hidden from the public eye. On 11 May 2008, John Rutsey, their original drummer, succumbed to heart failure at age 55 in his Toronto home. Rutsey was a member of Rush from their inception in 1968 until Peart replaced him in 1974. Lee and Lifeson paid tribute to Rutsey in a public statement, but their relationship with their former bandmate had dissipated by then.

The six years Rutsey was in Rush were crucial to the group’s formation. Peart later held the spotlight as one of rock’s most celebrated and technically gifted drummers, but Rutsey was no slouch. Under his watch, Rush was a leaner, brasher power trio than the progressive-minded band they became by the mid-1970s. His playing on the band’s debut album was a key to its concise hard rock sound.

The Rush story began in August 1968, when the band formed in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. Rutsey, Lifeson (born Aleksandar Živojinović), and bassist-vocalist Jeff Jones played their first gig in a church basement a month later. A long commute for Jones led him to quit the group after that one show. Jones would go on to modest fame as a member of Ocean, who scored a No. 2 hit with “Put Your Hand in the Hand” in 1971, and later in the band Red Rider with Tom Cochrane.

Jones’ replacement, Geddy Lee (born Gary Lee Weinrib), spent seven months as Rush’s bassist and singer before being fired in the spring of 1969. At the behest of manager Ray Danniels, Rutsey and Lifeson recruited two new members and changed the group’s name to Hadrian. Lee joined the short-lived Ogilvie Blues Band. By September, nothing had worked out in either camp, so Lee rejoined Rush as the group reverted to their original name.  

Born with a naturally high tenor able to reach into the mezzo-soprano range, Lee took time to mature as a singer. His voice could be powerfully emotive, as on early Rush originals like “Garden Road” and “Finding My Way”. But it could also be shrill, as on the band’s cover of “Not Fade Away”, their debut single in late 1973. Critics of Rush were often brutal in their assessment of Lee’s vocal style. “A cross between Robert Plant and Donald Duck,” sneered the Canadian critic and Rolling Stone contributor Alan Niester in 1979.

Alex Lifeson was the first member of Rush to distinguish himself musically, developing his early influences (particularly Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix) into a unique style rooted in arpeggios, unusual chord voicings, and modal lead runs.

A fascinating glimpse of his development is preserved in Allan King’s documentary feature film, Come on Children, released in 1973. At age 17, Lifeson, still known as Alex Živojinović, was one of ten teenagers invited to live communally in an Ontario farmhouse for ten weeks in the winter of 1971. Like Michael Apted’s Up series of television documentaries in the UK, King’s film was an exercise in social observation of urban youth created, according to the film’s prologue, “to see what might emerge for each of them personally.”

In various scenes, Alex practices scales on an acoustic guitar and regales his housemates with loose imitations of Jimi Hendrix on his Gibson ES-335 guitar. A more fastidious side emerges as he berates his peers for failing to do their part in cleaning the kitchen. Alex also bears the responsibilities of a young father, his son Justin, who was born in October 1970 to Lifeson’s girlfriend and future wife, Charlene.

The most compelling scene, excerpted decades later in the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010), shows Alex in a heated discussion with his Serbian immigrant parents, Nenad and Melanija Živojinović. Concerned about Alex’s future, Nenad and Melanija try in vain to convince Alex to finish high school instead of quitting to tour with his band (that band, of course, being Rush). Promised $80 per show, a reasonable salary for a budding musician in Canada in 1971, Alex faces down his parents’ skepticism.

The skepticism was justified, as Lifeson later admitted in Beyond the Lighted Stage. Both Lifeson and Lee’s parents had survived Nazi persecution during World War II – Lifeson’s parents in Serbia and Lee’s as Polish-Jewish survivors of Auschwitz. Postwar life in Canada was physically safer but laborious in Toronto’s industrial centers. The idea of three kids from Willowdale “making it” as rock musicians must have been alien to parents of old European stock.

Both Geddy Lee and John Rutsey (the son of a crime reporter for the Toronto Telegram) lost their fathers to heart failure as teenagers. The spirit of carpe diem inhabiting Rush’s music – found in such songs as “Garden Road”, “Finding My Way”, “Before and After”, and “Best I Can” – is partly the result of the group members’ struggle to escape the ravages of youth.

For their first six years, Rush were a struggling cover band. Their early repertoire included covers of British blues-rock by Cream, the Yardbirds, and the Who—influences Rush would later revisit on their 2004 EP of covers, Feedback. Although Rush rarely ventured outside Ontario in the early years, the province’s network of bars and high school auditoriums kept them busy (at least once they had reached the age of majority).

Surviving demos from early Rush performances present a somewhat heavier band than would appear on the group’s debut album. Two songs in particular, “Garden Road” (a riff-intensive song reminiscent of Black Sabbath) and “Fancy Dancer” (a frenetic raver similar to early punk), have an incendiary energy rarely equaled in the band’s early studio work.

Management felt the group needed a more commercial edge, so songs like “Take a Friend” and “In the Mood”, both poppier takes on the Rush sound, replaced some of the heavier fare by the time Rush appeared. Ironically, it was one of the remaining heavy tracks, “Working Man,” that ended up triggering Rush’s commercial breakthrough in the United States.

In the early 1970s, Canadian record labels were mainly outposts of American and British record companies, existing more to plug international releases than foster new talent. A few Canadian independent labels existed, including Aquarius Records, which fostered April Wine’s career as a national headliner, but such labels were mostly small vanity operations that did not have the funds to sign unknown acts.

Unable to secure a deal, Danniels launched Moon Records as an offshoot of his business partner Vic Wilson’s SRO Management. Rush booked time at Toronto’s Eastern Sound Studios in the summer of 1973, recording during the wee hours to save on studio costs. Dave Stock engineered the sessions, which gleaned one single, a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” backed with the group’s own “You Can’t Fight It”. Released in September 1973, the single fizzled in the marketplace.

Seeking a harder rock sound on record, Rush turned to recording engineer Terry Brown for help. A British expatriate who’d worked with Donovan and Jimi Hendrix in England, Brown had engineered successful albums by April Wine and the Stampeders in Canada. With Brown behind the board at Toronto Sound Studios, Rush recorded new material and overdubbed bed tracks from the earlier sessions to create the first album. Brown would go on to produce every Rush album up to 1982’s Signals.

Rush was released on 18 March 1974. Without major promotional backing, sales were slow, although Moon Records managed to shift about 3,500 copies – a small but encouraging figure for what was still a local bar band. Early reviews were primarily positive if often fixated on Rush’s alleged similarity to Led Zeppelin. The single “In the Mood” became a minor hit on Canadian radio.  

Fifty years later, Rush stands up remarkably well for a low-budget independent album. “Finding My Way” is an appropriate opener for Side One, capturing the energy of a band with something to prove. Lee’s vocal begins with a series of wails – “Ooh yeah!” shouted 19 times throughout the song – followed by the first of many lyrical exhortations to seize the day.

After this opening gambit, the record retreats into more melodic territory with “Need Some Love” and “Take a Friend”. Both are simple, catchy tunes lacking some of the fire inhabiting the album’s strongest tracks. Side One concludes with “Here Again”, a slower and heavier track enlivened by Lifeson’s extended soloing and a more subdued vocal performance from Lee.

On Side Two, Rush hits its stride with a Led Zeppelinesque riff rocker, “What You’re Doing”, followed by “In the Mood” (a catchy but oddly titled song with no relation to the Glenn Miller chestnut of the same name). “Before and After” is the album’s most sophisticated track, beginning with phased arpeggios from Lifeson’s guitar and building gradually into anthemic hard rock. “Working Man” concludes the album, a seven-minute rock extravaganza that would eventually win over FM radio in the US. 

The weakest aspect of Rush is the lyrics – a sticking point between John Rutsey and the other two members. Tasked with writing lyrics for some of the songs, Rutsey failed to deliver them in time for the sessions. Forced to improvise, Lee sang his own hastily penned lyrics (lines like “Lookin’ at you / What you’re gonna do” are rife), which lacked the substance the band would achieve later with Peart as the primary lyricist.

Also absent are the progressive rock flourishes heard on such later albums as 1975’s Caress of Steel and 1976’s 2112. Although Lee and Lifeson were already attuned to progressive rock, Rutsey preferred the likes of Free and Grand Funk Railroad and was reluctant to experiment. These musical differences would add to creative tensions within the group.

Rush might have remained a minor Canadian independent release had a lucky break not occurred when a copy found its way to WMMS-FM, the album-oriented rock station in Cleveland, Ohio.

Donna Halper, the program director at WMMS, received a copy of Rush from Bob Roper, a Toronto promotion man. For Halper, the album, with its gaudy red “Rush” logo, had “a sort of ‘home-made’ look”. As a favor to Roper, she played the album in the station’s music library.

The designated single, “In the Mood”, failed to impress her, although she found greater promise in the longer tracks, especially “Working Man”. Because Cleveland was in America’s industrial heartland, Halper thought that a hard rock song with working-class affinities – “It seems to me I could live my life / A lot better than I think I am / I guess that’s why they call me the workin’ man” – might resonate with WMMS listeners. She was right.

Immediately after “Working Man” hit the air, the station’s phones rang with listeners asking where they could buy the album, some mistaking it for a new release by Led Zeppelin. SRO duly shipped some copies to record stores in Cleveland. They quickly sold out, prompting Halper to tell Cliff Burnstein, a promotion man at Mercury Records, about the upstart Canadian band breaking in Cleveland. Having already signed Winnipeg’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury saw the potential of Rush to become another Canadian rock act for the US market.

After six years of trying, Rush had found their way. Only one problem stood between the band and greater success: John Rutsey.

Chronic diabetes made Rutsey understandably reluctant to tour for long periods. Side effects may also have made Rutsey what Lee described in his memoir, My Effin’ Life, as “a moody guy… a difficult guy in the dressing room”. As plans for major US touring followed on the heels of signing to Mercury, Rutsey, it became clear, had to go.

A note of tension enters any Rush interview whenever the subject of John Rutsey comes up. Rutsey co-founded Rush in 1968 and was virtually the bandleader in the early years. On stage, he introduced songs and egged on the audience. It was at Rutsey’s behest that the group adopted the glam outfits that formed their early image. In the photos on the rear cover of Rush, he’s the only one smiling—a rock star ready to take on the world.

Even without the health issues, however, it is doubtful Rutsey would have remained. Lee and Lifeson – both fans of progressive rock groups like Camel, Genesis, King Crimson, and Yes – were intent on pushing Rush in a more progressive rock direction. Part of “Anthem”, a song partly in 7/8 time that would open Rush’s sophomore album Fly by Night, was composed during Rutsey’s tenure. However, Rutsey, in Lee’s view at least, was reluctant to explore unusual time signatures, which frustrated his more musically ambitious bandmates.   

A fascinating document of Rutsey’s time in Rush emerged during the making of Beyond the Lighted Stage in 2010. A mislabeled videotape discovered in the files of SRO Management was found to contain a performance by Rush at Laura Secord Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ontario, in May 1974. The set was filmed for Canadian Bandstand, a noon-hour show on CKCO-TV in Kitchener, Ontario. Rush powers through a 40-minute set of songs from their debut album, along with other originals and a cover of Larry Williams’s “Bad Boy” (popularized by the Beatles in 1965).

Filmed before an audience of bewildered teenagers – probably in their first experience of “heavy metal” in a live setting – the show captures Rush already in fine form. Rutsey’s drumming is tight, even though he races the tempos a little at times. Lee looks ill at ease in a colorful kimono, although he is already an accomplished bassist. Most impressive is Lifeson, dressed in black as he coaxes distinctive riffs from his tobacco-burst ES-335 – a guitar hero in the making. (The entire set can be found on YouTube.)

This performance was Rutsey’s only official live recording with Rush, a little more than two months before he left the band. Those two months would prove crucial in forging Rush’s future as one of rock’s major creative forces and concert headliners. “Working Man” would become a hit in Cleveland, Mercury Records would come on board, and plans for touring the US would increase the band’s profile exponentially.

Rutsey played his last live show with Rush on 25 July, when the group opened for Kiss at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario. It was his last moment in the rock and roll limelight. Four days later, on 29 July, Neil Peart officially joined Rush after an audition that obliterated any competition from other drummers.

Rush fans have long speculated what might have happened if Rutsey had stayed with Rush or if some other drummer besides Peart (inevitably a lesser one) had replaced him.

Rush appeared destined for success on the strength of their first album, which holds its own against other rock releases of 1974 – Blue Oyster Cult’s Secret Treaties, Queen II, Thin Lizzy’s Nightlife, UFO’s Phenomenon, and others. Even as the conventional hard rock band Rutsey preferred, Rush would likely have built an audience and expanded creatively. Bachman-Turner Overdrive and April Wine both succeeded from Canada on a diet of straightforward hard rock.

As it turned out, Rush’s fate was much bigger than the one suggested on their debut album. Rush was eventually certified Gold in the US and Canada, the first in a long line of successful albums for the group. Although critics were always reluctant to accept the band, their fanbase grew through constant touring and the absorbing mythos contained in later albums, including 2112 (1976), Hemispheres (1978), and Moving Pictures (1981). Even some critics eventually came around, as the band’s sheer persistence earned them acclaim as one of rock’s major acts.

Rush’s self-titled debut sounds raw and unpolished compared to all their later work. But that very rawness has endeared it to fans, a few of whom have told me it is their favorite Rush album. The visceral hard rock of Rush lends the group credibility among listeners not especially attuned to progressive rock. Despite the unevenness of some of the songwriting, the album’s quality makes it an essential signpost in Rush’s long and difficult rise to fame.

Works Cited

Halper, Donna. “In the Beginning: The Story of the Discovery of Rush.” Power Windows, 1 Feb. 1998.

Lee, Geddy. My Effin’ Life. HarperCollins, 2023.

Niester, Alan. “Rush.” The Rolling Stone Record Guide. Edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson. Random House, 1979. p. 336.

Popoff, Martin. Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and Away. ECM Books, 2004.