Rush landed in my life like a broken window when I was thirteen, that weird, shard-like spiral guitar intro to The Spirit of Radio busting things open for me in 1980. It wasn’t an easy sell at first — Rush is a studied taste and I’d still say on most Rush records for every moment of musical or lyrical poetry there are two that are just brainy. What maybe distinguishes the band, though, is their absolute, all-in commitment to THEIR muse as a trio. It’s been mentioned in these pages before, but worth reiterating: Rush is as powerful now as they were 40 years ago, despite just about every obstacle you can throw at an artist.
Forty years ago next month Rush released its first, self-titled album. In its way it’s one of the most intriguing records in their catalog because, unlike almost every other one of their albums, it is a product of its time and shows it. That it’s also a prime example of early 70s hard rock is often lost in the various fanboy legends of Rush, where all songs are anthems and where first drummer John Rutsey is alternately pitied or maligned for not being Neil Peart. Rush the album is a tight, finely-walked tour of guitar rock, a thick, sludgy, power trio slab that screams North American midwest, 1974. There are odes to hard working folks, stoner rock birds flipped at the Man, ballads and blues boogie admonitions to the ladies, and hard luck stories from the rock and roll road. This was not a lightly-traveled terrain: Mountain, Robin Trower, and armies of Uriah Heep-ish bands were all pounding to dust the path blazed by the Yardbirds then Cream then Zep, and Rush was very much a part of the meat-and-potatoes rock circuit that included bands like REO Speedwagon and the Amboy Dukes.
But Rush intrigues for a number of reasons, not least of which because as a record it shows a working rock band fully constructed. They were young but had paid their dues, there was no doubt, witnessed by the super tight performances. And looking back at the record 40 years on, there are moments when Alex Lifeson’s chord voicings or Geddy Lee’s bass patterns seem to jump forward to their present work. They had a kernel of a sound and a whole lot of chops, and I’d argue that when they replaced Rutsey with Peart they possessed an uncommon strength, which allowed them to deconstruct their sound and build it up again, to eventually realize a vision absolutely unique in rock.
Technically, too, the record has a lot to recommend it. Working with limited technology, even for the era, the band created an album with a saturated, present guitar sound that was clearly evolving with what could be reproduced on a record. The separation is very good, although the drums don’t always pop like they could, probably as a result of the guitar’s appetite for bandwidth, rather than Rutsey’s playing, which swings with the best hard rock records of the time. The extended soloing space, too, is defined and disciplined, guitar-focused and deriving more than a little from the studio recordings of Led Zeppelin, one of Rush’s early beacons. Rush had their ears on this recording, and I don’t think it’s any mistake that more recent stoner and heavy rock records have a lot in common sonically with Rush’s first.
Thirty years after Rush released its first record, they recorded Feedback, an homage to their influences. Played back to back with Rush, the two albums almost seem of a pair, their respective sounds not that unlike, and as if the songs on Feedback might have made up the rest of the set had you seen the band in ‘72-73. Feedback arrived two years after Vapor Trails, when Rush re-asserted its harder, guitar-focused edge, and began a phase of fine work that continues up to their most recent record, Clockwork Angels. As the title of that album suggests, this is a band that appreciates the spiral and the cycle of their art, the seed of which can be heard, if you’re listening for it, on Rush.