Remember the old cliche about "The more things change, the more they stay the same?"
Consider this - a decade ago, I was talking to Geddy Lee, the bassist of Rush, about the media status of other bands.
At that time, Elvis Costello and various graduates of the New Wave were making all the noise in the rock press. Big labels had signed them up, their pictures were on the cover of every rock rag in the world and interviews with them ran on forever.
As usual, no one cared about the hard rock trio, Rush, right? Funny thing, though, anybody who had access to sales charts would find something very peculiar - namely, that the entire combined "new music" brigade wasn't moving "product" the way this Canadian threesome was.
Rock critics hated Rush, sincerely hated them, and yet... Rush filled indoor arenas and they sold records in huge quantities.
Now, in 1988, I'm on the phone to another member of the band, drummer Neil Peart, and - deja vu - we wind up laughing about the status of the band that still gets no media respect.
On the strength of their latest album, Hold Your Fire, Rush - Lee, Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson - is once again zooming across America, banging heads with maximum volume, big power chords, and their ongoing penchant for spinning strange, science-fiction-like rock 'n' roll tales (They perform Friday night in The Summit [Houston, TX]).
Music magazines are not amused, but, says Peart, that's not even a problem anymore.
"There have always been these factions in rock 'n' roll that absolutely hated us - we're used to that," he said. "But we've always been happy with the way we achieved success. It didn't come from a lot good press and exposure, or because we were critics' darlings. It was a result of the real thing - because we got out there and slogged around the U.S. We were a hardworking touring group and we stayed on the road as much as we could. We choose that avenue - we believed that it was the natural order of things, and it worked for us."
Ironically enough, the big controversy about Rush now comes not from outside - from those who simply hate hard-rock groups to begin with - but from within the ranks of the faithful.
"Yes, we have all sorts of factions within our own fans now," Peart said. "I suppose that's natural after 15 years, but we have a lot of people who prefer our material from the late '70s - the long instrumental passages, and all - who don't care for the new music all that much. On the other hand, we have a lot of fans for whom the band didn't exist before 1980 - they're totally into the new songs."
"Well, we try to mix it up some, go back and do some things that will appeal to the old fans. But it's sort of strange to play a song and see part of the audience jumping up and down and the other part standing there sort of bewildered."
A friend of mine, who's a long-time Rush fan, is one of those people who's not too crazy about Hold Your Fire or any of the other recent albums. For him, the band has gotten too "craftsy" about their songs. He misses the super-long, overwrought jams and says the new Rush is "too synthesized".
"Well, we've progressed, we've tried to keep up with the technology that's involved in the record-making process today," Peart said. "You simply have to do that. When we got Peter Collins (as coproducer), he expanded our sound in a lot of areas. We were used to doing it ourselves, really, and we had to set aside a lot of our preconceptions, but I think it worked out really well.
"The new album was recorded and mixed digitally, except for the drums and bass, which were analog," Peart continued. "I feel more comfortable, and prefer the sound, doing it that way."
We go on to talk about another characteristic of the band, one that's seldom, if ever, discussed - their sense of humor. Now, no one is implying that Rush is wildly funny, but, on the other hand, they are not the gloomy-gus, dreary, ultra-sober head-bangers they're frequently perceived to be. Even in the days when solos stretched on interminably, and the sci-fi scenarios got even more bizarre, there was a certain sense of fun to it all.
"I can't understand that either - I don't know why some people can't see it," Peart said. "We start nearly every show by coming onto the Three Stooges song, and we close it by playing Robert Goulet or some country-western song! It never fails to amaze me that some people just don't get the hint. We're not taking it all that seriously! We want to have fun! That's a lot of the inspiration for what we do, simple as that.
"You know, like any band that's been around this long, we have our lunatic fringe of fans," Peart said. "We have some who are really out there. And they will come up to us and talk about these really weird interpretations of certain songs, and they'll ask us these huge, cosmic questions about why we wrote what we did. They're usually either very disappointed, or they just don't believe us, when we give them an answer. They don't want to hear, 'Well, uh, no. Actually, we did it that way just because we were having fun!'
"Sorry," he laughed, "but I'm afraid that's the truth of it."