When Rush released their ninth studio album, Signals – their final record with longtime producer Terry Brown – one thing was clear: they had no intention of making another Moving Pictures. Marking the 40th anniversary reissue in April 2023, Prog uncovered the space shuttle launch and unique Chemistry that inspired the birth of their keyboard era.
The launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981 was the biggest leap forward in the Space Race since the Moon landing 12 years earlier. This was the very first reusable spacecraft, able to orbit the planet and return safely to Earth in one piece after its mission was complete.
Several NASA employees and a group of specially invited guests had gathered at 7am in a private viewing area within the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida to watch billions of dollars’ worth of technology and two flesh-and-blood astronauts be fired into orbit. And among that group of onlookers were the three members of Rush.
The Canadian trio were guests of Kennedy Space Centre deputy director Gerry Griffin, who’d given them a tour of the facility, including the assembly building, a room so vast it had its own indoor cloud system. They’d also had a cheeky go on the Space Shuttle simulator during the tour, only for guitarist Alex Lifeson – a qualified pilot – to crash the computerised craft headfirst into a swamp.
The launch of the real thing was originally scheduled to take place two days earlier but it had been delayed due to technical problems. The change of date meant that Rush had to hightail it to Florida immediately after a show in San Antonio, Texas, then head back straight after to play another show in Fort Worth. But there was no way they were going to miss this.
And so Lifeson sat with bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart on a blanket on the viewing area’s grass lawn, gazing over the lagoon in front of them to the launch pad a few kilometres away. As the countdown began, the already electric atmosphere began to intensify: five, four, three, two, one... Flames billowed from the shuttle’s booster rockets, a huge roar swept across the lagoon, and the Columbia lifted off.
“It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard,” says Alex Lifeson now, his voice still edged with awe. “It was so loud – the low end rumble of the rocket was incredible. It just screamed off in a plume of exhaust as it rose into the sky, and then it was gone into space and there was this eerie quiet. In this lagoon that was right in front of the viewing area, these dolphins came up and they started swimming in their little pattern. Here we are at the peak of human technology, and there’s such a great example of ancient nature right before us. The contrast was amazing.”
As the magnitude of what they had just seen sank in, Lifeson and his bandmates glanced around at their fellow guests. That’s when they spotted some familiar faces. “We looked over and, a couple of spots to our left, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were sitting on a similar blanket,” says the guitarist. “We didn’t know each other, but we just looked and nodded and smiled at the whole experience that we’d just had.”
Even the proximity of two Hollywood A-listers paled into insignificance next to the launch itself. Neil Peart was still processing what they’d witnessed as he boarded the plane they’d hired to get them to that evening’s gig.
“I remember thinking to myself as we flew back to Fort Worth after a couple days without sleep, ‘We’ve got to write a song about this!’” the drummer and lyricist later noted in a diary he wrote for Sounds magazine in 1982. “It was an incredible thing to witness, truly a once-in- a-lifetime experience.’
Rush did indeed write a song about what they saw on that April morning. Countdown would appear as the propulsive closing track on their ninth album, Signals, its build-and-release energy mirroring the launch of the shuttle itself. As real-life voices from the NASA control room punctuate the song, Peart’s words capture the wonder and promise of the moment. ‘This magic day when super-science/Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams,’ sings Geddy Lee, bringing the drummer’s lyrics to life.
Signals was Rush’s own space shuttle moment. A bold step into the future that saw them embracing new sounds and new technology (and in the case of Lifeson, a snazzy new wave haircut), it opened up the rest of the decade for them. The album’s shorter songs and increased reliance on keyboards and synthesisers alienated the more obdurate section of their fanbase, but Signals was ultimately the sound of a band ready for the oncoming technological rush of the 1980s.
“I guess you could stay where you are and do the same thing over and over and over again, but that’s not the kind of band we are,” says Lifeson. “Progress is important to us. We always need to go somewhere else. We always wanted to evolve.”
Few Rush albums are as representative of that desire to move forward as Signals, yet it didn’t come completely out of the blue. The shift towards shorter songs had properly begun two albums earlier, with 1980’s Permanent Waves, while synths and keyboards had been an integral part of Rush’s sound since 1977’s A Farewell To Kings.
But it was with 1981’s Moving Pictures that Rush took a big leap forward. Sleeker and less concerned with the (admittedly glorious) instrumental grandstanding of the past, it was the closest the trio had come to making a contemporary rock album.
Buried at the end of that record was a song that signposted what was to come next. With its squelching keyboards, fluttering synths and Police-esque reggae breaks, Vital Signs sounded like nothing Rush had recorded before – prog sensibilities in a new wave wrapper. But the biggest tell came via Peart’s lyrics. ‘Everybody got to deviate from the norm,’ sang Lee, inadvertently foreshadowing Rush’s own next move.
“It was the last song we wrote on the record, and we wrote it in the studio,” the singer told Prog in 2021. “Certain albums have that one spontaneous song, and it’s funny because those types of songs end up being a precursor for some styles that we might do on the next record. Like a segue, almost. So Vital Signs really kicked us off towards Signals without us even knowing it.”
Moving Pictures was the most successful album Rush had released to that point, and an intensive, 10-month long tour followed. It was during those dates that Rush began formulating ideas for their next album. “We were touring so much that we were limited in the time we had to write for a record, so we utilised soundchecks or even days off, when Ged and I would sit down with a couple of guitars and do a little bit of writing,” says Lifeson. “But soundcheck was the best opportunity for us to throw some ideas around – we’d play a couple of songs in full, but also do a little bit of writing. I’m sure there are ancient cassettes somewhere with snippets of ideas that ended up on all our records.”
One song that emerged in nascent form from these jams was Chemistry, which would eventually become the third track on Signals. In his diary for Sounds, Peart recalled the song’s inception at some forgotten North American venue. “On this particular day in ‘Somewhere USA’ we will unknowingly write a whole song at once, each of us playing a different part,” the drummer wrote. “While Geddy plays what will become the keyboard melody for the bridge section, Alex is playing the guitar riff for the verses, and I’m playing the drum beat for the choruses. Just like that!”
Lee and Lifeson would refine the song further at the bassist’s house on the shores of Lake Simcoe, 60 miles north of Toronto. The guitarist headed up to his bandmate’s place after the Moving Pictures tour wrapped up in July 1981. He bought with him a tiny, cigarette packet-sized practice amp that he’d been given, and the pair proceeded to construct a primitive record booth by placing the amp and microphone in his guitar case. “It was our way of isolating the sound,” he says. “Chemistry was one of the songs we worked on while I was there.”
Chemistry remains the only Rush song to feature a joint Lee/Lifeson/ Peart lyric credit. “Geddy and Alex together came up with the title and concept for the song, wrote out a few key phrases and words that they wanted to get in, then passed it along to me for organisation and a little further development,” wrote Peart in Sounds in 1982.
Another track that took shape during the band’s on-the-road jam sessions was Subdivisions, Signals’ eventual opening track. The trio would pick the latter song up when they began mixing the live album Exit... Stage Left with longtime co-producer Terry Brown in September 1981 at the Le Studio recording facility in Morin-Heights, Quebec, 50 miles north of Montreal.
“We were getting a little bored with inactivity,” wrote Peart in his diary. “During the mixing of Exit... Stage Left there was really not much for us to do except say ‘It sounds good’ or ‘It doesn’t sound good.’” The drummer used the time to work on lyrics, including those of Subdivisions, an empathetic look at growing up in the suburbs, with all the emotional, psychological and cultural baggage that came with it.
“One afternoon as I was idly polishing my car, Alex and Ged returned from working at the little studio, set up a portable cassette player right there in the driveway, and played me the musical ideas they had come up for it,” wrote Peart. The drummer liked the tricksy, shifting time signatures and the interplay between guitar, bass and keyboards, and the three of them fashioned it into a completed song in between mixing sessions.
Subdivisions would be road-tested at shows in Europe and North America on the Exit... Stage Left tour in November and December 1981. Bootlegs from the time capture a song that’s virtually identical musically and lyrically to the finished version, though Lifeson’s jagged guitar was far more present on those early live performances. That would eventually become a bone of contention, but for now, all three members were pulling in the same direction.
At the beginning of 1982, the band decamped to Windermere Lake in Northern Ontario with Terry Brown for pre-production. The English-born Brown had co-produced every Rush album since 1974’s Fly By Night and was their unofficial fourth member. The fact that it was off season meant they could rent an entire ski resort for themselves.
“The place was completely empty – it was like The Shining,” says Lifeson. “There was a big venue and we locked ourselves in there for a month or so and rehearsed and finished the songs for the album.”
The one thing that they emphatically didn’t want to do was make Moving Pictures II. “That would have been boring,” says Lifeson. “The style of the songs we were writing was very much of the 80s, and what was prevalent at the time. ”
Rush were as plugged into what was going on around them musically as they had been a decade earlier, except where Yes and Led Zeppelin had been their twin north stars in the early 1970s, now it was everyone from The Police, Ultravox and early U2 to Discipline-era King Crimson and UK. “There was a lot of crappy music back then too,” says Lifeson, laughing.
But while they were woodshedding the songs in that big empty winter resort, they shut out all external musical stimuli for fear of it explicitly influencing what they were doing. “Typically, the three of us seldom listened to any outside music when we were working on a record,” says Lifeson. ‘That was an unspoken rule.”
The early versions of the songs hewed close to the finished article, albeit in more bare-bones form. “The demos sounded really good, but of course lacked the sophistication of sound and performance that one fine-tunes in the studio,” says Brown. “In terms of arrangement, they didn’t change a whole lot, but in terms of production values, the vocal perspectives on Subdivisions, the unruly mob on The Weapon, and all the sound effects on Countdown were big production values that weren’t tackled in the pre-production stage.”
But even in this formative stage, it was clear that these songs were a step on from what had come before. There was a pronounced reggae feel to one new song, Digital Man, even more so than past dabblings in the genre on The Spirit Of Radio and Vital Signs. “I don’t know if any one of us was a reggae fan specifically, but it was in the air,” says Lifeson. “There was never a case of, ‘Let’s sit down and write a reggae song.’ It was just part of the mix of styles that we absorbed.”
One person who was surprised by the growing presence of reggae in Rush’s music was Terry Brown. “I was a little taken aback by the reggae/ska influence,” says the producer, “but juxtaposed to Subdivisions, Countdown, and The Weapon I felt we had a really strong record.”
Something else that was increasingly part of the mix was the growing prominence of keyboards. Lee, especially, was the band’s resident gadget-head. “The synthesiser is a wonderful thing in that it opens up so many areas of expression for people who don’t have the technique a keyboardist might have,” he told Northeast Ohio’s Scene magazine. “You really don’t need technique because with a synthesiser you can use your own technique. As long as you have a sense of how to write a melody, you can use the synthesiser to express yourself.”
Lifeson is sometimes painted as a keyboard refusenik, unhappy with the presence of synthesisers within Rush’s sound. Not so, he insists today. “I know I’ve come across as being very down on us using keyboards, but that’s not the case,” he says. “From the beginning, when we started using keyboards and bass pedals and things like that, it was a group effort. We wanted to expand our sound but we didn’t want to add any more members. I was happy to use them, I thought they did a great thing for our sound. But when they started taking priority, that’s when I started having some issues with keyboards.”
By the time Rush made their latest trek to Le Studio with co-producer Terry Brown and engineer Paul Northfield in May 1982 to record Signals, the place felt like home from home. They’d made their last two studio albums at the studio, located in the Laurentian Mountains, as well as mixing Exit... Stage Left, there.
The recording facility was built on one side of a lake; the house where Rush team were staying was on the other side. Getting from one to the other entailed walking through the woods or, even more idyllically, across the lake via canoe or rowboat. “There were huge windows overlooking the lake in the studio and windows in the control room too so you never had that feeling of being in an airtight studio, where you could never tell whether it was two in the afternoon or two in the morning,” says Brown, who Lifeson describes as “really like a fourth member – he understood our music, he was a great producer, a great engineer in his own right. He was a brother.”
They put in long hours at the studio, starting at 11 o’clock in the morning and finishing around two in the morning, with a 90-minute break for an evening meal. Any distractions were deliberately self-created. A volleyball net was set up at the house to unwind after spending countless hours in the studio.
“After we finished a session, we’d come back and we’d play volleyball until five o’clock in the morning, when the sun was coming up,” says Lifeson. “It was an opportunity for us to let off some steam, get a little exercise, drink copious amounts of brandy, smoke lots of pot.”
Brown remembers it a little differently. “Ged had an obsession with baseball so that was our focus in our downtime,” he says. “We practised on a daily basis until Ged was confident that we could tackle the girls’ team in Morin-Heights.”
Whatever sport they played away from the studio, the atmosphere during work hours was both intense and, Rush being Rush, light-hearted. “Cutting the bed-tracks was a lot of fun, but some of the vocal sessions were tense,” recalls Brown. “I remember wanting to record Ged’s vocals in the chorus of Subdivisions with the sound that you hear on the record – I felt it would inspire him to deliver the lyric in a very sincere and emotional way, but it took time to set up and he found it quite frustrating.”
Lee wasn’t the only one to be frustrated with Subdivisions. When it came to mixing the song, Lifeson noticed the stabbing guitar that had been present in early live versions was now buried under banks of Lee’s keyboards.
“We would all get behind the console and we would all have jobs – turning a knob, pushing a fader at a certain point, those sorts of things,” says Lifeson. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t hear guitar.’ I’m a very easy- going guy, but I thought, ‘This is not right.’ So I pushed that fader up. I do remember Terry turning to me and smiling and reaching over and pulling it back down. I haven’t forgotten that.”
Terry Brown remembers the polite yet borderline passive-aggressive tussle with Lifeson over the volume of his guitars, but says he wasn’t aware of any deeper differences of opinion at the time. “I’m not so sure that those differences were resolved,” he says now. “Especially since it wasn’t until after the record was released that those feelings became evident.”
The balance between Lifeson’s guitar and Lee’s keyboards was more equitable on the sparkling The Analog Kid, Peart’s semi-autobiographical exploration of adolescence. The song dated from an unlikely holiday in the British Virgin Islands at the start of 1982, where the band and Brown had spent a week on a schooner the drummer had recently purchased.
“Neil had been talked into buying this beautiful boat,” says Lifeson with a laugh. “It cost him a lot of money and he got rid of it after a year or two, but not long after he got it, he refurbished it and invited us all for holiday. We had a week on a boat, just sailing around the British Virgin Island and being pretend pirates.”
Peart recalled Lee playing him some ideas he’d been working on at home, including an electronic instrumental that would form the basis of Signals track The Weapon (the second part of the ‘Fear trilogy’ that had begun with Moving Pictures’ Witch Hunt). The drummer reciprocated by sharing a couple of things he’d been working on himself.
“That night as we lay at anchor in Virgin Gorda, Geddy and I went down below after dinner, and I showed him some of the work that I had been doing. I had written The Analog Kid as sort of a companion piece to Digital Man.... He told me what he liked, and what he didn’t like, and gave me some good points to go to work on. We put an end to the ‘shoptalk’ and went back to our holidays.”
Signals also featured one of Rush’s great unheralded classics, the slow-burning semi-ballad Losing It. Inspired in part by Ernest Hemingway (‘The bell tolls for thee’ is a reference to the American author’s 1940 Spanish Civil War novel For Whom The Bell Tolls), the song was Peart’s treatise on the passage of time and the loss of youth. Its emotional pull was amplified by the spine-tingling contributions of violinist Ben Mink.
Like the members of Rush, Mink grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, though he didn’t properly get to know them until his band, FM, were invited to open the North American leg of the Moving Pictures tour in 1981. The following year Mink got a call from Geddy Lee asking if he wanted to play violin on a track on the band’s new album.
“He said, ‘We have a song that we think would work really well with a violin part,’” Mink recalls today. “They sent me a cassette of the working arrangement. It had all these ridiculous time signatures, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. But I was honoured to be asked, and I could always use a trip to Montreal.”
Mink ended up spending a few days at Le Studio, where he got to see first- hand how Rush worked. “They grew up playing together, so they had their own code and their own language,” he says. “They would communicate with each other via eye contact and head movements: ‘Let’s do this, let’s not do that.’ It was amazing how many long, nuanced phrases they could play that way.”
Mink also became part of an impromptu side-project during his time at Le Studio. The Ziv Orchestra (named in part after Lifeson’s real Serbian surname, Živojinovic) found Mink and the guitarist swapping instruments, with the former on guitar and the latter on rudimentary violin, with Peart playing along on snare drum. Their repertoire consisted of wedding band standards such as Al Martino’s Spanish Eyes and The Surfaris’ Wipe Out. “It was just us goofing around, but we did have a photo taken of us, kind of a hammed-up picture,” says Mink.
The business of recording Losing It was more serious. The band gave Mink a sense of what the song sounded like and what it was about, but essentially left him to do his own thing. Fuelled by espresso, he laid down the parts for the body of the song on a five-string electric violin before shifting to Canadian Club whisky for his solos.
“We used echo and delay to give a sense of grandeur, which I think matches the sentiment of the song,” he says. “I spent an hour or two laying down a bunch of solos, and then when it was done I went into the other room and left them alone to compile a version of what they felt were the best moments.”
“Right off the bat, what he played was just so perfect and so dripping with feeling,” remembers Lifeson. “We were all sitting in the control room when he was doing his part, and we were just blown away by it. I might have had tears in my eyes, actually.”
As with the 11th-hour addition of Vital Signs to Moving Pictures, the final piece of the Signals jigsaw fell into place in the studio. “We were pretty much done with the record, but we thought, ‘Why don’t we just throw on one more track?’” says Lifeson. That track was New World Man, the album’s first single. According to Lifeson, it was written in a couple of hours and finished within the day.
“We’d usually spend months rehearsing and writing and then months recording, so to finish a song so quickly was really unusual for us,” says the guitarist. “It was one of those songs that happened so instinctively and so suddenly.”
Like Digital Man, New World Man bore the imprint of the white reggae popularised by The Police. But Lifeson’s guitar had a brittle new wave edge to it too, the guitarist seemingly determined to leave his mark on at least one part of the album. Yet any discontent he did feel over Signals was pushed down for the greater good of the record.
“It was smooth sailing,” Lifeson says now. “We loved being together, we were in a rock band, in a recording studio, making a record – how does life get better than that?”
When Signals was released on September 9, 1982, housed in another memorable sleeve designed by their longtime art director Hugh Syme, it divided opinion. While some fans understood the band’s need to constantly move forwards, a more vocal section of their following viewed it as a betrayal of Rush’s core values.
“There was always a complaint with Moving Pictures that, ‘Oh, now they’ve become commercially successful, they’re no longer our band, they’re everybody’s band,’” says Lifeson of this pre-internet gatekeeping. “But you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Still, the guitarist admits that he wasn’t unsympathetic to those who felt let down by the record: “I remember feeling disappointed that we had disappointed those earlier followers, because they were really important to us.”
This much was proven on the subsequent tour, which began on September 3, 1982 in Green Bay, Wisconsin and ended 109 shows later on May 25, 1983 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though seven of Signals’ eight songs were featured in the set (Chemistry was dropped towards the end of the tour), they were outnumbered by tracks from the band’s older albums.
Yet there was an undeniable sense that Rush were moving into a new era, and not just because of Geddy Lee’s shiny new synth set-up. Visually, too, they were kicking it into the modern age. For Countdown, the band contacted their old friend Gerry Griffin, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center, and told him they’d written a song inspired by the space shuttle launch they’d seen in 1982.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s incredible. Let me talk to our media department and see if we can get you some film footage of rocket launches and things like that which you can use in your show.’ And they provided all kinds of stuff, some of which had never been seen by the public before. We used it in a montage for the rear screen projection.”
Ironically, the one Signals track that wasn’t played live was the one that had Alex Lifeson welling up in the studio. “We always had one song on every record that we knew we weren’t going to play live, so we would stretch out a little bit and do things that we couldn’t replicate live,” says the guitarist. “Losing It was that song on that record. We never intended to play it live.”
Except they did play it live, albeit 33 years after it was released. Losing It finally received its live debut at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on June 19, 2015, halfway through the band’s R40 farewell tour. As if the poignancy of the song’s lyrics wasn’t enough, they enlisted special guest Ben Mink to recreate his electric violin parts onstage.
“It was tremendously nerve-wracking,” says Mink, who made a second appearance a month later in Vancouver. “It was supposed to be a surprise, so I couldn’t tell anybody, not even some of my closest friends. It was a little difficult for me, because my violin was way louder in my in-ear monitors than it had been in soundcheck, but from what I could tell, people were thrilled to hear it. They’d waited a long time to hear the song live. I don’t think they expected that it would ever be performed.”
Losing It was played just five times in total on the R40 tour, with Johnny Dinklage (brother of Game Of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage) standing in for Mink for the remaining performances. “It was a very powerful moment in the set,” says Lifeson. “I won’t deny being choked up most nights when we played it.”
As much as Signals marked the start of a new era for Rush, it represented the end of another. It was the last of the band’s records to be co-produced by Terry Brown. “It wasn’t an emotional decision for me, since it was the band that wanted to make the split,” says Brown now. “They needed to work with some other producers and get some other influences. Certainly producers that could accommodate a lot of keyboards,” he adds wryly.
Brown has the view that Signals came at a point where Rush were “heading for a midlife crisis, which they handled really well, and I admire them for their tenacity,” though he says he would like the chance to remix Signals with today’s digital techniques. “I’d fine-tune some of the details in the rhythm section and push the sonic footprint up a few notches,” he says.
More than 40 years after it was released, Signals remains a contentious album to some for its apparent embrace of all things 80s, though the cyclical nature of music means its synth-heavy approach sounds less dated today than the glossily produced albums they released later in the decade 80s.
Yet for others, the album has only grown in stature and significance in the years since its release. It’s a stretch to claim that Signals saved Rush at a time when traditional progressive rock was cast out in the wilderness, but, like Genesis before them and Yes after them, it brought the band in line with what was going on around them, drawing up a roadmap that helped them navigate the rest of the decade.
“I think if I had any regrets with Signals, it was in the actual production of the record, which when all was said and done, sounded a little small,” says Lifeson. “On my personal scale of importance, Signals would be somewhere in the middle – it wouldn‘t be high on my list. But it was a pivotal record for us as a band, because it continued a writing style that we’d embraced with Moving Pictures and it was a step towards what we did next.”
Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures had eased Rush into the 1980s, but with Signals they dived in headfirst. And for better or worse, they wouldn’t resurface until it was over.