While most pop is aimed below the belt in the hard-hitting world of marketing, three thinking gents from Toronto remind us that there is still room for brainpower in rock.
Rush formed in the art-rock climate of the early '70s and has seldom strayed from a progressive curve.
The central question, students, is: At what point is conscious thought a detriment to the spirit of rock 'n' roll? The class is divided, often passionately. We have a show of hands from those who view Rush as great conceptualists. But there are those who feel their complexity is so much hokum.
Regardless, this is one band that does most of its creative work in the preparation of an album. By the time it reaches the touring stage, all puzzle pieces are in place.
"It's the division between creative and interpretive art," said drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, one of the more articulate rockers of this or any era. "Playing live is very much interpretive because the creative work has been done."
Rush - also vocalist/bassist/synthesizer player Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson - will perform Tuesday at The Summit.
The concept of the band's new Roll the Bones album begins in the eternal tug-of-war between fate and free will that each of us interprets by our own disciplines, be they spiritual, philosophical or physical. "It's the wild card aspect of life," Peart said, "that however well-planned things are, however secure the future seems, however hard you've worked or however talented or beautiful you are, there are these wild cards that life throws at us. Sometimes they're happy ones, sometimes tragic ones. You could be discovered by Hollywood tomorrow, you could be hit by a bus tomorrow.
"It's also circumstance, the elements of chance. I started by considering the ill fortune of somebody being born in Ethiopia, or being born with AIDS. These kinds of tragedies are wrenching to me, and there's no other way to describe them in my system of belief other than to say, 'Well, it's very bad luck.' The questions that I felt compelled to ask from that are the ultimate existential questions: Why are we here? Why do these things happen?" But, he said, "Those are the wrong questions. It's pointless to sit around stargazing. It's more than just luck. The point is, what can I do about it? It's the practical side I'm interested in. I've gone from compassion to anger. So Roll the Bones also means, 'Do it!'"
And so Rush has. They donated the entire proceeds (several hundred thousand dollars) from their Jan. 30 Oakland Coliseum concert to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, a non-profit group founded in 1985.
"It's something we feel very strongly about," Peart said. "We normally do these things privately - for example, our Christmas presents to one another tend to be donations to charitable organizations - but we thought there was a message here. We thought that being in a rock band, which is a world of homophobia and misogyny, it might be good that this is publicized, that we're very moved by the AIDS tragedy and want to contribute."
With Roll the Bones, Peart says, the band has dared some onstage spontaneity.
"That's one area we set out to change. For a long time it's been enough of an ambition for us to play the song as well live as it is on the record, because the record is a superhuman, flawless representation. We always thought if we could approximate that onstage, we were really doing something.
"We have reached the point where that is more attainable, so we started messing with the arrangements in tour rehearsal, extending instrumental bits, adding on improvisational bits." Peart's own role is a microcosm of the fascinating Rush recording process and its evolution.
"There are no real rules, but the basic mechanism is I work on the lyrics and the other two work on the music," he said. "But since I'm not there to be their drummer, they're working on a drum machine that I program. That way we all have a rhythmic touchstone to work from.
"But to get to a satisfactory level, a lot of changes can go into it. Sometimes I rewrite the lyrics to make it work better musically or reframe the arrangement to set off the dynamics better." All this is the "pre-production" prior to the actual recording process. In the early days, Peart said, the band had no such luxury.
"We'd be on tour for 10 months and go straight into the studio and be expected to come up with a record. There wouldn't be the luxury of time.
"Later on, we had to forge new work habits, so we'd get half the record sort of arranged and then dive into the studio and finish it there. That was a lot of pressure." But success has its perks. For Roll the Bones, Peart said, he spent the last two weeks before recording rehearsing his drum parts and working on transitions.
"I was free as I could be, because I wasn't wasting anyone's time but my own, wasn't beating up anyone's hands but my own." At the same time, over-rehearsing can turn a piece stale.
"But I tricked that, too," Peart said. "I rehearsed every song until I knew every note; then all that was left were certain fills and transitions that I wouldn't let myself figure out.
"That way, every time I come to those parts (in concert), I'll close my eyes and go. Hopefully, that gives me a better chance of coming out with that magical moment, to where the audience will sense that, within the architecture of the song, there is this 'pull' that has never been played before."
Peart's technique was influenced mostly by jazz. "Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were my first inspirations," he said. "Certainly the movie The Gene Krupa Story was the spark-to-tinder for me.
"My drum teacher played one of those famous drum battles between Rich and Krupa, and he said, 'OK, here's where we're going.' Then he showed me how to hold the sticks and said, 'And here's how we'll get there.' That was a beautiful foundation. It was a high set of values to aspire to." Peart believes rock drummers of his generation can be divided into those who saw Ringo Starr on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and aspired to be him, and those who saw Krupa and wanted to be him.
"You can hear it in their playing. Ringo bragged about never having learned anything, about never practicing - and I think his playing shows it. There's no desire to push it forward.
"I'm not knocking simplicity. A great drummer can restrain himself to play simply. There's a mastery, like a great painter with one simple brush stroke. (The Rolling Stones') Charlie Watts is a great example of that. He's absolutely right."
Rush's 1974 self-titled album was followed by 1975's more successful Fly By Night. Despite their tendency toward meticulous planning, they released an album on a virtually annual basis for 17 years, compiling a body of work that is among the most dissected in rock.
"We're the first to admit that some of our experiments succeed and some of them fail," Peart said. "Some ideas have grown on from song to song, and others have been dead-end tangents.
It's the nature of doing it that way; consequently, our work is uneven. "But I think that's OK; I read a great quote in an art book that an artist deserves to be judged by his best work." In the process, Rush has survived every major pop trend since the wilting of flower power.
It was difficult. As rookies, the band's first three albums heeded commercial restraints. But 1976's 2112 changed all that.
"We felt we were getting so much pressure from the record company and from everybody around us on the business side to compromise, change and seek that lowest common denominator," Peart said.
"It was a serious crisis. We had to decide whether to stake our artistic lives on this or play it safe. We decided not to play it safe. 2112 was the statement of that, of anger and passion against that, of the individual against the masses. The sub-theme of that record was basically, 'We're not giving up.'" That rebellion, Peart feels, "helped it communicate to an audience that lifted us high enough in popularity to where we could finally be in control."
Rush's longevity is due to both interpersonal communication and technological advances.
"Technology has freed us up so much," Peart said. "There were times in our early days when we began to feel stultified by the limitations of a trio. We would think about adding a fourth member, at least onstage, a keyboard player and/or background vocalist.
"At that point synthesizers came along, and soon after, sequencers. They blew the doors open. One of our points of honor is that we don't use tapes or pre-programs. Everything onstage has to be triggered by us." That, said Peart, amounts to "a real balancing act" in concert.
In other areas, however, a trio format means freedom, Peart believes. "On a personal and creative level it is most satisfying dealing with only three people. You have fewer disagreements and no danger of dividing into factions, the way bands of four or five members do." That has allowed Peart, Lifeson and Lee to achieve individual fulfillment within the collective.
"We finally faced up to it, that all we need to satisfy everything that we want to do as musicians and songwriters can be achieved within the foundation of Rush. It's a freeing kind of thing. There's no longer the thought that, 'Maybe I need to be in another band,' or, 'Maybe I need to make a solo record.' If we want to make movie soundtracks, we can do it as the three of us. If we want to make weird music or have Nigerian drumming for me or classical guitar for Alex or - as we did in the mid-'80s - if we want to do electronic dance music or hip-hop, anything will fit into Rush."