Living in the Limelight: The Story of Rush

Formed in 1968, Rush went through many lineups before arriving at its classic trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. The Canadian group transformed from a basement garage band that played at high schools to a rock band touring the world. But Rush didn’t have an easy journey to success.

Rush / Rush / Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee / Geddy Lee.
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For many years, Rush had a difficult relationship with the often-skeptical rock press. Therefore, fans got to know the band members’ diverse personalities through live shows, tour books, and videos. They might not have achieved the same fame as other rock groups, but Rush is one of the greatest rock bands in history.

Humble Beginnings

In the neighborhood of Willowdale in Toronto, Canada, guitarist Alex Lifeson and his neighbor John Rutsey started experimenting with music in their parents’ garages. Rutsey had a rented drum kit, and they formed The Projection in 1963. The band stayed together until early 1968 when they decided to go in a different direction.

Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart pose for a group shot.
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Lifeson and Rutsey had been friends since childhood, so they stuck together to form a new group. They recruited Jeff Jones as the bassist and frontman for their first gig at the Coff-Inn, a youth center in the basement of St. Theodore of Canterbury Anglican Church. The gig only paid $25.

Jones Didn’t Last Long

At the time of their first gig, the group hadn’t picked a name yet. But Rutsey’s brother Bill thought they needed a name that was short and to the point. He suggested Rush, and they thought it was simple enough. They came up with it just in time for their second performance.

A backstage photo of Rush.
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Unfortunately, Jones decided to attend a party instead of going to their gig, so Lifeson asked his friend Gary “Geddy” Weinrib to fill in on lead vocals and bass. Jones stuck with them for one show before departing. As a result, Weinrib joined the band, taking the stage name Geddy Lee.

Working Out the Kinks

At first, Rush mainly rehearsed covers by rock artists like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and John Mayall. They experimented with different sounds and changed the group’s lineup several times. Lindy Young played the keyboards and other instruments, Joe Perna was on bass and vocals, and Mitchel Bossi was on the second guitar.

A photo of Rush in concert.
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It took a while for them to agree, and in the process, Lee was kicked out of the band and the group briefly changing their name. Rutsey wanted to find a new bassist, so Lifeson complied, and he, Rutsey, and Perna named themselves Hadrian. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a good idea.

Hadrian’s Disastrous Performance

After forming Hadrian, Lifeson, Rutsey, and Perna had a disastrous gig. Perna didn’t know what he was playing, and it was a nightmare. Rutsey immediately knew he had made a mistake by kicking Lee out, so he called him and said, “Hi, what’s up?” as if nothing had happened.

Geddy Lee of Rush performs on stage.
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Lee was hurt by the situation because they never formally told him he was out of the band; they just formed a new group without him. However, when they called him to come back, Lee decided to give them another shot because he liked Lifeson and enjoyed being in a rock band.

On the High School Circuit

After a few rocky years of changing up the group’s dynamic, by May 1971, the band stabilized with Lifeson, Rutsey, and Lee. With the three of them on the same page, they secured Ray Danniels as their manager with his business partner, Vic Wilson.

An image of Rutsey playing the drums.
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Rush honed their skills by playing the Ontario high school circuit. In 1971, the legal drinking age decreased from 21 to 18, allowing the band to play bars and clubs as well. Lee said this was a turning point for Rush as they turned into a regular working band.

Trying to Land a Record Deal

Rush started playing shows six days a week, so they made a demo tape and shipped it to various record labels. The group struggled to find a record deal, so they took matters into their own hands. Rush formed Moon Records with Danniels.

A photo of Lee performing on stage.
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Once they formed their record label, the group entered the studio in 1973 to record their first single, a cover of “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly. It was a crowd favorite at their performances. Rush also recorded “You Can’t Fight It,” an original single for the B-side.

Tensions Rise

Rush started recording a full album of original songs, but the initial sessions produced less than desirable results because of the sound quality. The tracks had to be recut with a new engineer, which cost them a lot of money. Danniels sold his company to raise the funds.

A backstage photo of Rush.
Photo by Richard Fegley

Rutsey wrote most of the lyrics but tore them up on the day Lee was supposed to record them. He refused to produce a new set. So, Lee had to quickly write the songs based on earlier versions so they wouldn’t waste an entire recording session.

Worth the Headache

Their debut self-titled album was released in March 1974 and sold 3,500 copies on the first day. It had a mediocre release until it was picked up by Donna Halper, a music director and DJ at WMMS in Cleveland, Ohio.

A photo of Donna Halper, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee at the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
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Halper added “Working Man” to the station’s regular playlist. The song’s blue-collar theme resonated with hard rock fans in Cleveland. It helped them gain an audience in the States and prompted Danniels to sign Rush to the American booking agency ATI whose executive sent their album to Mercury Records.

Rutsey Says Goodbye

A Mercury Records agent loved Rush’s album, so he signed the group to a $200,000 deal with a $75,000 advance. Their newfound success allowed Rush to perform at a series of Canadian concerts. However, Rutsey was ready to hand over his drumsticks.

A portrait of Rutsey.
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On July 25, 1974, Rutsey played his last gig with Rush. He wanted to play more straightforward rock, which wasn’t compatible with the complex music that Lifeson and Lee had in mind. He was also suffering from complications from diabetes, and he was too ill to perform anymore.

Neil Peart Says Hello

After auditioning five drummers, Lifeson and Lee picked Neil Peart to join Rush two weeks before the group’s first US tour. They performed their first concert together in Pittsburg for over 11,000 people. Although they were the opening act, everyone loved their style.

A photo of Neil Peart during rehearsal.
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Not only did Peart assume the drummer position, but he also took over the role of lyricist. Lifeson and Lee had little interest, and they recognized Peart’s vast vocabulary. Their new music was more progressive rock with influences like Yes and Pink Floyd.

Peart Had a Way With Words

Peart was a major bookworm and drew heavily on his interest in philosophy and sci-fi fantasy. His lyrics reflected these themes on Rush’s second album, Fly by Night. As the years went on, Peart branched out to lyrics exploring psychology, history, politics, and science.

Neil Peart poses backstage behind a luggage trunk.
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In “The Spirit of Radio,” Peart wrote one of his most famous lyrics: “One likes to believe in the freedom of music, but glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” These extravagant lyrics are a key part of Rush’s impeccable music.

A Breakthrough With Kiss

Rush is often celebrated as the most intellectual and sophisticated stadium rock band. Therefore, it is fairly ironic that they got their big break touring as the opener for Kiss. Kiss was all about putting on an exciting show with their make-up and pyrotechnics.

KISS performs on stage.
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Although their lyrics were very different than Kiss’, Rush enjoyed working with them. Lee said, “There was no harder-working band than Kiss, and there was no band more determined to put on a spectacular show and give people their money’s worth.”

Times of Trouble

After the release of Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, Rush was in trouble. Their second and third albums pushed them in a more experimental, progressive direction than their traditional rock debut album. As a result, sales were low, and the band felt pressured by their label.

An image of Rush during a live show.
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Mercury Records threatened to drop Rush if they didn’t make something more radio friendly. Rush defiantly disobeyed that order and stuck to their own terms. Rush’s album 2112 had a sci-fi theme and a 20-minute opening track, but it was a massive hit.

Bigger Than They Seem

Although they don’t get the same recognition as bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, Rush is still one of the biggest rock bands ever. They’ve sold 40 million albums worldwide. Rush ranks among the 30 highest-selling rock acts in American history.

A dated band portrait of Rush.
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Their most successful album was 1981’s Moving Pictures, which many consider a masterpiece. It featured their most celebrated songs, Tom Sawyer and Limelight. The album went quadruple platinum in the US, selling over four million copies. They later shifted to shorter songs and more simple compositions.

They Almost Broke Up After a Tragedy

In 1997, Peart was struck by the sudden, heartbreaking loss of his daughter in a car accident. The following year, his wife passed away from cancer. The heartache he experienced was insurmountable, and it made the future of Rush uncertain. He told the guys he wanted to retire.

A photo of Peart at the time.
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Peart embarked on a long motorcycle trip. His bandmates understood that he needed some time away. The group took a break, but Peart reached out in 2001 to see if they could make new music again. Lee and Lifeson knew he would come back eventually.

Only the Best

Many rock bands tend to release massive compilations of previously unreleased tracks that never made it into their albums. Rush is not like those other bands because they rarely recorded songs that didn’t make it to the final album, and there is a reason for this.

An album cover of Rush.
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The members of Rush said they always went into album sessions knowing exactly which tracks they wanted to include. Lifeson said, “That’s not how we’ve ever worked. The album is what it is.” Rush put all their effort into the songs they believed in the most.

One Guest Vocalist

Rush’s 1987 album, Hold Your Fire, wasn’t one of the high points in the band’s career, but it boasted the memorable song “Time Stand Still.” Many fans say this is one of their best songs, and it was significant because it was the first and only collaboration with a guest vocalist.

A photo of Aimee Mann performing on stage.
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The group believed the song needed a female voice, so they enlisted Aimee Mann of ‘Til Tuesday. Rush tried to get Cyndi Lauper or Chrissie Hynde, but neither were available. Lee later said that Mann’s contribution “elevated the track.”

Friends for Years

Lee knew Lifeson before he joined Rush as the lead vocalist. The two met in a history class at Fisherville Junior High. They had been friends for years before they started playing music together. In fact, Lee helped Rush before he was a member.

An image of Lifeson and Lee performing on stage.
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When Jones was the band’s bassist and lead vocalist, Lee lent the group an amp so Jones could play. He later replaced Jones, but there were no hard feelings. It was a good thing Lee stayed close with Lifeson because he then joined the band.

Neil Peart Was Inspired by Keith Moon

Raised in Ontario, Peart started playing the drums when he was young. Initially, drummers like Keith Moon from The Who and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin inspired him. As he got older, Peart took influence from jazz bands to achieve his technical style.

A picture of The Who during a live show.
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After a long career, Peart became known as one of the best drummers in the world. He was in the same league as the musicians he once idolized. When fans watched him play drum solos, they were mesmerized by Peart’s precision with each stick. He is a legend.

Struggling to Play Old Songs

Later in the band’s career, when they went on tour, it was common for Rush to play their older songs. While fans reveled to hear their greatest hits, it wasn’t easy for Peart to play the music. He became a better drummer every year, which hurt him.

Neil Peart performs on stage.
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Peart had trouble during his later years because his skills were too advanced for the group’s old music. His abilities made it challenging for him to play songs that required less technicality. Despite the challenge, he always put on a phenomenal show.

Geddy Lee Didn’t Want to Play the Bass

Before Lee joined Rush, he was actually a guitar player in a band he started in high school. He said, “I had this attitude that nobody chooses to be a bass player.” His basement band’s bass player wasn’t allowed to be in the group anymore, and they were down a member.

Geddy Lee visits a radio show.
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The other guys looked at Lee and told him he would play bass instead. He didn’t have a bass, so they told him to ask his mom for money. She gave Lee $30 to buy the bass, but he had to work it off in her store.

They Partied Hard

In the ‘70s, Peart recalled that the three men partied hard. It was what everyone was doing at the time, but Peart said they were lucky to have each other to stay grounded. He said, “If anybody got out of control, they would be sniped at.”

A backstage photo of Lifeson and Peart.
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They would go to clubs and bars and drink until the morning hours because they were rock stars. However, Peart said drinking and drugs made him throw up, so he tried to refrain. It was just a phase for Rush, and they moved past their partying days.

Joking Around With the Crew

When Rush went on tour, they had the same crew traveling around from city to city with them. The group revealed that they would make up songs about the crew during their sound checks. While Peart wrote the lyrics for their albums, Lifeson made up the words about the staff.

A photo of Rush before going on stage.
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They had a good laugh during their soundchecks. Lifeson said, “We had one called ‘Sex Boy.’ And it was this kind of cheesy, Euro-trash, electronic music.” They were definitely not like the songs they normally performed.

Joining the Hall of Fame

In 2013, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a huge honor for the group because they were immortalized among the greatest musicians’ rock music has ever seen. When they gave a speech at the ceremony, Lifeson initially planned a real speech.

A photo of Lifeson on stage.
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However, when he got on the stage, he said a few words, three to be precise: “blah, blah, blah.” Lifeson was glad he did it because he thought people should be cheeky instead of thanking “your lawyer and accountant.”

Neil Peart Didn’t Like This Movie

The 2014 film Whiplash was about an ambitious young jazz drummer. While you would think that Peart would enjoy a movie about a drummer, he was not a fan. He claimed there were bullies in jazz drumming. Peart was disappointed.

A still from the film Whiplash.
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He thought it was great to see a movie about drummers but didn’t understand why it was flawed “humanistically and in small technical ways.” Peart noticed that the film didn’t use a proper jazz drum set, and the actor didn’t move his wrists correctly.

“No Touring”

While Rush recorded their 1989 album Presto, Peart made a shocking announcement. He told Lee and Lifeson that he was going to quit touring. Peart wanted them to make records but stop going on long tours. But he later changed his mind.

An image from the band during a performance.
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After giving it a second thought, Peart realized the true test of a band is performing live. They built a relationship with their fans from concerts and bonded as a group. Peart thought about it and decided it was crucial to perform live.

Alex Lifeson Had Three Main Influences

As Rush’s guitarist, Lifeson has been called one of the greatest guitar players by other rock musicians. When his style started to expand in the mid-‘70s, he had three main influences: Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, and David Gilmour. Lifeson took elements from each of their genres.

Lifeson performs on stage.
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Lifeson admired these three men because they each offered something different. He said Hackett was up against a strong drummer, keyboards, and an amazing vocalist, so he worked around them. Lifeson felt the same and became one of the greats.

Neil Peart Wanted to Turn the Album Into a Movie

Rush’s 2012 album Clockwork Angels was the band’s final studio album. After it was released, Peart wanted to turn it into a movie. He thought it would happen organically and that someone would just show up at his door with a pile of cash to make a movie.

A picture of Neil Peart during an event.
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Unfortunately, it never happened. Peart believed it would have been a fun semi-retirement project for the three bandmates. He said, “Geddy loves cinema, Alex for the soundtrack, and me for the story.” He thought it had a good story, but no one wanted to make it.

Disappointed in Today’s Music

It must be interesting for artists like Rush to weigh in on today’s music. When Lifeson spent time listening to a college radio station, he felt disappointed that it was all contemporary music. He didn’t enjoy the weak songwriting, boring vocals, or the production.

A picture of Rush speaking on stage.
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Lifeson felt sorry to hear this was the music people were now listening to. He hoped someone would change up the rock world.

They Were Scared for Him

After spending years playing together, the members of Rush became a family and cared about each other like brothers. So, when Peart started traveling from show to show on his motorcycle, Lee and Lifeson worried about him. He wanted to ride alone instead of on the tour bus.

A backstage photo of Rush before a show.
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Lee said it was nerve-wracking, especially for their manager. However, they stopped thinking about it over time because Peart always showed up and usually got there before the rest of the band. He was always careful and never drove in harsh weather.

They Felt Like “Outsiders”

When Lee and Lifeson were younger, they felt like outsiders. Lifeson recalled that he and Lee were friends in ninth grade. They were in a class of 30 kids but were only friends with each other. Lifeson said, “We just kind of hung out, and we felt like everybody else was a jerk.”

A portrait of Geddy Lee.
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The two bonded over music. They came from similar backgrounds with their parents. Lee and Lifeson both had immigrant parents who came to Canada from Europe. Since then, the two have been close friends and still live near one another.

Hostility From Critics

Although Rush is one of the more accomplished bands in rock history, many critics seem to hate them. Rush is third behind the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in terms of most consecutive gold and platinum records. However, critics don’t like their music because it’s different.

A picture of a Rush guest-pass to a concert.
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Rush created a different kind of rock music that strayed from the typical formula of classic rock. They abandoned blues as the base of their work, which was frowned upon. According to Peart, the criticism frustrated the band because “being popular and hated is not satisfying.”

A Reason for the Funk

When Peart started his drumming career, he played in R&B bands. He would perform music by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, which influenced his style. Therefore, when he would write songs for Rush, he drew upon that style because he grew up with that music.

A studio portrait of Otis Redding.
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Rush’s music had some mutated funk moments that made their songs different. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart grew up listening to the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and blue-eyed soul was the popular style in Toronto. It shaped the way they wanted to sound.

Geddy Lee Sang in School Choirs

Lee has been the lead vocalist for Rush since Jones quit all those years ago. But he shared that he was “always a singer somehow.” Lee was in the school choir as a soprano but admitted that he never had a predominant role in it.

A picture of Geddy Lee in his teens.
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Lee said that no one else wanted to sing, so he was always chosen. He didn’t mind it. He took inspiration from Steve Marriott, Robert Plant, and Jon Anderson, who also had high voices. Lee admitted that he liked playing the bass more than singing.

The Final Concert

For the band’s 40th anniversary, Rush released the Rush R40 box set and announced the R40 tour. They said it would be their final large-scale tour. Rush played their last concert together on August 15, 2015. Peart later said he was retiring because of his psoriatic arthritis.

A picture of Rush's live performance.
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However, the group didn’t announce their separation until 2018. Lifeson said, “After 41 years, we felt it was enough.” They had no plans to tour or record together. Although it was the end of Rush, Lee and Lifeson didn’t stop playing.

Neil Peart Was an Author

Besides his work as a drummer, Peart also wrote seven books that chronicle his life and travels. His first two books were about two motorcycle trips he took. He went on one after his wife and daughter died to put his life back together.

A portrait of Neil Peart.
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Peart and the rest of the band always kept their private lives separate from their public images, but his books gave fans a closer look at who he was. He also worked with Kevin J. Anderson to develop a novelization of Rush’s 2012 album Clockwork Angels.

Geddy Lee Loves Wine and Baseball Cards

If Lee ever records a second solo album, he should title it “The Collector” because he has a passion for collecting basses, baseball cards, wine, and watches. The former Rush bassist said, “It’s a disease that has brought me a lot of joy.”

An image of baseball cards spread on a table.
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He has a collection of over 5,000 bottles of wine. Lee also collects baseball memorabilia and donated part of his collection to a baseball museum. He wrote a book titled Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass to highlight his collection of over 250 basses.

Losing a Friend

After three and a half years of battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, Peart passed away on January 7, 2020. He only shared his diagnosis with close family and friends. Lee and Lifeson said they lost “a friend, soul brother, and bandmate.”

A picture of Lee and Peart wearing costumes backstage.
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A year after his death, Lee shared that Rush was over because they would never continue without Peart. Fans and fellow musicians mourned his death and considered it a substantial loss for popular music. Peart went down in rock history as one of the best drummers.

Possible New Music

Although Peart is gone, Lifeson shared that Lee wanted to work on new music together. They work well as a duo, but nothing has been made official. Lifeson said even if they don’t collaborate again, they still love each other and are very good friends.

Lifeson and Lee speak to the media.
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Lee and Lifeson often get asked if they will do something together, but they still don’t know. While new music is still up in the air, we can only hope that these two legends get back into the studio one more time for all their fans.

Geddy Lee Is Still Working

Rush might be done, but Lee hasn’t stopped working on other projects. In 2020, he provided guest vocals for Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” during the TV special Stronger Together, Tous Ensemble. The Canadian benefit performance raised money for food banks.

Geddy Lee takes a picture holding his guitar.
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In September 2021, Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson revealed that Lee is working on a “secret project” with the band. Robertson has admired Lee as a bassist for a long time and described their bond to be like that of family. In the past, the band borrowed equipment from Lee.

Lifeson Started Producing

Outside Rush-related endeavors, Lifeson has produced music for various artists. He produced three songs for 3 Doors Down’s album Away from the Sun and a few albums for Keram Malicki-Sanchez. Lifeson also lent his guitar skills for a 2018 Fu Manchu song.

Lifeson attends an event.
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He recently started a new band called Envy of None featuring Lifeson, Maiah Wynne, and Curran. Their first single, “Liar,” came out on January 12, 2022, and they have a self-titled album being released on April 8. He is excited about his new music venture.

Famous Fans

Rush inspired strong devotion from their fans, and many of their fans are household names. Some of their most famous followers include South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have paid homage to the band in the animated series. Paul Rudd and Jason Segal are also Rush fans.

A dated picture of Rush in concert.
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In the movie I Love You, Man, Segal and Rudd portray an obsessive pair of Rush fans. The actors were among the first to pay tribute to Peart following his death. The band inspired and influenced many musicians as well.

A Lasting Legacy

After 40 years as a band, Rush has left a lasting legacy on the music world. They might have been disliked by many critics, but their use of synthesizers and keyboards changed rock music. The group said, “People either love Rush or hate Rush,” resulting in intensely loyal fans.

A view from the crowd of a Rush concert.
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Rush accomplished longevity, proficiency, and influenced artists like No Doubt, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Each member added something different to Rush’s music, which has made them legends of rock.