Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BY RESIDENT ALOTT5MA MUSICOLOGIST BOB ELWOOD: As some of you may recall, a few weeks ago I discussed whether the O’Jays belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame using the Keltner Test from the 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract. I had several requests to do the same analysis for other bands.

Today’s task is to evaluate whether Rush belongs in the Hall. I would like to thank Alan Promer, who was kind enough to look this over for me. Alan is a huge Rush fan (I am not) and I suspect that had he written this, it might well have had a different approach:

1. Was Rush ever regarded as the best band in rock music? Did anybody, while they were active, ever suggest that Rush was the best band in rock music?
I think you have to answer this one no. Be cool or be cast out.

2. Was Rush ever the best band in rock music in its genre?
This is an intriguing question since Rush does not fit neatly into a clearly defined genre. Hard rock? Progressive rock? “Album-oriented rock”? Rock sung by guys with really high-pitched voices?

Evaluating Rush also calls to mind the “peak value” vs. “career value” debate that dominates the discussion of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rush has had an extraordinarily long and productive career, but has had limited “peak” success. For example, while many of its albums have hit the Top Ten, none has topped the album charts.

The Keltner list is designed to assess whether a given band deserves to be in the Hall, not whether a band is likely to be inducted. It’s an important distinction. My sense is that Rush has not garnered a great deal of support among the Hall voters, which suggests to me that the odds are that the band will not be inducted soon.

Rush started out as a hard rock band and quickly morphed from that proto-metal sound to a progressive rock approach. In the 1980s Rush was still thought of as a progressive rock band, but they were no longer writing long songs with science fiction themes. More recently, Rush has returned to hard rock/album rock. I would say, in general, the band’s genre is “album-oriented rock.”

There are really no directly comparable bands, but Yes is probably the closest thing in that both were progressive in the long-artsy-song-that-is-still “rock” sense, and both bands went to a more pop sound in the 1980s (Yes had “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Rush had “Time Stand Still”).

Rush fans make an important and often overlooked point when they observe that the band has a virtuosity seldom achieved by other bands. Rush’s drummer Neil Peart won the Best Rock Drummer polls of Modern Drummer magazine no less than six years in a row (along with other awards for percussion), and was eventually given Hall of Fame status to give other drummers a chance. Geddy Lee has been voted Best Rock Bassist more than 6 times by readers of Guitar magazine, and is in that magazine’s Hall of Fame.

I will review Rush’s status within three musical genres below, but I truly think that this approach shortchanges the band. Meaning this as a compliment, Rush is the rare band that transcends easy categorization.

2(a) Hard Rock
The term “hard rock” is loosely defined, and is used most commonly to define radio station formats. Here is a great summary. The term overlaps somewhat with the term “heavy metal”, but among other differences, hard rock typically features the use of major keys, whereas heavy metal frequently uses minor keys.

Rush’s self-titled debut album resembles the work of Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin did a far better job at being Led Zeppelin than Rush did. Even Rush fans would have to admit that Rush’s hard rock albums are inferior to those of Led Zeppelin. Although Led Zeppelin had a much shorter career, their albums sold much better than Rush’s did and, unlike Rush, Led Zeppelin had 6 Top 40 songs and many other songs that got significant airplay.

Among other hard rock bands of that era, I think you would have to say that Deep Purple had more success in its short career than Rush has had. Deep Purple had 4 Top 40 hits, including “Smoke on the Water”, which virtually every guitar player knows. Rush has had better success on the album charts than Deep Purple has had.

Finally, each of AC/DC, Van Halen, Aerosmith, The Who, and Black Sabbath would also seem to warrant the nod over Rush based on each band’s hard rock body of work.

The “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” was a special on VH1 in 2002. It was a list of what a panel of experts considered to be the one hundred best acts of hard rock. While I don’t love the list, it is noteworthy that Rush ranked #28 on the list behind many bands that are not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The band’s poor showing may be a manifestation of its poor status among rock critics. For example, Robert Christgau, often referred to as the dean of rock music critics, often referred to as the dean of rock music critics, has only bothered to review one Rush album (and that album received an unfavorable review).

2(b) Progressive Rock
Many people think of Rush as a progressive rock band. Many people also think of progressive rock as excessively grandiose and more than a little precious. Rush fans observe (correctly) that Rush was a progressive rock band only from 1975 through 1979, a small segment of the band’s long life.

I think a decent number of progressive rock bands, such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and, possibly Jethro Tull, achieved greater success than Rush did (particularly if you just consider Rush’s five years as a progressive rock band).

With some measure of sadness, I think you would have to conclude that Rush was never the best band in rock music in the progressive rock genre.

2(c) Album-Oriented Rock
Album-oriented rock, abbreviated AOR, is a broadly defined term, originally an American FM radio format focusing on album tracks by rock music artists rather than singles releases. Due to the broad definition, it’s hard to compare Rush to other AOR bands.

Wikipedia lists the following bands as examples of AOR:

Pink Floyd
REO Speedwagon

With the exception of Pink Floyd, a band that has obviously achieved more popular success than Rush, none of these bands really resemble Rush. Few of these bands have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and I think the odds are long that any of them will ever be inducted.

2(d) Conclusion
Although I am sympathetic to the views of Rush fans, I don’t think you can say that Rush was ever the best band in rock music in its genre. Rush gets a “no” on this important question #2 in my opinion.

3. Did Rush have an impact on a number of other bands?
The All Music Guide lists 18 bands as “followers” of Rush, a relatively high number. That list includes Primus, a band that has achieved a fair measure of success. Metallica is not on the list, nor are The Smashing Pumpkins, but both probably should be there considering that the members of both bands have expressed their admiration for Rush and have cited Rush as an important influence. That being said, I am comfortable in saying that few of those 18 bands have enjoyed substantial commercial or critical success and only Metallica among the “follower” bands has any real chance of ever being elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

I think Rush deserves a yes on #3.

4. Was Rush good enough that the band could play regularly after passing its prime?
Rush deserves an emphatic yes on #4. The band’s last studio album peaked at # 6. That was in 2002, 28 years after the band began. Also, according to a fan website, "Rush has 22 consecutive gold records, and is fourth behind The Beatles, The Stones, and Kiss in all-time gold record acquisitions for a band. Fourteen of those albums have gone platinum."

5. Is Rush the very best band in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. I am not going to do this systematically, but Rush is clearly not the very best band in history that is not in the Hall.

6. Are most bands who have comparable records in the Hall of Fame?
As discussed above in question #2, this is a hard question to answer in Rush’s case because there are few bands that are truly similar.

If, for example, you focus on albums that have been designated gold or platinum albums, then Rush is right up there with two “first ballot” Hall of Fame inductees -- the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. On the other hand, Rush has had only one single hit the pop charts. I suspect that just about every band that has been elected to the Hall has had considerably greater success in that regard.

I am going to score #6 as a “no”, but I acknowledge that reasonable minds could differ on this.

7. Do the band's records meet Hall of Fame standards?
See #6 and #2. I think this has to be a “no.”

8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the band was significantly better or worse than is suggested by its records?
Yes. See 2 above. The virtuosity of Neil Peart and Geddy Lee are a major factor in favor of Rush.

See also #3 above. Rush has been an influential band.

9. Is it the best band in its genre who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
Probably not. See #2.

10. How many #1 singles/gold records did Rush have? Did Rush ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Rush nominated?
No #1 singles. No gold singles.

22 gold albums, which is a very high number. Few members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame can even come close to that.

No Grammy awards, but Rush has received 3 Grammy nominations for “Best Rock Instrumental Performance.”

11. How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Rush have? How many Rolling Stone covers did they appear on? Did most of the bands who played in this many Rolling Stone covers go into the Hall of Fame?
I don’t know.

12. If this band was the best band at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?
Yes. Rush puts on good concerts.

13. What impact did the band have on rock history? Was it responsible for any stylistic changes? Did it introduce any new equipment? Did it change history in any way?
Rush deserves a positive answer on #13. See # 3. Rush was a big influence on about 20 bands. That counts for something.

14. Did the band uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
No major scandals as far as I know.

Conclusion: Rush deserves positive answers on only 7 of the 14 “Keltner” list questions. I think you would have to conclude on that basis that Rush does not belong in the Hall. --Bob Elwood

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