How Drinking Brandy Inspired Rush’s ‘Grace Under Pressure’ Cover
When Hugh Syme learned the title of Rush's 10th LP, 1984's Grace Under Pressure, he immediately translated those words into colors.
That simple starting point eventually spawned one of the artist's most distinctive paintings, which pivoted from his signature photo-composite work.
Eating dinner and drinking brandy at the Toronto home of drummer-lyricist Neil Peart in October 1983, Syme fired off a simple visual concept that built on his aesthetic of "continuing minimalism."
"I really love the simplicity of albums like Discipline by King Crimson," the prog-rock trio's art director tells UCR. "[And] the early suggestions were influenced by my then admiration and study of pianist Keith Jarrett and an appreciation of those beautifully minimal jazz album covers from his ECM record releases with Manfred Eicher from Munich. I suggested I do a painting (in the minimal style of Mark Rothko) where we bisect the page."
"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 continued. "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 as they "drank more and more glasses of [Peart's] obscenely rare Armagnac after dinner," Syme began sketching more "figurative" ideas.
"We could have someone looking into a more elemental kind of sky — the pressure of weather and the grace of water," the artist suggested, describing his concept for the stormy, slightly sci-fi-looking image. "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."
Syme emphasized the symbolic duality with the "P/G fraction" lettering tucked on the right side of the image. "I would render dozens of versions to create my signature 'urgent' calligraphic India ink letter forms that Geddy [Lee] once called a 'murderous scrawl,'" he says. "And that would lay on my studio floor until the ink was dry."
The art director hasn't painted for many album sleeves — though he did use that medium for the cover of their next LP, 1985's Power Windows.
"It also was one of the rare occasions [of painting for a cover]," he says, "even though I enjoy painting and continue to. It's just not often enough because a lot of my technique delved more and more into the photo-composite realm of improbable reality."