Rush’s 1981 track ‘Witch Hunt’ is one of their finest numbers and sees drummer Neil Peart steal the show thanks to the use of a variety of percussion instruments and, on the isolated audio version, his genius is impossible to hide from.
The song, which was featured on their stunning album Moving Pictures, deals with attitudes towards racial intolerance which were written by Peart that sadly still feel so relevant today, almost 40 years on from its release. ‘Witch Hunt’ opens in emphatic fashion with the sounds of a mob which paints a picture of the tensions that the song was written in response of. The lyrical content describes the activities of a vigilante mob who gathered in the dead of night with evil on their minds, “The righteous rise / With burning eyes / Of hatred and ill-will / Madmen fed on fear and lies / To beat and burn and kill,” frontman Geddy Lee said on the track.
“We went outside of Le Studio and it was so cold, it was really cold,” Alex Lifeson later recalled about the studio session that led to the birth of the song. “We were well into December by then, I think. We were all out there. We put a couple of mics outside. We started ranting and raving. We did a couple of tracks of that. I think we had a bottle of Scotch or something with us to keep us warm.
“So as the contents of the bottle became less and less, the ranting and raving took on a different flavour. We were in the control room after we had laid down about twelve tracks of mob – in hysterics. Every once in a while you’d hear somebody say something really stupid,” Lifeson continued.
Geddy Lee spoke about the importance of the lyrical content during an interview with The Plain Dealer newspaper and his pride of the track, stating, “It’s one of those songs that means as much today, if not more, considering what’s gone on in the world with racial profiling and all these different issues. The sentiment of that song is as appropriate as ever.”
It’s hard to put into words just how vital Neil Peart was to Rush and, by proxy, to the music industry as a whole. A man as able to craft out and meticulously play some of the most complex drum fills the rock world has ever seen, was able to thrash through an entirely improvised set without missing a beat. Speaking to Modern Drummer in 1993, Peart once said, “One thing I have come to learn about influences is that although copying one style can never be original, copying many styles often is original… The best advice for someone who wants to develop an original style is: Don’t copy one drummer, copy twenty! I copied a hundred.”
His isolated drums on Rush’s ‘Witch Hunt’ are spellbinding and offers confirmation of Peart’s greatness if there was anyone left who still questioned whether he was one of the best to ever sit behind a drum kit.