If you are a RUSH fan or an admirer of excellent drumming, you felt a terrible sense of loss at the beginning of this year with the news of the passing of Neil Peart. As Rolling Stone Magazine stated in its list of the best drummers of all-time “Peart remains perhaps the most revered – and air-drummed to – live sticksman in all of rock, famous as the architect of literally show stopping set-piece solos.” If his drumming didn’t wow you, his lyric writing would certainly move you. I was among a legion of his admirers, and extra proud that he was Canadian.
Over the last few decades, I had the privilege to meet Neil’s fellow bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, either at pre-concert meet and greets or at sporting events. Neil never took part in the pre-concert meet and greets. He was much too private for that, and fandom was always something that he was not comfortable with. So, meeting Neil was elusive. However, that all changed in 2009 when in my role as Vice-President at TSN we approached Neil to do his version of the iconic Hockey Night in Canada theme. To many Canadians the song is our second anthem. Our parent company, CTV had recently purchased the song rights in June, 2008 from composer Dolores Claman after she got into a contract dispute with CBC over the licensing cost of the song. TSN then began using it on their hockey broadcasts. In an effort to have some fun with the song, we decided to ask some Canadian musicians to create their own unique versions. Simple Plan created a pop rock version and the Barenaked Ladies created a blue-grass version. Then in 2008 our super talented segment producer Eric Neushwander hatched a brilliant idea to approach Neil Peart with the concept of doing a drum solo driven version of the song. Luckily, we had a connection to Neil through Andy Curran who over the years wrote and composed theme songs for many of our shows at TSN. Andy was now working for the Rush label and management group SRO-Anthem. Eric was able to message the request to Neil through Andy. Originally Neil passed, as he had just come off a Rush tour and a Buddy Rich Memorial Concert. But the following year in 2009, Eric approached him again with the idea. This time he was in. He had some down time before Rush was going to work on their next project and felt re-energized. Now when I say Neil was in, he was all in. When Neil committed to something, it was with an obsessive excellence.
Eric began the process of fully developing a plan with Neil, exchanging emails back and forth. Neil had a rhythmic beat in mind that he had been working on, and developed the composition with jazz arranger Matt Harris who he had worked with on the Buddy Rich Memorial concert. Harris is also the Director of Jazz Studies at California State University, Northridge. Neil started rehearsing the song with the University jazz band. As Neil continued developing the arrangement, he emailed requests to Eric for specific musicians he wanted on the recording. In addition, he asked that we fly in music producer Nick Raskulinecz for the day of the studio recording to oversee and mix the final product. Neil and Rush had just recently worked with Raskulinecz on the band’s Snakes and Arrows album and Neil and he had created a real trust and bond. At one-point Eric came by my office and started laying out the requests and ballooning expenses. The session was now going to include a large horn and rhythm section, seventeen musicians in all. We essentially had added an orchestra. I didn’t have to think too long about it. I said we have Neil Peart pouring himself into our project, let’s deliver on what he needs, we will figure out the money.
While this was going on, Neil was working with DW Drums in California to create a custom drum kit for the recording. Did I mention when Neil commits to something, he is all in! This was a very detailed artistic undertaking. Neil enlisted DW Drums’ Custom Shop Artist Louis Garcia to design the masterpiece. He incorporated centre ice and face off circles, along with all of the NHL team logos, as well as ultra-custom blue hardware to give an ice feel. It was so cool. Neil and DW Drums did all of this at their own expense.
Everything was now in place and we were ready to record. Eric had meticulously planned out the audio and video recording to happen within the same day. Neil was living in Los Angeles, and the agreement was to come to him. It was early December 2009; I flew into LA from Toronto the night before the recording day. Waking up the morning of felt like Christmas Day, full of anticipation. I arrived at Ocean Way Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood around 9am. I will never forget that feeling of walking into the studio and seeing Neil and the drum kit, along with the other musicians. There was a buzz, an energy in the room, and it was about to get even better. Unbeknownst to me, Andy Curran had arranged with Craig Campbell from the Hockey Hall of Fame to have the Stanley Cup present in the studio for our recording session. By coincidence, the Cup was in the LA area for a charity event. Campbell was himself a massive Rush fan. In he walks with white gloves on and the Stanley Cup and puts it down on a table just off to the side of the drum kit. The scene was perfect. You knew this was going to be a magical day. We posed for some pictures with Neil and the Cup before the session started.
It was now down to business. It was time to record. I positioned myself in the control room of the studio, on the other side of the glass from where Neil and the musicians would perform. This is where the producer Nick Raskulinecz sits behind a large console mixer and communicates to Neil and the musicians over a microphone. Watching Neil perform that first take was jaw dropping. The speed and fury of the movement of his drumsticks riveting. It really did look like he packed everything he had in his drum arsenal into a minute. It was also exhausting just to watch. I don’t remember how many takes he did that morning before Nick said he was satisfied, but I remember feeling tired for Neil when he caught his breath after each take. I was use to watching Neil live in concert performing lengthy drum solos and three-hour concerts. But this was different. This was the equivalent of the 100-metre dash, run over and over again. It was worth it. What was captured that morning was spectacular. However, the day wasn’t done. We now had to drive to a sound stage to shoot the video of the performance that would be used in the opening tease for NHL broadcasts on TSN. Eric had very tastefully set up the look which would feature Neil in the foreground on the drum kit with some horn players in the background set against a white backdrop. There were multiple cameras to capture overhead shots of Neil playing, sweeping shots, and tight shots. This shoot was about video, not audio. The video would be married with the perfectly mixed audio from the session that morning in the studio. The horn players didn’t need to actually play anything, they were just present for appearances, essentially human props. But guess who did have to play? Neil, of course. While we weren’t taking the actual audio of his playing, he still had to execute it so the video and audio synced up and looked right. Eric is as much a perfectionist as Neil, and had him do numerous takes that afternoon. At one point, Andy Curran came over to me and whispered, you need to wrap this up, fearing it was becoming too tiring for Neil. Alas, Eric was happy with the video that was captured.
Our final stop was back to Ocean Way Studios where we had recorded the audio in the morning. Nick Raskulinecz was working on the final audio mix. This is where he can tweak the levels of the different instruments on the recording. This became a memory of a lifetime. As Nick continued to fine-tune the mix, I sat next to Neil in the control room as he provided feedback. It was a surreal moment. Sitting side by side with the best drummer in the world as he critiqued his own work. You know no one is harder on themselves than a perfectionist. Neil was extremely pleased. Mission accomplished. When he signed off on the final mix, we all smiled, offered congratulations, and shook hands. It was the conclusion of one of the most fun days of my professional life. What I didn’t know at the time was Neil felt exactly the same. He later wrote and was quoted in articles saying, “It was without exaggeration one of the greatest moments of my life.” Imagine that, me, a part of one of Neil’s lifetime highlights. Today, I proudly have a framed picture of Neil, Eric, Andy and myself with the Stanley Cup from that day. Neil signed it, “To Mark, with many thanks! Neil Peart (we won da’ Cup)”. I look at that photo now with such great memories and feel so fortunate to have spent that day with Neil.
The Neil Peart Hockey Theme debuted on TSN January 14th, 2010 on the opening of a Flyers/Leafs Game. The song was made available on itunes on January 19th, 2010. The DVD on the making of the song, “Fire on Ice: The Making of the Hockey Theme” was released in October, 2010. The custom drum kit built for the project was on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto from 2010 until 2015. It then went on tour in five Canadian cities as part of the Rush R40 Tour where fans could pose behind it and get their picture taken. As of July 2016, the kit resides at the National Music Centre in Calgary.