Why Rush’s Minimalist ‘Signals’ Cover Earned an ‘Irate’ Reaction
"When I told [him] my concept for Signals, he didn't seem to appreciate it," the prog-rock trio's longtime art director, Hugh Syme, tells us. "It was one of the few times he was quite irate and stormed out of my studio, saying, 'I don't know what the fuck this has to do with rock 'n' roll.'"
The image — a Dalmatian sniffing the base of a bright red fire hydrant on a freshly cut lawn — wasn't intended to enrage. Instead, it sprung from the idea of "leaving your mark, determining whether or not you were the first to occupy a particular territory...a signal to other interloping canines in the subdivision."
But before reaching the final cover, Syme explored a variety of visual concepts — both low- and high-brow varieties.
"That was a tough one," he recalls of the process. "We actually spent quite a few weeks trying to track that one down. We played around with the RKO graphics at the beginning of those 1930s and '40s films with the beautiful transmission towers. We had some iconic but cartoonistic graphics in consideration. I was even looking at the idea of those kids' toys [a joy buzzer] where you shake hands with someone and it feels like an electric shock but it's just a vibration. We were going to have a close-up of that. We played around with Tesla/Marconi and certainly morse code."
Syme had a lightbulb moment after "Subdivisions" emerged as a candidate for the album's lead single. Building on the song's clever geographical themes, he and the band discussed creating a blueprint for a fictitious place: One example was the Warren Cromartie Secondary School — using the name of a baseball player for the Montreal Expos — which appears on the back cover.
That idea "organically" bled into the front cover, subtly enhanced by its vibrant colors. "This was all before David Lynch and Twin Peaks, but those perfect green lawns and creepy, cookie-cutter neighborhoods came to mind," Syme says. "I thought, 'A graphic green lawn with a Toronto red fire hydrant' — and then the idea of a Dalmatian sniffing the base. It all just felt right."
Rush's manager may not have been immediately onboard, but Syme wound up validated in the end — earning a co-sign from some of his visual heroes.
"[Hipgnosis'] Storm Thorgerson co-edited a series of books under the title The Ultimate Album Cover Album. There were two volumes at the time. [My work] was in them, but I didn't have a full page like many of the people I admired. I thought, 'Maybe some day.' On the third publication, I leafed through the book and, sure enough, Signals had its own full page. I felt really gratified, and it was fun to give that to [Rush's manager] as his Christmas gift that year with a Post-It on that page."
"It wasn't an 'I told you so' moment," he says, "so much as a 'who'd a thunk?' moment."