Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics

A by no means comprehensive or conclusive survey of a Canadian power trio who once upon a time (much less so now) got under the skins of more rock critics than any other rock or pop artist going.

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Creem, June 1981

“For the record, those three are drummer Neil Peart, who writes all the band’s lyrics and takes fewer solos than might be expected; guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose mile-a-minute buzzing is more numbing than exciting; and bassist, keyboardist and singer Geddy Lee, whose amazingly high-pitched wailing often sounds like Mr. Bill singing heavy metal. If only Mr. Sluggo had been on hand to give these guys a couple good whacks…”
Steve Pond, review of Rush live in Los Angeles, Rolling Stone, 1980

Geddy Lee’s high-register vocal style has always been a signature of the band – and sometimes a focal point for criticism, especially during the early years of Rush’s career when Lee’s vocals were high-pitched, with a strong likeness to other singers like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. A review in the New York Times opined that Lee’s voice ‘suggests a munchkin giving a sermon.’ Although his voice has softened over the years, it is often described as a ‘wail.’ His instrumental abilities, on the other hand, are rarely criticized.
Wikipedia entry on Rush

Mark Coleman and Ernesto Lechner, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 2004

“Listen to recent records and/or live sets by Die Kreuzen and Discharge and Das Damen and Vertical Slit and F/1 and Uzi, not to mention I-don’t -know-how-many speed-death-indy-metal crews, and you get the idea that symphonic flourishes, intricate time changes, medieval metaphors, and seven-minute anthems have developed into a tradition of their own. These bands are, thankfully, a lot noisier and harder-edged than bombast-rocque used to be… They’ve even kinda made me appreciate Rush, always (thanx to Geddy Lee’s whipped-hound squeal) the one progresso conglom I couldn’t stomach: This summer I heard their way-fresh ‘Tom Sawyer’ in my Plymouth and thought it drilled holes through the Robert Palmers, Simple Minds, postprog Peter Gabriels (if ‘Sledgehammer’ is ‘funky’, I’m James Fucking Brown), Janet Jacksons, and Fab-T-Birds who by now all sound the same.”
Chuck Eddy, review of The Proletariat‘s Rich Men Poor Men, Village Voice, Sep. ’86


Rush has stayed a three piece and developed musically through basic hard rock (‘Rush’), progressive hard rock (‘2112’), and progressive post rock (‘Hemispheres’), before rethinking their approach, adding keyboards to bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee’s duties and developing a new high tech, pop textured sound which nonetheless at its best reaches transcendence via an approach (at least once an album) that is harmolodic in all but name.
Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic

“More than 40 years of activity has provided Rush with the opportunity for musical diversity across their discography. As with many bands known for experimentation, changes have inevitably resulted in dissent among critics and fans. The bulk of the band’s music has always included synthetic instruments in some form or another, and this is a great source of contention in the Rush camp, especially the band’s heavy reliance on synthesizers and keyboards during the 1980s…”
Wikipedia entry on Rush

Alan Niester rates Rush, Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979

“This Canadian power trio, which boasts a vocalist who sounds like a cross between Donald Duck and Robert Plant, reached its pinnacle of success the day it was discovered by Circus magazine and turned into fanzine wall-decoration material.”
Alan Niester, Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979

A Farewell to Kings [Mercury, 1977]
The most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit. Not to be confused with Mahogany Rush, who at least spare us the reactionary gentility. More like Angel. Or Kansas. Or a power-trio Uriah Heep, with vocals revved up an octave. Or two. D
Robert Christgau

“When Lars Ulrich, who slams skins for the band that recorded 1986’s most-rad rock’n’roll masterpiece, told me Metallica likes Rush and vice versa, I understood why: Geddy Lee is one of the few superstars left who still has the guts to be obnoxious. Suck-ass times like these sure make you appreciate the importance of high-quality trash.”
Chuck Eddy, Village Voice, Sep. ’86

Chuck Klosterman in foreword to Chuck Eddy‘s Rock and Roll Always Forgets

“I also think the renewed interest comes from the people in positions of power today at TV shows and at some of the journals. They’re in their 40s now and they grew up with the band and they’re finding that it resonates more with them than bands that rock critics have talked about in the past. There’s also the influence of the Internet and blogs as well, which have probably reduced the importance of critics.”
Durrell Bowman, co-editor of Rush and Philosophy, quoted in 40 Years Later, Has Rush Won Out Over Rock Critics?

These three epitomize the modern suburban ethos in rock music (Canada being after all just one big suburb of the US). They are duly hated for this by all slumming elites. Rush are bright, well adjusted and earnest. They took music lessons and they practice their instruments because they believe in music — the art of it and the craft of it. In the cities musicians tend to get sidetracked by the scam of it.
Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic

“Anti-rockism was always violently pro-pop, largely because we original campaigning anti-rockists had been given such a tough time at school for liking Bowie and Bolan and not ELP and Led Zep. The continuing demonstration and distribution of anti-rockist principles is for me further revenge on the 1977 Rush fan who used to think I was retarded because I preferred Richard Hell. And quite simply, for reasons you will now appreciate, Coldplay, however they disguise themselves, are as ridiculously rockist as Rush.”
Paul Morley, “Rockism – it’s the new rockism,” Guardian, 2006

– Letter to Rolling Stone, 1982

“The first thing you notice about Rush, according to one observer, is that they’re not as gross-looking as Bachman-Turner Overdrive and they have a somewhat lower thud weight than most other Canadian bands. True enough –Canuck rockers do seem to have some sort of an uglier-than-thou competition going among themselves along with a tendency to pounce on unsuspecting ears like a carnivorous dumptruck.”
Rick Johnson, “Pebbles & Bam-Bam in Alphaville,” Creem, March ’76 (full article here and here)

Rush has no sense of humor and are ugly as sin and, therefore, their videos have not fared as well [as ZZ Top’s]. Nor do their lyrics revolve around pop concerns (cars, girls, cool), and so although they have made similarly effective production and arrangement concessions to current pop tastes they have not entered the pop market big time. They may have done more than most to help maintain the general mainstream rock market though.
Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic

“Rush is to the late Seventies what Grand Funk was to the early Seventies — the power boogie band for the 16 magazine graduating class.”
Alan Niester, Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979

“I see a lot of threads running through your lyrics, but one I can’t pick up on is humor. Is there a reason for this? Is there something I’m missing??”

“I’m not a comedian. I’m a musician and a lyricist… I’m not interested in being a humorist.”

Well, you and me and [Rick] Johnson makes three, Neil, old pal. Knowing a good thing, I pressed on: “Do you see rock music as being funny in any way?”

“Mmm,” mulled the author of “By-Tor And The Snow Dog.” “Some people I think, are -‘witty’- put it that way,” he said, pronouncing ‘witty’ in an exaggerated sissy tone.

“It’s just that this – what I would call a lack of humor – is what let you guys in for a lot of criticism,” I offered.

“No, no. You see, you’re dealing with cynical, jaded critics here, who in a lot of cases, are frustrated musicians. The people who have given us the ‘humorless’ tag are the frustrated, jaded people…cynical…who think that the only thing that’s good is what’s funny and off-color.”

J. Kordosh interviews N. Peart (“Rush: But Why Are They in Such a Hurry?” Creem, June 1981 — article available here)

“In one way, Rush is a lot like Shaun Cassidy, Teddy Pendergrass and Super Vixens: its audience is made up almost entirely of one sex. In Rush’s case, it’s nearly all males — or more precisely, judging from this crowd, nearly all sixteen-year-old males with long hair, faint mustaches and adrenaline to burn.”
Steve Pond, review of Rush live in Los Angeles, Rolling Stone, 1980

I suspect rock criticism is stuck in a 1960s counter-culture, Bob Dylan kind of world and might never catch up to the cultural shift around the band. But it might not matter, because the role of professional criticism will become less and less important culturally over the next decade or so as the Internet, blogs, and discussion networks become more ascendant. In a sense, what people are saying now is that, because there is so much more attention on them [two academic books, a documentary, guest appearances on popular shows], the band has kind of won out over the rock critics. In any case, in five or 10 years, will anyone care what Rolling Stone thought of them? Even now, when rock critics interview the band they’re surprised at how disarming and quite friendly and pleasant they are. They’re taken aback that the band can be so serious and have such structures and complexities while actually being pretty self-effacing about themselves.
Durrell Bowman, quoted in 40 Years Later, Has Rush Won Out Over Rock Critics?

Creem, March 1976

“Their lyrics (by Neil Peart, drummer since the second album) may be dumb a lot but they’re earnest and offer a right wing populism which is at least counter to official rock culture doctrine. Another thing in their favor is that they have probably never received a good review in their lives. Nevertheless, along with ZZ Top, they remain the class of the enduring ’70s bands. Their latest album indicates a second wind.”
Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic


Yes, Rush. Not the movie or the B.A.D. II song. Certainly not “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul or “Rush Street” by Richard Marx. And not even Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Just plain ol’ eternally unfashionable, the-guy-with-a-high-voice-singing-scary-songs Rush.

So what in God’s name is it doing in SPIN, a publication nominally devoted to alternative music? Well, I could go on about how Rush really is an alternative for lots of suburban loners, at least in the context of classic-rock overkill. About how it is the ultimate punk band for people who thought punk was bogus. But basically the bottom line is this: Even though you may think Rush is uncool, it’s influenced a lot of the bands and artists that you probably think are cool.
Bob Mack, Confessions of a Rush Fan, SPIN, March 1992

– Rush LPs rated in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 2004 (Mark Coleman and Ernesto Lechner)

So what will people argue about now that Rush have been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Don’t worry – Rush fans can just move on to debating why their heroes are deprived of knighthoods or the Nobel Prize in economics. Rush fans love to argue. And Rush obviously like it that way.
Rob Sheffield, review of “deluxe edition” of 2112, Rolling Stone, February 2013

“If the critics suddenly accepted Rush and inducted them into the Hall of Fame, as a fan I would feel a little disoriented. Rock criticism developed around social consciousness, Bob Dylan, the jam-oriented Grateful Dead, smart singer-songwriters. Rush was never any of those things, and the harsh critical reception, the feeling that this is something the mainstream doesn’t get, has been part of the Rush lore from the beginning. If critics suddenly turned around and started valuing the band, I’d be like, huh, that’s a big change.”
Chris McDonald, “Are Rock Critics Planning to Disorient Rush Fans?,” 2011

11 thoughts on “Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics

  1. These people are all missing the point. Lee didn’t sound like “Donald Duck” on acid, etc.; he sounded like Mickey Mouse. Geez, what were people smoking then?

  2. None of the otherwise fascinating excerpts above mentions whether Rush are still followers of selfishness guru Ayn Rand. If so, then forget all the Disney comparisons for Geddy Lee’s high-pitched vocals; the proper metaphor would be “Paul Ryan on helium.” And I believe the voters have already spoken on that choice.

  3. Rush drummer Neil Peart from a 2012 interview —

    Regarding the philosophy of libertarianism as expressed in Ayn Rand, he says he no longer embraces that worldview, explaining, “That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile…For me, it was an affirmation that it’s all right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise.”

  4. I’d love to find the full text of that first Creem article. I had the actual magazine way back in the day.

  5. hmhmhm. Let me see, arguably the best rock drummer of all time, at the very least in the top 3. An amazing guitar player who ranks in the top 50, and Lee as a bassist breaks out in the top 10. Original music too.

    But wait, some people do not like the leads voice or the fact he read some things and liked parts of a philosophy they don’t like.

    So, other than being a part of a power trio that is arguably the best of all time musically… in terms of both ability and body of work… Rush is a joke. Right.

  6. Thanks for your response, Howie. For the record, I’m not a Rush hater, though I don’t enjoy listening to them much, certain radio hits aside. But I think the key word in your response is “arguably,” because one of the things I dislike most about Rush — honest to god, it’s a reason based on music, not philosophy, etc. — is Neil Peart’s drumming. He’s just too overbearing for me–there are 100 other drummers and 25 other drum machines (TR-808, LinnDrums, et al.) I’d prefer to listen to. I mean, it’s interesting how his style embeds itself in such a way as to more or less become a lead instrument in the group at times, but I just dislike all the fills, the way his beats eat up the entire song, the mammoth variety of sounds you get clustered together, etc. There’s little room to move in Rush’s music, and I pinpoint his drumming as the reason.

  7. I’m glad the author is not a Rush hater. There are plenty of people who can tolerate a few Rush songs but overall don’t care for them at all. And, there is nothing wrong with preferring a mostly keep-the-beat timekeeping approach to drumming. There are drummers of that style that I like. Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr come to mind. But, honestly, to prefer a drum machine over Neil Peart? Wow. No point in asking his opinion of Carl Palmer.

    Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Neil Peart, and Carl Palmer are all accomplished drummers whose style of playing perfectly match the musical style of their respected groups. Neil would sound like crap playing in the Stones, and Charlie would sound like crap playing in Rush or ELP. John Rutsey was okay as the drummer on Rush’s first album because at that point in their development his playing fit the band. But could Rutsey have been the right fit on albums like Hemispheres or Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures? No. The masterful and complex guitar and bass arrangements would have sounded weird with a basic timekeeping drummer who threw in a few fills here and there.

    It would be difficult to find a food critic who only enjoys a narrow range of food types, or a movie critic who only likes comedies. But there appears to be an abundance of rock critics who believe that the only music worth listening to is simple. Simple melodies, simple time signatures (preferably with NO changes), blues-based, and lyrics that are either hippie counterculture or don’t stray far from an “I want you baby” formula. Early Genesis? Yes? ELP? Rush? To these critics this music is not only unlikable but downright despicable. Ramones? Oh, that band was the greatest thing to happen to rock music since the Beatles. After all, clearly the awful lyrics of “Jacob’s Ladder” pale in comparison to the genius of “Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue”.

    Anyway, the thing about many rock critics that I find the most perplexing is how it truly disturbs them that a band like Rush actually has a following. It isn’t enough for them to say, “this band makes lousy music”, but they seem to hate the fact that they’re successful. I have never seen a food critic take a swipe at people who enjoy a food that they don’t care for, but rock critics often bash not only Rush but their fans. It’s a sort of zealotry that is difficult to understand. Unless you’re a rock critic, I suppose.

  8. Thanks, Nashville.”Simple” is a bit of a red flag word for me; it’s extremely arbitrary to say the least. “Minimalism,” be it via the Ramones or Philip Glass, does not equal “simplicity” (from what I understand, music that falls under the genre banner of “minimalism” is actually extremely hard to play). Throwing a lot of instrumentation and ingredients into a song does not equal “complexity.” Sometimes music pared down to its essence is extremely complex in ways other than in regards to musical arrangement–the emotions that come through might be complex, it might evoke a complex response in the listener, etc. Blues, and blues-based music, is not inherently “simple.” Are there really a lot of critics out there touting the “simple” these days? 30-40 years ago, yes, I might agree–punk and powerpop and mod and so forth kind of induced that craze for a while, but I honestly don’t think it persists.

    Critics “hate the fact that [Rush are] successful”–well, I don’t think they’d think about them if they weren’t successful. If I dislike a certain artist I’m going to hate them more because they’re popular because it means I will have to put up with them. Nowadays, I don’t think this even applies, though (“popular” music still exists, but it’s very easily escapable, unless it’s piped in to where you work or something). I agree about critics hating on Rush fans, though–that sort of thinking does persist in music criticism, though the targets vary wildly.

  9. Incredibly fatiguing music to listen to for any length of time, with some exceptions. Clockwork Angles along with Snakes and Arrows are so annoyingly brutal, unless you like the genre of heavy metal rock, then it’s your thing. Lee often gets put into a category of best bassist, let’s be clear best “rock” bassist where most rock bass players are incredibly superfluous to begin with. Yes Lee has some cool riffs (Leave That Thing Alone, YYZ and By-Tor ) but to have to sit through a guitar player that sounds like a chainsaw attacking an electrical bared-wire fence is not worth it. It’s heavy metal rock, which is above the evolutionary scale of non musical by definition Rap but no where near serious music. Million records sold, I get that but look how long the lines for McDonald’s are! Rush is to music what McDonalds is too food, or just a bit better perhaps. At least 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres title tacks show some talent.

  10. Neil Peart’s drumming lifts Rush’s music to another level.

    Btw,I am a jazz and classical fan of all persuasions and love artists like Philip Glass,Laura Anderson.

    But Rush have never annoyed me in the slightest,their music has been an inspiration in a sea of conservative top 40 and punk.

    I do love some punk like Magazine which are more punk,art crossover,I have never liked straight shooting bands,I love bands that put more than a potatoe and a piece of meat on the plate,music critics seem to be dinosauric in their listening habits,praising very basic ,conservative genres like punk.

    I am firmly in the art,folk,classical jazz,rock camp.

    I get off on a Mahavishnu record more than a Glen Miller.

    Congrats Rush for beating the critics and finally getting in the hall of fame.

    Music for open minded people.

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