2020 was a terrible year for millions of reason, but one incluided the loss of Neil Peart. The legendary lyricist, and drummer in Canadian prog-rock overlords Rush, sadly passed away at the start of the year. The musician was instrumental in the band’s dominance of dorm room stereos and car radios. In turn, he was one of the most respected drummers in the game before his death.
With a career that spans over four decades and 19 studio albums, when Peart was asked by CBC Music to comment on ten of the greatest Rush songs of all time, he had more choice than most. Yet, he manages to add some needed context with the same expertise he used for his mammoth drum solos.
After Peart sadly passed away, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl led tributes saying: “An inspiration to millions with an unmistakable sound who spawned generations of musicians (like myself) to pick up two sticks and chase a dream. A kind, thoughtful, brilliant man who ruled our radios and turntables not only with his drumming, but also his beautiful words.
“I still vividly remember my first listen of ‘2112′ when I was young. It was the first time I really listened to a drummer. And since that day, music has never been the same. His power, precision, and composition was incomparable. He was called ‘The Professor’ for a reason: we all learned from him.”
The selection of Rush’s greatest songs may have come from CBC Music but the words Peart shares about each track are invaluable, the creative linchpin of the band has his say on some of Rush’s greatest songs of all time. You can find the full interview here.
From ‘Tom Sawyer’ to ‘Xanadu’, Peart revealed the thinking behind some of the band’s stand out number from across their huge catalogue of songs. Peart shares the thoughts he had on drum patterns, how lyrics came together and how they were inspired and also adds some context to the songs’ conceptions.
Neil Peart reveals the stories behind Rush’s 10 greatest songs
This selection from 1977’s A Farewell To Kings is a pleasant memory for the musician who was always looking to expand his weaponry. He recalls in the interview that the band were in an experimental phase and keen to see how far they could push themselves.
Peart told CBC, “When I look back on that it’s an indulgent smile. We would later do better but there was nothing wrong with it. I described it once as young, foolish and brave.”
‘Time Stands Still’
From 1987’s Hold Your Fire Peart shares both his love of the swirling song and his annoyance at those unwilling to grab the bull by the horns. He says, “A song I still really like. Autobiographical in a sense. The whole thing of wanting to slow things down and absorb the moment.
“Feel this moment a little bit stronger, since we can’t adjust the time to have more. I get frustrated when people say where did the time go. You just weren’t paying attention.”
Another gem from the eighties as ‘YYZ’ is taken from 1981’s Moving Pictures this song’s conception was that of pure chance and is a perfect distillation of what made Rush the experimental kings. “We were flying into Toronto on a private plane and heard the morse code beep, and that became the founding rhythm of the song. “
Peart was always able to take inspiration from anywhere and this song is certainly similar. “It was a soundtrack about airports, the bustling part, the very emotional part of it, you know, re-greeting each other, and all the laments. That was a conscious thing, to try to weave in some of the moods of airports into the song” — that very sentiment and decision is what we all loved about Rush.
The Moving Pictures track is deeply rooted in the literature of Peart’s friend Richard Foster who had written a story in Road and Track Magazine, which Peart was keen to turn into his own.
He was always pleased with the results, “It’s probably one of our best in that sense being a short movie, and every section is a cinematic accompaniment to the lyrics.”
“An attempt to clarify for myself and hopefully others a thing that I learned: never complain, never explain.” said Peart of the 1981 track ‘Limelight’.
A song destined to make musicians feel ok about themselves for years to come, the track is centred on the tricky negotiation of supply and demand when you’re a young musician, “other musicians will say to me, that song ‘Limelight,’ I get it.’”
The following year, on Signals, the band would make a big jump and bring on keyboards for the very first time.
It’s a moment that Peart remembers well on ‘Subdivisions’, “It was an important step for us, the first song written that was keyboard-based. The upside of that: people don’t realize is that it made Alex [Lifeson] and I the rhythm section.”
‘La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence)’
When one thinks of Rush and their style you’d be hard-pressed to find a song more in-tune than this spiralling track. “This is Alex’s brain, and every section of that song is different dreams that Alex would tell us about and we’d be, ‘stop, stop.’”
But it did offer Peart the chance to experience the big band dream he had always wanted. “There’s also a big band section in there, which was absolutely for me because I always wanted to play that approach.”
The title track from 1976’s LP, represented a seminal moment in the career of Rush, and it’s one that Peart had not forgotten. He said, “We made three albums in 18 months from the time I joined the band…. By the time we did 2112, we had a whole month to write, rehearse and record that album, so it was done under the rawest of circumstances but with such conviction and enthusiasm. We were so angry at that time.”
While the commercial world were apparently demanding a snappier and more stripped back affair, ‘2112’ would prove them all wrong, “The tale happens to be about the individual against oppression, and that was us, it’s how we felt. And it worked, it was our commercial breakthrough with a 20-minute song on one side. It spoke.”
One of the band’s most iconic songs, was also born in the most natural ways. After Peart had worked with Pye Dubois and Max Webster on the lyrics, next was the drumbeat, which Peart, along with the rest of the band, improvised their way out of. “That song finds us at a time of such confidence that we were learning to make a song that was only six minutes instead of 12, 15, and use the same standards of arrangement.”
“The drum is so detailed, but when we go into the middle to the odd time part, it was improvised. I got lost and I punched my way out of it and somehow came back to the one. And that improvisation became a new part…. It’s one of those key parts that I love and it was absolutely a mistake that I just got lucky and got out of.” If there was one thing to typify Rush it is this comment, an improvisation leading to one of their most cherished songs.
‘The Spirit of Radio’
The song, taken from 1980’s Permanent Waves, the song was created out of not only CFNY’s motto at the time: “the spirit of radio” but a deliberate attempt to match up to the radio.
Peart says, “I remember coming home very late and CFNY Radio was on the air, and as I was cresting the escarpment with all of the lights below of Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula, where I lived at the time, with a fantastic combination of music that was on at the time,” he confirms. He goes on, “The song itself, musically, is switching between radio stations, with a reggae section at the end, the second verse is new waves, I’m playing like a punk drummer there, and that was all intentional.”