It’s odd that Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson recalls that Neil Peart initially reminded the band of Who’s Keith Moon when he first auditioned back in 1974, considering that Peart’s style would end up being the antithesis of Moon’s madcap hard-hitting style. Peart could certainly rock with the best of them, but he fit so perfectly in Rush because his playing was precise and intricate. Each beat was plotted out meticulously, and in a band known for their highly ambitious prog, Peart managed to stand out for his bold approach and obsessive creativity – something also evident in his fantastical lyrics. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that Peart is likely the best rock drummer of all time. His death, announced yesterday by Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee on Rush’s official social media pages, is a tragic loss.
Peart was a creative in every sense, mostly uninterested in the limelight and striving for innovation at every corner even after discovering what most rock fans would identify as near-perfection during the band’s fruitful mid-to-late ‘70s period. He experimented with orchestra bells, timpani and temple blocks for baroque parts (see ‘Xanadu’, ‘The Trees’), and he began to incorporate electronic percussion when the band streamlined their sounds throughout the ‘80s. In the ‘90s, he sought teachings from renowned jazz drummer and instructor Freddie Gruber in an attempt to further push himself, telling Classic Rock in 2017: “After 40-45 years of playing, I wanted to… open up this whole new frontier. You have to challenge your own limitations and your own expectations of yourself.”
As a result of his constant desire to improve, Peart’s latter-day work, such as 2012’s Clockwork Angels (the band’s final album) is perhaps a better indicator of his unmatched talent than any other, proving heavy and complex in equal measure. Here, he yet again proved himself a drummer capable of walking the line between high-concept prog and balls-out rock. The showstopping drum solos he performed on the subsequent tours only further cemented his genius. But whilst some musicians vow to rock on until they simply no longer can, Peart acknowledged that he believed there “comes a time to take yourself out of the game”, and after more than four decades, Peart bowed out a legend with a legacy that none can yet hold a candle to.
When Cornelius Ellwood Peart received a drum kit for his fourteenth birthday, as countless teenagers likely have, few could predict that he would go on to be not only one of rock’s finest percussionists, but also a fiercely creative soul who operated on his own terms, and never lost what it meant to be an artist. An author and musician of unrivalled artistry and creative drive, Peart is a tremendous loss for the music world. He was an innovator, more interested in his craft than the glory of stardom. As such, he never settled for anything less than the best, and strove constantly to better his own playing, even when his current work was revered enough to turn even the most humble of beings into an egotist. His contributions to music are worthy of immeasurable praise, and it’s fitting that Peart was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013. His creative spirit will live on in tomorrow’s musicians, continuing to inspire new generations of sonic trailblazers.
Words: George Parr
We reached out to some bands and figures in the scene for tributes to Peart, this is what they had to say:
Lucas Gadke (Völur/Blood Ceremony): “I grew up as a punk and metalhead and dismissed all prog out of hand. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I found Rush, which opened me to the word of prog and inspired me to write more complex music. A true icon and a fellow Canadian.”
Russ Russell (Tronos/Reformat): “Since I first heard Rush in about 1986 Neil Peart has been a such huge influence on my music career. He truly is the blueprint for how a musician should work, he was a rare human indeed and will be sadly missed.”
Joe Parson (King Goat/Vehement): “Today every prog fan keenly feels the passing of a great talent. There’s a drum stool that will sit forever empty, and sticks that will remain unheld. Rest in peace Neil Peart.”
Rob Hoey (Limb): “John Rutsey was a beast of a drummer who gave Rush that early ‘edge’ that many Canadian bands of the time were looking for, but upon his leaving there were some huge shoes to fill! Enter Neil fucking Peart with his jazz-soaked rock sound that would come to push Rush towards something altogether as-yet unheard. Taking cues from Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Art Blakey he forged a sound that would make him more than an inspiration for his contemporaries at the time, such as Pierre Van Der Linden (Focus), Bill Burford (Yes) and Carl Palmer (ELP). Rest in complicated drum fills Neil Peart! You carved out a slice in your own way and it’ll be a long time until someone challenges your (drum) throne.”
Joe Rawlings (Bismuth): “Neil Peart was a true pioneer and a personal hero of mine. I am truly saddened by his passing.”
Andrew Field (APF Records): “Suddenly you were gone / From all the lives you left your mark upon” – Rush, ‘Afterimage’. Well, this one has hit me for six. Neil Peart was my hero. As a 15-year-old finding my way into music I’ll never forget the first time I heard 2112 by Rush in a friend’s bedroom back in 1986. I instantly latched onto the drumming, which floored me. Within a week I’d bought the band’s entire back catalogue and a lifelong obsession with Rush began. I became a drummer because of Neil. I became interested in lyrics because of Neil. I became interested in heavy music because of Rush. When I first saw the trio live in 1988 the sheer intoxication power of their stage show led me to go catch them another 30-plus times, including travelling abroad to see them in the USA and Canada. When Geddy, Alex and Neil called it a day in 2015 I was in denial. A small part of me thought they might take the stage again, or maybe give us one more album when the creative urge became undeniable. But Peart’s passing, so typical of the man in its privacy (no one outside of the inner circle even knew he was ill), brings a finality to everything. He was, quite simply, unique and irreplaceable. I feel like a part of me has died with him. I thank him and his bandmates for soundtracking my entire adult life. Quite simply, without them – and especially Neil – I wouldn’t be who I am today. Rest in peace, Professor.”
Rush have asked that those wishing to express condolences donate to a cancer research charity in Peart’s name. If you’re able to, find a list of potential donatees here.