How Rush Survived the ’80s
Like many '70s bands, Rush adapted with changing musical trends and embraced synthesizers during the '80s. Unlike many of its rock and AOR peers, however, the Canadian trio found digital technology and instrumentation liberating — another avenue for musical expression, an additional color for its musical palette — rather than a hindrance. That's partly because Rush had been incorporating keyboards into their music for years (hello, "2112") and partly because the band always emphasized songwriting above gimmickry.
That came through loud and clear on 1980's Permanent Waves, a record frequently seen as a turning point in Rush's catalog. The LP's nods to then-current trends — for example, the brief reggae interlude at the end of "The Spirit of Radio," the plush synths cushioning "Freewill" and the space-age keys darting through "Jacob's Ladder" and "Entre Nous" — were meticulously woven into arrangements. Perhaps more important, Permanent Waves was more compact without losing its ambitious thematic and lyrical scope. "It was time to come out of the fog for a while," bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee told Rolling Stone, "and put down something concrete."
Watch Rush Perform 'Tom Sawyer'
Emboldened by the album's success, Rush embarked on an almost unparalleled creative hot streak that started with 1981's Moving Pictures. This LP featured the band's best-known single, the synth-splayed "Tom Sawyer," as well as a slew of fan favorites: the teeth-baring (but atmospheric) "Red Barchetta"; the proto-math-rock brain tangle "YYZ"; the concise, dreamy "Limelight"; and a gnarled, 11-minute space-prog opus called "The Camera Eye."
"With Permanent Waves, we very much wanted to get back to writing good songs, and this time we took it one step further," Lee told Musical Express. "You see, we've always been nervous about staying with one rhythm for any particular time. We built all kinds of changes into the songs every 30 seconds or so to keep them from getting boring to play. I think on Moving Pictures we developed the confidence to stay with something simpler and interesting in more subtle ways.
Watch Rush Perform 'Red Barchetta'
"There are many places on this album where the rhythm section breathes, finds a groove and hangs out," he continued. "It always bothered us why we could enjoy listening to music with steady feels and few changes and yet couldn't write it for ourselves. We were afraid of writing something that was too easy to play, I guess, in case it got boring."
Once Rush discovered they could balance ambition with repetition, their music actually became even more expansive and adventurous. 1982's Signals fully embraced synthesizers, leading to the band's only U.S. top 40 single ("New World Man," which in hindsight isn't a far cry from the Police's laid-back reggae-pop) and gems such as the punk-inflected, fierce "The Analog Kid" and marbled "Chemistry." Rush also demonstrated how keyboards could lend additional emotional dimensions to music: Opening track "Subdivisions" uses thundering, minor-key synth parts to capture the agony and ecstasy of suburban isolation and alienation.
Watch Rush's Video for 'Subdivisions'
That human touch was no accident: By this point, the band had shifted its songwriting to keyboards, which had a profound effect on Rush's music but didn't rob it of any nuance. "In the past, Ged and I would sit down with a couple of guitars, or Ged with his bass and me with guitar, and start working on ideas," guitarist Alex Lifeson told Guitar World in 1984. "Now that he's playing a lot of keyboards, he will work something out on them, and then I'll just get the chords from the keyboards so that we'll switch the focus back to the guitar, but using the melody and the chordal movement from the keyboards." Added Lee: "Working with keyboards presents a whole different layout, so when you look at the keyboard sometimes you can string a set of notes together that you wouldn't have thought to put together on bass or guitar."
Changes were afoot once again, however. Longtime producer Terry Brown's last record with the band was Signals, and Lee stressed to Guitar World that on 1984's Grace Under Pressure, the band was looking to have guitars play more of the parts written on keyboards. The latter move was also by design, as Lee elaborated to Cleveland Scene in 1984. "The main problem was that we had tried so many different experiments the last few years that we lost sight of an essential Rush sound," he said. "We needed to regain our confidence and get back to that main thrust, hence, [bringing in producer/engineer Peter] Henderson [for Grace Under Pressure]. And we had to put our priorities back in line, which affected the focus of the guitar."
Watch the Video for Rush's 'The Body Electric'
Grace Under Pressure did feel more like a traditional Rush record, only filtered through the lens of '80s production and styles. "The Enemy Within (Part I of Fear)," in particular, is taut New Wave rock, while "Distant Early Warning" boasts a laid-back reggae vibe and insistent, alarmist keyboards. Thematically, the album was also grounded. "Our specific inspiration for Grace Under Pressure was life," Lee told Cleveland Scene in 1984. "What we were going through and what the world was going through during the writing of this album. Neil [Peart]'s lyrics are increasingly more precise as he improves as a lyricist. Whatever he says is now easier to grasp. Our subject matter is more topical than in the past too.
Watch Rush's 'Big Money' Video
"Basically, what we're trying to say is what Thomas Edison said many years ago: 'What man's mind can conceive, man's character must control.' Technology is great, but you have to have the character to control it for a good purpose."
Rush's confidence at manipulating new sounds — and grappling with real-world issues — explains 1985's Power Windows. In an appropriately clever play on words, the album's lyrics functioned as glimpses (e.g., "windows") into various kinds of power and oppression: economic, legislative and militaristic. Sonically, however, Power Windows possessed an even heavier electronic influence — from the digital effects percolating throughout "Big Money" to the synths lending an icy chill to "Manhattan Project." The approach makes sense: Power Windows boasted extra keyboard and programming assistance from Andy Richards, who had worked with synth-pop acts Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda.
As the decade wore on, Rush continued to bend their internal rules. For example, Aimee Mann added vocals to 1987's "Time Stand Still," a song that ranks among the band's best. It was the first time Rush featured an additional guest voice. "When we wrote that song, I just became obsessed with having a female vocalist come in and add a different nuance to it," Lee told the A.V. Club in 2015. "Somebody suggested Aimee Mann, and we listened to her work. Her voice is absolutely beautiful and really possessed a lot of the qualities that we were after, and she was thrilled to come up to Toronto and lend her talents to our song, which I think really elevated the track."
Watch Rush Perform 'New World Man'
The album on which "Time Stand Still" appeared, Hold Your Fire, didn't fare quite as well as the previous few LPs — and by summer 1988, the members of Rush were feeling iffy about what came next. "We'd just come off tour, we were doing the live album, A Show Of Hands, and everybody was caught at a down point," Lifeson told Music Express in 1990. "There seemed to be an air of uncertainty as to whether we were properly motivated to record another album."
Still, by the end of the year, Rush were rejuvenated enough to dig into what would become 1989's Presto. In a bookend-like moment, the album nodded to Permanent Waves, in the sense that the record felt like a rock LP with synths added for texture. "It was amazing how smoothly things went," Lifeson said. "Writing and recording albums is usually a tense, stressful period, but this one went amazing well. We were so well prepared that we had the album written, recorded and finished a month ahead of schedule, which for us is unbelievable."
Watch Rush Perform 'Show Don't Tell'
With Presto, Rush ended the '80s on a high note, and closed the chapter on a productive, progressive decade. Like many of its peers, the band returned to more straightforward rock 'n' roll in the '90s and beyond. Still, Rush's keyboard-drenched decade remains a flash point for loyalists, and their own self-contained aesthetic. In fact, mention "'80s Rush" to fans, and it'll elicit a vehement response. A certain segment of fans adore the band's dalliances with synths and modern sounds; others prefer the more traditional, prog-leaning hard-rock style of the band's older albums. No matter which way people's preferences swing, however, there's no denying that Rush weathered the decade quite well: The band expanded its audience and positioned itself to tackle the future, no matter what that held.
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