How Rush’s Self-Titled Debut Pointed to Bigger Things
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On March 1, 1974, a trio of young Canadians kicked off what would ultimately become one of rock’s more distinguished recording careers with the release of their self-titled debut album. But before they could do their country proud, they’d have to go through Cleveland first.
It sounds like an unorthodox journey, but then nothing with Rush‘s early career developed through the expected channels. Coming up during a time when the phrase “Canadian rock” still conjured up the meat-and-potatoes image of acts like the Guess Who or Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the guys in Rush — bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer John Rutsey — favored a harder, more ambitious sound that made room for extended jams and left some critics grasping at Led Zeppelin comparisons.
Unsurprisingly, Rush initially found few supporters in the Canadian record business. “Canadian companies are only interested in immediate money and hits,” argued Lee in a later interview. “They try to mold you into a commercial band and they’re afraid to invest in a band for the long run.” Added Lifeson, “I’d hate to see what would have happened to Pink Floyd or Uriah Heep, had they started in Canada. The companies would have said they were too heavy and needed to commercialize, and they probably wouldn’t have gotten any airplay on the radio.”
Not that catering to commercial concerns really helped Rush in the beginning anyway. One of their earliest sides, a cover of Buddy Holly‘s “Not Fade Away,” came and went without raising much of a ripple, and the group ultimately opted to record their first album on their own dime. After running through a short late-night session conducted on the cheap with producer Dave Stock at Toronto’s Eastern Sound studio, they decided to take another pass at their growing catalog of original material, moving to a new studio and self-producing sessions that found them recording new tracks and adding overdubs to their existing cuts.
“We had offers from other Canadian labels, but we decided to do it ourselves,” explained Lee in an early press kit. “We did part of the album at Eastern Sound in Toronto in early 1973, but figured we could do better. So in November we went to Toronto Sound to re-record some of it and totally remix it.”
Added Lifeson, “The first stab at the album was done in eight hours following a gig. We were warmed up after the show, and it came very easy. Then it was recut in November in about three days, including mixing time. We were lucky in that most of the songs came in two or three takes.”
Rather than sign with an existing label, Rush created their own — Moon Records — and pressed a few thousand copies of their debut. Without the benefit of major-label distribution, breaking into radio and retail markets proved a difficult proposition. Still, the band’s hard-touring work ethic helped them gain a foothold in a number of markets where they might not otherwise have stood a chance — Cleveland, for example. There, WMMS DJ Donna Halper famously made the Rush cut “Working Man” a cult hit and helped bring Rush to the attention of Mercury Records.
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In an interview with RushTrader, Halper reflected on the environment at the station at the time, revealing that — like many Rush fans in later years — she felt like an outsider, and took solace in Rush’s music.
“I had a very contentious relationship with most of the upper management at WMMS,” she explained. “I was a non-smoker, a non-drinker and a non-drug user in a city where the ‘album-rock lifestyle’ included all three — and where most of the people with whom I worked had a very hard time accepting my being what today would be called ‘clean and sober.’ But Rush, who I must tell you enjoyed partying (although not to any extremes that I ever saw), totally accepted and respected me and never had a problem with my avoidance of substances. I became their mentor and big sister, and they became my friends. And at the Agora, suddenly I wasn’t an outcast or somebody weird. I was important, and I was appreciated.”
Unfortunately, just as things started to take off for Rush, the group was forced to make a change at the drummer position.
Due to health complications, Rutsey found himself unable to tour for extended periods of time. Rush wasn’t in a position to leave the road, however, so they moved forward with a different drummer. Neil Peart‘s distinctive fills — and thoughtful lyrics — added a new level to the band’s sound starting with their next album, Fly by Night, released on Feb. 15, 1975.
As such, Rush shows the band in a relatively early stage of development. Still, the singular determination and commitment to craft that helped make them Rock and Roll Hall of Famers is very much on display in these eight tracks. It was all onward and upward from here.
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