Across the seventies, Rush established themselves as leaders of the progressive rock sound, writing expansive songs with complex lyrics and musical explorations. But at the start of the 80s, the band encapsulated their complex musical ideas and progressive sounds into one of the most iconic classic rock tracks of all time – “Tom Sawyer”
Rush were formed in Toronto in 1968, when childhood friends, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey decided to form a band with another local teenager, Jeff Jones. But when Jones missed the newly named band’s second gig, Lifeson enlisted the help of schoolmate Gary Weinrib to take over lead vocals and bass for the performance. Weinrib ended up remaining with the group, adopting the stage name of Geddy Lee. The band went through several lineups in their early years, as they toured locally and struggled to obtain a record deal. They formed their own record label, Moon Records, and recorded their first single (a cover of the Buddy Holly song “Not Fade Away”) in 1973. The band’s self-titled first album was released in March of 1974, and caught both the attention of the Canadian public and Mercury Records.
Shortly after signing with Mercury, Rutsey left the band – a void which was quickly and iconically filled by Neil Peart. In addition to his skills as a drummer, Peart brought his talents as a lyricist. His style of writing matched perfectly with the increasingly complex musical material explored by his bandmates. Lee told UGO entertainment: “As our tastes got more obscure….we discovered more progressive rock-based bands like Yes, Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson, and we were very inspired by those bands. They made us want to make our music more interesting and more complex and we tried to blend that with our own personalities to see what we could come up with that was indisputably us.”
The band explored a wide range of sound, topics and even song lengths, as the band rose in popularity across the decade. However, it was in 1981, with the release of their 8th studio album, Moving Pictures, and its opening track “Tom Sawyer” that the Rush were able to rise to legendary, “classic rock” status. “Tom Sawyer” blended together the band’s complex creative impulses into a 4 ½ minute rock classic, becoming a staple of not only the band’s career but also a defining track of the classic rock canon.
“Tom Sawyer” employed the creative compositional talents of all three of Rush’s members, Lee, Peart and Lifeson, in collaboration with lyricist Pye Dubois. The band had met Dubois through the band Max Webster, with whom they had recently recorded the song “Battle Scar.” Lifeson recalled the friendship between both bands at the time: “Those guys were big friends of ours…But Pye was a little mysterious – kind of a strange fellow! He was very quirky, a bit of a nut, but he did write great lyrics. And around 1980 he sent a poem to Neil with an idea to collaborate on a song. The original draft was called Louie The Warrior.”
Dubois’ poem (based on the 1876 Mark Twain Classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) inspired Peart to look inward, crafting a new draft which added an element of autobiography to the story. Peart explained in 1985: “His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful. I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be – namely me I guess.”
With the setting set in text for the song, the members of Rush began exploring different musical sounds to accompany it. Although the final product is a tightly composed creation, it developed in a completely new way for the band. Lifeson explained: “A lot of the material for that record was written off the floor. That was certainly the case with Tom Sawyer. We were rehearsing in a little farm outside of Toronto. Half the barn was a garage and half was a small rehearsal space. We would typically just go in and jam and develop songs that way.”
The melody for the song actually came from some improvisations which Lee would play on his Oberheim OB-X synthesizer during soundchecks. The synth is also how he achieved the song’s iconic “growl” sound. The song’s sparse opening juxtaposed the synthesizer against Pearts hard-hitting drums, showcasing Lee’s incredible vocal power. Lifeson said that choice was intentional: “On Tom Sawyer, the synthesiser is such a key part of that song….There was a good integration between the three of us and the keyboards. We still had that trio feel. Plus, we always felt that we had to replicate each song as faithfully as possible when we played it live, so Tom Sawyer was written in that way. There’s no rhythm guitar under the guitar solo or anything like that.”
The first instrumental section of the song transitions into the unusual realm of a 7/8 time signature…bringing in that added complexity which had defined the band in the years leading up the Moving Pictures. Peart explained to CBC, that this iconic moment, was largely improvised: “The drum is so detailed, but when we go into the middle to the odd time part, it was improvised. I got lost and I punched my way out of it and somehow came back to the one. And that improvisation became a new part…. It’s one of those key parts that I love and it was absolutely a mistake that I just got lucky and got out of.” All together, Rush managed to encapsulate their progressive, larger-than-life style into a relatively short length, classic song form.
“Tom Sawyer” and the rest of the Moving Pictures album was recorded and mixed at Le Studio in Morin Heights Quebec in October and November of 1980. It was produced by the band in conjunction with Terry Brown. Paul Northfield was the engineer on the album. All of the instrumental tracks and vocals on “Tom Sawyer” were performed by the band.
Moving Pictures was released on February 12, 1981 by Anthem Records, showcasing “Tom Sawyer” as the album’s opening track. The album hit #1 on the Canadian charts, and #3 on the US Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart. “Tom Sawyer” was released as a single in June of 1981, and although it did not peak as high on the singles charts as the album, it quickly became a staple of the band’s live shows, and remains a defining track of classic rock radio.
In addition to its lasting musical legacy, “Tom Sawyer” has become a prominent fixture of popular culture, with now iconic appearances in television shows and films such as Futurama, The Goldbergs, I Love You Man, and The Waterboy. Its pop-culture crossover appeal encouraged the writers for South Park to collaborate with Rush to write an introduction scene which the band would show on screens before performances of the song on their 2006 Live Tour. In the scene – projected on the jumbotrons – the South Park characters would attempt to play the songs before breaking into a fight…after which the members of Rush would emerge onto the live show stage to show them how it is done.
VH1 named “Tom Sawyer” the 19th Greatest Hard Rock Song of All Time in 2009 and in 2010, it was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (along with 4 other Rush classics). The Band’s legacy has likewise continued throughout the years….never taking itself too seriously –as evidenced from their famous appearance on the Colbert Report in 2009. In the midst of their lighthearted humor, they have earned some very serious recognition. In 1996 they were inducted as Officers of the Order of Canada in 1996, and in 2013, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Hame.
The tragic and surprising passing of Neil Peart to cancer in 2020 ended the future of Rush. Lee and Lifeson have stated that “Rush” cannot continue without their incredible bandmate, although they continue to remain friends and are open to future collaborations and partnerships.
Watch below – Songs That Changed Music: Rush – Tom Sawyer