SIGNALS (1982): A Song Cycle by Rush

signals
Rush, SIGNALS, 1982.  A New Wave-Prog Song Cycle.

The last album produced by the then fourth-member of Rush, Terry Brown, Signals (September 9, 1982) marked yet again a major progression in the music of Rush as well as in the lyrics of Neil Peart.  The pressure to produce something similar to the previous year’s Moving Pictures naturally proved immense, as they had never encountered such success.  On the Moving Pictures tour alone, fan attendance doubled at concerts, and almost anyone in the American Midwest could hear one of three tracks from the album almost anytime on FM rock radio.  But the three main members of Rush decided that a second Moving Pictures would be too easy.  They had done that album, accomplished what they had sought to accomplish, and they wanted to take their music in new ways.  In particular, Lee had become more and more interested in keyboards and composing on them.  He never planned to become a “Keith Emerson,” but he loved the challenge the keyboards brought him. [1]  Not surprisingly, especially given Lee’s interest and the learning curve he needed to understand and overcome regarding synthesizers, the keys employed on the album had either 1) a deep, booming bass sound or 2) an airy, soaring feel.  Lee remembers:

I was getting bored writing. I felt like we were falling into a pattern of how we were writing on bass, guitar and drums. Adding the keyboards was fascinating for me and I was learning more about writing music from a different angle.[2]

Further, he claimed, the keyboards allowed Rush to expand beyond the trio without actually adding a new member of the band.[3]  With Signals and the following concerts to support it, Lifeson claimed he felt “almost re-born” with the new sound. [4]

As each of the members of Rush have stated many times about themselves, they were sponges, soaking up the best in current music as well as in traditional literature.  In particular, the band had been listening to the moody prog electronica of Ultravox and Japan, the moody pop electronica of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) and Spandau Ballet, and other synthesizer-driven and drowned in layers of sound New Wave bands.[5]  “Just as with many new wave groups, we have the same spirit of rebellion against mercenary forces,” Peart states in a phone interview.[6]  The pre-concert mixed tapes that Peart created explain much:

The cassettes from the Signals tour, in 1982, neatly hand-labeled on the spine, “Rush Radio,” and with my drawing of the fire-hydrant logo from the album cover, offered a selection of lesser-known songs from that era, by New Musik, Simple Minds, King Crimson, U2, Ultravox, Max Webster, Joe Jackson, Japan, Thinkman, Go, XTC, Talking Heads, Jimmy Cliff, a couple of Pete Townshend’s solo songs, Bill Bruford’s jazz-rock excursions, and the ponderously-named-but-ethereal-sounding Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark.[7]

rush group signals

Given such influences, Signals is the darkest and moodiest album from Rush thus far, as dense as rock albums come.  And, some rock appearing at the same time appalled Peart.  In one interview, he complained about his former hero, Carl Palmer.  “I don’t understand why any drummer would want to drop everything they learned like that and go back to kindergarten stuff.”[8]  Lee had similar thoughts, though without naming names.  “It all sounds the same now.  At one point it all came charging back and had a lot of energy, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere,” the bassist explained.  “It’s just become a commercial thing, all pasteurized and homogenized.  Anyone can pick up a book” and learn a few heavy metal chords.[9]

From the ominous opening notes of Subdivisions, the listener knows this is a Rush to be taken with deadly seriousness.  No hobbits dwell here.   There’s a Tom Sawyer lurking somewhere in the neighborhood, but even he avoids such heaviness of mood as found on the first side of the album.  Lots of honest men, however, populate Signals.  All of this gravitas hovers over the entire album, despite the rather whimsical cover of a dog ready to mark his territory on the neighborhood fire hydrant.  Only a few months after its release, Peart explained that the album had “more to do with writing about people and less about ideas.  ‘Permanent Waves’ was probably our first album that was in touch with reality—it was about people dealing with technology instead of people dealing with some futuristic fantasy world or using symbols for people.  Now I’m trying to make those symbols into real people and real conflicts in real people’s lives.  I still want to write about ideals, I’m not interested in writing about the sewer of life.[10]

The album as a whole revolves around a song cycle.  In 1982, immediately after the release of the album, an insightful interviewer said: “Signals has a cyclical framework. It opens in suburbia, on the edge of ‘the far unlit unknown,’ contemplates escape in The Analog Kid, explores universal imponderables – the essence of our humanity, sex, religion, old age – and ends with actual escape to the stars in Countdown.”  Peart responded, presumably with a bit of surprise: “You noticed that. We were hoping no one would. It’s so unfashionable these days to construct grand concepts. Were being closed mouth about it. Some people, and I don’t expect there will be many, will be insightful enough to catch it.”[11]

The pounding synthesizer of Subdivisions introduces us to the alienated, creative individual, the one who fits into no groups.

Yeah, it’s a common background for each of us, and I think it’s a background for a lot of our audience, too.  For all its blandness, it’s so easy to satirize, which is a trap I wanted to avoid. It’s always been a constant stock joke or skillet or something, to satirize the suburbs and mentality of it and all. And of course it’s just as diverse as people are really, when you come down to it. But it has its own set of values and set of background parameters about it, which as you say are very much unique to this contemporary society.[12]

The protagonist is the one shunned by all of the “cool kids,” those who through fortune or assertion consider themselves the “in crowd.”

Growing up it all seems so one-sided

Opinions all provided

The future pre-decided

Detached and subdivided

In the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dream

Or the misfit so alone

In no other song does Peart so dramatically attack the foundations of modernity and its attempt to create false realities in the name of comfort and conformity.  His critique rings true, harkening back to much of the cultural criticism of the post-World War II West.  Peart’s criticism, though concise, reflects the work of everyone from C. Wright Mills to Russell Kirk to Jack Keruoac.  In the mind of each of these critics, we conform only at the cost of our very soul.

Some will sell their dreams for small desires

Or lose the race to rats

Get caught in ticking traps

The second track, “The Analog Kid,” a Bradbury-esque look at youth, imagines the vivid and imagistic dreams of a boy, a younger Tom Sawyer, yet to be jaded by the horrors of the world.   As he innocently fantasizes about the first beautiful girl he’s encountered, he

Lies in the grass, unmoving

Staring at the sky

His mother starts to call him

As a hawk goes soaring by

The boy pulls down his baseball cap

And covers up his eyes

If not a Tom Sawyer, at least a character straight out of the pages of Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Much of the story comes from Peart’s own infatuation with a girl from Ohio he met in, appropriately enough, the Summer of Love, 1967.[13]

With Chemistry, Peart shifts perspective, giving the listener a solid scientific look at the processes of the world, but, with the protagonist of the previous song, wondering what connects A and B, C and D, and H and O.  Surely, the song offers, in all of the chemical catalysts, collisions, and synergies, emotion and imagination plays a role, connecting that tangible with the intangible.  Interestingly enough, given the title, the credits attribute the lyrics to all three members of Rush.  Lifeson and Lee told Peart what words they wanted in the song as well as named the song, and Peart put the final product together.[14]

Digital Man, track four, considers the man of science, detached from the romance of nature, but longing for something greater than mere facts.  He possesses a myriad of facts, but no connections to the highest things of life.

He’d love to spend the night in Zion

He’s been a long while in Babylon

He’d like a lover’s wings to fly on

To a tropic isle of Avalon

In the end, like everyone, he will die—“a date in a black sedan.”  Until then, he will exist as a man who understands everything and, really, nothing.  In the official Signals Tour Book, Peart explained that he had written this “The Analog Kid” as a companion piece to Digital Man.

The first track of side two of Signals, “The Weapon,” is the second part of the Fear Trilogy (actually a tetralogy).   Beginning with a play on Franklin Roosevelt’s understanding of the four freedoms, Peart again looks at the role of facts and the connections in story and mythology.  We can, he notes, delude ourselves into believing we’re safe under the iron fist of the state or the soft promises of religion.  The real man, the man of integrity, is, however

. . . not afraid of your judgment

He knows of horrors worse than your Hell

He’s a little bit afraid of dying

But, he’s a lot more afraid of your lying.

Those in power jealously guard their ability to create and instill fear, as they know it is what allows them to rule.  The song employs ska as well as something approaching “disco.”  “It’s an all-out production number that we can play live, so I’m sure all the ‘disco kids’ will soon be coming to our concerts,” Neil sarcastically imagined.  “Ha!”[15]

A song written at the last moment by the band, “New World Man (aka “Project 3:57”),” is exactly what the title claims, a consideration of the man of America.  Here, we have a Natty Bumppo, ready to face challenges, ready to become better.

He’s a rebel and a runner

He’s a signal turning green

He’s a restless young romantic

Wants to run the big machine

As long as he learns from his mistakes, he will prosper.

Still, as “Losing It,” reveals one might very well fail to live up to his own potential.  This might result from giving too much, too soon, or from failing to live by one’s honesty, or by giving into one’s self-reservations.  The song, in learge part an homage to Hemingway and his tragic end.  Would it be worse to have never tried or to have tried and failed?  “For you—the blind who once could see—the bell tolls for thee.”

Ending on the most upbeat note possible, the final song, “Countdown,” narrates the historical launch of the NASA space shuttle Columbia.  It is a paean to the explorers of the unknown and to the scientists who made it possible.

peart by birzerThe new sound Rush brought to Signals confused friend and foe alike at the time of its release.  Rolling Stone continued to insult even the idea of Rush with their not atypically nasty review.  Rush makes a strong argument for the view that advanced technology is not necessarily the same thing as progress,” the reviewer stated.  “Unfortunately,” it continued, Rush “do so largely by screwing up.”  In its short review, Rolling Stone claimed the album to be “their most poppish yet” but, having traded their progressive and art credentials (which the magazine had always hated), the album is “mostly a wasted effort” with the music sounding like nothing more than “static.”[16]  No rational person would have expected anything kind from Rolling Stone, but even friends of Rush found the album perplexing.  Mark Putterford of Sounds called it a “weak, below par album,” filled with “DULL” songs.[17]  Kerrang! explained the changes as a part of Rush “accepting the mantle of middle age.”  True Rush fans, though, will “be sorely disappointed.”[18]

The above is an excerpt from Neil Peart: Cultural (RE)Percussions (Wordfire, 2015) by Bradley J. Birzer.  Available in paperback and kindle.

*****

And, if you want more progarchy on Rush, here’s a handy list!

Rush – ABC 1974 – Live – 1974 (released 2015) – Review by Craig Breaden

Rush – A Farewell to Kings – 1977 – Review by Kevin McCormick

Rush – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live) – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Grace Under Pressure – 1984 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Power Windows – 1985 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 “Completist” live concerts box set – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – R40 Live – 2015 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Rush – 1974 – Reviewed by Craig Breaden

Rush – Test For Echo – 1996 – Review by Brad Birzer

Rush – Vapor Trails Remixed – 2013 – Review by Brad Birzer

Clockwork Angels – Concert review by Brad Birzer (2012)

Kevin J. Anderson – Clockwork Angels – The Comic Scripts – 2014 – Review by Brad Birzer

The Art of Rush – Hugh Syme, written by Stephen Humphries – 2015 – Book Review by Brad Birzer

Neil Peart: The Most Endangered Species – Essay by Brad Birzer (discussion of “Natural Science”)

The Saving Grace of Neil Peart – Essay by Brad Birzer

Brad Birzer’s Top 10 Rush Albums

*****

Notes

[1] Steve Gett, “New World Men,” Kerrang! 26 (October 7, 1982).

[2] Lee quoted in Menon, Rush: An Oral History Uncensored.

[3] Raj Bahadur, “Rush Takes Off: The Geddy Lee Interview,” Northeast Ohio Scene (October 28-November 3, 1982).

[4] Lifeson quoted in Steve Gett,” New World Men,” Kerrang! 26 (October 7, 1982).

[5] Brian Harrigan, “Lifeson’s Lifespan,” Melody Maker (November 7, 1981); and Derek Oliver, “Rush Release,” Melody Maker (May 5, 1984).

[6] Steve Morse, “Sending New Signals, Rush on the Defense,” Boston Globe (December 6, 1982).

[7] Peart, Traveling Music, 46.  In 1982, Peart had especially praised Ultravox’s 1980 New Wave masterpiece, Vienna.  See Philip Basche, “Rush’s Simpler Signals,” Circus (November 30, 1982).

[8] Mark Newman, “Canadian Rock and U.S. Rock Similar, Peart Says,” Grand Rapids Press, November 7, 1982.

[9] Basche, “Rush’s Simpler ‘Signals.’”

[10] Pete Makowski, “Adrenalin Rush,” Sounds (December 18, 1982).

[11] Greg Quill, “Neil Peart: New World Man,” Music Express (September/October 1982).

[12] Interview with Neil Peart, “Signals Radio Premiere,” September 1982.

[13] Peart, Roadshow, 124-125.

[14] Peart, “Stories from Signals: Collected from the Drummer’s Diary,” Sounds (October 16, 1982).

[15] Peart, “Stories from Signals: Collected from the Drummer’s Diary,” Sounds (October 16, 1982).

[16] J.D. Considine, Signals Album Review, Rolling Stone (October 28, 1982).

[17] Mark Putterford, “Semi Flawed Signals,” Sounds (September 11, 1982).

[18] Dave Dickson, “A Rush of Old Age,” Kerrang! (September 23-October 6, 1982).

6 thoughts on “SIGNALS (1982): A Song Cycle by Rush

  1. Haha,Well speaking as a TRUE “RUSH-FAN”………………the comment Mr. Putterford made,is the EXACT OPPOSITE of how I’ve ALWAYS felt about Signals since the very first time I heard it in it’s entirety!!! In FACT…………..I tend to rank the album “Signals”,among ONE of the top-5 RUSH BEST RUSH ALBUMS EVER!!! And I’m quite certain it’s very safe to say,that many,MANY MORE Rush-fans out there,would agree with me on that one!!! 😉

    As always……………..EXCELLENT article Sir-Brad!!! Well done!!! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pingback: Rush’s SUBDIVISIONS (1982) | Stormfields

  3. Darren

    The Canadian progressive-rock band FM (from the 70’s and 80’s who also opened for Rush) was influential to the sound on ‘Signals’. If you listen to FM’s albums (in particular ‘Black Noise’ and ‘Surveillance’), they have the synth sounds with electric violin and electric mandolin; no electric guitars. Ben Mink was a member of FM, who plays the electric violin on ‘Losing It’. Songs like ‘Seventh Heaven’, and ‘Random Harvest’ would compliment the songs on ‘Signals’.

    Liked by 2 people

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