How Rush Looked Back at a Rise to Stardom on ‘Exit … Stage Left’
To many fans, 1981's double live Exit ... Stage Left remains the ultimate in-concert album released during the long and distinguished career of Canadian icons and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Rush. Which stands to reason, since it was released on the heels of the group's best-selling and arguably definitive studio album, Moving Pictures, which had truly pushed the band into the mainstream upon its February release.
As guitarist Alex Lifeson told author Martin Popoff in his Rush tome, Contents Under Pressure: "When Moving Pictures came out, and we went on tour, that's when everything changed ... that was really the big turning point." As Lifeson revealed, later in the same interview, the band had still been in debt until the unprecedented success enjoyed by radio singles like "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight," stating "we were offered to re-sign, renegotiate, redo our deal. That's when a lot of those sorts of worries were dispelled."
In other words, from this point forward, Rush would finally be free to focus on their art without undue business hangups, and so, recording the ensuing tour (which stretched from February to December of 1981, with just a three-month summer break) became an ideal trek in which Lifeson, vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart could celebrate the eight studio albums that had preceded and incrementally contributed to this newfound financial prosperity.
But live versions of many songs from their first four records – 1974 debut, 1975's Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, and 1976's breakthrough 2112 – were already featured on 1976's All The World's a Stage. Except for early fan-favorites "A Passage to Bangkok" and "Beneath, Between & Behind," Exit ... Stage Left would focus on the next four LPs: 1977's A Farewell to Kings, 1978's Hemispheres, 1980's Permanent Waves and, finally, Moving Pictures – effectively documenting Rush's transition from technically-driven progressive rock ensemble to hit-making art-rockers, while somehow allowing both dimensions to coexist peacefully.
The economical "The Spirit of Radio" and "Red Barchetta" shared side one with an expanded "YYZ," as the instrumental now housed Peart's drum solo. On side two, the two aforementioned older tunes and a sparkling "Closer to the Heart" indulged the eight-minute dramatics of "Jacob's Ladder," while side three paired the trippy but nippy "The Trees" (prefaced by a brief, acoustic Lifeson intro titled "Broon's Bane," dedicated to long suffering producer Terry Brown) with the 12-minute adventures of "Xanadu." And side four followed the once again studio-faithful renditions of "Freewill" and "Tom Sawyer" with the challenging instrumental epic, "La Villa Strangiato."
Unveiled on Oct.29, just in time for the holiday season, Exit ... Stage Left shot to No. 10 on the Billboard album chart, slowly making its way to platinum sales thereafter, and yet not everyone was entirely satisfied with the album's sound in the long run – namely Geddy Lee. When speaking to Popoff in Contents Under Pressure, Lee regretted the band's perfectionism whilst mixing the live LP in the studio, saying, "That one was an attempt to kind of exaggerate how perfect you could make a live album. There was a lot of meddling with the tapes and trying to make sure we had the best performances. We also made a conscious effort to pull down the audience a bit and emphasize the music. In the end, I think we recorded a fairly sterile live record."
Well, although Lee's honesty is certainly appreciated, the vast majority of Rush's fans were only too happy to embrace this masterful compendium of their favorite band in top on-stage form – to say nothing of the the cover art's "Where's Waldo"-like exercise in identifying key art from previous albums (e.g. the young lady from Permanent Waves, the owl from Fly by Night, etc.). Then there was the matter of Exit ... Stage Left's title, which was plucked from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Snagglepuss, and revealed Rush's underrated sense of humor to all those who just assumed the trio took themselves too seriously.
It's thanks to all of these qualities that Exit ... Stage Left went down as such a definitive release in Rush's career – and in the hearts and minds of their loyal fans.
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