The Tapes Your Mother Laid Out for You
Second Installment: Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)
By Andrew W. Miller
By 1984, progressive rock was far from the genre du jour. It had seen its heyday in the 60s and 70s and had subsequently been bested by the catchiness (sorry, Johnny Rotten) and simplicity of punk and new wave. Ten years had gone by since Rush’s first album, Rush (1974), had been released. The latter nine years saw eight full-length albums produced by Terry Brown, who had seen the band develop from straight-up Led Zeppelin worship to the powerhouse that recorded epic, movement-structured albums like 1976’s 2112, 1978’s Hemispheres, as well as the commercially-successful Moving Pictures (1981) featuring the band’s signature song “Tom Sawyer.”
Moving Pictures and 1982’s Signals saw the dwindling of the 20-minute song, and the band’s sound became more synth-reliant. Displeased with this, the band hired producer Peter Henderson (King Crimson) and shot for a new direction with Grace Under Pressure.
The album starts out with the track “Distant Early Warning,” which, like many of the songs here, revolves around the Soviet Union, and the threat of Communism and nuclear disaster. “Watching from satellites /Take a page from the red book / Keep them in your sights / Red alert.” Quite frankly, if you pay attention to the number of times the word “red” is used on this album, you’ll be absolutely sick of hearing it by the end.
Despite this fact, the song is actually quite good. The lyrical hook, “You sometimes drive me crazy / but I worry about you,” is convincing, though it’s meaning is too abstract to discern.
By the second song, “Red Sector A,” you start to get the feeling that this song was for lack of a better description, danceable. Maybe that’s a faux pas, considering it’s about the Holocaust, but one can’t help but think Rush is giving a nod to new wave here. Strangely, as a band that stands today with a sort of zeitgeist stigma, Rush was very much changing well into the 80s.
The vocals on the album are standard Geddy Lee fare through and through. You’ll have to love it or hate it on those grounds. The one difference is that Geddy is no longer belting lyrics out the way he did on riff-heavy songs like “Passage to Bangkok,” but that was sort of part-and-parcel of 2112’s style anyway. Grace Under Pressure is a different animal altogether.
It does have its shortcomings, namely, the song “Red Lenses.” Again with this “red” business. In general, the songs on this album do not deviate much from each other in style. However, “Red Lenses” seems like almost like an attempt to incorporate funk into the album. There’s slap bass and a bizarre vocal delivery. And, oh, the lyrics. “I see red / And it hurts my head / Guess it must be something / That I read.” If you don’t enjoy that third grade rhyme pattern, it doesn’t improve much.
The album’s final song, “Between the Wheels,” relies heavily on simple, slow synth hook. The album ends on a high note with some synths soaring over soloing in the last minute or so. It works. The song is a lament. “Another war, another wasteland / another lost generation.” Actually, if anything makes this album a zeitgeist it’s these cold war references.
By the way, the fade-out is really overused on the album. And “Between the Wheels” is no exception.
Quite frankly, presuming that you like Led Zeppelin, your best bet with Rush is to start at the beginning and work your way along with them chronologically. If you’re not already a fan of some of the albums repeatedly praised throughout this article, Grace Under Pressure might be a hard swallow. However, at the end of the day, Grace Under Pressure deserves to be heard.