"Rush is to the late '70s what Grand Funk was to the early '70s -- the power boogie band for the 16 magazine graduating class." -- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979
To the chagrin of its critics and the surprise of its members, that's a role Rush has maintained throughout the '80s and, now, into the '90s.
The Canadian hard rock trio, which formed in 1969 and started recording five years later, has become something of a rite of passage band; like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and a handful of other rock 'n' roll favorites, it's a touchstone for an audience that is predominantly young and male and likes its music loud, flashy and a touch bombastic.
"They've never lost touch with that audience," says Doug Podell, programmer of the Detroit album-rock station WLLZ-FM (98.7). "They've never lost their core (audience), and that's when a band starts adding onto its success, when you can hold on to the core and still continue to grow."
Besides longevity, Rush's popularity is remarkable for its consistency. The trio -- singer-bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer-lyricist Neil Peart -- has never released the kind of bombshell, multimillion-selling, hit-laden album enjoyed by peers such as Whitesnake, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi.
Rather, the group has churned out 17 solid sellers, including eight million-sellers. Its latest, "Presto," seems certain to become its ninth million-selling album. The band has never been a stadium-filling attraction, but, since the mid-'70s, it has been a dependable arena-level headliner. In short, there always seems to be an audience for Rush.
"But that's not something we've ever counted on," Peart, 37, says. "We've never taken for granted that a particular album will be popular or great. In fact, we're always worried 'Is this the end? Is this the one everybody is going to hate?' So it's continually surprising from year to year. We've never, ever dared to plan more than a year ahead, and we still don't. That would be presumptuous and realistic... even if, in my heart of hearts, I expect Rush to continue indefinitely."
Rush in 1990 puts out a somewhat different music than its original fans heard in 1974. It hasn't been a drastic change -- "Presto" still features dynamic, power-chord driven rock -- but Rush has continually modified the early approach that Peart refers to as "uncompromising aggression."
In 1977, Lee began mixing keyboards into Rush's slam-bam sound, starting with basic synthesizer and getting more sophisticated with each album. Now he boasts a battery of the most up-to-date instruments and computers. For 1985's "Power Windows" album, the trio recorded songs with a 30-piece symphonic string section and a 25-voice choir.
On "Presto," Lifeson plays more acoustic guitars while Peart adds touches of African percussion to songs such as "Superconductor" and "Scars."
"The openness to do things like that is part of what holds us together," Peart says. "Everything we've wanted to accomplish individually, the band has been open to. Every style fits because we say it will.
"So the whole solo album syndrome has never been a factor for us; if I wanted to add African percussion to a song, like I did on ("Presto"), I could do it in the group rather than taking time off to do a solo album.
Lee echoes Peart's sentiment, explaining that Rush's lack of outside interests keeps the musicians' priorities focused. "We've always gotten a lot of satisfaction out of the band that keeps us from going outside," he says.
That the three musicians are able to satisfy their muse within the group has also blocked the kind of personal struggles that break up other bands, according to Peart and Lee. "All of us are responsible for whatever the group does," Peart says. "There isn't one guy who's a figurehead, getting too much attention and making the other guys jealous."
Adds Lee, 35, "The fact that the three of us are friends and have never had a major battle or a major disagreement is a big factor.
"We've had periods of disillusionment where you can tell one guy or another guy is drifting out there, but... in the end, the good things the band affords us seems to keep everybody on board." Which seems to indicate that Rush will be together for the foreseeable future, regardless of its members' refusal to speculate about what's ahead.
"In our secret heart of hearts, it seems like something that will always be there," Peart acknowledges. "But we're careful not to voice it. For us, the big challenge is to come up with songs that are exciting enough to us that it's worth going through all the work to get it on record. We have to be excited about it because we have to go work at it the next day.
"It comes down to a very finite gratification, and so far we've been able to get that from each other."