Not Fade Away: Rush’s ‘Grace Under Pressure’ Turns 30

By Brian Ives, Radio.com 

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at Rush‘s 1984 album, ‘Grace Under Pressure,’ which turns 30 this month. 

For the band’s entire existence, Rush had been a power trio: Geddy Lee on bass and vocals (and later, keyboards as well), Alex Lifeson on guitar and, since 1975’s Fly By Night, Neil Peart on drums and percussion. (He replaced John Rutsey, who played drums on the band’s 1974 self-titled debut.) 

But there was a fourth member of sorts: producer Terry Brown. Brown helped the band on their debut album and worked with them for years afterwards, producing classics like 2112Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. As Lee told Radio.com, “The first version of our first record was really crappy, and that’s when we met the guy who really changed our lives, which was Terry Brown. And he became our producer for the next 10 years and taught us so much about making records.”

Related: Not Fade Away: Rush’s Simple, Straight-Ahead Debut Turns 40

But after 1982’s Signals, the band felt that they had taken their relationship with Brown as far as they could. “It became a little predictable, [we knew] what Terry would say,” about any given thing they did in the studio. “So when you know that, you can already change the song before he even comments. We felt we needed new input.”

And they looked for new input on the album that would become Grace Under Pressure. “That was a very stressful record to make, because that was our first venture away from Terry Brown. The producer [we] originally contracted, and who agreed to produce that record, bailed out at the last minute, as we were in the middle of pre-production. [We were] writing all these songs and suddenly we had no producer.” That producer has long been rumored to be Steve Lillywhite, who had worked with U2, Peter Gabriel and XTC by that point.

“So it became a mad search.  We had all kinds of producers flying into Canada to meet with us, and in the end we choose an engineer and we decided to co-produce it ourselves with Peter Henderson.” Henderson’s credits at that point included working as an engineer and/or producer with Supertramp, the Tubes and Frank Zappa. 

Unfortunately, the relationship with Henderson didn’t work out: “It was a tough job, because it wasn’t everything we hoped it would be. The new relationship, the new producer. We wanted someone to teach us all this stuff that we weren’t learning [from Terry Brown]. And we just didn’t get it from [Henderson] on that album. Although I think we made a very strong record, it took a lot to get it there.”

The album led off with “Distant Early Warning,” which saw them continue their use of synthesizers in combination with their heavy rock sound. They had a fan base in the hard rock world, to be sure, but they didn’t seem overly concerned with following any of the unwritten rules of that format (which they made clear with “new wave” look on Signals two years earlier). Elsewhere, songs like “Red Lenses” and “The Body Electric” showed that the band were paying more attention to the then-current sounds of  Talking Heads and the Police than the Zeppelin, who had heavily influenced their earlier work. One song, however, did connect to their more recent discography: “The Enemy Within” was subtitled “Part 1 of ‘Fear,'” the trilogy that began with part 3 (“Witch Hunt”) on 1981’s Moving Pictures, and continued with part 2 (“The Weapon”) on Signals

Grace Under Pressure‘s most enduring song, perhaps, has been “Red Sector A.” Ostensibly a sci-fi epic taking place in a dystopian future, Lee sings “Are we the last ones left alive? Are we the only human beings to survive?” But, like the best science fiction, it’s a metaphor for something from our world. The lyrics also include the lines “I clutch the wire fence until my fingers bleed/A wound that will not heal/A heart that cannot feel/Hoping that the horror will recede/Hoping that tomorrow we’ll all be freed.” And later, “I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate Are the liberators here? Do I hope or do I fear?” The song takes on horribly added gravitas with the knowledge that Lee’s mother is a concentration camp survivor. 

“That’s a fantasy song, but there’s no question that some of the lines came out of a conversation that I had with Neil telling him about some of my mom’s experiences at the end of World War II,” he says (Neil Peart writes the band’s lyrics).  “[Including] her liberation from a concentration camp. Some of those truths resonated with him and he put them in another context, a sci-fi context. But there’s not a night that I sing that song that I don’t think about the stories that my mom told me.” Lee’s family history aside, the song takes on even more relevance in light of the news that Jews in the Ukraine were reportedly told to “register” their property with the interim pro-Russian government or face deportation.

Last year, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; when Rolling Stone asked Geddy Lee how he felt about it after the announcement, his answer was sweet: “It made my mom very happy.” 

 

 

 

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