Rock Progressives Rush For Onstage Perfection

By Brian McTavish, Kansas City Star, April 22, 1986

When Neil Peart talks - and he likes to talk - the listener comes away with the feeling that he may have a chip on his shoulder. A computer chip.

"I think in this day and age when you go into a studio that's worth a few million dollars and spend a few hundred thousand dollars making a record, if you can go out on stage and reproduce that live and make it sound just like the record, to me, that's the ultimate challenge," said the veteran drummer and lyricist for Rush, the 15-year-old Canadian band that's typically praised by fans and complained about by critics for its full-tilt explorations into progressive rock.

Singer/bassist and keyboard player Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson will join Mr. Peart in his pursuit of total replication, when Rush performs with Blue Oyster Cult at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Kemper Arena.

"The record reproduces my very best performance," Mr. Peart said. "That's what I look for as a drummer. It represents the ultimate that I can be beyond human error, beyond any kinds of variables.

"It's like when you write something down, you have the opportunity to edit it and take out the bad parts and add the good parts and strip away the unessential. It's not really human, but at the same time it's the closest you can get to perfect.

"When I play a song live, I'm trying to approach that perfection and it never happens, so that's what keeps you going. But it's a different set of values for us, because we are only trying to be good and we have only that to live up to. Most bands aren't trying to be good. They're trying to be successful. They're trying to be accepted. They're trying to be commercial.

"And there's the question of 'good' and 'bad.' It isn't really good and bad at all - it's 'like' and 'dislike.' I don't think that people who have listened to the radio have the right to tell other people who have studied music for 20 years whether what they're doing is good or bad. They're welcome to say, 'I like it' or 'I don't like it,' but they can't pretend to have the knowledge.

"If you compare it to being an architect or a doctor or a physicist or an engineer, people that have studied for as long as we have - you know, people don't think they can build a bridge better than an engineer. They don't think they can do heart surgery better than a doctor.

"But at the same time, people who have studied music seriously - and I stress the word 'seriously' - for the sake of getting better, for the sake of doing it as well as they can, ought to have the same sort of respect.

"Words like 'good' and 'bad' are bandied around a little bit too much."

OK! Fine! Gotcha! Let's talk about, progressive rock for a while.

"The only difficulty with, the word progressive' is it has meant different things at different times," Mr. Peart said. "For us, as a mantle or as an umbrella, it still applies.

"I think in the '70s, when the name was first applied, it was strictly technical virtuosity that was implied by progressiveness. It was a sense of liberality and a sense of integrity that we certainly subscribed to - that there was no such thing as writing a song only because it was three minutes long and it would get played on the radio."

The progressive tag was popularized by British bands; such as Yes and Genesis. They gained notoriety by playing very long and involved pieces with a lot of classical pretensions amid the rock 'n' roll, but with little regard for the constraints of commercial music.

"It was all what-the-bands-could-do-as-a-unit," Mr. Peart said, "and they would work in terms of arrangement and instrumental pieces rather than in terms of soloing. Now, I think the musicians have gone beyond that...because once you've done every complicated time signature under the sun you have to look for a fresh challenge in order to truly deserve the name 'progressive.'"

Mr. Peart admitted that much of what Rush attempted through the years was experimental.

"It was a lot of sound and fury that ultimately signified nothing in terms of true musicality, but not in a negative sense," he said. "It was experimental in the way a research and development group is going to spend months and months and months doing things that ultimately lead toward something else.

"It had to be that way. We were doing things that were just done for their own sake, technical exercises. They have taught us now that we can write a song and we can play the complicated part and it's natural and it belongs there and we can be sincere about it."

Rush's 14th album, "Power Windows," takes advantage of state-of-the-art electronic percussion and other effects. Mr. Peart explained:

"I would be after a certain sound on the drum electronically and I would literally just vocalize that in the sense of 'Phhhuu!' and sing it into the microphone and sample that. And every time I hit that drum pad, the sound of my singing the sound I wanted at the pitch I wanted would be there."

Despite the groundbreaking reputation Rush has with its audience, Mr. Peart is uncharacteristically reticent when it comes to his individual contribution to his band and to rock 'n' roll.

"By no means am I a pioneer," he said. "I'm more bandwagon-oriented, really. Like a conservative car company, I wait for other people to break ground. Like Rolls-Royce, I guess. They wait for other people to invent things and develop them. I'm just not prepared to be that radical."