Rush were still a group finding their feet in 1975. That being said, they had found a fair bit of personal and professional success up to that point. After slogging it out in bars across Toronto as teenagers, the band financed and recorded their own debut album that eventually picked up steam across the border in the United States. Held up as the Canadian version of Led Zeppelin, Rush were quickly booked as opening acts for artists like Uriah Heap and Kiss.
But all was not well. Musical differences, health issues, and personal problems led to original drummer John Rutsey’s removal in 1974, and with just two weeks to rehearse before going on tour, the band quickly hired Neil Peart without any indication that this lineup would gel as personalities, much less last another four decades. They also needed to return to the studio quickly in order to capitalise on the success of their debut and have a record out by the start of 1975. They recorded Fly By Night over the course of one month, and the band continued on their upward trajectory.
Those who listened to Fly By Night might have heard a change in the band’s sound. The most obvious addition was Peart, whose drumming was more technically proficient and painstakingly precise than Rutsey’s, but also in the band’s compositions and arranging. ‘Anthem’ saw Rush burn through a mind-bending opening section, while side one ended with their first multi-part epic, ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’. The group’s record company weren’t terribly keen on the new direction but allowed the band the creative freedom they wanted in their follow up. Their next record wound up spelling trouble for the band.
Listening to Caress of Steel today is an odd task. Not arduous by any means, especially for the Rush faithful who will delight in both the unrelenting hard rock of ‘Bastile Day’ and the ambitious prog-rock of ‘The Necromancer’ and ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’. But the production is relatively thin, one of the only times the band are let down by genius producer Terry Brown, and the material is significantly darker than previous songs, with the exception of the goofy ‘I Think I Going Bald’. ‘Lakeside Park’ is a fine enough song, but it has one foot in Rush’s hard rock sphere and another in the progressive rock area without synthesising the two in the fantastic way that the group was capable of.
Upon its release, Caress of Steel was set to elevate Rush above the status of an up and coming opening act and establish them as one of hard rock’s most promising bands. Instead, Caress of Steel sold far fewer copies than Fly By Night, leading the band to play smaller shows in more obscure parts of the US and Canada.
“Everything took an awful down turn,” Peart recalls in the Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary. “And it was off the crest of a wave too because we were so in love with what we’d done. We were so into it. We were so proud of it. When Caress of Steel pretty much met a deaf ear, the ensuing tour we were opening acts on smaller tours and playing backwater clubs. We called it at the time ‘The Down the Tubes Tour’.”
“I know we played Caress of Steel once for Paul Stanley,” Alex Lifeson says in the same section of the film. “We had just got it. We played it in our van for him one night, and you could see that he just didn’t get it. A lot of people didn’t get it. We wondered if we even got it.”
Geddy Lee was more succinct: “I think we were pretty high when we made that record. And it sounds like it to me.”
The band’s record company were willing to finance one more album, but only if the band agreed to their terms, which included more commercial recordings and a return to their initial hard rock sound. The band, Brown, and their manager Ray Danniels agreed to ignore their requests, instead aiming to go out on their own terms and fully expecting to fail. As Lee would state in the film, “We made 2112 figuring everyone would hate it”. As it turned out, their devotion to themselves wound up paying off in a major way.