It was never really that cool to like Rush. I heard them first when my older brother, whose musical tastes had only previously included Yes, Medicine Head and Genesis (the Peter Gabriel, flower-head version), brought home a copy of 2112 back in 1978 or so, a couple of years after its release. I saw the photo of the three goofy guys in kimonos and long hair, listened to Geddy Lee’s screeching for a bit, and went back to my punk albums. However, over the course of time, kids in my class (all of whom had older brothers, too) began to come to school with Rush patches on their haversacks and, bowing to peer pressure, I listened once more.
From 1978 to 1983 or so I liked Rush a lot, but I was also very aware of the fact that not everyone would get it. Without the support of a music paper like the NME or Rolling Stone, Rush was left to spread the word themselves in their own inimitable fashion. From their early Led Zeppelin homage, through their swords ‘n sorcery stage, and then their ghastly keyboards phase, Rush continued to do their own thing regardless of public opinion. They’re still at it today, having had the same line-up since 1974. As rock musicians they’re peerless — Neil Peart, surrounded by his unfeasibly large kit, is the best drummer I’ve ever seen, bar none — yet their releases are still largely ignored by the press. They sell out every stadium show going, have at time of writing gone platinum fourteen times, and are third in the all-time list of records sold. They must be doing something right. For my tastes, they’re too clinical, too technical, too soulless. If the album version of, say, ‘La Villa Strangiato’ is timed at 9 minutes 37 seconds, you could be pretty sure that the live version would clock in at the exact same time.
This documentary charting their careers to date was made with their full co-operation, and it shows. Directed by Scot McFadyen (whose hilarious Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey is definitely worth a watch) and practically screaming, “Hey! Look at us! Why aren’t we in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame?”, Beyond the Lighted Stage tells the story of two friends (Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson) who, with pal John Rutsey on drums, get their big break in 1973 thanks to a lengthy song on their self-titled debut album. The song was called ‘Working Man’, and it was popular with DJs due, in part, to the fact that they could spin it, take a leisurely stroll to the toilet, and still be back in time to segue in the next song. The working-class Cleveland fans loved it, and Rush began to be courted by labels before finally signing for Mercury. Lee and Lifeson tell their immigrant parents of their decision to pursue a career in music full-time, a decision that doesn’t sit too well. Lifeson filmed his parental discussion on Super-8, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it would appear to have been filmed using three cameras.
Rutsey didn’t last long. Rush outgrew him/he was ill/he was too conventional in his tastes, delete as applicable, and Neil Peart was brought in. A gawky, bookish kid, Peart quickly took over lyric-writing and the air was soon filled with Necromancers, Didacts and Narpets, and princes named By-Tor. Their third album didn’t sell well, though, and they were under record company pressure to produce a big seller. Fearing the worst, Rush released 2112, an album that they loved but feared no one else would. In the age of Gary Gygax and his twenty-sided die, Rush were now a perfect fit. The sales soared, and patchouli oil-doused kids the world over had an album to talk about and dissect.
Four paragraphs in, and I’ve barely mentioned this documentary. I found it to represent the group perfectly; it’s a clinical piece, revealing precious little about the threesome. One again has to wonder who Beyond the Lighted Stage is aimed at. If it’s for the benefit of the fans, they will feel disappointed about learning nothing other than that which they already knew; only Peart’s personal tragedy is discussed in any sort of length, whereas Lee and Lifeson reveal nothing about their lives save for a few photos of them as acne-covered teens and a wistful wander around their old schoolyard. Various talking heads are introduced (Billy Corgan, Jack Black, Kirk Hammett, a spaced-out Sebastian Bach and other such intelligentsia from the rock world) to comment on the affect that the trio had on them, but even some of this seems to have been edited with an agenda in mind. Gene Simmons comments that while Kiss would party all night long after a show, you would always find Rush in their rooms reading books. Good lads, those Canadians, never mind that they wrote ‘A Passage to Bangkok’, a celebration of sampling all of life’s illicit drugs.
The guests discuss why they thought that Rush were never regarded as being hip or cool, despite clearly being superior musicians. I’m pretty sure Lee provided the answer himself when he recounted touring with Brit nearly-but-not-quite-big rockers UFO, who mocked the band mercilessly, pinning Rush lyrics to walls and ridiculing their clothes. Lee describes it with an innocent fondness, but I’m not so sure that it wasn’t just Pete Way’s method of telling them that they were a bit up their own arses. Taken out of context, Rush lyrics are at best pompous (see, for example, this documentary’s title) and at worst not relevant, and it took a bunch of lager-swilling British metallers to point out that the Emperors were, if not naked, but at least wearing see-through kimonos.
So what have we learned? Lifeson’s probably the nicest guy of the bunch, Lee knows exactly where the camera is and knows what to say when in front of it, and Peart is uncomfortable with fame. Oh, and making Hemispheres was hard work. In many ways it’s good to know that a band formed nearly forty years ago have not turned into their own tribute band, and they continue to record and tour. If you’re a Rush fan, ignore pretty much everything I’ve written and go out and buy Beyond the Lighted Stage. If you’re not one, then I see no reason for you to watch it.