The Rough Guide to Rock: Too Rough?
While wandering in the library I came upon a big, thick book on rock, The Rough Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to More Than 1,200 Artists and Bands (London: Rough Guides, 3rd ed. 2003). It was the third edition, revised in 2003 by general editor Peter Buckley. I might suggest the publisher open the project back up and try again. Usually the third time is the charm, but it’s going to need a fourth time to get it right, because it sure doesn’t have its facts straight, at least on Rush.
The entry, by Bruno MacDonald, a veteran music writer with more than a dozen rock books to his credit as writer, contributor or editor, including 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, says Rush signed to Mercury after Neil came on board and then “proceeded to record four albums in under two years—Rush (1973), Fly By Night (1975), Caress of Steel and 2112 (both 1976).” But this chronology is not correct.
Rush in late 1973 self-produced its first album, Rush, on its own Moon label. It was released in January 1974. And then, while John Rutsey was still with the band, in spring 1974, they signed to Mercury for two future albums. The contract was for $200,000, including a $75,000 advance.
John Rutsey left the band in the summer of 1974, right after they opened for ZZ Top and right before they were to start their first U.S.tour.
By the time Neil came on board, in mid-1974, the debut album had already been out for almost six months, although now it was being distributed by Phonogram, replacing London Records. So, to say the Mercury relationship came after Neil came on board is completely wrong.
He also says the first three albums sold poorly, but the original Moon debut album had virtually sold out its original run by the time Mercury signed Rush. Admittedly, the original run was tiny—3,500—but it was in large measure on the demonstrated strength of that record that Mercury was interested in the band. In 1995, one year before the first edition of the Rough Guide came out, the album had gone gold.
Fly by Night, the band’s first Mercury album, was produced in January 1975, also sold decently, reaching 50,000 sales relatively quickly and eventually going platinum. Caress of Steel, also produced in 1975, not 1976, was the poor seller, although it, too, eventually went gold.
MacDonald then says 2112, produced in 1976, “wasn’t a big seller either,” but I’m not sure what his definition of a good seller is. It sold 100,000 copies in its first week, in March 1976. By May, it had sold 160,000 copies and reached No. 61 on the U.S. charts. By February 1981, 15 years before the first edition of the Rough Guide came out, it had been certified platinum, the first Rush album to sell a million copies. Eventually, the album went triple platinum. Not a big seller?
The other point that seems misinformed is his contention that the albums started sounding alike after Moving Pictures and it wasn’t until they came out with Roll the Bones in 1991 and Counterparts in 1993 that they started sounding distinctive again. “[O]nly the cover art and the fall-off in Lifeson’s playing distinguished one release from another.”
It’s true Rush moved in a direction that some fans didn’t respond to in the mid- to late 1980s, but to say the albums all sounded alike strikes me as lazy writing, just the uncritical passing along of what was then conventional wisdom.
He then says Rush’s low point came in 1989 with its “lacklustre” live album A Show of Hands. But that album went gold in under two months. It was released on January 10, 1989, and was certified gold on March 9. Lackluster?
He sums up saying that, with the release of Vapor Trails in 2002, “they can now do whatever they like, whenever they like.”
It seems to me they were pretty much given complete artistic freedom after 2112. As Alex puts it in Contents Under Pressure (Toronto: ECW Press, 2004), “[T]hat really bought us our independence from everybody. After that, everybody left us alone to do what we thought was right.”
Bottom line, the entry seems sloppy, a rehash of the conventional wisdom that gets passed along from one reviewer to another. It doesn’t read like a considered look at the band’s contrbution to rock.
Come to think of it, maybe the publisher should just end the Rough Guide to Rock series at three editions. It might just be a bit too rough to put another edition out, if the Rush entry is any indication.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
The Rough Guide to Rock
The Definitive Guide to More Than 1,200 Artists and Bands, 3rd ed.
London: Rough Guides, 2003
$20.28 on Amazon