The hairspray-eating-into-brain guide to Rush, Part V

Things you can do when you’ve released a massive hit …

1. Spend about five years holed up in a studio with Mutt Lange trying to expand ever so slightly on what you did last time so you can have an even greater hit. See Leppard, Def.

2. Annihilate your image with something experimental. See Dylan, Bob. Or Morissette, Alanis. Maybe even Reed, Lou (sorry, Jason), though it’s hard to say he ever got that huge outside New York.

3. Quit. See Bruford, Bill, who didn’t want to do “Close to the Edge II” with Yes and instead embarked on making weird noises under the strict gaze of Robert Fripp in King Crimson. Killjoy.

4. Keep refining your music as if nothing ever happened.

Rush went for option 4. And though it meant they’d never again hit the artistic or commercial peak of Moving Pictures (barring a sudden avalanche of interest in Snakes & Arrows, which so far hasn’t even hit gold), the roller-coaster ride since then has been far from boring.

Quick personal tangent: These albums fell just as I went through my musical awakening. Until 1982-83, I just had a couple of pop albums — Blondie, Go-Gos, Village People (my first concert!). Then the cable company got MTV just as I switched schools, got a boombox and started spending evenings in my room fiddling with an antenna to pick up Atlanta’s 96Rock. That’s why, in my mind, these two albums are lumped together as a trilogy with Moving Pictures.

In retrospect, that’s not true. This was the start of something new.

Signals (1982)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics)

Let’s come right out and say this: Following up your biggest hit with a synth-laden song about teen outcasts is a strange career move for what was then one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

The song is Subdivisions, accompanied by the first Rush video (to my knowledge) that isn’t simply a few shots of the guys at Le Studio or on stage.

It’s a good song, still warmly received at live shows. But only a courageous band would reach out to lonely geeks after the band has become wildly popular and well before lonely geeks have become wildly popular. I could identify just fine with the kid in the video, though I was better about doing my homework and didn’t wander downtown streets alone. Most kids my age did not.

You could say Rush either went out to alienate everyone with this album — popularity-conscious kids weren’t going to crank up Subdivisions, guitar aficionados had to grimace over Alex Lifeson’s subdued presence, prog-rock snobs couldn’t have enjoyed the pop/reggae influence on Digital Man and those who enjoyed the mythic tales of previous works may have been surprised by Neil Peart’s more direct lyrics here.

Or maybe Rush figured it had built an audience that would follow it through new directions. Going by Wikipedia’s figuring, this album sold less than any album since Caress of Steel and one-fifth as many copies as Moving Pictures. Yet that’s still enough to go platinum, and that’s the fan base that continued to buy everything Rush released through the ’80s and ’90s.

And I, for one, will defend Signals as an intriguing album that showed Rush could find some gold (platinum, technically) down this new path.

Lyrically, perhaps it’s not Peart’s best work, with the abrupt shift from abstract to concrete pushing him into a few cliches — “excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife” is one clunker from Countdown, the homage to a space shuttle launch. Yet it’s not a total loss — The Weapon is a compelling take on fear as a means of controlling the masses.

(Peart also contributed a couple of good yearbook quotes. One of my classmates took a line from The Analog Kid — “When I leave, I don’t know what I’m hoping to find, and when I leave, I don’t know what I’m leaving behind.” Another dug back to Xanadu. Here’s the spooky part — another classmate said “I can resist everything but temptation,” which would show up on a Rush album nine years later.)

Musically, this album should be praised, not buried. I recall reading a review from a few years later that said Lifeson had recovered from the “creative nosedive” he took with Signals, and that’s completely unfair. While it’s true Lifeson doesn’t contribute many memorable solos other than the poignant harmonics of Subdivisions, he quickly masters the new sound. Think about that transition — you’ve been playing your whole career with just a bass occupying a lower register and the occasional synth effect. Now you’ve got synthesizers all over the place, occupying the frequencies you used to have to yourself. To see how Lifeson fares, listen to The Weapon, where he plays a sharp counterpoint against Geddy Lee’s synth.

My favorite here, musically, is Digital Man, though Wikipedia tells us that caused a fallout between the band and longtime producer Terry Brown. It’s built a subtle polyrhythms — it’s might be written as 4/4, but at times it’s 12/8 and 6/4 simultaneously, with Lee’s bass and Peart’s ride cymbal sometimes playing against the prevailing pattern. (I know I’ve lapsed into music geekspeak, but I’m almost done.)

While Signals isn’t the bad’s biggest commercial success by any stretch, it provided the band’s only top 40 hit in New World Man. With years of retrospect, the song is a little flimsy. That’s the pop chart for you.

Grace Under Pressure (1984)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

Rarely has an album cover captured the music so well. This is Rush’s bleakest album.

I reviewed this one for my high school paper and said it was fine if you didn’t mind depression. To give some idea — the two standout tracks here are the Cold War-inspired “oh crap, they’ve launched the missiles” Distant Early Warning and a stirring tale of concentration-camp life called Red Sector A. Sandwiched by those two is Afterimage, a song about being haunted by the memory of a recently deceased (in real life) friend of the band.

Par-TAY!

So is it worth the descent into despair? To an extent.

The sound is so dated. Funny story behind that — the tour book details their search for a producer, which took a few twists as people backed out. (One guy not named in the book was, according to the Wikis, Steve Lillywhite, and I didn’t realize until just now that he was the father of the kids Kirsty MacColl died saving. If you ever want to get angry but can’t think of anything, just read the account of MacColl’s death.) Peter Henderson did a fine job, but listening 20 years after the fact, it often sounds like someone banging on a Casio.

Yet the songs stand up. Distant Early Warning may have seemed like a Cold War relic 10 years ago, but in this age of fear, it’s powerful. For the last couple of tours, Rush resurrected Between the Wheels, a strong mixed-tempo song with the typical Peart treatment, using one word (“wheels”) in several metaphors, mostly having to do with the breathtaking speed of progress and hoping it doesn’t run right over us pathetic humans.

Grace Under Pressure kept up Rush’s streak of platinum albums, and the band had successfully adapted to the MTV and synthesizer age. The next transition would be to the CD era, and that’s where the band started to run into trouble producing consistently interesting work.

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One Response to The hairspray-eating-into-brain guide to Rush, Part V

  1. Ed says:

    I’ve got a soft spot for these 2 albums as Signals was the first record I ever bought at 13 years old (I went to the store looking for Moving Pictures and they were sold out). I also saw RUSH live on the last night of their 5 night stand at Radio City Music Hall in ’83. They debuted 3 new songs from GUP (which had not been released yet obviously). In any case, I think that these 2 records do mark the end of RUSH’s most focused efforts, although Power Windows does act as a fading echo of this period to some extent. All I know is that when I first heard “The Big Money” on the radio I was horrified. I quickly learned to love the song (and album), but…well I’ll let you explain what happened and then I’ll throw my 2 cents in.

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