Neil Peart obituary, 1952-2020: The Professor of drums who weaved fantasy into rock

One of the greatest.

“I’m not physically or musically capable, but thanks for the offer,” said Dave Grohl when it was suggested he replace Neil Peart in Rush after the legendary drummer – who died after a three-year battle with brain cancer on January 7 – retired from the group in 2015. “That’s a whole other animal,” Grohl continued, “another species of drummer.”

There can be no greater testament and tribute to Peart’s mastery of his art than one of the best drummers in the world considering himself so far his inferior. Peart was nick-named The Professor thanks to his meticulous, intricate, firebrand drum work in all manner of exotic time signatures, which was key in making Rush one of the most renowned bands of classic rock and inspired countless drummers to take to the sticks in awe of his skills. That he was also the band’s primary lyricist, developing his themes of fantasy, science fiction and mythology to take in philosophy and humanitarian issues over the decades, added to his standing as one of the most talented backbones in rock.

A farm boy born on September 12, 1952 near Hamilton in Canada, he first started drumming on objects around his parents’ house with chopsticks until he was gifted a drumkit for his 14th birthday. He studied drumming at the Peninsula Conservatory Of Music and performed the first of what would become his legendary solos at just his second gig with his first band The Eternal Triangle. He soon became a regular on the Southern Ontario music scene, playing high schools, roller rinks and church halls with a variety of local bands. Inspired by the maniacal British styles of Keith Moon and John Bonham, Peart relocated to London for a year and a half aged 18 intending to further his musical career in hard rock, but it came to nothing and he returned to Canada with only a new interest in the writings of Ayn Rand to show for his travels.

Back home, Peart was convinced to audition to replace drummer John Rutsey in Toronto’s Rush. The band had already released their self-titled 1974 debut but Peart’s arrival, bringing his fantasy lyrics and elaborate drum pieces, was pivotal in Rush’s shift towards progressive rock on ‘Fly By Night’ (1975), ‘Caress Of Steel’ (1975) and their breakthrough album ‘2112’ (1976), which opened with a 20-minute concept title track. “Neil Peart wasn’t just the new drummer; he was the spark that pushed them to greatness,” wrote Ultimate Classic Rock, and Peart’s position as the new fulcrum of the band spurred them on to a lengthy commercial peak. Though 1981’s ‘Moving Pictures’ was their 4 million-selling high-point, they were a major UK hit throughout the ‘80s and barely any of their subsequent albums missed the American and Canadian top ten.

Neil Peart
Neil Peart performing on the band’s final R40 tour. Credit: Mat Hayward/Getty Images

In the ‘90s, inspired by playing with The Buddy Rich Big Band, Peart began incorporating jazz and swing elements into his style under the tutelage of Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine. However, the death of his 19-year-old daughter Selena Taylor in a road accident in 1997, and the subsequent death of his common-law wife Jacqueline from cancer the following year, led Peart to take a break from the band to mourn, riding 55,000 miles around North and Central America by motorcycle. Returning to the band for 2002’s ‘Vapour Trails’ album, he would take a back seat in promotional duties from that point, expressing himself through a series of non-fiction books about his life and travels.

Peart finally retired from Rush in 2015, citing tendonitis and shoulder issues. “It does not pain me to realise that, like all athletes, there comes a time to … take yourself out of the game,” he explained at the time. “I would rather set it aside than face the predicament described in our song ‘Losing It’.” Having kept his illness private for three and half years, he leaves a wife, Carrie Nuttall, and daughter Olivia.