Pilgrim's Progress

By Brian Harrigan, Melody Maker, May 28, 1983, transcribed by Chris McDonald

On the train back to London from Birmingham, a journey that does for boredom what Paul Strange did for sex, a sign on a trackside building caught my eye.

"Prepare to Meet Thy God" was the message. Considering I'd already met Rush at the National Exhibition Centre the timing was out. But it was still perfectly appropriate.

Seeing Rush these days is like a religious experience. The adulation they invoke makes Billy Graham look like an also-ran and I'll bet even the Pope's checking his audience ratings.

When they played the NEC it was widely known that they'd be staying at the Metropole, an on-site conference hotel that has all the character of a broom. For the band's acolytes, it could have been Lourdes.

When I arrived the first thing I saw was a scruffy little coach outside the main entrance with "Manx Rock and Pop Club" signed in its windscreen. Not only had half the population of the Isle of Man made the pilgrimage, they'd also lucked out on their hotel bookings.

They surrounded Geddy Lee's room and their cavorting (maybe they all had three legs) proved too much for the aquiline one. He found himself another eyrie, which later sent me on an M15-style search, but that's another story. Or another storey.

A little later I glanced out of the hotel window and saw maybe a couple of dozen Rush fans gazing at a luxuriously appointed touring bus parked just across the way. They'd concluded it was the Rushmobile and, although there was no-one -- not even a roadie -- inside, it seemed enough for them to be close to a vehicle that their heroes had recently occupied.

During the concert that night the audience greeted Rush in complete awe. And a few nights later at Wembley I got the same feeling. One guy I knew who was going to his first Rush gig, said he was surprised that there wasn't any headbanging or conspicuous leaping about in the crowd. "It was like," he said, "they were in church or something."

After Birmingham, I put this to Geddy as we mused over a pint (me) and a cup of tea (him). "The adulation as you call it," he murmured, "sometimes gets kind of out of hand. It's not the kind of thing that you'd revel in or anything.

"I don't know. Maybe it's because they haven't seen us for a while the audiences don't like to miss anything. And that's great -- you know, to have people concentrating on what you do. That's a great compliment.

"But when there are thousands of people who want your autograph -- I don't know. We do our best but there isn't that much time in the world to sign everyone's programme or record. We'd love to, but if we tried to do that for everyone we'd never get to do any shows."

The current concerts have shown Rush with a startling new confidence and maturity. They have sufficient belief in their newer material and the direction they're taking that they actually cram old classics like "Xanadu" and the epic, anthemic "Closer to the Heart" into medleys, for God's sake.

It's not a move that's been welcomed with open arms and total approval. I was told by one, apparently fervent fan that he didn't think the band were taking their music seriously enough.

He cited Geddy and guitarist Alex Lifeson's clowning around on stage as evidence of this. "I wonder," he said, "what Neil Peart was feeling like when he was finishing a solo and found Geddy and Alex leaning on an amp as though they were waiting for a tour bus."

"Oh, we take it seriously enough," replied Geddy in his quiet way. "But we're enjoying it more than ever these days. That's the way our enjoyment comes out, now. If we're laughing on stage, it's because we're taking a lot of pleasure our of the music we're making.

"Perhaps we're being a little less dramatic about what we do on stage compared with past years. But then the music has expanded a lot, breaking out from the kind of more dramatic field. 'Signals' proved a kind of turning point in some ways for us, where we all worked hard to express all of the musical ideas that were going around inside of us and not just concentrating on one part."

The "Signals" album was a major breakthrough for Rush. Despite the more esoteric nature of "Permanent Waves" I'd still considered Rush to be on the pomp rock end of the HM spectrum. They were always infinitely more inventive than the likes of Styx and miles more emotional and filled with genuine impact than Yes or Genesis, but the old sword and sorcery lyrics were always the dominant influence and jaundiced my opinion.

But "Signals" converted them into a major band, not just a major HM band. the album was packed with diverse musical strands and had such an aura of celebration about it that it suggested the band themselves had found a great release and allowed everything they had to come through.

"We had a lot of musical ideas that we were keen to get on record," explained Lee, "and through a whole variety of reasons we felt the time was right to let them out.

"The album was received well critically, although there were certain exceptions where we were considered to have spread out too much. But I think we had to experiment. It was time to take more chances again."

Lee points out that there was never any intention of deliberately alienating long-term Rush fans who'd come up through the "Fly By Night," "All the World's A Stage" and "2112" stages. "After all the time it's taken us to get these people on our side?"

But he also points out that they have themselves to think of too. "We look at ourselves as a band that has a long-term career. We never thought we'd been in rock music just for a few years and gracefully retire to a farm or something.

"So if we're going to be going round the world playing shows for years to come and if we're going to be making many more albums we didn't want to end up playing the same things over and over again -- Rush's greatest hits.

"Of course we value the old material and respect it. But we can't keep on doing the same set over and over again. We could keep the old material, add all the new stuff and then go out and eventually end up playing for eight hours a night, you know?

"For our sanity we have to broaden our musical horizons. If it annoys people out there, if it doesn't move them then you can't give up doing these new things. That would be taking the easy way out. What would be the point of trying to create music if there wasn't a little conflict involved?"

Geddy, a generally placid, well-controlled man, begins to get a little heated. "It's wonderful to hear the reaction to 'Closer to the Heart' every time we play it, but if we only did songs like that wouldn't we end up having a false sense of security?"

It has been 18 months since Rush last played the UK and it's not unreasonable to wonder if we've slipped a bit in the old Rush priority stakes. "No, no," says Lee vehemently. "there's no danger of that. We have more countries that we play in now, more places where we have fans we try and please. So there's less time to be stretched around.

"But touring...we can't pretend we're still 20 years old. I don't think we're physically capable of doing eight straight, hard months on the road every year. Oh sure, we could do it...but could we do it well?

"We won't take on more than we can handle. What would be the point of dragging ourselves around, doing the same schedule that we did when we were younger but playing tired, sub-standard music? Knowing our fans they'd let us know how they felt soon enough."

But Rush are still retaining the kind of schedule which most bands would consider punishing. They've been consolidating their recent (last couple of years) breakthrough in Europe and America has become enormously more important to them since 1980.

For the future, they're looking to coming off the road and writing more material -- hopefully of the same quality as the excellent "Countdown" and "The Weapon," which was one of the high points of the show.

Given the Television influence of "The Weapon," not to mention that they've been using Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" as part of the intro tape to their concerts, God knows what we can expect from Rush in the years to come. But isn't that what truly great rock bands are all about?