By David Ball
Neil Peart, one of the most influential, technically proficient and downright intimidating drummers in rock history, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on September 12, 1952. Anchoring one of rock’s greatest bands, Rush, for 38 years, his virtuosity and intricate rhythms are nearly unparalleled among his peers – and it is these traits, along with his thought-provoking lyrics, that continue to play key roles in the Toronto prog-rock trio’s ongoing relevance and success.
Growing up in Port Dalhousie, Ont., Peart took drum lessons in his early teen years, and by the late 1960s he began tackling the more demanding beats laid down by the trail-blazing drummers he idolized: Bill Bruford of Yes, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Keith Moon of The Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and jazz legend Buddy Rich. At age 18, having had little success as a musician in Ontario, Peart decided to move to London, England, in order to establish a career. He returned to Port Dalhousie after only 18 months, broke and disillusioned. However, Peart’s time in London wasn’t a total waste as it was while abroad that he began following the writings of Russian-American novelist and playwright Ayn Rand, which kick-started his interests in philosophy and composition.
In 1974 Peart found out that the rising Toronto power-trio Rush was looking for a new drummer to replace the outgoing John Rutsey. At his tryout, Peart was hired on the spot by bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, and the addition of his considerable skill set ushered in a new more musically adventurous and challenging era for the trio – a big departure from the more simplistic hard-rock leanings heard on Rush’s 1974 self-titled pre-Peart debut.
While 1975’s Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, the first two Rush albums powered by Peart (who also assumed lyricist duties), show flashes of brilliance, the band wouldn’t hit its prog-rock stride until the release of its 1976 album, 2112.
According to All Music Guide’s Greg Prato: “The album told the story of a young man’s fight against a future world where rock music is outlawed, with Peart applying Ayn Rand’s writing style and philosophies to the plot’s story line.”
The concept album became Rush’s breakthrough in the United States, while the group’s next five studio albums – A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals – are progressive rock masterpieces.
Rush is one of the most resilient, relevant and successful rock bands of the past 35-plus years and the band continues to stage lucrative tours and release platinum-selling albums. As musicians, all three members have racked up many prestigious awards on their given instruments, and Peart in particular has had an enormous impact on rock drumming.
Apart from his work with Rush, Peart has written several bestselling memoirs. He is also an avid motorcycle enthusiast and has produced two respected Buddy Rich tribute albums. In August 1997, the future of Rush was put on hold for five years after Peart’s teenage daughter – and only child – died tragically in a car accident. Sadly, his wife succumbed to cancer less than a year later. Peart eventually healed, remarrying in 2000, and Rush released their comeback, Vapour Trails, two years later in 2002.
Though Peart rightly sits either near or at the top of most “greatest rock drummers” lists, he’s the hands-down champion of another far less distinguished category: musicians whose names are most commonly mispronounced. Peart beats out his ’70s rival David Bow-ee, but debauched pop upstart Ke$ha (whose name is often mispronounced as Kee-sha) may one day claim his throne. For whatever reason, I still call the member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame and officer of the Order of Canada Neil “Pert,” even though I know perfectly well that his surname should be pronounced “Pea-ert” – but I’m hardly alone in this regard.
Swedish disco-pop sensations ABBA opened their first North American tour in Edmonton, Alberta, on September 13, 1979, sending the 14,000 musically delusional fans (or at least considered musically delusional by yours truly) who were packed into the sold-out Northlands Coliseum into a tizzy. Don’t get too angry at me, all you longtime fans of ABBA (a.k.a. Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) and/or the mega-blockbuster musical, Mamma Mia! I’m a child of the ’70s and have never liked any music that suggests even the slightest passing affiliation with the vile, yet admittedly catchy music known as disco (even The Rolling Stones’ 1979 disco-infused hit “Emotional Rescue” is absolutely sickening to me).
Being subjected via radio to ABBA and the scores of big hits the quartet produced during their 11-year run was absolutely torturous to my fragile, impressionable rock-loving psyche (rivalling the carnage inflicted at the hands of The Bee Gees). Even though I was pretty young back when ABBA ruled the airwaves – and rule they did, to the tune of 370 million records sold worldwide – I fully embraced the mottos: “Disco Sucks” and “Death Before Disco.”
Gentle ribbing aside, I find it curious that ABBA waited so long to launch their first North American tour, especially given that the Stockholm-based husband-wife combo were worldwide stars almost since their inception in 1972, with their commercial breakthrough on this side of the pond coming shortly after the release of their 1975 self-titled LP.
Interestingly, the critically acclaimed sold-out 16-city North American stopover was the quartet’s last. ABBA last performed as a unit in the winter of 1982, around the time that both of the group’s marriages were also dissolving. The tour was in support of their platinum-selling sixth studio effort, Voulez-Vous, which of course in English means: “Two goofy guys, two hot women and a Viking longboat full of money.” Through it all, I give ABBA tons of props for continuing to be important and stunningly influential for 40 years. No doubt their legacy will live on well into the next millennium.
Back when “I want my MTV” actually meant something…
The first-ever MTV Video Music Awards took place at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall on September 14, 1984. The awards were co-hosted by diva of all divas, Bette Midler, and “Saturday Night Live” alumni, Blues Brother, movie star and proud Kingstonian (from Kingston, Ont., that is) Dan Akyroyd. Talk about an oil-and-water combo – check out their awkward lunar/spacesuit routine on YouTube.
Jazz great Herbie Hancock was the big winner of the night, capturing five trophies, including the awards for Best Concept Video and Most Experimental Video, both for his crossover hip-hop/fusion hit, “Rockit.” In the latter category, the experimental keyboardist beat out Neil Young’s wonderful jump-cut-styled “Wonderin’” from the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member’s 13th studio album, Everybody’s Rockin’. For the life of me, though, I can’t understand how “Rockit” beat out Michael Jackson’s ingenious “Thriller” in the Best Concept Video category, although the Gloved One did take home three awards for the highly praised John Landis-directed zombie-themed short.
Next week: “Kids in the Hall” and Leonard Cohen
Neil Peart drum solo: Rush 30th Anniversary