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40 Years Ago: Neil Peart Joins Rush

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Rush frontman Geddy Lee wasn’t exactly blown away by his first meeting with future bandmate Neil Peart. “My first impression was that he was kinda goofy,” Lee said in the 2010 documentary ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage.’

Four decades later, it’s become clear that this is precisely what made Peart such an ideal fit for these underdog future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

In the summer of ’74, the gangly, awkward 21-year-old drummer was already a veteran of numerous local bands (including the “very serious” J.R. Flood). But his career future remained uncertain, given the lackluster music scene in Ontario. Directionless, Peart was working behind the parts counter of his dad’s farm equipment dealership in St. Catharines when he decided to audition for Rush. The trio, despite recently breaking through in the U.S. thanks to the Led Zeppelin-tinged hard-rock of their self-titled debut, had just parted ways with John Rutsey.

Peart arrived at the tryout driving his mom’s Ford Pinto, with his drums safely stashed in garbage cans. ”I remember thinking, ‘God, he’s not nearly cool enough to be in this band,’” says guitarist Alex Lifeson said in ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage.’ But in spite of his questionable fashion sense, Peart’s dextrous percussion skills won Lifeson over. “And then he started playing, and he pounded the crap out of those drums. He played like Keith Moon and John Bonham at the same time.”

Peart officially joined Rush on July 29, 1974 and, though he was excited to be following his dream, the circumstances weren’t exactly ideal. The young drummer only had two weeks to learn the band’s entire live repertoire before their long-awaited American tour. “It was like a tornado came and hit my life and swept it away,” Peart said in the 2010 documentary.

The band’s American debut — which was also Peart’s Rush debut — came on August 11 at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, as an opening act for Manfred Mann and Uriah Heep in front of 11,000 fans. It was a formative night. “Among the many memories of that life-changing experience, I would never forget standing on the floor beside stage left while Uriah Heep played ‘Stealin’,” Peart said in his 2006 book ’Roadshow: Landscape with Drums: A Concert Tour by Motorcycle.’ “The big dark building, colored lights on the heroic figures up on the stage, the roaring audience, the sheer electricity in that place. Halfway through their show, the retractable dome of the Civic Arena had peeled back, open to the summer night.”

The trio made an immediate impression with their high-intensity hard-rock — even if not all of the band members recall the experience that clearly. In ‘Lighted Stage,’ Lee admits that he was drunk off free Southern Comfort: “By the time I kinda came to my senses, the set was over and we were off.”

Fast forward to 2014, and it’s impossible to imagine a version of Rush without Neil Peart. In addition to being perhaps the best-known rock drummer not named Bonham or Moon, he’s also proven to be a lyrical genius — adding a level of poetic mysticism to Rush’s music for the past four decades. His studio debut on 1975′s ‘Fly By Night’ was a major creative breakthrough, one now recognized as the true starting point to one of rock’s most important bands.

Next: Top 10 Neil Peart Rush Songs

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