Middle-level rock bands like Rush, it seems, have one major desire in common: a craving to be more than middle-level bands. After spending years in the wings while groups like the Stones, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees hog center stage, you would think Rush would do just about anything to reach superstardom. Not true.
According to drummer Neil Peart, this trio really isn't looking to squeeze onto rock's center stage. "The three of us are satisfied with the level of success we have," he said, referring to himself, guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer-bassist Geddy Lee, all Canadians in their mid-20s. Then Peart, speaking by phone from Vancouver, added, "But a lot of people would shoot me for saying that. Our manager, for instance, is certainly interested in us becoming megastars."
Apparently the price of fame and fortune is a bit too high for Rush. "We're not millionaires but we're comfortable and happy," Peart pointed out. "We have enough money to get all the equipment we want. We sell just enough records to give Mercury Records a return on their investment and we're able to headline across the country in some fairly big halls (including the Long Beach Arena on Tuesday and San Bernadino's Swing Auditorium on Saturday).
"We're popular enough to make enough money to give us a level of freedom without making us prisoners. But we're not popular enough to have to worry about being bothered on the street. We can walk the streets and live a normal life and not be recognized. If we didn't have that personal freedom the rock life would be awful."
It is fortunate that Rush's members have resigned themselves to their second-level slot in the rock hierarchy. The band has earned three gold albums (500,000 units sold) but no platinum (1 million sold). Their music, which Peart described as somewhere between hard rock and English progressive rock, doesn't get much airplay. Without that multimillion album sales are impossible.
"We've never had a hit single," Peart explained. "And if the radio situation keeps going the way it has been going, we probably never will. AM doesn't play us and a lot of FM stations don't, either. FM is now moving to AOR (adult-oriented rock). That's people like the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Foreigner and Fleetwood Mac. Their records are produced with a lot of sugar in the grooves. It's very inoffensive. Rush doesn't fit that kind of programming."
For one thing lead singer Lee's voice -- pained, grating and shrill -- suits the music but not mass tastes. On their last few albums, including the latest, "Hemispheres," they have included some long, grandiose science-fiction tales, with lyrics by Peart and music by Lee and Lifeson. These pieces are oblique and rambling, featuring flashy, shrieking guitar lines. In this era of AOR, this kind of music -- essentially a blistering aural attack -- is avoided by most radio stations, particularly the majors.
"We want airplay, of course," Peart said. "But not bad enough to compromise a lot to get it."
Rush's no-compromise stance was tested about two years ago. The band, with Mercury since 1974 -- the same year Peart joined -- was faltering, with album sales just over 100,000 each and the management and the label clamoring for a more commercial sound. "We were feeling very unstable then," Peart recalled. "We thought we were starting to get a bit original but we still had no commercial successes. There was an awful lot of pressure on us to change or our style. But we fought it."
Their answer to the pressure was the album, "2112," not a blockbuster but a big enough hit to pacify their detractors. "It's a tremendously passionate album," he said. "There's a lot of anger on it because that's what we were feeling then. It was a key album. If it hadn't been successful it probably would have been our last."
Without much help from radio airplay, Rush has to rely heavily on concerts to introduce new albums. Consequently the band has to tour nine months a year. It sounds lucrative but it's not. "Our expenses on the road are so high we can't really make much money touring," Peart said. "We began this tour in a lot of debt. It will take the first part of the tour to pay that off. The second part might make us break even."
Rather than fantasizing about the luxuries of superstardom, Rush has to concern itself with mere survival. Three-man rock bands are in danger of extinction. It's not easy for these dinosaurs to compete in this era of sophisticated rock. Audiences now want more than a simple guitar-bass-drum sound. "We want to broaden our horizons and do more than play power chords," Peart said. "The chemistry in the band is so good that we didn't want to upset it by adding a fourth member so we decided we would all learn to play other instruments. No we have a more varied sound."
Peart doesn't like Rush being called a dinosaur. He prefers to think of it as a backwater band. "That's what we are," he said. "We're certainly not mainstream. There will always be room for backwater bands. If all the bands were mainstream, particularly the way the mainstream is loused up now, things would be very boring."