I hadn’t specifically planned to land on Rush at the halfway point in this, but here we are. The main reason that I imposed a rule of ‘one album per artist’ on this list is that there would have easily been half a dozen Rush albums to write about, and probably half a dozen more I’d have tried to sneak in, leaving the list looking a little lopsided.
Despite that, choosing this as mt representative Rush album was straightforward. It’s not the best Rush album, or the best-known, and it’s probably not – quite – my favourite, but it’s the one which sums up a specific and pivotal time in my life, and which chimed with me and where I was in life so exactly that it was always going to be Grace Under Pressure, or p/g as the cool kids call it.
Well, I’m joking about the ‘cool kids’ part, obviously. The one thing anyone in the UK could tell you about Rush in 1984 was that they were decidedly not cool. Earlier on in their career, the NME had dubbed them ‘junior Hitlers’, a tag which rankled for reasons I’ll explain later, and which definitely cast them into a shadow from which they never quite emerged in Britain, at least.
A few months ago, I watched an episode of ‘Word in Your Attic’ featuring David Mitchell (not that one, the other one) talking about his extraordinary book Utopia Avenue, during which he returned more than once to the music of Rush, and saw clearly that not only is the music of Rush a gap in the otherwise comprehensive knowledge of both David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, but perhaps a certain unease at the mere mention of this band who talked about the likes of Ayn Rand in their sleevenotes.
So, being a Rush fan in the early 1980s was to be something of an outsider. We knew that none of those labels were accurate (well, the one about the distinctive vocal register was true, but Geddy Lee’s voice set Rush apart from everyone else), and there was so much depth and complexity to the music produced by these three Canadians. In many ways, I was perfectly happy that most of the people I knew didn’t get it; having to justify the one band which meant more to me then (and probably now) than all the others put together got somewhat tiresome after a while.
But I live in Canada now, where Rush are a national icon, and wearing one of my Rush t-shirts will provoke conversations and a shared experience rather than stares and pointing.
Rush appeared in my life – I’m fairly certain of this – when a copy of Permanent Waves appeared in the year area in early 1980. Spirit of Radio had already been something of a minor hit, with the kind of radio play which songs with the word ‘radio’ in the title always seemed to get, and I was already heading down the slope of noisy rock music previously alluded to. This album spoke to me, but what I did was go out and buy a couple of the earlier, noisier albums, and I disappeared into that world for a few months, slowly working my way forward until Permanent Waves made more sense.
There’s a whole essay to be written about that exploration, and the way I carefully accumulated the albums I’d read about, but I have done a lot of that before. What I have been thinking about as I prepared this was the course of my first three years in Edinburgh, when the previously alluded to avalanche of noise and tight trousers was filling up my record collection. There were, of course, layers to my listening habits – the radio would accompany me through the early and late parts of the day, while I would throw on an album by the flavour of the month to get me through essay-writing, or whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, and then when I just wanted to put something on and listen to it, It would almost always be a Rush album.
There was something different and hard to define about the music of Rush. Superficially, you could listen to an album like 2112 and hear all the same elements which were in those Saxon albums from a few weeks back. But there was also some of what had attracted me to the Prog albums of the early seventies; telling longer-form stories with interesting musical progressions and things you didn’t hear anywhere else.
And the stories they were telling weren’t like all the others. Of course, a lot of it – especially the early songs – got written off at the time as ‘pretentious’, but here were songs about the French Revolution, about philosophy and the human condition. Permanent Waves contains a nine-minute song in three parts about the place of science in the modern world, which is more relevant than ever in 2022, although I’m not sure I still share the optimism these days.
Rush also always challenged the listener by moving on to the next thing before they got bored of the last one; we might have been happy to continue buying albums with twenty minute long pieces about Athenian philosophy of the mind (or whatever it was that Hemispheres was actually about), but Rush weren’t interested in making them – they moved on, and brought us with them.
Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures were influenced as much by The Police and Talking Heads as they were by what had gone before, and by the time we got to Grace Under Pressure, the very sound of the band had changed; there were more and more keyboard sounds, and electronics appearing in unexpected areas. It is, in many ways, a very 1984 album, but it’s also a very Rush album; full of the signature thoughts, ideas and sounds, and the ridiculously virtuosic playing. Many of the albums I’d been listening to over those months and years were to a degree interchangeable; Grace Under Pressure could not have been by anyone else.
I could write a book about Rush, and one day I just might, but I do want to constrain myself to this particular album and this particular time in my life. At the time this came out, in April 1984, I was coming to the end of my university career. I’d be graduating in the summer, assuming I ever got my dissertation on Turkish grammar finished, and Id be heading on to – well, I had no idea. Alongside my first few plays of this album were a mountain of application forms, as I participated in the ‘Milk Round’ of corporate entities looking to scoop up as many graduates as possible.
I pretty much knew I didn’t want to follow that path, but I had no idea which path I did want to follow. I went to a few interviews, filled in all the forms, and tried to come to terms with the fact that the relatively cushy academic life I’d known for almost all of my life was actually coming to an end and I was going to have to grow up, face my more mature responsibilities, and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. As I did so, I was obsessively, almost to the exclusion of everything else, listening to this album and its concerns about life in this strange time, and the responsibilities and pressures of being a grown-up in a world seemingly designed to crush the human spirit.
As I wandered around the streets of London in my best, if somewhat ill-fitting, interview shoes, having secured three separate interview which I remember absolutely nothing about, what I do remember is listening to Grace Under Pressure. Not on any physical device, but simply playing it over and over in my head – I could comfortably get through all forty or so minutes of it entirely in my own brain, and when I reached the final fading notes of Between the Wheels, I could mentally flip it over and start again.
No other album in my life – none of the other fifty-nine on this list, none of the other Rush albums, none of the hundreds I discarded but which I’m ridiculously familiar with – none of them infected my brain like this one did. I know (because I tried earlier) that I can’t still do the whole ‘playing the whole album in my head’ thing now, but I can conjure up most of it without too much effort.
What on earth is it, then, about this mid-career and often overlooked album which has burrowed so deeply into my brain? Perhaps it would have been some other album from 1984 – I have a few more to get through yet – but I doubt it; this is a collection of songs which spoke so clearly to me and the mental state I was in as I contemplated what would come next that I still can’t shake it off nearly forty years later.
Distant Early Warning starts by laying out the sonic palette of the album – the guitar sounds are more of a wash than a driving riff, the drumming is illustrating as much as it is powering the rhythm, and there are layers of synthesised sounds. There’s also a deliberate burst of static, which had me convinced that my brand new copy was in some way damaged. The song itself is a furrowed-brow of a lyric about things like acid rain and the fragility of the world. Again, more relevant now than when it was written. I do remember alluding to it in an essay I wrote for the civil service entrance exam.
I’m not a civil servant; perhaps I have this song to thank for it.
The song, like much of the album, is shot through with cold war imagery. It does place the album in context, and again, feels perhaps a little more relevant than it might have done twenty years ago.
Afterimage is a properly adult song about the death of a close friend. It surprised me back then with the way it laid out the raw emotions of a sudden unexpected tragedy, and it still does today. There’s a middle eight which never seems to get going, echoing the sense of time standing still while we process something largely incomprehensible. There’s a short guitar solo and the repetition of the lines about remembering and how we try to hold on to the lost one by ‘feel[ing] the way you would’.
Geddy Lee’s parents met in a Nazi concentration camp. Red Sector A is the only time Rush ever tried to address this; while Neil Peart’s lyrics could often be political and personal, I’m not sure that he often felt comfortable getting this personal. The song is more abstract than I’m making it sound; it’s a reflection of a victim who is never identified – the song never says ‘this is what it was like for Geddy’s mum’; there’s no indication that it’s a specific place at all; it’s just a chilling reflection on how anyone in this situation could easily feel like the last humans; that humanity itself must have come to an end for this to have happened.
It’s just a rock song, but it’s a really powerful and important one, and I’d like to think that it might have caused the person who wrote the line about ‘junior Hitlers’ to just pause and reflect a little.
Instead of writing giant, sprawling, epics, the 1980s version of Rush split the themed songs over three albums. Tied to Witch Hunt on Moving Pictures and The Weapon from Signals, The Enemy Within is billed as ‘part one’ of the trilogy, but was evidently the hardest to write. Addressing the internalised fear which can paralyse, it doesn’t offer solutions, just an acknowledgement that everyone suffers from random, inexplicable fears as well as the justified ones. This song also features the clearest of indications of the influence of The Police, and is perhaps the most musically dated, for all that I still enjoy bouncing along to it.
The Body Electric invokes Walt Whitman in the service of an intriguing science fiction tale of a decaying android ‘on the run’ from something or other – perhaps the fears in its own mind. I can’t help feeling that Neil Peart, were he still with us, would have enjoyed the TV show of Westworld, which mines pretty much this seam in a way which is a lot more mainstream than songs like this were in 1984. I should point out here that Peart’s drumming, often technically brilliant and even – whisper it – flashy, is employed to perfection in the service of the mechanical nature of this song. There are some extraordinary patterns in the mid section as the machine breaks down, but the metronomic regularity of the beat is never lost and reasserts itself whenever needed. As with pretty much every Rush song ever recorded, I could happily just listen to the drum track on repeat, trying to figure out how you do that with just the regulation number of arms and legs.
It took me longer to love Kid Gloves than the other songs on here, and for the life of me now, I can’t understand why. It’s an insightful and clever lyric with a truly spectacular instrumental break, in which drum and guitar duel over an ever-shifting bass pattern which seems to be herding the unruly kids back into line. I think perhaps I wasn’t as receptive to the idea that all that I’d been learning these past few years might not actually have equipped me for the world beyond; I don’t know. But I love it now.
The opposite has happened to red lenses. Fully enjoyed at the time as the ‘playful’ song on the album, I perhaps find it a little tricksy now. It’s definitely coming at the whole cold war paranoia theme from a less serious direction, and it is a welcome lifting of the covers, in which we discover that this most serious of bands are actually having a blast out there, and mucking about with all the technology at their disposal. Perhaps I just find the whole thing a little too 1980s in its sound; certainly the references to the Soviets date it almost as much as the layers of digitised sounds do.
But, holy crap, the bassline in the fade is extraordinary. I’m going back to listen to that again…
I digress. Between the Wheels is the masterpiece on this grown-up album, featuring a cold-eyed look at what it meant to live in such uncertain and terrifying times. If anyone was to ask me what it was really like living in fear that one side or the other might just decide to start flinging nuclear weapons around, I point them at this song, which confidently predicted that we were ‘living between the wars, in our time’.
And it gives me the opportunity to single out Alex Lifeson’s guitar playing. I know that this period of Rush is not exactly his favourite, as his guitar sounds tended to fade in the mix a little under the layers of interesting keyboards, but whenever he cuts loose, as he does here, you’re reminded that he’s as good a guitarists as his bandmates are at their instruments; you do occasionally still read articles about how under-rated he is as a guitarist – I saw one only this week – but not in these quarters. As the kids say these days, if you know, you know.
And that was always the case with Rush. I knew, and I was always happy in my knowledge – those who avoided them for whatever reason were missing out, and it was enormously rewarding to me to see them slowly gain acceptance and respect in their later years, as the rest of the world woke up to what some of us had always known – Rush were something very special indeed, and while I miss them every day, the joy of knowing thwt I can go back and listen to any of their albums and be instantly transported to the world as it was back when I first heard it remains undimmed.
If there had been 60 Rush albums, that’s what I’d have written about.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
OK, I’m not going to do the cop-out thing of recommending them all (but I do recommend them all). If you like this, then the ones either side of it, Signals and Power Windows will likely be up your street too. Everyone who considers themselves a rock fan will already own 2112 and Moving pictures, so I’m going to instead recommend their last album Clockwork Angels. To produce so much music of such high quality so late in a bands career is – well, it’s what we should have expected from Rush, I suppose. And to end it the way they did, with The Garden, still leaves me speechless in a mixture of admiration and profound sadness.
Compilations to consider?
Tricky one, this. As a Rush completist, you’d think I’d own all the compilations as well, but I don’t. Honestly, there are several to choose from, and they will all be excellent, so take your pick.
Oh, yes. Rush built their career on magnificently executed live shows, and released a live album every four albums until the early 2000s, when they started releasing live albums after every tour. There’s even a live album of the Grace Under Pressure tour, which was released much later. With the proliferation of 40th anniversary editions of all the key Rush albums, all of which contain some new live recording, it’s pretty much possible to hear what they sounded like live at any point in their career.
But I’m going to recommend Different Stages from 1999, as it sums up everything about the band in the live experience. There are later, more spectacular shows (you should look up Rush in Rio, for example), but for sheer joyful musicianship, this is the set which I go back to more than any of the others.
Yes. Two films covering the later stages of their career sum up what Rush were about, and why they meant so much to so many of us. The first, Beyond the Lighted Stage, is a stroll through the complete history of the band, with all the usual biographical tropes, but is genuinely engrossing and entertaining, even to non-obsessives. The second, Time Stand Still, is an account of the final tour, and is both an exploration of what it means to work at these high standards as you age, but also looks in some depth at what the end of a band like this means to is fans. It’s perhaps a little less accessible that the first, but has some real insights into the power of music, and is warmly recommended.
Oh, and there are endless books. I could do a whole post on those, too. If you don’t read anything else, though, read Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, his account of his ‘lost years’ as he tried to come to terms with the death of his daughter and wife and re-emerge into the world. Then listen to Vapur Trails. It’ll all make sense after that.