Neil Peart, Rush's star drummer, dies of brain cancer at 67

In this photo taken on May 10, 2008, Rush drummer Neil Peart performs in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In this photo taken on May 10, 2008, Rush drummer Neil Peart performs in Las Vegas, Nevada.PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock group Rush, died in California of brain cancer, the group announced on Friday (Jan 10). He was 67.

"It is with broken hearts and the deepest sadness, that we must share the terrible news that on Tuesday, our friend, soul brother and band mate of over 45 years, Neil, has lost his incredibly brave battle with brain cancer, glioblastoma," they said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Rush was founded in 1968 and Peart joined in 1974, replacing John Rutsey, alongside singer and bass player Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson.

After starting out in hard rock and moving gradually toward jazz rock, Peart was known for his flamboyant style and very precise technique, which won him a legion of admirers among professionals and fans.

Rush entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. The band sold 25 million albums in the United States.

Questlove, the drummer for hip hop group The Roots, posted a black and white photo of Peart on Instagram sitting behind his imposing drum set, sending his condolences.

Danish drummer Lars Ulrich of Metallica also said on Instagram that Peart was a big inspiration for him.

Peart’s lyrics transformed the band’s songs into multi-section suites exploring science fiction, magic and philosophy, often with the individualist and libertarian sentiments that informed songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Freewill.” 

And his  drumming was at once intricate and explosive, pinpointing odd meters and expanding the band’s power-trio dynamics; countless drummers admired his technical prowess.

In a recording career that continued into the 2010s, Rush headlined arenas and had more than a dozen platinum albums. He  was also an author, writing books about his travels and his memoirs. 

After a Rush tour in 2015, he retired from performing, citing its physical toll. According to the band’s statement, he had been suffering from brain cancer for 3 1/2 years.

“His drumming was songwriting,” the Foo Fighters’ drummer, Taylor Hawkins, said during Rush’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. “It was just as musical, just as melodic, as any other instrument in the band.” 

He also noted that Peart had “spawned a generation of air drummers for decades to come.” 

Peart was born on Sept 12, 1952, in Hamilton, Ontario, where his parents  had a dairy farm. 

In 1980 he told Modern Drummer magazine that as a child he would “pick up chopsticks and play on my sister’s playpen.” 

He hadn’t been interested in early piano lessons, but at 13 he began taking drum lessons and found that drumming was “pure pleasure,” he told the magazine.

“I’d come home every day from school and play along with the radio.” 

After playing in rock bands during his teens, he moved to England at 18. But in 1972 he returned to Canada, where he worked at his father’s farm-equipment dealership and played with local bands. 

In 1974, an audition got him into Rush. He became the band’s lyricist, he said in 1980, “just because the other two guys didn’t want to write lyrics.”

He added that he considered the band’s lyrics “secondary” to the music. “A lot of times you just think of a lyrical idea as a good musical vehicle,” he said. 

Peart grew up as a fan of loud, flashy drummers like Keith Moon, Gene Krupa, John Bonham and Ginger Baker, and he was known for hitting his drum kit hard. But as his playing developed, he quickly earned a reputation for precisely conceived, meticulously executed drum parts.

He expanded the standard drum kit with double bass drums and a wide array of cymbals, woodblocks, bells and tympani, and he eventually added electronic percussion to his arsenal when it suited the music. 

His recording career with Rush began with the band’s second album, “Fly by Night,” in 1975. His approach immediately transformed the music from blues-based hard rock to compositions that were more demanding, ambitious and changeable. 

Rush’s 1976 album “2112” began with a 20-minute, seven-part title track. Rush built an audience through extensive touring and increasing FM radio airplay, and its early-1980s album, “Permanent Waves” (1980) and “Moving Pictures” (1981), both reached the Top Five in the United States.

“Moving Pictures” which includes the song “Tom Sawyer” was the band’s best-selling album, with four  million sales in the United States. By then, Rush had established itself on the arena circuit, where it persisted until its last tour in 2015. 

Its music altered through the decades – embracing synthesisers and electronics, reclaiming power-trio muscle – but never shied away from musical challenges or grand verbal conceits. 

The band stated that “Clockwork Angels,” its 2012 album, “features lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnival, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.” It was turned into a science-fiction novel by Kevin J. Anderson. 

Rolling Stone placed Peart at No. 4 in its 2016 list of “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.” 

Peart paid tribute to one of his influences when he produced a two-volume compilation, “Burning for Buddy,” pairing the Buddy Rich Big Band with jazz and rock drummers including Peart, Max Roach, Bill Bruford, Steve Gadd and Omar Hakim. 

He  also made instructional DVDs: “A Work in Progress,” about composing drum parts, and “Anatomy of a Drum Solo.” 

He was an avid motorcyclist, and wrote six books about his travels and music. In 1997, the members of Rush received the Order of Canada, a national honour. 

Peart is survived by his parents, his wife Carrie Nuttall,  daughter Olivia Louise Peart, sisters Judy and Nancy, and brother Danny.  His first wife Jackie and his daughter Selena died before him.