Rush: Album by Album - A Conversation With Martin Popoff

by Jeff Suwak

Even if you're in the camp that finds Rush grating and overly indulgent, you'll want to read what follows. Martin Popoff knows your type, and he's happy to let you keep listening to the Eagles.

Rush fans, meanwhile, will quite enjoy his latest book, Rush: Album by Album, which brings together an intriguing mix of musicians, journalists, Rush associates, and fans to discuss each of the band's 20 studio albums. Guys like Metallica's Kirk Hammett and guitarists Paul Gilbert and Jim Matheos are in there. So is Rush historian Douglas Maher, and the band's first roadie, Ian Grady. Visually striking, the book is packed with album art, promo posters, photographs, and cultural artifacts and oddities from throughout Rush's career.

Popoff, a Canadian writer who has penned two other books about Rush (Contents Under Pressure and Rush: The Illustrated History), has the unofficial record for most album reviews ever written. His bailiwick is heavy metal, with a minor in prog: For 14 years he helmed the renown music mag Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, and has contributed to Goldmine, Guitar World and Metal Hammer. He's written books on Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Rainbow and Yes. He thinks Don Henley is the worst drummer in the world and can't stand Mark Knopfler's acoustic noodling. Safe to say he won't be writing for Rolling Stone anytime soon.

Here, Martin answers some questions about his new book and explains his craft, including how he assesses a record.
Martin speaking at <a href="" target="_blank">RushCon</a>Martin speaking at RushCon
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Before getting into Rush: Album by Album, I'd like to ask a couple questions about your career in general. You've been a music journalist for a long time now, and you're recognized as possibly the preeminent heavy metal writer out there. Where did it all begin?

Martin Popoff: Just been a crazy music fan since about 1973, but then having my own print-broking and desktop publishing business in the '90s, I felt comfortable around books and printing, and decided to self-publish a book of record reviews of every heavy metal album I could get my hands on. That was called Riff Kills Man!: 25 Years of Hard Rock & Heavy Metal, and it had 1942 reviews in it.

Then a buddy of mine, Tim Henderson, was breaking away from an influential heavy metal magazine here in Toronto called M.E.A.T., and we started right on the photocopier in my office a heavy metal magazine called Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, which ran in print for 14 years, and is still a thriving website, And so I started regularly writing reviews and interviewing rock stars, and then that first book got put out by a publisher in 1997, and about 65 books later, here we are now.

But yeah, the point being, along the way, I wrote thousands more reviews - in fact one publisher figured out that I've written more record reviews than anyone in the history of mankind, at about 7900, and about 7500 of those are heavy metal! But yes, also, the reason I've been able to do these band biographies is along the way, when writing for magazines and websites, you get the opportunity to interview a lot of rock stars, so I've done about 1600 interviews, which usually forms the chassis of a book, because I'm not gonna write a book on a band unless I have a bunch of new stuff to contribute.

Songfacts: What's your criteria in assessing a record?

Martin: It's a ton of different things: lyrics, production, playing, singing, even album cover.

Odd question, but you've got me thinking. I suppose one thing is this current record in comparison with the rest of the catalogue. How much repetition is there, how much phoning-it-in is there? Then there are dynamics such as, is the band selling out, are they treating me like a child? Are they just motivated by money at this point? Is the band not even a band, i.e., missing lots of its regular members?History pretty much builds a consensus over time with respect to what a good album is and what a bad album is by a band, so there really is some objective truth to all this. It's not just subjective opinion, I don't think, although there of course is a large dose of that.

Songfacts: Do you remember when you first heard Rush? As a drummer yourself, where does Neil Peart stand in your personal hierarchy of drummers?

Martin: I don't remember exactly, but I do know this: it had to be one of the first three albums. Because I distinctly remember being all jazzed-up and in the know, having a solid handle on the band in advance of 2112 coming out, because I remember all the hoopla me and my buddies had about hearing the whole album debuted on Spokane, Washington's, KREM-FM radio, and then taping it off the radio at the same time.

Now, Neil as a drummer, very interesting question, and one I asked a few different guys about in this book, along this idea of, What is the definition of overplaying? Because here's the thing: Neil is considered by many to be the first name that comes to mind when people say, Who is the greatest rock drummers of all time?

That is insane! I mean, there are obviously so many, but I think the reason his is the name that just pops into people's heads is that he had the audacity to play a large quantity and quality of fills on songs that don't necessarily seem like they would have them, or, to put it crudely, other drummers would find it would be in bad taste to stick a fill in there. That is why I tried to address this idea of overplaying with people. Because I look at it as a positive. If nobody else had the guts to play that much in these sorts of songs, which in most cases were not all that crazy progressive in the early years - and, come to think of it, in the later years even more so - that leaves only one guy doing it.

That right there is the key to why his name pops into people's minds. He's alone in this approach so he sticks out. Plus, Neil is to drums like the Beatles are to music. The Beatles are considered these great songwriters, and what they do sticks in your mind. Well, Neil is this extremely musical drummer, where drummers and non-drummers alike can sing or air-drum those fills, because they're just so musical.

So is he overplaying? No, he's just cramming in a bunch more music, from a position back there on the drum stool where you're just supposed to behave and keep the beat.

Songfacts: You mention in the book that Rush: Album by Album is the second in a series, following one about Bob Dylan. How many total books are planned for the series?

Martin: I don't know if "planned" is necessarily the best word. I'm sure my mentor over there at Voyageur, Dennis Pernu, is thinking of other bands all the time, and it's not necessarily me that's going to be doing them. However, I can say that there is one more secret one in the works that might get approved soon, that I will be doing. Plus I have finished, months ago, a second one on AC/DC.

The funny thing is, after Rush, you think, really?! What's anybody going to say about AC/DC? It's really just them and the Ramones that stand alone in everybody thinking every song is exactly the same. But I guarantee you, it's every bit as good as the Rush, and the Rush is awesome.

Songfacts: There's plenty of material written about how the blues, folk, jazz, classic rock, and other genres inform the broader culture around them. Why do metal and progressive seem to get less respect as "serious" art by so many general critics?

Martin: I think the first reason is that they're both seen as silly lyrically. Metal is all tough and violent and prog is all mythological and science fiction and fanciful. Plus, to bring up the Beatles again, there really is this idea that tasteful playing is simple playing, that what you don't play is as important as what you play, the spaces, "All Right Now" by Free, blah blah blah. [Ha! We won't tell Simon Kirke.]

And I gotta tell you, ever since the birth of thrash at least, heavy metal has been super challenging music, and is, for all intents and purposes, progressive rock, and really, progressive metal is way beyond most progressive rock, and it's thriving, and there are many, many bands doing it.

It really is funny about heavy metal, though. I've had this debate with people. In some ways, pure pop should be the most enjoyable music, and it does sell millions. Pop means popular and it's successful and on the radio and all that. But there's something about heavy metal that just sounds impressive. It makes use of as much electricity that is given to it. It turns man into machine. It's like a hot car versus just a regular car, isn't it?

I mean, Heart's most beloved and impressive and showy song is their most heavy metal song, "Barracuda." Anything half heavy the Eagles ever did was a hit. The most memorable few seconds of Dire Straits is when Mark Knopfler puts down his fancy-pants, acoustic guitar he plays all over every other album, and plucks his only "heavy metal" riff (a stodgy old man one, albeit) at the beginning of "Money for Nothing." My point is, people like heavy metal, they just don't know it.

Songfacts: One of the more amusing sections for me was the conversation with Paul Gilbert and Kirk Hammett about the perceived pomposity of Rush's album art, particularly that image of the naked guy and the pentagram. You pose the question but don't offer your own estimation. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Martin: On that one in particular? First off, the naked man isn't on the cover, so to address the cover, that was one heck of an evil-looking cover [2112]. Rush of course is not a satanic band by any stretch of the imagination, but putting that burning red pentagram on the cover made them look pretty bad-ass anyways. And speaking of asses, sure, there's the naked man, but honestly, as a kid, I don't remember that registering any strong reaction one way or the other.

Now the band in the robes, that was pretty cool. But I think as one of those guys points out, everybody was wearing those robes at the time. Anyway, it wasn't that different. But they sure looked like three smart guys, didn't they? Their cover art, I suppose, is an extension of that progressive rock ethic, and sorta what I just said above about heavy metal being like a hot car versus a normal car. They just wanted to give you more, something to think about, something pretty and also pretty impressive. Prog guys, darn it, just want to give you value for your money. Who wants to listen to Don Henley drum? He's the worst drummer in the world, and no, he doesn't do, "what's right for the songs." He makes all those boring, stupid, simple songs, actually worse!

Songfacts: You write that "New World Man" is one of the band's first "intentional" singles. What do you mean by that?

Martin: Well, I don't think it's particularly significant that it was written at the end of those sessions to give the album enough, or more time. That's a funny thing about Rush: not only were their albums short, but they didn't have anything left over either. Very strange. There's actually not a lot of bands like that.

Anyway, there's just something bright and immediate and accessible about that song that you don't particularly get with the band's other singles, which just seemed to become singles because they were just great and didn't go on for too long, sort of a bit by accident. But no, "New World Man" is short, it's modern, it's got that bright clouds-are-parting chorus, it's got the trendy reggae of the time, and yes, Neil Peart is very, very musical in it. Plus what kid doesn't want to walk around thinking the guys in Rush are calling him, as a fan, some kind of new world man? Whether you're supposed to think that or not, it's a positive message, about human 2.0, and all that, some current, up-to-date human being, that's functioning better than last year's model.

Songfacts: Which Rush album would you hold up as their best?

Martin: I think they were at their peak with Signals, because it's that nexus, juncture album I like with so many bands, where they are combining everything they learned from the past with just enough of the future, before they screw up using too much of the future stuff because it's so current and it might not be timeless!

Okay, trying to make more sense, I love the creamy blend of the guitars and the more analog-feeling keyboards. Maybe it's because they were old and mature keyboard sounds, rather than a bunch of braying, crappy stuff that we don't know will stand the test of time yet, which they do start to chuck in all over the next three or four albums. Plus, there's just the idea that they were the first band to get the formula down of marrying progressive rock with songwriting, and that is done most often on Signals versus any of the albums before or after for that matter.

I don't know, it's certainly my favorite production. It just sounds grand, like a pillow fight, but the pillows are all purple satin with gold tassels.

Songfacts: Which Rush song would you pick to introduce new listeners to the band, and why?

Martin: I guess I'm of the opinion of "The Spirit of Radio" is a really joyous, energetic song that's got all the fireworks, but won't turn people off as overbearing and pretentious. I just love the production on that as well. There's just something so bubbly about Alex's guitars and a spring in the step about Neil's drums. Plus, there's that cool idea of that music being like spinning the tuner dial and hearing different kinds of music all crammed together. Just neat ideas all over the place and such a rousing finish.

Songfacts: Douglas Maher makes the case in the book that "Double Agent" is the "darkest Rush song ever – hands down." What's your take on that?

Martin: Yeah, I think there are about a dozen that are darker. But I see what he's getting at, and especially in conjunction with the music, which is pretty dark and chaotic and almost King Crimson-like.

I usually rankle at using the word "ever" on something so short as a song. It's four minutes of sound pushing through air. And yeah, to be lazy and not go away and do my homework, I would say that most of Vapor Trails, if not every single damn word of it, is darker than that song, as is a bunch of stuff on Counterparts.

Songfacts: One of the themes you discuss is "more is more," as opposed the "less is more" minimalism that seems to dominate music criticism. In reading, I was struck by how odd this prevailing attitude actually is. Nobody goes after movie directors or painters for being too ambitious or elaborate. If writers are lambasted for being pretentious, it's usually the public doing it, not the critical circles. Why do you think the idols of music criticism so often hold their subject of interest to this "less is more" and "more is always less" standard?

Martin: I guess I ranted about this a bit above, but it's a very good question. It seems they're perfectly happy with intense note density in jazz, aren't they? But of course, we all know that the prevailing Rolling Stone/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is folk and punk and pop and country rock, the Troubadour, Avocado Mafia, and all of that supposedly has the lock on great songwriting like the Beatles or some crap like that. So yeah, it's really pretty illogical to say I like music, I just don't like more music. I only like so much music! If you're going to give me a lot of music, spread it out and give it to me in little doses, don't cram it all into one action-packed song. It doesn't make sense, does it?

We like action movies, why not action music? Ha ha, reminds me of something Ritchie Blackmore said to me once. I must have been siding in some ways with people who don't like instrumental music, and he said, imagine that, people not liking "instrumental music," (pause for effect), people needing words with their music. I mean, I'm totally guilty of that, but it is kind of stupid to care less about music when it doesn't have lyrics. Heck, maybe there's even a little bit of that in the dislike of prog rock, that there's too much music without lyrics. And then when the lyrics happen, they can often be about the fantastical and not real-life stuff that people can relate to. But it's art. Why not have your art be dramatic and fancy and superhuman? If it's not any of that, it's just your life, and you can go away and live that.

Songfacts: In the book you discuss the bit of flack that Neil Peart got for "Anthem," a song that commits two unpardonable sins by endorsing both Ayn Rand and libertarianism. In reading Rush's lyrics, though, I was struck by how often the themes of freedom and oppression come up in their music, even in non-political songs. "Necromancer," for instance, has its heroes emboldened by a "thirst for freedom" and later battling for freedom from chains. Having spent so much time researching and following the band, do you have any insight into what it is about Peart or his background that has him so preoccupied with these notions of liberation and freedom?

Martin: Nothing particularly in his past, just that he's a reader and a thinker. And he was young at the time and full of energy, and a very capable human being, a great, great drummer right there in the mid-'70s and flexing his literary muscle as well, when drummers usually didn't do that. So like any male filled-up with bravado, and for good reason in his case, he believed in the power of the human being to set his own individual world spinning and to do great things with it, effect (not affect) events. Of course, the problem with libertarianism is that everybody isn't as smart and talented as Neil Peart and that society's going to have to take care of some folks.

Songfacts: For a lot of people, Rush is synonymous with progressive music. What do you think makes them unique within the genre? What fundamentally makes Rush, Rush?

Martin: What makes them unique is the same thing I thought and knew as a stupid teenager, and it's just so clear to me, and it's always been so clear to me: They took the progressive and they took the heavy metal and stuck the two together and nobody else was so clear-eyed and intentioned as they were at doing that.

So they invented progressive metal. That's the whole thing. Other prog bands have their obvious quirks, like Jethro Tull with the flute, but you have to dig deeper and go a little abstract to figure out the personalities of Yes versus Genesis. With Rush, it's a little more like Jethro Tull and the flute. Their shtick was that they played prog but that they had the distortion pedal on.

Songfacts: Did your perception of Rush change or broaden at all through writing this book?

Martin: Not really, other than it made me go back and examine some of the later albums a little more closely, and appreciate the lyrics much more, if not really the music.

I mean, what impressed me about this book, most of all is how awesome a job this army of interviewees did, much better than I could've done, although, I suppose, if I was told to go away and do my homework on one specific album, and then blather on about it for half an hour, maybe having done my homework, I would've done as well as these folks. But I'll tell you, sometimes I needed a bit of a top-up, and I hit some of these guys up for an album beyond their two-album mandate, into a third, and they were just as incredible on that one album as they were on the stuff that they supposedly did homework on. That's really why the book turned out so great, is that these people had a ton of great insights and were good explainers of those insights. But in general, no, I roughly and vaguely, and generally held many of the same views as these people did about these albums, but they were able to be so damn specific about it, it was scary.

April 27, 2017. Rush: Album by Album is released May 1. More on Martin at
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Comments: 3

  • Paul from UkWhen I listen to Rush, so do all my neigbours.

    So my neighbours called the police.

    And the police arrested them.
  • Joe from Texarkana, TxExtremely well said, Kevin!
  • Kevin from Phoenix, AzI have enjoyed Popoff's work, and his love for Rush is absolutely not to be denied. However, I find his insistence on continually employing the "progressive metal" tag for the band to be ridiculously reductionist for a band that is a self-described musical sponge. Are their roots in prog and metal? Of course, though Geddy has often made the distinction that he prefers the term "hard rock" to "metal". Is it accurate? Yes, to a point--but given that Rush began absorbing significant influence from other, wildly divergent styles of music (reggae, ska, new wave) mere months after their last "prog metal" opus (Hemispheres), and that they eventually encompassed dance, funk, rap, electronica and even "world" music (another ridiculously broad and reductionist label), I think continuing to foist this description on them is frankly almost insulting. It is far, far more accurate to call them the original alternative band--especially since Rush's long journey to mainstream respect came not from their acknowledged influence on all the neo-prog and hair metal bands (Dream Theater, please), but rather the fact many if not most of the 90s grunge and alternative bands namechecked them as a huge influence. NIN, Manson, Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, No Doubt, Catherine Wheel, even Lisa Freakin' Loeb have all sung the praises of Rush--FORCING the NME/Trouser Press-influenced critics, and their successors, to reassess Rush's legacy and influence. Rush may be a "progressive metal" band, but they're not JUST a progressive metal band. They are so much more than that.
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