Having announced their retirement, the members of Rush have closed the chapter on one of the cornerstones of progressive rock. After such an amazing career, it’s easy to forget that the band started of as much more of a blues based rock band and that the progressive elements took a little time to work their way in. The debut album, simply entitled “Rush” was recorded with original drummer John Rutsy. Rutsy was a competent drummer, but obviously Rush would not have been the band we know without Neil Peart’s epic drumming and yes, epic lyrics. The second album “Fly by Night” was a breakthrough with the title track becoming a signature tune. The band flirted with the genre they would come to define with the eight and a half minute long By-Tor and the Snow Dog. But by and large the songs were more concise.
This is when the band pulled a 180 degree turn on the fans. 1975’s “Caress of Steel” was a full blown heavy prog album. The only problem was, nobody knew what heavy prog was or what it was supposed to sound like! Other progressive masters like Yes and early Genesis were just as ambitious, but were not known for heavy distortion and blazing solos. The entire second side of Rush’s third album was one piece called The Fountain of Lamneth. This multi-movement piece has almost no consistency and the separate parts come across as individual songs with no relation to one another. No one at the Bridge is a dark masterpiece with one of guitarist Alex Lifeson’s best emotional solos. The listener is jolted by shifting gears from songs like this and the short, ‘drum solo disguised as a song’ blast of Didacts and Narpets. To be fair, it’s hard to criticize Rush for not having the cohesive flow of other hard rock prog bands when they were quite literally inventing it as they went along. Indeed, it didn’t take them long to perfect, as the very next album’s title track” 2112 ” plays out like a novel, taking the listener through a story that is easily followed throughout its 20 minute time span.
As “Caress of Steel” was recorded, the record label became concerned. Record companies are a business, and radio friendly numbers like Fly by Night make money, not half hour excursions into “what’s the weirdest noise we can make, and how many different time signatures can we fit in?”. Rush was headstrong and the three members forged ahead and followed their heart. “Caress of Steel” was released and promptly did…well, not much. It would be like if the Beatles went from “Meet the Beatles!” directly to “Magical Mystery Tour”. There’s no way listeners in 1964 were going to be bobbing their heads to “…I am the eggman, I am the Walrus!”.
Geddy, Alex, and Neil hit the road to tour behind the album but ticket sales were poor. The album itself took two decades to even reach Gold status! The boys, facing pressure from the label, feared they could be dropped from the rosters. In a career defining move, they decided instead of bowing to demands they would go out in a blaze of failure on their own terms. Perfecting the art of the hard rock epic, “2112” would be the band’s breakthrough album.
In retrospect, “Caress of Steel” and the subsequent Down the Tubes tour (an unofficial name) were the necessary growing pains of a band on the path to musical greatness. The album itself has aged pretty well when viewed in context of Rush’s overall catalog.