The queue outside the Cineworld just south of Piccadilly Circus in central London is about 300 yards long and made up largely of white men aged between 30 and 50, but if you look closely you'll spot a few rogue elements. Such as women: there are, perhaps, five or six dotted among the men. Most appear to have been dragged along, but a couple look like they actually might be here of their own volition. Near the front of the queue there is a group of three young, turbaned Sikhs, and there are a few Japanese fans who may, or may not, be tourists. But in the main this is a river of middle-aged white blokes, and so I, a middle-aged white bloke, join it. Happily.
We are all here for a special screening of a film called Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary about Rush, a Canadian rock group who last had a single in the UK top 40 in 1983, yet are now selling out bigger venues - often stadiums - in more parts of the world than they ever have done before. What makes tonight special for Rush fans is that Geddy Lee, the group's lead singer and bassist, will be taking part in a Q&A directly after the film. To get us in the mood and break the ice, tonight's compere asks how many of us have seen the film before. Every single person - every last one - in the room puts their hand up, and a Mexican wave of laughter spreads across the room. The crowd relaxes into their seats and waits for the lights to go down. Five hundred outsiders have suddenly become a lot less outsiderly.
Rush, and Rush fans, are long used to being the butt of the joke - kimono-wearing, book-learning, heavily moustachioed Canadian prog-rock overlords never seemed likely to be at the cutting edge of cool. But what's really interesting is how their fan archetype - that nerdy, computer-club, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, comic-reading, sci-fi geek - has moved from the margins right into the very heart of the mainstream. Rush have been uncool for so long that they are, finally, perhaps the coolest band in the world.
"We've been vindicated!" laughs guitarist Alex Lifeson down the phone from his home in Toronto a few days later. "A lot of fans feel vindicated, too. There is a segment of our audience that are outsiders and some have grown into power and influence, but that bond they feel to us is still there. It's very, very deep and I don't think it's like that for a lot of other bands."
Lifeson and Lee were the long-haired, music-obsessed children of Serbian and Jewish immigrants when they met at Fisherville Junior High in Toronto in 1967. They had both persuaded their parents to buy them guitars: Lee had a thing for Steve Marriott, but they both loved Led Zeppelin. They both wanted to play in a loud rock'n'roll band.
"We also both wanted to play really fast," laughs Lee, sitting in the sunlit conservatory of a London hotel the morning after the screening. "That was really important. We wanted to play stuff that was hard to play. We're not so different now."
The band's first album was released independently in 1974, and it ran all the way from ballsy, Zep-like rockers to more ballsy, Zep-like rockers. It was only when John Rutsey, their original drummer, left a few months later because of illness that Rush began to morph into this most remarkable of groups. His replacement was Neil Peart, whose family ran a farm equipment business - the gangly teen was more interested in Buddy Rich, Keith Moon and Duke Elllington's drummer, Louie Bellson, than in tractors. The band signed to Mercury Records and, after just two weeks getting to know each other, they played their first gig together in front of 11,000 Uriah Heep fans, and began to tour in earnest. Peart, unused to the tedium of touring, would read obsessively and soon the science fiction and autobiography and "junior philosophy" he was consuming turned into lyrics for his new band.
On the band's debut LP Lee had sung: "Running here, I'm running there/ I'm looking for the girls." By early 1975 - on their second album, Fly By Night - he was tackling the words Peart had started writing for him: "His nemesis is waiting at the gate/ The snow dog, ermine glowing, in the damp night, coal-black eyes shimmering with hate." Oddly, brilliantly, it's the latter he sounds most comfortable singing. The trouble was that Rush's record company preferred the former. Just eight months later the band released their third LP, Caress of Steel - a fantastically lyrical and at times maddeningly overwrought album. It tanked, and the series of shows the played to promote it became known as the Down the Tubes tour.
"That was a depressing time," Lee says. "You'd pull up at a venue and they didn't even expect you there; it was humiliation after humiliation. Your shoulders start to slump, and you wonder why you're playing a rock club in Oklahoma City on a wet Tuesday night. The label and the management wanted us to follow a straight path, but we went hard left. We were convinced we would be dropped and end up back home playing bars."
Instead the band locked everyone out and wrote 2112, an album whose entire first side was taken up by a concept piece about a brutally dystopian future in which a group of elite priests exert total control over the meek and mediocre: excellence and individualism have been traded in for a numb, cowardly security. One man finds an old guitar, is fascinated by the sounds it makes and begs the priests to let the people make their own music. They respond by crushing the guitar beneath their feet. A voice at the track's end intones: "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: we have assumed control."
The sleevenotes offered thanks to the rightwing novelist Ayn Rand, while critics also detected nods to Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Peart's ultra-libertarian stance was construed by the NME, never one to shy away from a ludicrous argument, as being dangerously close to Nazism, despite Rand - and Lee - being Jewish. "I believe in the sanctity of the individual," Peart said later. "In freedom of action without harming anyone else." While this debate raged on, in England at least, Rush displayed their desire for individual freedom on 2112's sleeve where they were pictured wearing silk kimonos, in what they admit in Beyond the Lighted Stage was an attempt to have an image, any image. As a young fan I found that picture a far more powerful message and, to this day, I've never met a Rush fan who ever gave two hoots for Rand or objectivism, but I know plenty for whom Rush's brilliantly openhearted, unafraid ludicrousness was just as much of a draw as their staggering technical aptitude.
"We were pretty goofy," Lee says. "We came up through a generation where you admired bands who had a stage look. But we didn't have a stylist, and our management was no use."
But it worked out well, Rush were never less than striking.
"You're very kind," he laughs, "but sometimes it was more freaky. There were visual crimes. My huge glasses. When I had my hair tied back all the time. That was so bad. But my wife let me out of the house like that and she's actually really fashionable - she makes her living in the fashion business."
Has she ever banned an outfit outright?
"Oh god, yeah," he laughs. "Plenty. But we were always connected to our times, that's for sure."
The release of 2112 turned Rush into stars, and they kept up their epic scope for two more albums - during which time Peart rewrote Coleridge's Kubla Khan for the song Xanadu, another of the band's signature numbers - then as the 70s became the 80s Rush changed again, just as dramatically as they had when Peart joined. Hair was cut, and so were song lengths. Synths appeared. Lee was listening to Ultravox and Simple Minds, while the influence of the Police and Talking Heads was all over 1980's Permanent Waves and its massive hit single, Spirit of Radio. The follow-up, 1981's Moving Pictures, is still the band's most successful record and had its own huge hit in Tom Sawyer, a song iconic enough to have been cut-up and refigured as intro music at Beastie Boys gigs, and remembered so affectionately it became a recurring theme in the 2009 bromance I Love You, Man.
"There was something special about that record," Lifeson says. "Moving Pictures still makes me get into a groove, I love the way it feels. But I'm not nostalgic for old times. I'd love to have that hair again and be 40 pounds lighter, but it's a tradeoff. If we were at the end of our careers, I might feel differently."
But, of course, they're not. During the 80s the band went took a peculiarly synth-heavy direction (too synth-heavy, some would say - including, it turned out, Lifeson). They were turned down flat when they offered a young band called Nirvana a tour in the very early 90s. Roll the Bones, from 1991, included a rap, and 1993's (hugely successful) Counterparts touched on grunge and included a song calling for more personal understanding of Aids. But it looked as if it would all fall apart when, in 1997, Peart's only daughter was killed in a car accident. Ten months later, his wife died of cancer. While caring for her, Peart started learning to cook, a process documented in strangely moving fashion on his own website, in which he offers thanks to Marks & Spencer for putting instructions on preprepared meals. The band didn't play live for five years, during which time Peart - who now has a new wife and a 16-month old daughter - covered more than 55,000 miles riding across the US on his BMW motorcycle. "These days we're judicious with our tour planning," Lifeson says. "Neil doesn't want to be away too much."
After 37 years, Rush are still recording new material and still finding new places to play ("In South America they cry when they meet you," Lee says). More importantly, they're still friends.
"That's totally it," Lee says. "That's what Rush means, and that's the satisfying thing for all of us."
Back in his home office high above Toronto, Lifeson laughs out loud. "There are very, very few bands that get along anything like as well as we do. In fact, thinking about all the bands I've ever met, I really don't think there are any."
Rush tour the UK from 14-25 May. The deluxe edition of Moving Pictures is released on 11 April by Mercury.
The Zeppelin copyists
Finding My Way (1973)
Dating from the days when Rush were a Toronto bar-band, barely out of their teens, Finding My Way could just as well have been called Finding Led Zeppelin's Way. This, featuring original, feather-cut, glam-friendly drummer John Rutsey, is gloriously in hock to Robert Plant's paint-stripping howl and Jimmy Page's amped-up, hair-shaking, blues-rock riffology. "I'm coming," yells Geddy Lee dizzily, over a sweat-drizzled guitar break. "Ooh babe, I said I'm running/ Oww babe I said I'm coming to get you mama ..." .
The prog epicists
Perhaps the most Ultra-Rush Rush epic in the whole epic Rush canon, Xanadu is an 11-minute work of wonder that skips easily between fantasy-metal bombast, oscillating analogue-synth noodle-doodle, ambient guitar experimentalism and double kick-drum diddling prog-jazz. "To find the sacred river Alph, to walk the caves of ice," sings Lee. "Oh, I will dine on honey dew and drink the milk of paradise/ Yeah! Paradise!" The only song known to man to be inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem Kubla Khan while still being intrinsically groovy enough to offer up a super-tasty breakbeat (beginning around 3:08 on the live clip linked above). Frankly, you can keep your punk rock.
Red Barchetta (1981)
From deep within the beating heart of their chart-hogging, hit-making era, this is as perfect and beautiful a pop song as the band would ever write. Based on the short story A Nice Morning Drive by Richard S Foster, Red Barchetta imagines a world where the internal combustion engine is banned and everyone knocks about in eco-friendly "gleaming alloy air cars" - apart from our hero, who visits his uncle's country house to drive the fantastically preserved Ferrari 550 Barchetta the old chap's been keeping under wraps for 50 years. Includes the none-more-Julian-and-Sandy line: "Tyres spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime."
The synthrock years
Distant Early Warning (1984)
From the band's under-celebrated wedge-haircut, ponytail and pastel-coloured jacket era, this is a neat summation of what modern rock bands thought were good ideas in 1984. The band had been toying with Police-like clipped prog-reggae styles since 1980's monster hit The Spirit of Radio, but this was something else, rather like Talking Heads in Dub, only nothing like that at all. Big and spacey and full of ringing chords and digital synths, it has a powerfully dynamic, post-punk chorus that you will wake up singing for weeks afterwards. Neat tip of the lyrical hat to William Faulkner's 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! too, obviously.
The power trio returns
One Little Victory 2002
Not quite a full return to the band's satin'n'tat sound of 1973 - there are some superfan-teasing big prog chords thrown in early on - but this was certainly some sort of reimagining of their original, stack-heeled power-trio wonderfulness. The band had been on hiatus for nearly six years following the deaths of Peart's daughter and, soon after, his wife. No one - least of all the band themselves - thought there was any chance they could ever really come back. Then they did. And they found themselves bigger than they had ever been.
From the time I was a schoolboy, I loved reading. I remember going to the local public library every Tuesday evening (perhaps the only time it was open at night) for a fresh supply of books. Writing also afflicted me early; at age seven, I wrote a poem called The Little Red Fox that ran on for a couple of pages of doggerel rhyme. I'm told it was displayed in the halls of Gracefield school, Toronto, for some years after - not remarkable for its quality, but for its volume (similar criticisms have been levelled at my drumming over the years).
To give the seven-year-old rhymester his due, there is one couplet I remember fondly from the middle of the poem, when the hunters are coming after the fox: "The fox woke up so early in the morn/ (You would too if you heard that horn!)"
I realise now that by the time I reached high-school English classes, it was necessary to sacrifice one novel, one play and one poem - vivisect them - to give me the tools to properly appreciate a thousand other novels, plays, and poems. Thus, A Tale of Two Cities, Julius Caesar, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner were slaughtered on the altar of literary dissection, and will never live for me again.
Too bad about that - but a worthwhile sacrifice, of course.
As for the Rush song Xanadu, and its debt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it's kind of strange how that came about.
Back in 1975, while my bandmates Geddy and Alex were mixing our first live album, All the World's a Stage (talk about literary references!), with co-producer Terry Brown, I took a few days away to work on some lyrics for new songs.
The title and initial theme of Xanadu were actually inspired by the film Citizen Kane. I had planned to attempt something with its dark mood and subtle psychology. Of course the opening lines of Kubla Khan were quoted at the beginning of Citizen Kane, so I looked up the poem just for research - "context".
However, after reading the poem, I was overwhelmed by its imagery and emotional power. More or less against my will, I found the song being taken over by the poem, in a way that has never happened before or since. For that reason, the finished song has never been my favourite piece of work, lyrically - too derivative - but it made a good musical vehicle for one of our first "extended works".
Also, it was portentous that I added the "adventure travel" aspect to the song's story way back then - "I scaled the frozen mountaintops of eastern lands unknown/ Time and man alone/ Searching for the lost Xanadu" - before I'd ever traveled farther than the arenas and rock clubs of North America.
It is also noteworthy that I portrayed the idea of immortality as a grim fate, a curse, because the first lyrics I ever wrote, at about age 17, were for a song by the band I was in, JR Flood, called Retribution. (When I told my mother about the song, and the title, she cracked: "Who are you writing for - college professors?" That was rich, said to a high-school-dropout wannabe drummer. In later years, having attained success with Rush, I once heard a disparaging remark: "Rush is what happens when you let the drummer write the songs." Pretty funny - though of course I'm not entirely to blame; I only write the lyrics.)
Retribution was a first-person story about a soul trapped in immortality as a punishment, foreshadowing the character I made up for Xanadu. It is further ironic that a dominant theme in Citizen Kane is the opposite: mortality as a punishment - symbolised by Kane's dying word: "Rosebud."
But in terms of the influence of Coleridge on my lyrics, I am much more fond of a less obvious reference, a line in our song Animate, from Counterparts (1994): "Daughter of a demon lover."
It pays homage to these powerful lines from Kubla Khan: "As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon lover!"
Now that's rock!