Imagine you're strolling through the Progressive Rock Museum.
The remains of dinosaurs a million years dead line the walls. Display cases are filled with 25-minute "concept" pieces, ponderous four-record sets, absurd psychedelic stage props and tragic accounts of an era where a few brave musicians too talented for their own good played "rock" and dared to call it "art."
You can see that Genesis, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer occupy spots of honour. What's left of those groups today utterly fails to live up to their grand musical visions of the past. (Quick: Name a track from Genesis's latest album. OK, just name the album. I rest my case.)
Now, as you walk past the Kansas and King Crimson exhibits (just left of the Shrine of Pomposity, through the Hall of Pretentiousness), you notice one case is conspicuously empty. A bronze plaque is all that advertises its future occupant. It's a band that has defied great odds and even greater pressure from purists who sneer at the notion of mixing classical music with rock 'n' roll. "Rock songs should not contain movements!" they protest. It's a band that has survived nearly 25 years of passing trends and continued to create new "art rock" that fans actually care to hear. It's a band not yet ready for the Progressive Rock Museum. And it's a band that just happens to be Canadian.
More than just a freak of nature, Rush is one of the last surviving--make that thriving--progressive rock bands in the world. In a phone interview to promote the band's new triple-live album, Different Stages (in stores today), singer-bassist Geddy Lee has a few theories about why Rush stayed so vital while so many other prog-rockers went extinct.
"I think a lot of those bands lost conviction in what they were doing and had no choice but to break up," he says, "whether it be because of egos or money or whatever. There were issues that came up that destroyed whatever vision they had musically. I think we've been lucky that the three of us have been so close over the years and have shared such a great unity of musical vision and have enjoyed working together and have not let the practicalities of the music business interfere in what we love to do.
"We've been very cloistered away and we've protected ourselves, to a large degree, from outside influence. And it's enabled us to remain kind of juvenile about it. I think that's a good thing, and I think it's a necessary thing for the success of most rock bands to have that feeling that you're still youthfully experimenting with that kind of music. When it becomes too pat and too formulaic, I think people can tell."
Although Rush has taken some flack from the anti-art-rock crowd, the trio seems to have been above the worst of it. Perhaps it's because they stuck to their guns.
"We started by fusing all kinds of crap into our music," Lee says. "We still do. It's no holds barred. Ain't it funny--now there's a whole generation of different bands where all they do is fuse stuff. What's trip-hop? What's that all about? It's all about fusion. It's like stew. There's all kinds of elements of music out there that are fun to mix together. The classical rock thing, when it first came along, was viewed as being a little pompous, and maybe it was. But so what? There was some good music made in that day."
Rush made its share. In 1974, Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey (later replaced by Neil Peart) released their self-titled debut album, the most successful debut by any Canadian band thus far. While playing more than 200 shows a year, 2112 followed in 1976, and with 1977's A Farewell To Kings, so did American success. The band never looked back. The '80s may have been the decade music fans wish to forget, but they were great years for Rush. Into the '90s--and this may be the trick - the band continued to pump out new music that stood up to the classics. The band's 21st album, Test For Echo (1996), was also its 21st gold album in a row--and that's American gold, baby. In the realm of progressive rock, that's like hitting 70 home runs a year for five years in a row. How do you top that? While Lee insists that Rush has no plans beyond taking a break--"We've been together for 1,000 years. Who knows what the future holds?"--the new triple live album makes a good start.
The first two discs are a record of the band's last two tours. In an effort to "sneak up on one of those rare shows that you feel is a perfect combination of performance and excitement," as Lee puts it, all 100 concerts were recorded, including 2112 (Rush's 25-minute concept piece), the first time the band ever played the entire piece live. Disc 3 is a "bonus" recording of a 1978 show that reveals the band's heavy metal roots. All together, it's a comprehensive blast of Rush that does justice to the band's remarkable legacy.
"The most difficult part of any band is competing with their past successes," Lee says, "and so we've always decided that we were going to take a long-term view to the way we went about things. I still think that's a little bit of an albatross with every band that's been around. Somebody always prefers you from one period to another. So you have to continue to be vital and continue to be, in some ways, contemporary, just to keep intriguing people.
"I'd like to believe that once you're a Rush fan you stay a Rush fan forever, but I don't think that is really the case. I think there is a hard-core fan base that rides with us all the way, and I think others come and go."
Different Stages should satisfy all of them.