The drummer Neil Peart, who has died aged 67 of brain cancer, enjoyed such a reputation for his deft, powerful drumming with the Canadian rock band Rush that he became adept at deflecting praise from interviewers on the subject. “What is a master but a master student?” was a common response on Peart’s part, a hint at his interests in esoteric philosophy as well as an indicator of the reflective thinking that made him also an acclaimed lyricist for the band.
The many songs that Peart wrote for Rush, for all but one of their 19 studio albums, were inspired by subjects as diverse as libertarianism, fantasy fiction, religious thought and the pressures of fame – the last of these expressed most clearly in the 1981 single Limelight, in which he used Shakespearean phrases to illustrate his points.
His drum parts on tracks such as Tom Sawyer (also 1981, both from the bestselling album Moving Pictures) and Spirit of Radio (1980), locked in with singer Geddy Lee’s bass-playing to form a complex rhythmic signature, which became renowned. Many fans flocked to see the band live because of the epic nature of Peart’s drumming, performed on a huge, futuristic, gold-plated kit that included wood blocks, timpani and gongs as well as the standard set.
In 2016 Rolling Stone magazine put Peart at No 4 in its list of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, after John Bonham, Keith Moon and Ginger Baker. As the Nirvana drummer and FooFighters frontman, Dave Grohl, said: “Neil Peart – that’s a whole other animal, another species of drummer”.
Born in Hagersville, near Hamilton, Ontario, to Betty and Glenn Peart, who sold farm equipment, Neil was the eldest of four children. Like many budding drummers, he had a habit of playing rhythms on household furniture, in his case with a pair of chopsticks: this led his parents to buy him a basic drum kit on his 13th birthday. A year later a full kit followed, accompanied by lessons at the Peninsula College of Music in British Columbia, and Peart debuted as a drummer at a school pageant.
A series of bands followed, including Mumblin’ Sumpthin’, the Majority, and JR Flood, with gigs at small venues in southern Ontario. Aged 18, he moved to London to try to make it as a musician while also selling jewellery in Carnaby Street, but met with little success and in 1972 he returned to Canada to work for his father’s business.
In 1974, while playing with a local band called Hush, he was persuaded to audition for Rush, a band similar in name but very different in style.
The other musicians, Lee (born Gary Weinrib) and the guitarist Alex Lifeson, had recorded a self-titled debut album that year, but their original drummer, John Rutsey, had left due to health issues. Lee described Peart’s audition in 2018: “He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit with 18-inch bass drums. Alex and I were chuckling – we thought he was a hick from the country. And then he sat down and pummelled the drums, and us. I’d never heard a drummer like that, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”
Rush’s first album with Peart, Fly By Night (1975), demonstrated the musical expertise and lyrical opacity typical of the band. Despite being dismissed by critics as making “music for nerds”, their 1976 album, 2112, was an enormous success. Its 20-minute title track featured lyrics written by Peart that were at least partly inspired by the writings of the controversial author Ayn Rand, adopted by many on the right of politics. Despite having been a young fan of the author, Peart later disavowed those beliefs.
The albums Permanent Waves (1980) and Moving Pictures (1981) saw Rush established as the epitome of prog (progressive) rock, which the subsequent world tours did nothing to dissuade. Live shows included a long drum solo that was the centrepiece of the band’s performance. Audiences responded with enthusiasm, but the introverted Peart did not enjoy being famous.
A major hiatus came after Peart’s 19-year-old daughter Selena was killed in a car accident in 1997 and her mother, Jacqueline Taylor, died 10 months later. The drummer took time away from Rush, seeking therapy in long motorcycle journeys through the Americas. He later recounted his recovery in the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road and wrote six other volumes of non-fiction.
In 2000 he married the photographer Carrie Nuttall and settled in Los Angeles, becoming a US citizen. He rejoined Rush in 2001, when classic rock was experiencing a resurgence and the band’s profile was on the rise again, and they went on several world tours. Their last studio album, Clockwork Angels, was released in 2012; Rush celebrated their 40th anniversary with the R40 Live Tour three years later. Peart’s lengthy drum solos consolidated his reputation as one of the world’s greatest percussionists.
However, his unique playing style had created health problems, and in 2015 Peart stated that the band would no longer tour due to his tendonitis. It later emerged that he had also received his cancer diagnosis around this time.
Peart is survived by Carrie, their daughter, Olivia, his parents, and his siblings, Judy, Nancy and Danny.
• Neil Peart, drummer and writer, born 12 September 1952; died 7 January 2020