Rock goes new wave

Band: Rush

Track: Vital Signs

Year: 1981

From the start, Rush was a band in a constant state of evolution.

The first album was essentially a riff on Led Zep and Black Sabbath heaviosity, with lyrics about what a drag it is to work all day, finding your way, and, uh, having sex.

With each album that followed, Rush moved away from that relatively straightforward template, helped in large part by swapping out drummer John Rutsey for Neil Peart.

Peart gave the band more brains and brawn, but it took a while for the band to get the formula right, as any listen to their third album, Caress of Steel will indicate.

Even 2112 gives way to a scattershot second side that still suggests Rush was hedging its bets to an extent.

But by 1978’s Hemispheres, Rush had it all together – long, complex attacks sat comfortably beside shorter sorties, and droll jokes sat alongside grander concepts about the dichotomy between the heart and mind.

By all accounts, the album was a beast for Rush to conceive and record, and just as challenging to replicate on tour.

The band decided to simplify.

Inspired in part by a new wave of art rock with more economical running times and slightly less bookish topics, Rush turned out Permanent Waves, which found the group dabbling with reggae influenced rhythms and punky pacing even as they continued to change tempos faster than a pit crew could change a blown tire.

But it took one more album, Moving Pictures, before Rush finally made an unmistakably new wave song.

Vital Signs, a treatise on the importance of individuality in a world of conformity, closed the album, and while the signature voice of Geddy Lee made it clear this was still Rush, there was something herky jerky and nervy about the song once it got underway.

And it shifts into a reggae influenced chorus that probably owes more of a debt to The Police than, say, Bob Marley.

Lyrically, you could almost imagine Sting writing something similar, given how he threw in references to ‘that book by Nabokov’ in songs like Don’t Stand so Close to Me.

Regardless, if Rush had started here, you get the sense critics might have received them a bit more favorably than, you know, all those songs about By-Tor and the nods to Ayn Rand.

Even the voice of Geddy isn’t quite as high as usual.

At four-and-a-half minutes, it is a bit longer than most new wave songs, and there are more tempo changes on display too, but that stripped down weirdness that starts around 42 seconds into the song suggest Rush was on the right wavelength, and Signals, the album that followed it, pretty much transformed them into a proper synth band, one that knew how to use the instrument to build the songs as opposed to a coloration thrown on to seem contemporary.

Ultimately, much like the genre that inspired it, Vital Signs proves how vital it is to deviate from the norm now and then.

It’s rare that artists write their own goodbye, but that’s how Pink Floyd’s Jugband Blues has always sounded to me.

The song was the only one credited to him on the band’s second album, after he had dominated the credits on Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

It is tempting to read too much into the song, to assume Syd knew how the drugs and his apparent mental illness (he was never diagnosed),  and thus chronicled that, as well as the reaction of those around him to his deteriorating state.

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