In many ways, Canadian rock trio Rush’s 1976 concept LP, 2112, functions as their autobiography. Among the grooves on the high-concept album, the band illustrates their position as provocateurs trying to maintain their passion and integrity. Highly symbolic, the side-long title track represents the band’s struggle with the need to be successful and accepted in their early rise to international prog-rock notoriety.
One of the world’s biggest cult bands
Rush began with vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, two childhood friends who formed the band as teenagers with then-drummer John Rutsey in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. Playing a small circuit of high school dances, they faced disinterest from the start when they refused to play covers or dance music.
“We probably bummed out a lot of people in their high school memories,” Geddy Lee said.
Steadfastly set on musical careers, they quit high school and released their self-titled debut on their own label, Moon Records, in 1974.
The album often generated the derisive comment that Rush were a “Canadian Led Zeppelin,” but a Cleveland radio station, WMMS, spun the record and it generated interest in the States. The band then signed with Mercury Records who re-released Rush. Soon after, Rutsey left the band to be replaced by St. Catharines, Ontario, native Neil Peart.
Lee and Lifesong quickly realized that the well-read Peart had a knack for writing lyrics and he became the band’s principal lyricist. This division of labor created new intricacies in what essentially became their staple fare: longer songs divided into movements and strong progressive leanings with multiple time-signature changes. It was definitely not the type of songs that would guarantee hit records.
The first record with Peart, 1975’s Fly By Night, carried some of the band’s classic songs, particularly the lengthy “By-Tor and the Snowdog.” But at the time it alienated many fans who had fallen in love with the hard-rock, bluesy feel of their debut, most notably their record label.
Critics were often brutal, describing Rush as “wanking,” calling out Lee’s “shrill” vocals, or characterizing the music as “meandering drivel”
Later that year Rush released Caress of Steel, an even bigger head-scratcher. Containing only five songs, with the baffling “Fountains of Lamneth” taking up the entire second side, the record dug its own hole, resulting in even fewer copies sold than its predecessor.
The subsequent “Down the Tubes” tour, as the band called it, drew even smaller crowds, and Rush began to rightfully fear being dropped by their label.
Not surprisingly there was no room on radio for 25-minute songs, and Rush never made inroads with the music press. In fact, the critics were often brutal, describing them as “wanking,” calling out Lee’s “shrill” vocals, or characterizing the music as “meandering drivel.” With the label in a panic, Rush came under pressure to deliver more hit-worthy material.
The band soldiered on, and in a defiant move, released 2112.
Again composing a side-long piece, the 20-minute title track is broken down into seven parts. Utilizing keyboards to give the impression of moving through time and space, the song takes so many twists and turns in the first three minutes, that it evokes a cinematic feel as the story unfolds.
Fortunately, for the band, the record struck a chord with Rush’s audience for its futuristic subject matter and cerebral Objectivist philosophy and 2112 managedtofind an audience through word of mouth.
“It was an album that contained a great amount of frustration and anger. We had kept our integrity and everything, and it wasn’t panning out for us.” Peart said. “This album contained all that rejection and our determination and it came through in the music. That’s why a lot of people responded to that album because it was so direct and impassioned.”
The lyrics are credited to Neil Peart with acknowledgement to author Ayn Rand, whose book Anthem is said to have inspired 2112’s story.
The story describes the struggle of a man who lives in a future time where the galaxy is ruled by the “Red Star Solar Federation.” He learns to play music but is forced to go into hiding. Though he eventually commits suicide, it’s not before inspiring an interplanetary battle that results in independance and a takeover of the federation. The song climaxes with cacophony and a radio voice proclaiming “We have assumed control!”
The song and other tracks from the record would hold a place in Rush’s setlist for years to come, continuing to inspire the evolution of the band whose career would take many sonic twists and turns over their four-decade career.
With its futuristic outlook, the record stands the test of time and functions as a hallmark for what Lee describes as “one of the world’s biggest cult bands.”
“It all came together with 2112,” he said. “That’s when I think the record company and our management was thinking, ‘We don’t really know what they’re doing, but it seems to be working so we’ll just leave them alone’.”
It the war against mainstream mediocrity, Rush proved to be the winner, assuming control at the mantle as prog rock progenitors.