We recently spoke to veteran music writer Martin Popoff about his new book RUSH: Album By Album. In the book, Popoff moderates a panel of writers, journalists, musicians, photographers and filmmakers in a discussion of the bands 20 studio albums. These conversations comprise a unique historical overview of the band, and the book is loaded with sidebars, ephemera and photographs from all stages of RUSH's musical career.
How did you assemble your “cast of characters” — which includes guitarists Kirk Hammett and Paul Gilbert, drummers and percussionists, authors, filmmakers and photographers, fans, and even Rush’s first roadie, Ian Grandy — and how did you divide up the catalogue of RUSH albums among them?
Well, it’s a balancing act based on a number of factors, including age, which will determine which eras anybody can speak authoritatively on. But yes, between the publisher and myself, you get these people from different walks of life and that gives a good and varied set of interviews. It’s best to get some of the rock stars committed first, because of course, the bigger the rock star, you just want to reserve for them which albums they think they can speak on best.
And it’s nice to have the flexibility of having two people per album, so I can slot them in here and there. Generally, people have their era, and that covers four or five albums, so it’s not much of a problem. But yes, you think of these categories, insiders, rock stars, journos, and then guitarists, drummers, bassists, who can talk about theory, who really digs into the lyrics, who might speak a little more like a historian and put things in context. You get a little of this, a little of that.
There were a few awkward moments where I thought I wanted somebody, but then it turned out that I wasn’t going to work out. I have to gently tell them they have to do a little bit of homework to get this right, play the records again, have the covers in front of them, go over the lyrics again, maybe even make some notes.
But of course, the bigger the rock star, I’m not going to ask them to do that, or I’ll ask even more gently, even just so they don’t feel like they’re embarrassing themselves. So yes, it takes a little bit of qualification. But for people in the, say, super fan category, or people who I’m friends or acquaintances with where I feel I can talk a little more forcefully to, I basically tell them, look, be prepared to talk for a half hour about a certain album, and another half hour about another album. Not too many people can do that.
But I was constantly blown away by the quality of the chat that I was getting back from these people. I would say pretty safely, most of them did a better job than I could do, but then again, I suppose, if I listened to my own advice and did the homework, maybe I’d be pretty good too. But no, I guess, to recap and answer your question, I started at the top of the food chain, let those VIPs have whatever albums they wanted, and then worked my way down from there. To the point where if I was dealing with buddies, I would just lay down the law and say, you’re talking about this album because I don’t have anyone for it yet! Suck it up and go do your homework.
Was such a diverse group of people chosen consciously or sub-consciously to represent or reinforce the broad pastiche of people who love Rush?
Yes and no. I suppose I would’ve liked to have one specific category more fulfilled, and that would be a couple of super young rock stars, who, for Rush, their entry point was some album in the ‘90s. But I was really glad to have a few women along for the ride, and they really knocked it out of the park, doing, I suppose, that cliché girl thing and digging into the lyrics and the emotion and motivations behind them. I don’t think there are too many guys that would have bothered to be that invested in those late ‘80s and ‘90s records, 2000 records. I think it would’ve been really tough to find any of my buddies that would break down those songs, or any rock stars that would even know those albums. So that was great.
But no, other than that, it’s more like a broad cross-section of professions and approaches to the band that I got, but I don’t think the age range was as cool as it could’ve been. I actually tried to get Justin Bieber but got no reply. Who else? I can’t remember. You have to remember, the younger the person, and especially if it’s a rock star, there’s the vetting and realizing that I have to somehow find the research somewhere that they are even potentially a Rush fan. I’ve done a lot of research for a lot of projects, particularly for Banger Films, including the Rush movie, but one thing that is a bit of a challenge to look up on the Internet is finding out which of these guys are fans of which bands.
But yes, again, to sum up, we did great with female Rush fans here, or Geddycorns as they are affectionately called. And of course, the best well for that... how can you do better than the gals who have capably and enthusiastically arranged Rushcon all these years?
I’m going to sneak in a two-part question here: What is your “desert island” Rush album, and what is your favorite Rush album cover and why?
Okay, desert island Rush album, that would be Signals. It also happens to be my favourite Rush album, but the cool extra little thing about desert island album is that there’s a little additional nuance and texture and even slight unfamiliarity with the thing that will keep you occupied for those long hot listens while bawling your eyes out trying to spear fish. I suppose I wouldn’t get that with the slightly more golden era Rush albums from say 2112 through Moving Pictures. But no, always loved that one, because I thought they really nailed the balance between guitars and keyboards. I just love the pillowy production on it. It’s a record that is almost defined by the production, and I love those kinds of records. It really coheres because of the production.
Favourite album cover would be Permanent Waves, because it doesn’t have that smarmy, austere ‘80s and ‘90s feel of the later album covers, but more of a Hipgnosis vibe. It’s almost lesser because of the little in jokes, but I suppose my heart tells me those help as well. But I love that it’s photography, that it’s black and white, and that it’s vaguely disturbing.
In your opening, you talk about Rush refusing to cop to the “less is more” way of thinking, instead taking a “more is more” approach. What do you think is the band’s greatest contribution (not album or song) to popular music?
I think Rush’s greatest contribution is that they invented a subgenre of music called progressive metal. It’s pretty clear to me. I know these things are art and abstract and the edges all are supposed to blur into each other, but it’s so absolutely concrete to me that they took the progressive rock and they took the heavy metal and they stuck the two together and they got progressive metal, end stop. No one else did that with as much sort of adherence to a tight parameter, although fans would jump up and down at me saying Rush is following any rules.
But the only reason I bring that up is the closest I can think of doing this would be King Crimson, Kansas and Styx, and I don’t think any of them had as much traditional progressive rock and as much traditional heavy metal and stuck the two together. In other words, they were more all over the place and had different motivations. You might say I’m making Rush’s motivations sounds simple, and those bands sound sophisticated. And in some sense, I guess I am, especially King Crimson who were fearless. But no, I’m not, really. Kansas were prog but their metal was just a little less metal, and Styx was a strange mélange of pop, hard rock and theatre music, with only a hint of prog.
What else? Just briefly, Neil Peart was really defining as an accessible, crisp, fusspot of a drummer, a real inspiration on drummers. It was cool also that he was the lyricist. And even more subtly and specifically, Rush contributed to the history of rock ‘n’ roll through this fairly rare business model they had of pouring everything back into their show, leaving backup act status early and never returning, and all this despite how much of a pop profile they had or how many records they were selling. In other words, quite simply, I think their ticket sales far outstrip what you would expect from the record sales or their pop culture profile. As the movie says, they really are the world’s biggest cult band.
How much of the amazing ephemera is from your own collection, or where did it all come from? Congratulations on a beautiful book; how much input into that did you have, and what did you think when you saw the finished product!
A fair bit of what you see there is from my own collection — I believe, anyway. I’m doing this a little bit from memory. But a lot of it would be; I think, again, I can’t recall how much he contributed on this one, but my buddy Ray Wawrzyniak in Buffalo, who has been a huge Rush collector for years and is now widely recognized as a go-to guy for Rush projects within the camp and without. And I just had to have him as an interviewee and he was awesome, unsurprisingly.
But no, I gotta tell you, on the second part of your question, the beauty of doing books with Dennis Pernu and Voyageur is that I rarely have to say anything about the gorgeous layouts that they do, because there’s no way I could do a better job. I’m always blown away by what they come up with, and if you think the Rush looks great, wait until you see the AC/DC and the Led Zeppelin books.
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