When Rush’s Neil Peart died last week at the age of 67, the music world didn’t just lose one of rock’s most revered drummers.
Peart was, more than any drummer in the classic rock canon, the heart and soul of his band, Rush’s primary lyricist and resident intellectual. Though he idolized The Who’s Keith Moon as a teenager, Peart was in many ways the antithesis of the hotel-wrecking party-animal drummer archetype, drawing songwriting inspiration from novelists and philosophers, and honing a precise polyrhythmic style of playing. Rush released 19 studio albums over five decades; this 90-minute playlist, drawn from their first 11 albums, only scratches the surface of their sprawling discography.
In a 2015 profile of Rush before their final tour and Peart’s retirement, Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt succinctly summed up the band’s unique place in rock history: “There are weirder bands and there are bigger bands, but none quite so weird and quite so big.” But when Rush released their self-titled 1974 debut with founding drummer John Rutsey, they weren’t so weird yet—they sounded, aside from bassist Geddy Lee’s helium wail, more or less like the other Led Zeppelin-influenced hard rock acts then crowding the charts. But when Rutsey had to step down due to health problems, Rush drafted his replacement, improbably, from another Ontario band called Hush, and everything quickly changed.
Within six months of adding Peart to the lineup, Rush recorded 1975’s Fly By Night, which included “By-Tor & the Snow Dog,” the first of what would be many fantasy-tinged story songs that ran past the eight-minute mark. The album’s opening track, the aptly titled “Anthem,” would also serve as the namesake of Anthem Records, the imprint that would release the band’s music from 1977 onward. Rush’s prog-rock ambitions continued to grow on 1976’s 2112: Instead of a collection of radio singles, their multiplatinum commercial breakthrough opens with a 20-minute sci-fi song suite. (For this playlist, we only excerpted the first few minutes of the album, “2112: Overture.”)
Lee, Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson had become respected masters of their instruments by the end of the ’70s, but challenged themselves with a turn toward synthesizers and more concise songs in the new decade. Other established bands might have sanded off their edges to fit in with new wave hitmakers, but Rush’s ’80s hits like “Tom Sawyer” still packed tricky time signatures like 7/8 and erudite lyrics into shorter, punchier tracks. And knotty instrumentals like the Morse Code-inspired “YYZ” have remained unlikely crowd-pleasers in a hugely popular but impressively dense and uncompromising catalog. And through it all, Neil Peart filled nearly every bar of every song with bombastic rhythms and minutely detailed drum fills that made a legion of fans wave their arms in an air-drumming reverie.