5 of Rush’s greatest songs explained by Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee
Rush are a band now so intrinsically linked with the idea of creative evolution that to ask any member to pick their favourite songs seems a little frivolous, if not entirely trite. The group were famed for their sprawling rock anthems and have seen a resurgence in recent years, one which has seen such questions posed to the members of the group.
With the band’s inclusion in the Jason Segel and Paul Rudd’s film, I Love You, Man, a scene in which sees the band bind the two characters, introduced the Canadians to a brand new generation who are all eager to hear more. Following the sad death of Neil Peart, that feeling has intensified and the need to know more has grown stronger ever since.
We are taking a look through five of the prog-rock legends five greatest songs through the words of the three beating hearts of the group, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and the late great Neil Peart — who sadly departed us earlier this year after a battle with cancer.
The selection of Rush’s greatest songs have come from CBC Music for 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. Geddy Lee’s list comes from a piece with The Guardian whereas Alex Lifeson provides his favourites to Guitar World.
Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee on 5 of Rush’s greatest songs
‘Time Stands Still’
Taken from 1987’s Hold Your Fire, Neil Peart shared both his love of the swirling song and his annoyance at those unwilling to grab the bull by the horns. The drummer said, “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.”
“That was the year that I got the Signature guitars with single-coil active pickups,” Alex Lifeson said on the track. “It’s very apparent on that song. The guitar has a clear, metallic sound to it that really sings. I got into that bright tone, and my sound was still very chorusy.”
”I had gotten rid of all my Hiwatts and the Dean Markley’s and was using primarily Marshalls again. I used 2×12 combos as well as the JCM800,” Lifeson added.
The track features Aimee Mann from ‘Til Tuesday on backing vocals which Geddy Lee saw as an irresistible opportunity which gave the track an extra edge. “We knew that the part she sings on was a feminine part. We didn’t want to use a keyboard or have Alex or myself sing it, so we started looking for a female singer,” he said. “It’s a very attractive opportunity for us to work with a female singer. We just looked until we found a voice, that was suitable. In listening to Aimee’s last record, we loved the way she sang, so we just asked her.”
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,” he said. “And it worked, it was our commercial breakthrough with a 20-minute song on one side. It spoke.”
Lee remembered his initial thoughts on the arrival of Peart who entered the group which changed their dynamic as well as the course of their career. “He was one of the goofiest looking guys I’d ever seen. He was very tall, lanky,” he reminisced. “He drove up in this little sports car, drums hanging out from every corner. He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drumkit, and Alex and I thought he was a hick from the country. Then he sat down behind this kit and pummelled the drums – and us. As far as I was concerned he was hired from the minute he started playing.”
“We started writing that song on the road. We wrote on the road quite often in those days,” Lifeson said on the track. “‘The Fountain of Lamneth’, on Caress of Steel, was really our first full concept song and 2112 was an extension of that. That was a tough period for Rush because Caress of Steel didn’t do that well commercially, even though we were really happy with it.
“We wanted to develop that style. Because there was so much negative feeling from the record company and our management was worried, we came back full force with 2112. There was a lot of passion and anger on that record. It was about one person standing up against everybody else,” Lifeson revealed.
Geddy Lee initially didn’t want to include ‘Tom Sawyer’ before being won over, “But how could I not? It changed our lives,” the singer frankly admitted. The song then took on a second lease of life after its use in the Paul Rudd film I Love You, Man which spread the word of Rush to a new generation. “We decided that anything we were going to say no to instinctively, we would now say yes to. It served us very well,” he said on the inclusion of ‘Tom Sawyer’ in the comedy.
“I winged it,” Alex Lifeson said on his guitar solo. “Honest! I came in, did five takes, then went off and had a cigarette. I’m at my best for the first two takes; after that, I overthink everything and I lose the spark. Actually, the solo you hear is composed together from various takes.”
“The drum is so detailed,” Neil Peart revealed on his part. “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,” the late drummer said.
‘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,” Peart maintained. “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.”
“It was all recorded at the same time with all of us in the same room,” Alex Lifeson added. “We had baffles up around the guitar, bass and drums and we would look at each other for the cues. My solo in the middle section was overdubbed after we recorded the basic tracks. I played a solo while we did the first take and re-recorded it later. If you listen very carefully, you can hear the other solo ghosted in the background.”
“That was a song where I would have to say our ideas exceeded our ability to play them,” Lee says of the iconic track. “We thought: ‘We’re going to write this long piece and then we’ll just record it live off the floor and boom!’ But it was really difficult. It was beyond us. I included it here because it surprised me how popular that song was among our fans. They just love it when we go into that crazy mode. Yes, it is an indulgence, but it seemed to be a pivotal moment for us in creating a fanbase that wanted us to be that way.”
“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.’”
“‘Limelight‘ was probably more of Neil’s song than a lot of the songs on that album,” Geddy Lee said on the Rush classic. “In the sense that his feelings about being in the limelight and his difficulty with coming to grips with fame and autograph seekers and a sudden lack of privacy and sudden demands on his time, he was having a very difficult time dealing with.”
“I mean we all were, but I think he was having the most difficulty of the three of us adjusting. In the sense that I think he’s more sensitive to more things than Alex and I are, it’s harder for him to deal with those interruptions on his personal space and his desire to be alone,” Lee added.
”The approach on that solo was to try to make it as fluid as possible,” Lifeson admitted. “There was a lot of bending with lots of long delay repeats and reverb so notes falling off would overlap with notes coming up. I spent a fair amount of time on that to get the character, but once we locked in on the sound, it came easily.”
Adding: “My guitar was a different modified Strat with a heavier and denser body. We set up a couple of amps outside of the studio as well as inside, so we got a nice long repeat with the echoing in the mountains.”