Neil Ellwood Peart (September 12, 1952 – January 7, 2020) was a Canadian musician and writer best known as the drummer and lyricist of the rock band Rush. He received numerous awards for his musical performances, including an induction into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1983. His drumming was renowned for its technical proficiency, and his live performances for their exacting nature and stamina.
Neil Peart was born in Hamilton, Ontario and grew up in Port Dalhousie, Ontario (now part of St. Catharines). In his teens, he floated between regional bands in pursuit of a career as a full-time drummer.
After a discouraging time in England where he went to concentrate on his music, Peart returned home to Canada, where he was recruited to play drums for a St. Catharines band called Hush, who played on the Southern Ontario bar circuit.
Soon after, a mutual acquaintance convinced Peart to audition for the Toronto-based band Rush, which needed a replacement for its original drummer John Rutsey.
Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson oversaw the audition. His future bandmates describe his arrival that day as somewhat humorous, as he arrived in shorts, driving a battered old Ford Pinto with his drums stored in trashcans. Peart felt the entire audition was a complete disaster. While Lee and Peart hit it off on a personal level (both sharing similar tastes in books and music), Lifeson had a less favourable impression of Peart. After some discussion, Lee and Lifeson accepted Peart’s maniacal British style of drumming, which was reminiscent of The Who’s Keith Moon.
Neil Peart officially joined Rush on July 29, 1974, two weeks before the group’s first US tour. Peart procured a silver Slingerland kit which he played at his first gig with the band, opening for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann in front of over 11,000 people at the Civic Arena, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 14, 1974.
Peart soon settled into his new position, also becoming the band’s main lyricist. Before joining Rush, he had written few songs, but, with the other members largely uninterested in writing lyrics, Peart’s previously underutilized writing became as noticed as his musicianship. The band was working hard to establish themselves as a recording act, and Peart, along with the rest of the band, began to undertake extensive touring.
His first recording with Rush, 1975’s Fly by Night, was fairly successful, winning the Juno Award for most promising new act, but the follow-up, Caress of Steel, for which the band had high hopes, was greeted with hostility by both fans and critics. In response to this negative reception, most of which was aimed at the B side-spanning epic “The Fountain of Lamneth”, Peart responded by penning “2112” on their next album of the same name in 1976. The album, despite record company indifference, became their breakthrough and gained a following in the United States. The supporting tour culminated in a three-night stand at Massey Hall in Toronto, a venue Peart had dreamed of playing in his days on the Southern Ontario bar circuit and where he was introduced as “The Professor on the drum kit” by Geddy Lee.
Peart returned to England for Rush’s Northern European Tour and the band stayed in the United Kingdom to record the next album, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings in Rockfield Studios in Wales. They returned to Rockfield to record the follow-up, Hemispheres, in 1978, which they wrote entirely in the studio. The recording of five studio albums in four years, coupled with as many as 300 gigs a year, convinced the band to take a different approach thereafter. Peart has described his time in the band up to this point as being in “a dark tunnel”.
Early in his career, Peart’s performance style was deeply rooted in hard rock. He drew most of his inspiration from drummers such as Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and John Bonham, players who were at the forefront of the British hard rock scene. As time passed, he began to emulate jazz and big band musicians Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. In 1994, Peart became a friend and pupil of jazz instructor Freddie Gruber. It was during this time that Peart decided to revamp his playing style by incorporating jazz and swing components.
Neil Peart’s drumming skill and technique are well-regarded by fans, fellow musicians, and music journalists. His influences were eclectic, ranging from Pete Thomas, John Bonham, Michael Giles, Ginger Baker, Phil Collins, Steve Gadd, Stewart Copeland, Michael Shrieve and Keith Moon, to fusion and jazz drummers Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich, Bill Bruford and Gene Krupa. The Who was the first group that inspired him to write songs and play the drums. Peart is distinguished for playing “butt-end out”, reversing stick orientation for greater impact and increased rimshot capacity. “When I was starting out”, Peart said, “if I broke the tips off my sticks I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I would just turn them around and use the other end. I got used to it, and continue to use the heavy end of lighter sticks – it gives me a solid impact, but with less ‘dead weight’ to sling around.”
Peart had long played matched grip but shifted to traditional as part of his style reinvention in the mid-1990s under the tutelage of jazz coach Freddie Gruber. He played traditional grip throughout his first instructional DVD A Work in Progress and on Rush’s Test for Echo studio album. Peart went back to using primarily matched, though he continued to switch to traditional at times when playing songs from Test for Echo and during moments when traditional grip felt more appropriate, such as during the rudimental snare drum section of his drum solo. He discussed the details of these switches in the DVD Anatomy of a Drum Solo.
In short, “widely considered one of the most innovative drummers in rock history, Peart was famous for his state-of-the-art drum kits, with more than 40 different drums not being out of the norm, precise playing style and on stage showmanship.
USA Today’s writers compared him favorably to other top shelf rock drummers. He was “considered one of the best rock drummers of all time, alongside John Bonham of Led Zeppelin; Ringo Starr of The Beatles; Keith Moon of The Who; Ginger Baker of Cream
In addition to serving as Rush’s primary lyricist, Peart also published several memoirs about his travels. His lyrics for Rush addressed universal themes and diverse subjects including science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy, as well as secular, humanitarian, and libertarian themes. Peart wrote a total of seven nonfiction books focused on his travels and personal stories.
In the mid-2010s, Peart acquired U.S. citizenship
On December 7, 2015, Peart announced his retirement from music in an interview with Drumhead Magazine, though bandmate Geddy Lee insisted Peart was quoted out of context, and suggested Peart was “simply taking a break”. However, in January 2018, bandmate Alex Lifeson confirmed that Rush was retiring due to Peart’s health issues. During his last years, Peart lived in Santa Monica, California, with his wife, photographer Carrie Nuttall, and daughter Olivia.
After a three-year illness, Neil Peart died of glioblastoma, the most aggressive cancer that begins within the brain, on January 7, 2020, at age 67.
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