Through more than 33 years Rush has remained the ultimate prog-rock powerhouse. Guitar World presents the history of the group that blended high-pitched vocals, extended instrumentals, sci-fi imagery and keyboards and somehow made it all work.
In 1974, when Rush released a self-titled album on their own tiny label, nobody imagined that this little-known Toronto power trio would last another three decades, much less that it would become one of the most influential names in hard rock. Thirty-four years later, however, Rush are an institution, with 25 albums (not counting compilations) under their belt and more than 40 million in worldwide sales.
But those numbers tell only part of the story, for the importance of Rush cannot be measured in sales alone. As the trio moved from the bluesy basics of “Working Man” to the progressive metal of “2112,” “A Farewell to Kings” and “La Villa Strangiato,” it raised the bar for mainstream rock, both in terms of creativity and technical ability. Learning to play Rush songs was a way for younger musicians to prove their mettle, and as such the band became an influence on a whole generation of rockers, from Dream Theater to Metallica, from Smashing Pumpkins to Stone Temple Pilots, and from Primus to Rage Against the Machine.
Then again, Rush themselves started out in the late Sixties as just another group of teenage hopefuls. Bassist and singer Geddy Lee first met guitarist Alex Lifeson when the two were seventh graders, growing up in the north Toronto suburb of Willowdale. “He was in my class in grade seven,” Lee recalls. “He was playing in this band called Rush. It was him, [drummer] John Rutsey and a bass player named Jeff Jones.”
Lifeson’s band had a regular Friday gig at a coffeehouse run by a local church. “He used to call me up but more to borrow equipment from me than to actually jam, because he was a famous mooch back then,” Lee says. “Then he called me up—it was, like, Friday morning—and said, ‘Our bass player can’t make this gig tonight. Do you want to fill in?’
“I said, ‘Sure.’”
Lee quickly went from filling in to playing as a fulltime member. Rush spent their earliest days playing youth centers and high school dances all around Ontario. Then, in 1971, Ontario lowered its drinking age to 18. “We were 18,” Lee recalls. “And that opened a whole world of drunkenness to us. And bar gigs.”
Over the next two years, Rush slowly built an audience, working their way up the Toronto bar circuit, from tiny Yorkville dives to rock palaces like the Gasworks (which would later cameo as the club in Wayne’s World). Along the way, the group picked up manager Ray Danniels, who was determined to build the band into something bigger. “In order to get us out of the bars, he and his partner decided to become promoters,” Lee explains. “They started putting on shows at the Victory Burlesque Theatre on Spadina, which is gone now.” Their first booking, in October 1973, was opening for the ultra-glam New York Dolls.
Danniels also took a do-it-yourself approach to getting Rush a record deal. He had the band do its recording in the hours after its regular club gigs—studio time was cheaper in the dead of night. When the finished master was turned down by every label in Canada, Danniels put together a label of his own, Moon Records, to release Rush.