Peart Drums Up A New Hockey Theme

By Allan Maki, Globe And Mail, January 13 2010

The guy makes it sound as if he was the worst athlete in the history of our hockey-loving nation and probably still is.

As a kid, he couldn’t skate worth a lick and never made a team. As a cross-country skier, he says he’s horrible and still falls down a lot. As a swimmer, he’s good enough to make it to the other end of the pool without paramedics standing by.

So why in the world has Neil Peart – percussionist, musician, author, bird watcher and motorcycle enthusiast – decided to join the sporting world in such grand fashion by recording the fabled Hockey Theme (formerly the Hockey Night in Canada anthem)? With rock-band drums emblazoned with the logos of all 30 NHL teams no less?

The short answer is: He was asked to by TSN, which will air Peart’s version of the Hockey Theme during Thursday night’s Philadelphia Flyers-Toronto Maple Leafs game, complete with a snazzy video of Rush’s master drummer at work.

The long answer has to do with Peart’s upbringing and personality. He loved hockey as a child and later found himself meeting hockey professionals while playing alongside his Rush bandmates in NHL arenas. Getting to record such an iconic ditty appealed to his sense of Canadiana and culture.

Besides, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I tell Americans there is no analog for this song in the U.S. People hum it. They have it as a [cellphone] ring tone,” said Peart, who grew up in St. Catharines, Ont., and now lives in Los Angeles. “I gave a little speech in the studio before we started [recording] saying: ‘Every mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, child, moose and beaver will see and hear this.’

“I’ll be very curious to know how Canadians respond to this.”

Peart’s problems with skating never undermined his affection for hockey. He played it on the street, played the table-top version, collected hockey cards and spent his share of afternoons and evenings watching the St. Catharines junior-A team with his father.

Doing the Hockey Theme was like reconnecting with an old friend, and Peart was more than ready for it.

“The year before last, [TSN] first approached me about doing something and we’d just finished a Rush tour. … This year was just perfect. I had time off and I was reinvigorated,” he said. “I knew the [Hockey Theme] arranger because he was at the Buddy Rich tribute show. We needed a whole orchestra [17 musicians in all] but I knew people who could arrange that. It all came together.”Peart’s mind is a racing car stuck in full throttle. He not only longs for diversity, he speeds himself head-long into whatever project he chooses, be it reading Nietzsche, writing books, organizing tributes to jazz legend Buddy Rich or cycling across Africa.

Here’s how he described the Hockey Theme sessions:

“We played the song a few hundred times. We filmed every step of the way as a documentary [for the Drum Channel website]. I’d go home and listen to it and we only had a minute for the song but I’d say: ‘There’s room for more drums in there.’ I put everything I knew into that one minute,” Peart said.

“I start off with some Latin patterns I’d just been working on. There are three different rhythmic steps. There’s a faster one at the start, then some slower rhythms, then the climax with the full Buddy Rich snare drum roll. As a band, we wanted to be true to the melody of the song. At the same time, I’m not going to play those parade drums.”

All totalled, it took Peart 60 days to record 60 seconds worth of music. To set the mood, the Stanley Cup was brought in to add to the ambience. Peart got his photo taken with the Cup, sweet revenge for all those “hockey bullies” he made fun of his ankle-skating rushes and never wanted him on their team.

“I’m not co-ordinated; I say I’m dis-co-ordinated because I can get my four limbs to work independently,” he said. “I was hopeless as a sports player as a kid. But drumming gave me the endurance so if I couldn’t do things well I could at least do them for a long time [hence the cycling, swimming and cross-country skiing].”

There’ll soon be another honour headed Peart’s way: his customized DW drums, complete with NHL logos, are bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. They’ll be put them on display the same as Wayne Gretzky’s hockey sticks or Jacques Plante’s mask.

As for Peart’s version of the Hockey Theme, there’s no need to worry. It rocks; it’s traditional.

Canadians should like it. The moose and beavers will, too.