Not Fade Away: Rush’s Simple, Straight-Ahead Debut Turns 40
By Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at Rush‘s 1974 debut album which turns 40 this month, and will be commemorated with a vinyl reissue via Universal Music in April.
When you think of Rush in the ’70s, you think epic, multi-chapter songs set in a Tolkien-esque past or a Ayn Rand-ian future. Dave Grohl summed it up well in his speech about the Canadian trio at their induction into the R0ck and Roll Hall of Fame last year, recalling when his cool, older, stoner cousin gave him a copy of their 1976 album 2112, “I was fascinated by the track listing, the entire first side of the album was a seven part suite with Roman numerals and names like ‘The Temples of Syrinx’ and ‘Oracle: The Dream.'”
The Rush that put out Rush four years earlier was a very different band. While two of the songs topped the seven minute mark, they were both more in the vein of classic Zeppelin blues jams than the multi-chaptered musical tales a la Yes that they would soon graduate to. In fact, the song that first got them attention was “Working Man,” an ode to blue-collar laborers.
Radio.com recently spoke about the song and album with bassist/singer Geddy Lee who wrote the lyrics, “I get up at seven, yeah/And I go to work at nine/I got no time for liven’/Yes, I’m workin’ all the time.” Much simpler than the words that would soon accompany Rush’s music, they still resonate as much as the lyrics to band’s more well-known hits.
“Our parents were hard-working,” Lee explains. “Life was a struggle for most people, no one was wealthy. You thought a lot about your future, and what kind of life do you want to live? Is it going to be enough for me to have that kind of life, where it’s all about work, and a beer at the end of the day and a hug from your kids, and do it all again? So, it’s kind of an ode to that guy who we worked so hard not to be, in a sense. We wanted to be musicians, and that was our ticket out of there. That was our escape for what was sort of inevitable for all of our friends and the world that we came from.”
The excellent 2010 Rush doc Beyond The Lighted Stage described how the song first caught on in America in Cleveland just as it started to rust. Word of the song made its way to Mercury Records employee, Cliff Burnstein, who helped to get the band signed to the label.
Discussing the debut album today, Lee says “It’s hard to hear the record without going back in time. Your first record is such a milestone. It’s like the impossible feat: you never think you’re going to get signed, you never think you’re going to get to make a record.” And, he notes, their first attempt at recording their debut was a non-starter.
“The first version of our first record was really crappy, and that’s when we met the guy who really changed our lives, which was Terry Brown. And he became our producer for the next 10 years and taught us so much about making records.” Indeed, Brown produced every Rush album through 1982’s Signals.
Rush with Rustey, center (courtesy of the band)
“He saved that album, when I think of that album, I think of him, I think of that first session, when we took those poorly recorded versions of those songs, and he decided what was salvageable and what we should just re-record.”
Soon after the release of Rush, the band went through their first and only lineup change. Original drummer John Rutsey was let go, replaced by Neil Peart, who also took over as the band’s lyricist for future albums. In Beyond The Lighted Stage, Lifeson explains, “He was a much more straight-ahead ‘rock’ kind of guy. He was more into Bad Company, whereas Geddy and I were more into Yes and Genesis and [Pink] Floyd and bands like that.”
By their next album, 1975’s Fly By Night, Peart was writing songs inspired by the works of Ayn Rand (“Anthem” was based on her 1937 novella by the same name), Tolkien (“Rivendell”) and also featured the band’s first Roman numeral-ed song (the four-part “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”). From there, Rush got more musically and lyrically complex; they’d never do another album as straight-ahead and simple as Rush.