LIMELIGHT: RUSH IN THE ’80s: The Challenging Middle Era Of A Prog Colossus

With Anthem, Martin Popoff initiated his ultimate Rush book project: a history of the band that mixes deep-dive explorations of each album and in-depth interviews drawn from a previously untapped archive of interviews with the group’s members and their inner circle. It offered more information on the band’s formative years than any book to date and thus raised expectation for the next book in the proposed trilogy. The band’s fans will be happy to know the latest book, Limelight: Rush In The ’80s maintains the same depth of detail as it confronts what is arguably the most hotly-debated era of the band’s career.

Limelight begins with the band at the height of their commercial powers: explorations of the classic Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures albums take up 90 pages, nearly the first third of the book. You get keen insight into the nature of Neil Peart’s lyrics and their inspirations, the mixture of technically complex recording and between-sessions horseplay that was a hallmark of their sessions around this time and the desire to modernize in both the use of synthesizer technology and incorporation of new, non-prog/ hard rock influences that would come to define their work in this decade.

After a chapter on the perfectionist tendencies that informed their live album Exit… Stage Left, the narrative begins to experience the kind of twists that characterize a thriller. The group’s partnership with producer Terry Brown comes to an end with Signals, where the group’s interest in new technology and new wave sounds drove what was sadly a permanent split with Brown. Both sides get to weigh on their misgivings about the musical approach and the difficulties of the recording sessions, while Popoff occupies a middle space that makes a case for how the album craftily blends electronics with the lush production values of their past to create a hybrid of enduring worth.

The drama heightens with the sessions for Grace Under Pressure, which become a crash course in self-production for the band when their initial producer drops out on them at the eleventh hour and their final choice proves too indecisive to guide the sessions. You also get a lot of detail on the songs, which are some the darkest, toughest work of their career from a lyrical standpoint and the last stand for really intense, heavy guitar work on a Rush album until the ’90s.

From there, you get into the most controversial era of the band’s career, the mid-’80s venture into high-tech record-making that found them working with Peter Collins. Though Collins would later become associated with hard rock via productions for bands like Queensryche, he was best known at this time as a producer of pop and dance music with an electronic edge. The old-guard Rush fans blanched at the muting of the guitar on these albums and the embrace of a sleek sound totally defined by synthesizers and sampling – but the band defends these albums in a passionate, typically articulate manner, making the case that this is where their ambitions lay at the time as they sought to move beyond being players’ players and developing as songwriters and arrangers. Collins makes an intriguing interview subject in these chapters, freely admitting his irreverent, taboo-busting approach to recording the band and how he’d do things differently in some respects after learning more about guitar-driven rock in subsequent productions.

The book winds down with a look at the Presto album, which teamed the band with another pop-expert producer in Rupert Hine. Though the result would have a sleek sound light on guitars, it found the band moving away from the tech obsession that drove much of their work in this decade and returning to more a trio dynamic with keyboards pushed to the background as they continued to chase their interests in developing songwriting and arranging skills. Hine is a self-effacing interview subject here, insisting his role was merely to provide an outside point-of-view, but the band members reveal his powerful influence on crafting a spartan sound and Geddy Lee’s choices for a lower, more natural singing style on the album.

Limelight is a very rewarding read for the Rush fan because it offers a balanced portrait incorporating multiple viewpoints for each of the albums it covers, which is important because so many of the albums from this era remain controversial within the band’s fanbase. The result might shift your perception of these albums and the choices involved in their making.  Along the way, a number of interesting themes develop, like the evolution of Peart’s process of a lyricist to include input from Lee as a vocalist and most importantly why the guitars took on such a diminished role in this era, including the evolution of Lifeson’s complex, constantly shifting response to this trend throughout the decade.

Popoff organizes the narrative thoughtfully, utilizing his vast archive of interview material (much of it taken from previously unseen interviews for Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage) to guide the history and thus allow the band members to chronicle and define the restless growth and exploration that defined them in the ’80s. He keeps the personal/critical commentary to a minimum, mainly using it to contextualize the albums in terms of the history of fan response. The result is dense with detail yet quick enough in pacing to keep the narrative moving forward. If you love Rush, you’ll have fun getting lost in its account of their many twists and turns during the ’80s.

Simply put, Limelight maintains the quality of Anthem even as it moves into more complex territory within Rush history. If you’re a student of the band’s work, it’s well worth getting to develop (and challenge) your own thoughts on Rush’s ’80s era.  

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