Wind-blown Notes: Rush and Grace Under Pressure

graceunderpressure-cover-sMy favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure.  I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice.  My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums.  Frankly, I love them all.  Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.

I love Rush.  I love Grace Under Pressure.

extrait_rush-grace-under-pressure-tour-1984_0

I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time.  Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .

I was sixteen.

From the opening wind-blown notes, sound effects, and men, I was hooked, completely.  I had loved Moving Pictures and Signals–each giving me great comfort personally, perhaps even saving my life during some pretty horrific junior high and early high school moments.

But this Grace Under Pressure.  This was something else.

If Moving Pictures and Signals taught me to be myself and pursue excellence, Grace Under Pressure taught me that once I knew myself, I had the high duty to go into the world and fight for what’s good and right, no matter the cost.  At sixteen, I desperately needed to believe that, and I thank God that Peart provided that lesson.  There are so many other lessons a young energetic boy could have picked up from the rather fragile culture of the time and the incredibly dysfunctional home in which I was raised.  With Grace Under Pressure, though, I was certainly ready to follow Peart into Hell and back for the right cause.  Peart certainly became one of the most foundational influences on my life, along with other authors I was reading at the time, such as Orwell and Bradbury.

Though I’m sure that Peart did not intend for the album to have any kind of overriding story such as the first sides of  2112 or Hemispheres had told, GUP holds together as a concept album brilliantly.

The opening calls to us: beware!  Wake up!  Shake off your slumbers!  The world is near its doom.

Or so it seems.

Geddy’s voice, strong with anxiety, begins: “An ill wind comes arising. . .”  In the pressures of chaos, Pearts suggests, we so easily see the world fall apart, ourselves not only caught in the maelstrom, but possibly aggravating it.  “Red Alert” ends with possibly the most desperate cry of the Old Testament: “Absalom, Absalom!”  Certainly, there is no hope merely in the self.  Again, so it seems.

The second song, gut wrenching to the extreme, deals with the loss of a person, his imprint is all that remains after bodily removed from this existence.  Yet, despite the topic, there is more hope in this song than in the first.  Despite loss, memory allows life to continue, to “feel the way you would.”  I had recently lost my maternal grandfather–the finest man  I ever knew–before first hearing this album.  His image will always be my “Afterimage.”

It seems, though, that more than one have died.  The third song takes us to the inside of a prison camp.  Whether a Holocaust camp or a Gulag, it’s unclear.  Frankly, it’s probably not important if the owners of the camp are Communists or Fascists.  Either way, those inside are most likely doomed.  Not only had I been reading lots of dystopian literature in 1984 (appropriate, I suppose, given the date), but I was reading everything I could find by and about Solzhenitzyn.  This made the Gulag even more real and more terrifying.

Just when the brooding might become unbearable, the three men of Rush seem to offer a Gothic, not quite hellish, smile as the fourth song, “The Enemy Within” begins.  Part One of “Fear,” the fourth track offers a psychological insight into the paranoia of a person.  Perhaps we should first look at our own problems before we place them whole cloth upon the world.

Pick needle up, turn album over, clean with dust sponge, and drop needle. . . .

Funk.  Sci-fi funk emerges after the needle has crackled and founds its groove.  A robot has escaped, perhaps yearning for or even having attained sentience.  I could never count how many hours of conversation these lyrics prompted, as Kevin McCormick and I discussed the nature of free will.  It’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick, the liberal arts, and the best of theology.

More bass funk for track six and a return to psychological introspection, “Kid Gloves.”  But, we move out quickly into the larger world again with the seventh track, “Red Lenses,” taking the listener back to the themes of paranoia.  When the man emerges for action, will he do so in reaction to the personal pain he has experienced, or will he do so with an objective truth set to enliven the common good?

grace_under_pressure_0In the end, this is the choice for those who do not lose themselves to the cathode rays.  Is man fighting for what should be or he is reacting merely to what has happened, “to live between a rock and a hardplace.”

Unlike the previous albums which end with narrative certainty, Grace Under Pressure leaves the listener with more questions than it does answers, though tellingly it harkens to Hemingway and to T.S. Eliot.

Given the album as a whole, one might take this as Stoic resignation–merely accepting the flaws of the world.  “Can you spare another war?  Another waste land?”

Wheels can take you around

Wheels can cut you down. . . .

We’ve all got to try and fill the void.

But, this doesn’t fit Peart.  We all know whatever blows life has dealt Peart, he has stood back up, practiced twenty times harder, and read 20 more books.  That man does not go down for long.  And, neither should we.

In the spring of 1987, much to my surprise, one of my humanities professors allowed me to write on the ideas of Peart.  I can no longer find that essay (swallowed up and now painfully lonely on some primitive MacPlus harddrive or 3.5 floppy disk most likely rotting in a landfill in central Kansas), but it was the kind of writing and thinking that opened up whole new worlds to me.  My only quotes were from “Grace Under Pressure,” drawing a distinction between nature of the liberal arts and the loss of humanity through the mechanizing of the human person.  It dealt, understandably, with environmental and cultural degradation, the dangers of conformist thinking, and the brutal inhumanity of ideologies.  It was probably the smartest thing I’d written up to that point in my life, and even my professor liked it.

Of course, the ideas were all Peart’s, and I once again fondly imagined him as that really great older brother–the one who knows what an annoying pain I am, but who sees promise in me anyway, giving me just enough space to find my own way.

I’m forty five, and I still want Neil to be my older brother.

About bradbirzer

By day, I'm a father of seven and husband of one. By night, I'm an author and prog rocker. Interests: prog rock, cultural criticisms, Macs, history, hiking, and science fiction.

Posted on February 21, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. As usual, Brad, you make me hear old and familiar music in new ways. I’m listening to P/G right now, and it’s better than I remember.

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  2. Grace Under Pressure is an under rated record. In my top 5 Rush albums. “Between The Wheels” is one of their best in my opinion. Nice choice…

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  3. If I didn’t already own this album, I’d go out and buy it right now based on this post alone – excellent.

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  4. Great review of a great, and often underrated, masterpiece. One of my all time favorites. “Between the Wheels” is sublime. Father of Seven – you are one brave man! And you find time to rock (which means you find time to play properly!). Good for you! and Write On!

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  5. Nice article Brad and I’m right there with you. I believe we are very close in age. I had just started getting into RUSH with the encouragement of my best friend, a drummer and Peart disciple. Of course i liked Moving Pictures but was not big into the early high pitched Geddy RUSH albums, GUP was the first Rush album I owned and i liked it but it wasn’t until i experience the album and of course other classic songs in concert that I was hooked and then there was no turning back. I will never forget the row of vertical lights starting at the base of the stage and rising to the ceiling as they began “Between The Wheels.” At the time I remember thinking how the song reminded me of Black Sabbath, another of my favorites at the time. As long ago as that show was i remember as clearly as any other (15 so far in all). Geddy and Alex dancing to the middle of the stage during the jam of “Enemy Within” and the unforgettable green laser show and explosion during Red Sector A. Of the fifteen times I have seen RUSH (never disappointed once) I would say that GUP show was second only to the most recent Clockwork Angels show which I rank as my all time favorite. it is truly amazing how consistent and tight the music has remained over the years. They are trul an amazing talent as a band and each ion their own right. Various articles i have read this year allude to the possibility of the band packing it up soon. i know they can only go as long as their abilities and desire carry them but i dread seeing the day when they retire. I will be going to my 16th RUSH show soon and just hoping they stick around long enough for the count to reach into the 20s. It was GUP that started it all for me as a RUSH fan and to this day it remains my favorite album of theirs although CA is just about even for me. Two albums thirty years apart yet both amazing!

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  6. Brilliantly written. p/g is the album that solidified by ‘fanship’ with Rush and continues to amaze me to this day. Like you, I love all Rush albums but p/g will always be among my very favorite…

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  7. “I could never count how many hours of conversation these lyrics prompted, as Kevin McCormick and I discussed the nature of free will. It’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick, the liberal arts, and the best of theology.”

    I remember those discussions fondly! I also remember Geddy on Rockline saying that it was about “a computer that thinks it can feel”–the idea was the stuff of fiction at the time. Technology seems to grow closer to it everyday. It still makes we wonder what it really means to “think.”

    Great article Bradley. I had forgotten how much I love some of those tracks!

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  8. Yes! Excellent write up. “Afterimage” and “Kid Gloves” and “Between the Wheels” are some of my all-time favorite Rush deeper cuts. It is a great record. It’s interesting how certain albums hit you and certain times in life and really make an impression. I have that bond with “Signals”, the first one that really “sucked me in.” Opens your mind, changes your mental outlook, and stays with you for a lifetime. Not too many rock bands/lyrics can make that claim. I too wrote about Peart lyrics for papers and projects. And read books based on whatever Neil was into at the time. Again, most likely not the norm. It’s nice to know there’s others out there having the same connection/experience.

    “Look at the big brain on Brad!!!” Seriously though, great article.

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  9. I’m not as big a Rush fan as everyone here, but p/g, is my favorite Rush album. It’s conceptual without being a concept album.

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  10. i totally agree .. this album had so much intensity in the lyrics … pure genius … rush’s deeper cuts somehow turn out to be my favorites … ie Witch Hunt and Camera Lens

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  11. Brad, great to see you recovering – and writing this! Grace Under Pressure was my introduction to Rush, the first album I had by them – and to this day, it remains my favorite. But being a budding guitarist in ’84 (having bought my first electric guitar in April of ’84), for me this will always be Alex’s album first and foremost. In my mind, Alex reached a new level, a truly unique style that incorporated the best of new wave and post-punk (in particular, the echo obsession and a kind of an ‘angular approach’ of guitarists such as Andy Summers and The Edge) while still retaining his style and attitude. EVERY solo on the album was incredible, but what really stood out to me was his rhythm guitar style – those huge, saturated, ringing chords were unlike anything played by any other guitarist, and were just as recognizable as his lead playing, which is an extremely rare feat for a rock guitarist. Alex’s playing lost a lot of aggression after this album, and though he would rediscover it in time, to me this album still marks a sort of an apex of his guitar playing. As good as he stayed and as amazing as he still is, it was never again quite as good as this for me.

    Let’s not forget the Grace Under Pressure concert film that used to be shown on MTV all the time in the mid ’80s. First of all, you gotta love the Miami Vice fashions! :) But more seriously, it’s truly an incredible film! It’s available on DVD which I recently acquired, and it’s even better than I remembered. A wonderful document of a legendary band at their very peak, both in terms of their creativity as well as popularity (though one could argue that their popularity in the last few years is even greater). The most transcendental moment of the whole thing for me: Alex’s solo in The Weapon. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking of it. Anyway, highly recommended!

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  12. John Radzikowski

    wow. Great article. I was 7 going on 8 when my big brother, home from the Navy, introduced me to the wonder of Rush. 1984. Wow. how times have changed. Or have they stayed the same? Anyway, I love this album. Even though I consider Hemispheres now to be my favorite (if there is such a thing as favorite in the Rush catalogue – how can you pick one over the other), P/G will always be my true first and favorite and most loved album. While big bro was away with the Navy I laid on his bed, wishing him the best, missing him dearly, listening to GuP on cassette on his Sony boombox. Over and over and over and over and… you get the idea… I too have seen Rush live many times, 14 I think, haha, and everytime I hear a GuP song I get goosebumps. my all time favorite? Body Electric. No doubt. And despite 3 shows on two legs of Clockwork Angels tour I didn’t get to catch it. Darn. My brother while learning video editing while serving on a carrier, made several “music videos”. Fly by night with the jets taking off during night time…cheesy but so cool. And Body Electric edited to the original Star Wars film. Amazing. Never seeing Star Wars one could know the entire plot of the film from watching his 5 minute music video! Sadly they were on Beta tapes and long lost to time and ex girlfriends of his!
    Thank you. you have lifted me up during a dark time in my life and made me appreciate life again and I’m now listening to GuP on my computer as I type and remembering the good timed in the basement with my bro, and listening while awaiting his return from sea.

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  13. Brad-in the years that followed GUP, I and my closest Rush fan friends declared it one of our least favorites but perhaps because of it’s dark themes. Years later I can count the first 3 songs and the last one among their best with the others not quite aging as well. I always think of Power Windows as their apex of production and songwriting but GUP is a nice stop on the way up (for me). I never disparage a Rush fan for having a favorite album that isn’t the same as mine….unless they say Roll The Bones! ;)

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  14. Grace under pressure is my favorite Rush album ( and I have the real album I bought in 84)also. The album has a distinct vibe from start to finish that stirs something in me emotionally
    every time I listen to it,Especially the track Red Sector A. Powerful lyrics about a horrific event
    that could be from the past or the future.Being a guitar player I normally would have preferred more guitar oriented tracks that were more power chord, distortion driven by Rush..This album changed my opinion forever on that, Alex’s guitar work in this album is brilliant and moving..I believe this album is where his playing became distinguishable on it’s own.. You knew when it was Alex playing instantly after this album He had niched forever a place in the history of guitar players..On ironically on probably the heaviest keyboard /synth release.

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