You could say author and music critic Martin Popoff has Rush in the blood. As a Canadian teen, he grew up listening to their music and playing it in garage bands. Once he became a music specialist writer, he parlayed his interest in the group into a series of books (four at the moment, more on the way this year and next). Contents Under Pressure, released in 2004, was his first entry in this distinctive music-lit subgenre and it remains a good entry-level tome on the band.
Contents Under Pressure is laid out in what has become the standard Popoff format for his books on bands: It tackles Rush’s oeuvre album by album and tour by tour, focusing primarily on their output as a way of understanding the band and its history. Biographical details are included but they are there to service the story of musical creation instead of trying to give you an in-depth portrait of the musicians as people.
This is a slim tome, a trade paperback that covers 30 years in 236 pages with vintage photos a-plenty throughout. However, that is no judgment on its quality: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart were interviewed extensively by Popoff for Contents Under Pressure so we get the story of their work told mainly via their voices. You’ll learn how the critical/commercial disappointment of Caress Of Steel led to a regrouping and new focus that produced 2112, the factors informing the difficult births of albums like Hemispheres and Grace Under Pressure, the ambitions that inspired the glossy, electronics-heavy Power Windows/Hold Your Fire era and the high-tech fatigue that led them back to power trio basics afterwards. Popoff adds a little critical commentary here and there to grease the narrative wheels but these bits are never obtrusive.
Popoff also devotes a bit of page space to what groups the band toured with so you’ll learn about what guitarists Lifeson enjoyed palling around with after shows and a memorable tale of a certain headliner that wasn’t kind to Rush during their ‘opening act’ years. There are no tales of debauchery in these sections, mainly because Rush isn’t that kind of band, so you will instead learn about the hobbies they developed to fill between-show time and how Peart developed his own unique cycles-and-motorcycles travel regimen in later years.
The narrative ends around the time of the book’s publication, 2004, on the eve of the band’s 30th anniversary tour. Thus, you don’t discussion of latter-day Rush albums like Snakes And Arrows or Clockwork Angels but you do get an interesting exploration of Vapor Trails, one of the group’s most controversial albums, as well as the story behind the Rush In Rio tour dates and subsequent live release. The input of the band members really pays off in these closing chapters, fleshing out the chronicle of the band’s difficult but rewarding comeback period with a nice intimacy.
As the title of this review suggests, Contents Under Pressure was just the beginning of Popoff’s Rush-journalism odyssey – he’s currently in the midst of releasing a trilogy of books that cover the band’s career in granular detail – but this early entry remains a worthwhile read. Newbies to Rush’s work will get a solid feel for the arc of the band’s career in its pages and even veteran fans might unearth a nugget of info or two they didn’t know.