Rush Album Art: The Stories Behind All 19 LP Covers
As Rush's art director since 1975, Hugh Syme was one of the prog-rock trio's closest collaborators.
His vivid designs — decrepit puppet kings, fireball jugglers, dalmatians next to fire hydrants — became an extension of the music, drawing on Neil Peart's sprawling, philosophical lyrical themes (and their mutual love of silly puns).
Syme recently spoke to UCR about his vast visual catalog, giving us insight into dreaming up strange ideas and his frequently painstaking process of bringing them to life. We published individual pieces on every Rush studio album cover (along with their 1981 live LP, 1981's Exit … Stage Left, and the band's two pre-Syme sleeves). Here's a summary of what we learned.
The power trio's debut LP is one of only two in its canon not art-directed by Syme. The bold simplicity of Paul Weldon's design — the band name in regal block letters, crashing into the frame like a meteor — matches the album's raw, bruising hard rock. "I used the explosion graphic because I felt that it represented the nature of the band," he recalled in Jon Collins' 2005 book Chemistry. "For a three-piece group, they had a lot of power and force in their sound."
'Fly by Night' (1975)
Neil Peart took on three crucial roles upon joining Rush: two iconic (drummer, lyricist), one less obvious (unofficial "graphic arts supervisor"). As he wrote in the introduction to The Complete Tour Books 1977-2004, one of his first Rush lyrics was for "Fly by Night," which they decided to make the album title: "As a bird lover since childhood, I remembered an illustration of a snowy owl swooping down toward the viewer with fierce eyes, and I suggested an image like that for the cover, maybe with the northern lights in the background."
'Caress of Steel' (1975)
Syme's first Rush project was Caress of Steel, which features a wizard-like character flanked by a coiled snake and mysterious triangle. It was a pivotal career moment, though he's not especially fond of the image today — partly, he says, because the record company's last-minute alterations. "I was a huge [M.C. Escher] fan," he told UCR. "My original drawings were in pencil: clean, monochromatic, simple homages to Escher. But when the record label got ahold of these, they thought it wasn't rock 'n' roll enough, so they added this chromium lettering and swung the tint of the whole image over to a brown sepia tone — none of which was requested or under my purview at the time."
Though Syme acknowledges it's become a "marquee" Rush cover, he deflects praise for his own 2112 contribution. "If you ask me, as an artist or an art director, how I feel about the cover, I look back on it as being pretty formative, pretty primitive," he told UCR. "But I realize that I somehow intuitively managed to tap into my conversations with [drummer and lyricist] Neil [Peart] about the arc of his story: the content of the hero confronting the evil red star and the Solar Federation."
'A Farewell to Kings' (1977)
Syme intended to photograph some "beautiful" British ruins — "Lindisfarne, the monastery on Holy Island" — for the cover of A Farewell to Kings. But he told UCR that the band's budget-concerned management, upon seeing his original sketches, told him to "dream on." Instead, he looked to his immediate surroundings, finding a semi-demolished building in Buffalo and recruiting a musician friend to pose as the slumped, puppet-looking king. He also added some elements in post-production. "I created a prosthetic structure so his knee, showing through the tear in his tights, appeared mechanical, like a marionette's," he said.
The art director rode that high-concept wave into Rush's proggiest LP ever, Hemispheres, drawing on long-distance phone conversations with Peart during the band's recording sessions in Wales. "[There] was a lot of discussion about Dionysus and Apollo and the left-brain, right-brain [theory]. We have a calculating side of our nature, and we have a free-spirited [side]," he told UCR. Fittingly, the final cover shows two men — a distinguished, suit-clad fellow and a "bare-assed" model — standing on opposite sides of a brain. Ah, the '70s!
'Permanent Waves' (1980)
Permanent Waves was the first of many Rush LPs designed around visual puns. Syme took the album title and ran with it, conjuring numerous types of "waves" by tapping into retro hair styles, severe storms and political trends. But his original concept was more highbrow than the lighthearted end product. "At one point, I said we should bring in medical technicians with electroencephalogram equipment and tape the sensors onto the temples of each band member while they record a given passage of music," he told UCR. "[We] could isolate the brain waves and heartbeats of each member. That way, we would have a graphic representation of how they corresponded to each other dynamically in a visual, physiological presentation."
'Moving Pictures' (1981)
Syme's pun obsession went to another level with his Moving Pictures concept, which crystallized as soon as Peart told him the title. "I Immediately saw people moving pictures," he told UCR, noting the layered visual silliness. The sleeve shows a crew of workers manually moving pictures (including the "Starman" character from 2112) and a group of observers being moved to tears by said pictures. Syme originally pictured a more grandiose backdrop, but they staged the scene outside the Ontario Legislature in Toronto's Queen Park" — a "nice nod" to Rush's hometown.
'Exit … Stage Left' (1981)
Syme wanted to reference a classic cartoon character, Snagglepuss, on the cover of Rush's second live LP. The album title, after all, was a nod to the anthropomorphic beast's famous catchphrase — and the art director planned to show a "pink tail" and "probably the back of Snagglepuss' ankle" against a solid black background. But animation studio Hanna-Barbera "quickly nixed" that idea, pushing him toward a more self-referential image that alludes to each of the band's eight previous studio LPs.
"That was a tough one," Syme told UCR of his Signals cover. "We actually spent quite a few weeks trying to track that one down. We played around with the RKO graphics at the beginning of those 1930s and '40s films with the beautiful transmission towers. We had some iconic but cartoonistic graphics in consideration. I was even looking at the idea of those kids' [joy buzzers] where you shake hands with someone and it feels like an electric shock but it's just a vibration. We were going to have a close-up of that. We played around with Tesla/Marconi and certainly Morse code." Ultimately he went with something much simpler (and, in the context of their catalog, weirder): a dalmatian sniffing the base of a bright red fire hydrant. The idea, he said, was "leaving your mark, determining whether or not you were the first to occupy a particular territory."
'Grace Under Pressure' (1984)
Syme pivoted from his signature photo-composite style for the ornate Grace Under Pressure painting, which looks like a still from a futuristic sci-fi film. "When I heard about [the title], I said, 'Why don't we have 'grace' as a relaxing cream tone under the 'pressure' of the more ominous grey?'" he told UCR. "It was literally just split in half — a little like No Line on the Horizon became for U2. It was going to be hugely graphic. We both thought, 'That's it!'" But after drinking "more and more glasses of [Peart's] obscenely rare Armagnac [brandy] after dinner," he landed on a more "figurative" concept. "We could have someone looking into a more elemental kind of sky — the pressure of weather and the grace of water," he suggested. "It was all starting to sound right to Neil, and he said, 'That sounds great, too.' It ended up being something I wanted to paint — and almost had to paint to pull off."
'Power Windows' (1985)
Geddy Lee made one important contribution to the Power Windows cover: suggesting Syme include some TV screens. The front sleeve, a play on the album title, shows a disoriented young man trying to control his window with a remote control — and the band's frontman thought they needed to iron home the concept a bit more. "To this day, I credit Geddy with the wisdom of insisting on those [TVs], because it really does help the painting," Syme told UCR. "It gives it another layer of presence and meaning."
'Hold Your Fire' (1987)
After a string of intricate covers, Rush kept things surprisingly simple for Hold Your Fire: three spheres in a triangular pattern, set against a red backdrop. But as Syme told UCR, the more detailed inner art was like "the liquid center on a candy." "When you finally bite through it," he added, "you encounter the unexpected." The interior image shows a rainy street littered fire hydrants, stray cats and sewer grates, with a cigar-chomping businessman (played by actor Stanley Brock) juggling a trio of flaming orbs.
Many of Rush's album covers make you want to stroke your chin and smoke a pipe while in deep thought. Others elicit a childlike giggle. Presto falls into the latter category, with only a thin connection between the title and the floating bunnies that populate the front image. "The fact that magicians pull rabbits out of their hats — that's the only allusion to 'presto,'" Syme told UCR. "That and the number of rabbits on the hillside adding to the prolific nature of that hat."
'Roll the Bones' (1991)
Syme played on Peart's loose theme of "chance" for Roll the Bones, pairing a backdrop of dice (slang for "bones") with a young boy kicking a human skull. "I've always been fascinated with the juxtaposition of youthful innocence and inevitable mortality," the art director told UCR. To create this bleakly humorous image, he built a "subway platform with water" out of 2x4s — part of an elaborate creative process.
Syme could never resist goofy wordplay, and his original Counterparts cover took the phrase quite literally. "[It] almost became an exploded mechanical diagram of a sink and a tap and a drain trap," Syme says of these "counter parts." But he passed on that idea after bouncing around ideas with Peart, discovering "dualities" like yin and yang, salt and pepper, tortoise and hare, ribbed and lubricated and slap and tickle. "We built a whole archive — it became what I eventually illustrated as 'The Prayer,'" he said. "Inside the package there was this big, folded poster that showed all these visuals. We couldn't decide on any one of them, so we said, 'Let's just do them all.'" For the front cover, they went for the "cheeky" simplicity of a bolt entering a hole. "I was just glad it wasn't the sink and faucets and drain trap," he added.
'Test for Echo' (1996)
"Test for Echo is all about finding your way," Syme told UCR of Rush's 1996 LP. Peart helped guide him toward a cover that symbolized that theme. "Neil did a lot of traveling, and I knew he would venture up into the Northwest Territories [of Canada] and less-travelled destinations like that," the art director said. "You would see inukshuks, those stone sculptures — some of them looked very crude. Throughout the Arctic, [they] were erected as beacons in this treeless and featureless Great White North, where you could easily get lost without some kind of landmark." During one trip, the drummer sent Syme a postcard featuring an inukshuk, and the artist carved a replica as a 22-inch-tall sculpture.
'Vapor Trails' (2002)
Peart originally wanted Vapor Trails to feature NASA photos of comets flying through the sky. But Syme changed the aesthetic course after a "Twilight Zone moment in [his] life": witnessing a real-life comet. He was working on the initial stages of the cover at his art studio in Indiana when a "big ball of fire" sparkled above. "I remember telling Neil, 'I've never seen anything quite like this. I think we don't want to be quite so literal [about this]. We need to be more gestural, more urgent and passionate,'" he told UCR. "I didn't know quite where I was going with that, except to say I didn't like the relatively dry textbook feel of NASA photography. I said, 'We can do better than that. Plus, [Supertramp's] Crime of the Century owns outer space, so let's not go there again."
'Snakes & Arrows' (2007)
Peart had a clear cover image in mind for Snakes & Arrows: a Harish Johari painting based on an ancient, karmic Hindu board game. The drummer arrived at that image after creating the album title, which combines the Hamlet phrase "slings and arrows" and the children's game Snakes and Ladders — and through his research, he discovered the 2,000-year-old "Leela, the Game of Self-Knowledge." "[It's] one of the few times he just liked something that he had unearthed [and decided to use it]," Syme told UCR. "It became what it was. I understand it was a successful album. But we never repeated a cover with 'found art' again."
'Clockwork Angels' (2012)
Peart often had clear visual ideas for Rush albums — and while that led to some initial frustration for Syme on Clockwork Angels, the band's final LP, he ended up satisfied with the result. "[Peart] liked the idea of just the clock and those alchemic symbols," the art director told UCR. "I said, 'They'll have a nice home in the package somewhere.' It was one of those [moments of], 'No, I want that on the cover.' I remember feeling a little compromised by that summary request. But it did work really well. It ended up being a clean, iconic, minimal cover."