40 years on, Rush still ignores popularity, convention, marketing, and it works

Following the intermission and another self-deprecating “No Country For Old Hens” animation, Rush used a South Park clip to introduce one of their biggest hits, “Tom Sawyer.” The album opener from their greatest commercial success, 1981’s Moving Pictures, it displayed their brilliant musical aptitude and unconventional selections (the song’s written in a mixture of 5/4 and 7/4 time, and features a wide variety of unusual transitions) but also their ability to succeed on a very different road than most bands. “Tom Sawyer” doesn’t follow most of the rules of musical popularity, but it’s hugely popular nonetheless, which is also true of Rush as a whole.

The same could be said for the next track they played, the instrumental “YYZ,” which might be one of the few instrumentals that receives regular play on classic rock radio; it’s essentially an extended, but very diverse, jam session that shows off their musical talents, and it’s anything but constructed for popularity, but succeeds despite that.

After that, Rush skipped the other two big hits off Moving Pictures (“Red Barchetta” and “Limelight”), and that stood out. While they still went to a large hit next (“The Spirit of Radio,” off 1980’s Permanent Waves, which hilariously receives a ton of radio play despite decrying the “sounds of salesmen” that fill modern radio), they demonstrated that this show was about anything but just formulaic run-throughs of their greatest hits. A concert that featured the same amount of songs from Signals and Moving Pictures clearly wasn’t about cranking out the singles.

Permanent Waves actually tied for the most songs played off any album, as Rush followed up “The Spirit Of Radio” with “Natural Science” and the instrumental “Jacob’s Ladder.” Again, they skipped a big radio hit (“Freewill”) in favour of a long piece (“Natural Science,” which tied the mostly-shorter songs of Permanent Waves back to the band’s longer material) and an instrumental, and it was a good decision. The internal musical and volume shifts of “Natural Science,” from contemplative to frenetic, took things back down from the bigger radio hits and transitioned into the quieter “Jacob’s Ladder” (which was accompanied by an impressive laser show).

From there, they really went into the long prog-rock material, playing “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres: Prelude” (the conclusion of a story about a lost space probe and Greek gods) off of 1978’s Hemispheres, then the initial “Cygnus X-1” off 1977’s A Farewell To Kings. That album would see two more entries, the short and anthemic “Closer To The Heart” (with the whole stadium singing along) and the prog-rock masterpiece “Xanadu,” clocking in at 11:05. “Xanadu,” based off Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” was perhaps the highlight of the night, and it perfectly encapsulates the duality of Rush.


By conventional musical standards, there’s no way it should have achieved any popularity whatsoever; it has a five-minute intro, for goodness’ sakes. The technical virtuosity, the variety of instruments used (on that one, Lifeson played a double-necked six/12 string guitar, while Lee played a double-necked bass/12-string guitar and Peart used temple blocks, tubular bells, a bell tree, a glockenspiel and wind chimes in addition to his regular massive drum kit), and the stunning internal and thematic cohesion have combined to make it a favourite for many Rush fans, though, and one that’s even able to achieve radio play from time to time. On Friday, it was a fantastic showcase of their instrumental prowess and their ability as a band.

Rush finished the main set by playing four of the seven parts of the epic (20:34) title track from 1976’s 2112, and it deserves further discussion for its place in the band’s history, as it was perhaps their most emphatic rejection of conventional commercialism (and yet, a remarkable commercial success). Their 1974 self-titled debut (the only album without Peart) was relatively conventional radio-friendly blues-derived rock, but did feature the 7:07 jam “Working Man” (which, oddly enough, led to much of their early radio success, especially thanks to Cleveland DJ and music director Donna Halper).

The initial follow-up, 1975’s Fly By Night, moved to some longer and more fantastic pieces such as “By-Tor and The Snow Dog” (8:37) and “Rivendell” (5:00), but still featured more conventional songs like the title track. Their third album, 1975’s Caress of Steel, saw them move even further into the prog-rock realm with long, multi-part fantasy-inspired songs “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” as the album’s centrepiece, and its disappointing initial sales (lower than previous album Fly By Night: it didn’t even hit gold until a decade later and is one of the few Rush albums still not to go platinum in the U.S.) saw label Mercury Records push for the trio to deliver shorter, more conventional material.

The band responded by going completely in the other direction, defying the label’s wishes and turning in space opera 2112. It’s not a pure concept album, as the second side is shorter, with unrelated songs, but the title track is a remarkable symphonic science-fiction story, and it marked the band’s clear rejection of the attempts to push them towards the mainstream (and its success freed them to continue exploring). Seeing so much of it played live was special, and it reinforced Rush’s theme of rejecting the conventions and playing what they wanted.

The lights went down after the explosive 2112 finale, paving the way for the best self-deprecating video of the night. Canadian comedy legend Eugene Levy, in character as shamelessly commercial and anti-prog host Mel from the recurring SCTV sketch Mel’s Rockpile, promptly made fun of Rush with “Can you believe they opened for KISS? Hopefully if they stay together they might pick up a few more members, because everyone knows three guys do not a rock band make.”

That paved the way for the encore, which continued Rush’s exploration of some of their lesser-heard songs, the mellow “Lakeside Park” (from A Caress Of Steel), the rocking “Anthem” (from Fly By Night) and the almost-never-played “What You’re Doing” (from their debut) before finishing with a stunningly tight, crowd-pleasing version of “Working Man.” That alone would have been a great way to cap off the night, but their final “Exit Stage Left” video proved even better, seeing the band barred from their own dressing room by the cast of characters from their album cover. Even their own creations sneer at them sometimes, and that’s fine.

Rush has been doing it their own way for 40 years now, and that’s led to millions of albums sold, a 2013 induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and now even Rolling Stone covers. They’ll never be the world’s biggest band, and sometimes they’ll even sell fewer tickets than One Direction, but sometimes rejecting marketing and convention can be just as rewarding. Peart and his bandmates have kept that desire to “never sell out and never bow to the man,” and they’ve accomplished incredible things by doing so.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.