In 2011, I was on assignment to cover Rush’s gig at what was then Sleep Country Amphitheater in Ridgefield, Washington, a town about 20 minutes north of Portland, Oregon. I was a nascent fan of heavy rock and prog, the two genres foundational to Rush‘s sound, but largely thought the concert would be a lark—something to laugh at while it was happening and then joke about for months afterward.
It didn’t take long before every ironic defense I had constructed to keep me separated from the event started to crumble. The show opened with a goofy, self-mocking video before the members of Rush — bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart—burst on stage and tore into “The Spirit of Radio,” the opening track from their 1980 album Permanent Waves. Cracks started to form in my façade with each fleet guitar run and wailing lyric about how music can still transcend the bullshit of most record company execs.
They continued to unknowingly chip away at me, with a three-song run (“Time Stand Still,” “Presto,” “Stick It Out”) that belied every preconception I had about Rush. These guys had songs—complicated tunes with lyrics that wrestled with big philosophical questions, true, but… they were also catchy as hell. Instead of rolling my eyes at it all, I spent the next few months with Rush cycling through my mental jukebox and buying every record of theirs I could find. I drove myself to the edge and they pushed me over into fandom.
Sadly, the death of Neil Peart earlier this year means that, if you are somehow unfamiliar with Rush’s work, there’s no way for you to have a similar conversion story. The band was already forced to stop playing live after their R40 tour in 2015 due to Peart’s physical ailments. But the drummer’s passing put to end any reunion hopes and new opportunities to grow their already massive fan base through their vaunted live performances.
If you’re looking for a way in with Rush, your best bet might be the album celebrating its 40th birthday this year: Permanent Waves. The 1980 release—the trio’s seventh studio record and the sixth to feature Peart’s drumming and lyrics—was a creative and commercial breakthrough, landing them in the top 10 of Billboard’s album charts and, with “The Spirit of Radio,” netting their first Top 30 single in their native Canada.
The reason for that success is exactly why Permanent Waves is a great starting point for any nascent Rush fan. The album represented a creative turning point for the trio, with a stricter emphasis on shorter, more direct songs that were the polar opposite of their previous album Hemispheres, larded with the 18-minute long “Cygnus X-1” and “La Villa Strangiato,” a nine-and-a-half minute shape-shifting instrumental they had rightfully subtitled “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.” As Neil Peart said during a TV interview conducted around the time of Permanent Waves‘ release, “Hemispheres took so long and took so much out of us. We had taken that conceptual thing to its limit for the time being. We wanted to work on shorter pieces that weren’t so involved.”
Of course, their idea of less involved music hardly means something ordinary and easy to swallow. Catchy as Waves‘ big hit “Spirit of Radio” is, it’s still a nearly five-minute epic that starts with a fretboard-abusing guitar hook, shifts into a main section with an intentionally slippery time signature, and tosses in a little reggae passage for good measure. “Free Will,” the paean to self-determination that completes one of the greatest one-two punches to open a rock album in the 20th century, is even more complex. The music feels like an AI program learning and evolving as it plunders ahead.
For all that intricacy, Permanent Waves finds Rush at its most relaxed. After the band finished touring for Hemispheres, they took a much-needed break to spend time with family. When they got together again, the three men wrote and rehearsed their new material rather than rushing into the studio with half-formed ideas that they had to flesh out while the clock was running. And whereas Hemispheres and 1977’s A Farewell To Kings were recorded primarily in Wales, the band stuck closer to home this time, choosing a studio about six hours outside of their hometown of Toronto. Far enough away to not be distracted by the outside world, near enough to stay connected to family and friends.
That sensation of unhurried creation is tangible on “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings,” the two tracks that open side two of the LP. Even with Peart’s cracking drum work on the former and Lifeson’s screaming guitar solo on the latter, both songs are made gentle by Lee’s mellowed vocals and lyrics that are unabashedly personal. And they’re both love songs—one directed at the band’s legion of fans (“We are islands to each other/Building hopeful bridges/On the troubled sea”), and the other, written by Lee, an ode to the relationships that ground us and keep us humble.
Rush being Rush, they couldn’t completely forgo the multi-part sagas. Permanent Waves ends with “Natural Science,” a nearly 10-minute song about technology run amok and how, as Lee sings in the third section, “science, like nature, must also be tamed with a view towards its preservation.” The music follows the lyrical themes as the pastoral opening section (titled “Tide Pools”) gives way to a furious middle part with rude blurts of synthesizers cutting through the mix. By the closing section, Rush takes on a waltz-like rhythm, as if evoking the use of Strauss in the similarly themed 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Permanent Waves set the stage for the next decade of Rush’s work. Lee and Peart continued to expand their arsenal of electronic instruments, and collectively, they would tamp down their tendencies toward big concept albums and long songs in place of adapting the structures of pop songs to fit within their hard rock and prog aesthetic. They never completely tipped over and tried to become a crossover success, but there was something clearly more accessible in their work.
The nexus of Permanent Waves wound up guaranteeing their continued success. While so many of their peers and contemporaries saw their audiences and the size of the venues they were performing in shrink, Rush seemed to earn more respect and admiration from their established fans and newbies like myself every year. It’s an anomaly befitting a band who managed to break through the collective consciousness of rock fans with an album taken up by a sci-fi saga that couldn’t easily be played on commercial radio. 2112 made them heroes. Permanent Waves made them immortal.