Published Jan 15, 2020Of the very few things Neil Peart and I have in common, growing up in rural Ontario is one of them. While he worked a family farm and sold tractor parts before making a career as one of music's greatest drummers, the wide-open space afforded me focus to devour his musical and lyrical accomplishments with Rush. Our beloved CanCon broadcast regulations ensured I would be quickly acquainted, and it wasn't long before they became a rock radio favourite.
Peart, who passed away in California last week following a three-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer, was a giant of his instrument; a virtuosic drummer with a literary mind, who also served as his band's chief lyricist. There are few in the history of popular music that can match his ability in either role. He is literally your favourite drummer's favourite drummer, as Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith, Tool's Danny Carey, Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins and many more can attest to.
Peart's poetic quality shone in the way he tailored fantastical and weighty topics to Rush's progressive rock music. The early sci-fi fare that landed the band in the pantheon of nerd-dom saw the drummer build dreamlike worlds with his words, while a lyrical shift toward social and emotional subjects heading into the '80s led songs to inform and educate. Beyond my headphones, Peart's writing extended to his non-fiction books; works of personal reflection and thought that are also the closest many will come to knowing the notoriously private man.
I am fortunate enough to have seen Peart play in person on Rush's four final tours. Each performance was a drum clinic unto itself; a demonstration of the high-level focus and precision he had honed over 40 years. Peart would, at times, strike with such force; his spread of toms and hardware would noticeably rattle around him, but never collapse. No matter which piece of his sizeable set, each hit felt purposeful, with Peart all the while hiding his methodical approach behind a silent stoicism onstage.
Peart's passing is a loss for drumming, for recorded music, for Canada and the world. It is wholly unfair that glioblastoma has claimed two of this country's most revered rock lyricists in under three years. His achievements in rhythm and the written word continue to resonate, and will for time to come.
Below are seven selections that serve as a career-spanning introduction to Neil Peart as a drummer and lyricist.
"La Villa Strangiato"
The closing track on the final album of Rush's '70s prog phase is subtitled "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence," and it also stands as one of Peart's most dynamic recorded performances. His hi-hat fill fades in ahead of the song's rocking main theme, which marks the appearance of a ride cymbal pattern Peart would employ on many more studio efforts. His technique is much more restrained in the song's middle movement, while a big band section is an early hint at a stylistic influence that would continue to grow.
"The Spirit of Radio"
Permanent Waves, 1980
Freaks and Geeks fanatics will understand the power of "The Spirit of Radio," thanks to Jason Segel's basement sequence from 1999, but the beloved Rush catalogue staple is also one of the best examples of Peart's skill in his dual disciplines. Along with more fantastic fills, the drummer lets punk and reggae influences shine, and his lyrical observations in the song's second verse are still fit for this industry, in spite of commercial radio's dwindling dominance.
Moving Pictures, 1981
The opening track of Rush's landmark Moving Pictures album features one of the most air-drummed sequences of all time. Peart is content to stay deep in the pocket until it's time for Alex Lifeson to solo, only to have the guitarist cede the spotlight for a series of thunderous fills. If this one is last in your queue or playlist, crank the volume on the fade out to hear Peart take one final thunderous run at his toms.
Peart began experimenting with electronic drums and triggers as Rush moved further into the '80s, and played a hybrid of the two on 1989's Presto. With "Scars," Peart blends acoustic and electronic in a performing a complex pattern inspired by African rhythm. Geddy Lee's meditative verses create Peart's drum space in the fore, allowing listeners a look at all of the drum part's subtle changes.
"One Little Victory"
Vapor Trails, 2002
Following a 1997 tour of Rush's Test for Echo, Peart lost both his first daughter and wife in the span of ten months, leading him to take a hiatus from Rush to take a 88,000 km motorcycle trip in North and Central America. Released following Peart's return, 2002's Vapor Trails opens with the triumphant "One Little Victory," anchored by Peart's galloping snare and a rare, pummelling use of his double-kick drums.
Performed and recorded as part of Rush's R30 anniversary world tour, "Der Trommler" saw Peart achieve a new level of technical mastery when it came to elements that had been the basis of past solos like "The Rhythm Method" and "O Baterista." Peart's intricate patterns are tighter and more precise in comparison to earlier recorded solos, setting the stage for further experimentation and adaptation in the years to come.
"Der Trommler" is also the focus of Peart's 2005 instructional DVD Anatomy of a Drum Solo, in which he gives viewers a more in-depth look at the entire nine-minute piece.
Clockwork Angels, 2012
On the second single from what should absolutely be considered one of the Best Canadian Albums of the 2010s, Peart anchors his Rush bandmates with a militant snare, some clever callbacks to 1975's "Bastille Day," and a blistering bridge fill he would expand into mini solo "Drumbastica" while touring Clockwork Angels.
Lyrically, Peart is fittingly reflective on what would end up being Rush's final studio album, telling Louder Sound in 2016 that late teacher Freddie Gruber inspired one of the song's key lyrics. As he explained, "That little couplet — " — it worked perfectly for my character, but it's obviously a tribute to Freddie too. I love that I could make it personal as well as universal.