Rush’s Neil Peart: 12 Essential Songs
From “2112” to “Tom Sawyer,” we look back at some of the legendary drummer-lyricist’s high-tech highlights
“Neil Peart, that’s a whole other animal, another species of drummer,” Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2018, responding to a question about whether he could ever sit behind the kit for Rush. It’s a sentiment pretty much unanimously agreed upon in the rock world: Peart’s feats on his instrument, the way he powered Rush’s brain-bending songs for 40 years, with a combination of jaw-dropping technicality and artful eccentricity, did make him seem downright superhuman. Add in his lyrical gifts, which fueled both the band’s conceptual prog-era epics and its heartfelt hits in the Eighties and beyond, and you have a polymathic talent with no real peers in his field.
It would take dozens of tracks to represent the full scope of Neil Peart’s genius as a percussionist and wordsmith, but consider these 12 — which stretch from the first Rush album he appeared on in 1975 to the trio’s final LP close to four decades later — as an invitation into the wider world of the man they called the Professor.
The first song on Rush’s second LP announced one of the most momentous member swaps in rock history. The band’s self-titled debut, their only album with original drummer John Rutsey, featured no-frills hard rock — soulful but unspectacular, especially in a climate where Led Zeppelin were operating at peak strength. But the airtight staccato intro of “Anthem,” which led into a crisp, racing uptempo groove, showed that Rush in the Peart era would be more or less an entirely new band, one that pushed beyond blues-derived forms into a bold new vision of rock virtuosity. The song, with a title nicked from Ayn Rand, also marked Peart’s debut as the genre’s quintessential thinking man’s lyricist. “On the day that Neil auditioned, we had five guys in — three before Neil and one after,” Lee recalled in 2016. “The last guy had come a long way, a two-hour drive, and it was a very uncomfortable situation having him audition after Neil, because Neil was so fucking good. There was no denying that Neil was the man.”
After the underwhelming response to their third LP, 1975’s Caress of Steel, Rush knew they had to leave it all on the court. Their follow-up, 2112, cemented their legend — and established Peart as one of his generation’s elite drummers and lyricists. “2112 is based on a progression of some elements of society today, but projected 150 years into the future,” Peart told Circus of the titular concept suite that filled the album’s first side. “It’s a cycle of songs about the rediscovery of music.” For Rush, the cosmic “Overture” and the heavy “The Temples of Syrinx” sound like just that: a band rediscovering its spark. Peart is a monster throughout, from galloping rhythms to brutal Rototom flourishes and intricate triplet fills laid out all over the kit.
Rush’s music only grew more ambitious as the Seventies wore on, and just as Geddy Lee began doubling on synths, Peart started to operate like a one-man percussion section. Setting a mystical mood for a song inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” he complements ambient electronic bird chirps with wind chimes and tubular bells before switching to the drum kit to propel a brain-bending proto–math-rock riff. The rest of the song, in which delicate interludes filled with bells and chimes alternate with lean power-trio muscle, epitomizes Peart’s groundbreaking union of scientific precision and ass-kicking power. And, yet again, the lyrics show him getting carried away with his latest literary obsession. “The song idea was originally inspired by the movie Citizen Kane,” Peart said in 2010. “At the beginning of the movie, the opening lines from ‘Kubla Khan’ were quoted, ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree.’ As research, I looked up the poem, and I was so powerfully impressed by it that the poem took over the song.”
While most superstar rock drummers of the Seventies spent their downtime destroying hotel rooms and getting blitzed out of their minds, Neil Peart liked to chill in his hotel room with a well-worn copy of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead. The book has provided a political awakening for countless libertarians over the years, and it gave Peart the lyrical inspiration idea for “The Trees.” It’s the story of a conflict between oak and maple trees in a forest. They insist on completely equal treatment, and wind up destroying each other in the process. One of the shorter songs on Hemispheres, it begins like a gentle outtake from a Peter Gabriel–era Genesis album, but builds to a soaring climax before ramping back down to a gentle passage punctuated by Peart’s woodblocks. In later years, the drummer made it very clear that the writing of Rand no longer spoke to him. “I was a kid,” he said. “Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian.”
The 1980s were a very cruel time for most prog bands of the Seventies, but Rush managed to avoid the fate of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer by releasing Permanent Waves weeks into the decade and earning a whole new audience thanks to leadoff single “The Spirit of Radio.” The screed against the corporatization of radio (“Glittering prizes/And endless compromises/Shatter the illusion of integrity”) became an unlikely hit and helped move Rush into arenas. Neil Peart was listening to a lot of the Police in this time period, and the reggae-inspired beats he blends into his signature busy attack here echoed the influence of Stewart Copeland. ‘”The Spirit of Radio’ could be called ‘The Spirit of Music,’” Peart said in 1980. “That particular song was written about a radio station that is a paragon; it’s called CFNY-FM and it’s in Toronto. And they are still what FM radio was 15 years ago. So I listen to it constantly when I’m home, and it represents something, maybe the precious last stronghold of something.”
Rush’s unlikely career as radio hitmakers continued in 1981 with “Tom Sawyer,” which charted all over the world and became the band’s signature song. Peart wrote the lyrics with songwriter Pye Dubois. “His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful,” Peart said. “I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be — namely me I guess.” The mind-boggling, kit-enveloping drum fill midway through the song ranks with the break from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” (released just weeks earlier) as one of the most celebrated — and air-drummed — fills in the history of rock. Countless amateur drummers have attempted to recreate the part in their garages and basements, but nobody has come close to topping the original. “It’s still challenging and satisfying to play,” Peart said of “Tom Sawyer” in 2012.
The airport code for Toronto (a city with neither Y nor Z in its name) became the title for a gleefully off-the-wall Moving Pictures instrumental. The song is a mere four-and-a-half minutes on the record, but it nearly doubled in length on tour when Peart inserted a daredevil drum solo in the middle. (Check out live record Exit … Stage Left for the definitive version.) It remained a concert staple for decades and a perfect forum for all three members of the group to demonstrate their chops. “That song came from in flying into Toronto one time and we heard the morse code rhythm coming in from the cockpit,” Peart said in 2012. “We felt it would make a good introduction to a song. And then cinematically we decided it was a song about airports, so we have exotic moods shifting around and the the gigantic crescendo of people being reunited.”
Rush streamlined their sound brilliantly on Moving Pictures, and follow-up effort Signals found them pushing even further into a radio-friendly Eighties soundworld. Lead track “Subdivisions,” driven by a pulsing Lee synth riff in 7/4, showed how Peart, and the band as a whole, could operate comfortably in a pop format without sacrificing any of the nuance that made them prog legends. It also featured maybe the most poignant set of lyrics Peart ever wrote, an account of suburban alienation, and the adolescent pressure to “conform or be cast out,” that seemed to give voice to the quiet discontent of the archetypal Rush fan, forever out of step with the cool crowd. Asked in 2017 if the song was autobiographical, Peart replied, “Extremely! How we turn out as adults has a lot to do with the way others saw us in high school.”
By their 10th LP, Grace Under Pressure, Rush had proved that they could thrive in the New Wave era — embracing shorter, simpler song structures and sleeker production while maintaining their muso prog chops. As always, Peart’s percussion was essential to that evolution: The tympani and temple blocks of his late Seventies set-up were in the rear-view, allowing him to play with more economy and precision. “The Enemy Within” perfectly sums up Peart 2.0: In the verses, his dancing hi-hats fill the spaces between Geddy Lee’s funky bass and Alex Lifeson’s ska-styled guitar riff. The track — part one of a thematic trilogy on the subject of fear, but the last to appear chronologically — demonstrates the influence of the Police’s Stewart Copeland, whom Peart referenced in interviews of that era. “There’s a band called the Police and their drummer plays with simplicity, but with such gusto,” he told Modern Drummer in 1980. “It’s great. He just has a new approach.”
After their synth-heavy mid-Eighties phase, echoes of which lingered in well-written but brittle-sounding albums like 1989’s Presto and 1991’s Roll the Bones, the hard-rock Rush roared back on 1993’s Counterparts, one of the heaviest records of the band’s entire career. Lead single “Stick It Out” flaunted a dark, imposing heft that seemed perfectly in step with the grungy Nineties. And Peart was up to his old tricks, syncopating his hi-hat part in the intro to throw the listener off and then crashing in with a thunderous backbeat. His lyrics, which caution against burying your true emotions, round out a track that epitomizes the band’s leaner, meaner modern incarnation. Peart himself, a musician seemingly allergic to rock machismo, saw the track a little differently: “That song, I would say, both lyrically and musically, verges on parody,” he said.
Rush took an unplanned five-year break in the late Nineties and early 2000s after their drummer suffered a pair unimaginable losses: the deaths of his daughter and common-law wife within the span less than a year. Peart later wrote that, at the time, he told his bandmates “consider me retired,” but after a long, cathartic motorcycle journey, he returned to the band. His first notes on record after his hiatus — a thrash-metal-worthy double-kick-drum barrage, topped off by nimble snare accents — showed that at age 50, he was still a seemingly superhuman force behind the kit, a sensation driven home by the song’s carpe diem lyrics. During the writing of “One Little Victory,” Peart initially had a subtler drumming approach in mind, but his bandmates encouraged him to come out swinging. “I’d been working on that tune and came up with that double bass part,” Peart told Modern Drummer. “I thought it worked perfectly for the end of the song. But Geddy said, ‘That’s a great part. You ought to open the song with it. That would just kill.’ Frankly, I wouldn’t have done it that way — I don’t think I would have been so assertive — but Geddy suggested it and I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’”
In retrospect, the end of Rush, both in the studio and onstage, seems like a master class in how to wind down a legendary rock career with dignity fully intact. Their last album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, fused the punch of their Nineties and 2000s catalog with the epic narrative sweep of their Seventies masterpieces. “BU2B” was a clear standout: a bruising hard-rocker driven by a steely, determined Peart groove. As monolithic as his drumming felt here, you could also hear his beats breathing more, reflecting the influence of his mid-career mentor Freddie Gruber, who he paid tribute to on Clockwork Angels track “Headlong Flight.” Lyrically, “BU2B” (an abbreviation for “brought up to believe”) found Peart championing freewill and rejecting the idea of blind faith, notions that captivated him throughout his career. The album’s steampunk-esque setting was new for the band, but the basic theme — the individual’s struggle against conformity — stretched all the way back to the “Anthem” days. “This is more about his personal upbringing and values that were instilled into this character,” Lee said of how “BU2B” laid out the background of the album’s protagonist, “and this is what you find when he goes out and faces this world that is not so cool.”