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10 essential Neil Peart songs with Rush

@TylerGolsen

If you take a deep dive into any musician’s catalogue, you’ll find that nobody is perfect. Everyone has slightly off performances, wrong notes, or missed marks somewhere in their oeuvre. To err is human, but some people are more than human. Some people are so exact, so technical, and so proficient that it almost seems unreal. For more than 40 years, Rush drummer and chief songwriter, Neil Peart, built his reputation on precision.

Through the entirety of Rush’s albums, singles, and concert tours, you’d be hard-pressed to find an example of Peart being “off”. Even during his loosest and wildest early performances as a young musician, there was an exact science to Peart’s rhythmic attack. When he became conflicted about his own drumming, and later adopted a more freeing jazz-inspired style thanks to his studies with Freddie Gruber, it was still classic Peart. All the way up to his very last show with Rush on August 1st, 2015, Peart was right on the beat, showing not even a bit of lost power or diminished stamina that would usually follow a four-decade career of insane drumming.

It should be no surprise that Peart brought an obsession to his drum tracks, to the extent that he would record hours of takes just to fix slight imperfections that only he could hear during performances. That kind of attention to detail not only found its way onto his drum tracks, but into his lyrics as well. Initially fascinated with sci-fi themes, Peart’s lyrics began to take on a wider scope as Rush evolved, bringing in philosophical ideas and an interest in what makes humans lean towards the choices they make. Songs that focused on fame, evolution, and one’s place in the world would become more frequent, intermingling with observations on technology and power that never felt jarring or out of place. While his drumming was always perfection, his insecurities and faults could be expressed through his words.

His lyrics were alienating to some, but no one could deny his power on the drums. His speed and endurance were unmatched, but his creativity was what set him apart. Equally adept at oscillating between the unhinged mania of Keith Moon and the concise powerful technique of Buddy Rich, Peart carved out a unique style that never disappointed. Every fill, pattern, and percussion hit was unique, and through 19 studio albums with Rush, Peart never repeated himself once.

Watch a wild Neil Peart drum solo from 1997

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When he tragically passed away in 2020, Peart had already been retired for a number of years. Drumming is a physical task, and when done at the level Peart performed at, it was inevitable that the wear and tear would eventually take its toll. But for four decades, Peart sat on his throne commanding the attention and respect of all music listeners. He was consistent, compelling, and awe-inspiring without ever seeming fatigued or burned out. The stern look of concentration on Peart’s face as he nailed some of rock’s most difficult passages is burned into the minds of Rush fans everywhere. But it never sounded as if it was difficult for Peart. It was the product of an unflagging work ethic and undying love for what he did.

On the second anniversary of his death, we’re looking at 10 songs that made the legendary drummer and lyricist one of music’s most unique and influential figures. These are the moments that defined Peart’s career, through its ever-changing fluctuations. Songs that made Rush, catapulted Rush to stardom and solidified their status as the world’s biggest cult band. These are ten essential songs that made Neil Peart a legend.

Neil Peart’s 10 best songs with Rush:

‘Fly By Night’

Peart’s first appearance with Rush came on their second album, 1975’s Fly By Night. Although he was also from the band’s home country of Canada, the new drummer might as well have been from a different planet: more taciturn and serious than the eternally goofy personalities of Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, Peart had to make his way into what was already a decade-plus old friendship.

What helped seal the bond was one of Peart’s most personal lyrics, the title track ‘Fly By Night’. As a young man, Peart had flown to England in an attempt to make his name as a musician, but failed to find success and flew back to Canada dejected. His initial hopes for stardom and achievement were outlined in the song’s lyrics, and when paired with some of the band’s first attempts at moving beyond Led Zeppelin-based blues rock, it established a new sound for Rush. Peart was now the go-to lyricist, pairing his formidable drum skills with a natural ability as a storyteller.

‘2112’

Rush were down and out after their third album, Caress of Steel, failed to find an audience. Now fully steeped in progressive rock, the band were pressured into making more commercial material going forward. Instead, they doubled down on their instincts, crafting a sci-fi epic that took up an entire side of their next album.

2112 proved to be the entry point into everything Rush: long epics, incredible musicianship, nerdy themes, and even strong libertarian ideas. One listen to the album’s title suite was all you needed to know, and you were either on board or completely out on Rush. Luckily, a large fanbase began to grow around them, and ‘2112’ became a revered text for a whole generation of young musicians who wanted their esoteric rock music with a lot more wallop.

‘La Villa Strangiato’

As Rush found their niche as the forefathers of progressive metal, the trio worked hard to continuously one-up themselves. Hemispheres was the culmination of their most technically complex compositions, requiring exacting precision and complete dedication in order to reach their lofty goals. It required the members to play at a level that, even they admitted, was slightly beyond them.

It never got more intense than on the album’s instrumental finale, ‘La Villa Strangiato’. Subtitled ‘An Exercise in Self-Indulgence’, the nine-minute track features what is probably the best performances that all three members ever put to tape, especially from Peart. “That was the benchmark of drumming when I was a kid,” is how former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy described it in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment.

‘The Spirit of Radio’

Burned out by the excessively complex compositions that had become their signature style, Rush decided to cut down on the length of songs for Permanent Waves and instead focus on bringing as much intensity as possible into a concise package. Inspired by the sounds of new wave, punk, and reggae, Rush looked to become more contemporary with their peers, redefining their sound as a band in the process.

The Spirit of Radio‘ is a reflection of their ambitions, and it proved that Rush were more than just trend chasers. Instead, they could play just about any style and still sound like Rush. In a more optimistic state of mind, Peart also penned a set of lyrics that leaned more towards basic humanity and the joys that can come from everyday life. As predicted in the lyrics, Rush could now make modern music that retained the core of who they were as a band. It was a major leap forward, and one that would affect the next decade of their output.

‘Tom Sawyer’

For all his indisputable prowess, Peart rarely got solos during Rush songs. Sure, the band’s instrumentals gave him an opportunity to show off all on his own, but during the more compact songs in the band’s catalogue, Peart had to restrict himself to killer fills and skilful patterns. But it’s in Rush’s signature song that contains the four bars that forever solidified Peart’s place among music’s greatest drummers.

The drum solo in ‘Tom Sawyer’ is a thing of beauty: Peart’s entire personality, style, sound, and attitude towards his instrument is compacted into roughly ten seconds of music. And his solo is musical – containing all the lyricism and memorability of any great melody that the band ever wrote. The lyrics, the melding of guitars and keyboards, and the almighty power that made Rush so unique are perfectly distilled into a single four-minute track, and it’s Peart who steals the spotlight every time. Peart joked that he never got tired of playing the song for one simple reason – it was always hard to get right. Even to a legion of air drummers who followed, it’s still pretty damn hard to play right.

‘Limelight’

As Rush began to see its fanbase grow in exponential numbers, a greater amount of pressure was put on the members to reach out and connect. For someone as reserved as Peart, it became a burden that he carried with him for the rest of his career. It wasn’t anger or hatred – it was shyness and introversion, the kind that was contrasted with his ferocious and forthright power behind the drum kit.

The great irony is that Moving Pictures, and even ‘Limelight’ itself, brought Rush to a greater level of fame and notoriety than ever before. Any feelings of uncertainty and anxiety were immediately doubled once the song was released. Peart’s reputation as a private, unsociable individual was forever sealed with ‘Limelight’, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The nuances would occasionally get lost, and a close reading of ‘Limelight‘ reveals the uncertainty and honest reflection that showed Peart at his most candid.

‘Subdivisions’

If you like Rush, you are a nerd. That’s an indisputable fact, and a badge of honour for many a fan before nerd culture eventually made its way into the mainstream. To enter into Rush was to enter into a world of scorn and ridicule from those who had any sort of inclination to be “cool”. Rush were the very definition of uncool: “Terminally unhip”, as Geddy Lee charmingly put it. But, of course, that was always kind of cool.

Peart was fully aware of the societal pressures that most of his young fanbase experienced because he had experienced the same thing growing up. ‘Subdivisions’ painted a familiar picture to just about anyone who listened to it – the plight of the geek, with a strong desire to leave the oppressive sameness of suburban existence. At their most out-there, Rush could speak of fantastical creatures and apocalyptic worlds. But they could also connect with the real lives of their fans in ways that few others could. That notion was lost to anyone who labelled them “pretentious”; Rush was as true to themselves as any band ever was.

‘Driven’

After two decades of music and multiple style changes, Peart began to grow conflicted over his own style of drumming. He sensed a stiffness, a slavish devotion to time and precision. There was no fluid motion or spontaneity in his playing, and he wanted to change. By studying with jazz teacher Freddie Gruber, Peart unlocked a new way of thinking about rhythm, and he brought his rearranged playing style back to the band.

Test for Echo, along with most of Rush’s ’90s output, is a mixed bag. But ‘Driven’ is one of the band’s most compelling later-period compositions, featuring intense bass work from Lee and a renewed spark of style from Peart. Even though it’s unmistakably Rush, Peart’s subtle incorporations of swing and ghost notes gave the band a new lease on life. Unfortunately, Peart would soon be faced with tragedies that couldn’t be remedied through music.

‘Ghost Rider’

Less than one year apart from each other, Peart’s daughter Selena and his common-law wife Jacqueline both passed away. Left with his life completely shattered, Peart hopped on his motorcycle and began a years-long journey of healing. Riding throughout North America with just him and his bike, Peart faced the almost insurmountable task of picking up the pieces of his life and moving forward.

The pain and suffering that Peart went through is all over Vapor Trails, but it’s not oppressive. Tracks like ‘One Little Victory’ and ‘Earthshine’ reflect a sense of optimism within Peart, while songs like ‘Ghost Rider’ put his soul-searching into perspective. More than anything else, Peart’s ability to simply return to the band and continue was commendable, with songs like ‘Ghost Rider’ proving that he still had something to say.

‘The Garden’

Nobody gets to write their own obituary. But those that are lucky are able to get in a final word that is touching, appropriate, and moving to the people who have watched them grow for so long. At the time, there was no indication that Clockwork Angels would be the final Rush album, but those listened closely could tell that endings never came any better than on ‘The Garden’.

More calm and pastoral than most of Rush’s work, ‘The Garden’ unmistakably reads like a farewell when listened to now. With his final song, Peart put all the emotion, intelligence, and thoughtfulness that he carried into all of his lyrics with him as he took one final bow. To many of Rush’s most faithful, listening to the song can still be an emotional experience. It’s the perfect cap on what is surely one of the most illustrious music careers of all time.