by Neil Peart
In early 1975 Alex, Geddy, and I released our first album together, Fly By Night. For its cover, I suggested an illustration I remembered from my bird-loving boyhood—a snowy owl flying toward the viewer. Thus I ended up on the phone from our Toronto office to the record-company art director in Chicago, describing the band's ideas. (We also wanted an airplane in the distance, to echo the title song's theme, and the northern lights because another title idea had been Aurora Borealis—probably shelved after young Americans we mentioned it to looked back blankly before saying, “Um—what?”)
I had imagined the record company guy would search out the owl image I remembered, but he just said, “We'll make one like it.” (Typical corporate dodge, I realize now!) Mercury Records was headquartered in Chicago, as was Playboy magazine in those days, and the Mercury guys always introduced each of their graphic artists and photographers with, “He works for Playboy”—which naturally impressed youthful males from the Canadian suburbs.
I never imagined I was taking on a role that would fall to me for the next forty years—but that notion would have been fine with me, too. Second to music, and maybe books, I always loved the graphic arts—drawing, painting, photography, and design. So it was a natural relationship. Within the band dynamic, apart from a shared involvement in the music, we each had our areas of interest and expertise—Alex the Musical Scientist; Geddy in charge of cinematic aspects like videos and live productions, and yours truly devoted to ink on paper.
One day in the spring of 1975 I was in the North Toronto office of Rush's manager, Ray Danniels. Knowing of my interest and involvement in the previous cover art, he showed me an album called Delights, by one of his other clients, the Ian Thomas Band. Picking up the twelve-by-twelve LP cover (sweet memory of those!), I admired the deft drawing (the old man's face radiant with good humour—Ian's great-grandfather, Ray told me), and the combination of formal lettering for Ian Thomas's name and the playful intricacy of the title. To my taste, however unformed in those faroff days, all of the elements and their placements were so “right.” I was already sensing Hugh's eye for proportion and “negative space”—seldom understood as representing luxury, as space always does to humans. Today I can define what I saw back then and only sensed: It was created with both talent and love. When I told Ray that I admired the artwork very much, he said it had been done by the Ian Thomas Band's keyboard player, Hugh Syme. (Called by Ian, with his typical wry humour, “Huge Slime,” a nickname which of course has endured, among friends.)
From the first time Hugh and I met we shared a level of communication that would sustain us through all the years of discussing art by long distance—sometimes over the telephone from some recording studio in Wales or the Caribbean, and later by fax and email. We had the same values and tastes in images and design, and simply spoke the same language.
It is often overlooked that the term “fine art” actually comes from the French fin, final, or the end—as in the end or purpose of art is art, or “art for art's sake.” (As 10CC noted wryly, “Art for art's sake/Money for god's sake.”) This aesthetic ideal is distinguished from applied arts or performing arts, like Oscar Wilde's comment, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”
Hugh and I shared that intense admiration for “useless things.” Time and again we would fight against “the man” for an uncompromised fine-art approach to our work together, a battle that, alas, continues to this day. In working on recent book projects, for example, I have been shocked and appalled to hear variations on these words:
“We love the art, and showed it to the salesmen, and they think— ”
Okay, really, stop right there. What is wrong with that statement? Just everything. Imagine being a young musician and hearing, “We love your music, and we played it for the salesmen, and they think—” Not that that's a paranoid example anymore, you know it happens—but oh no, not here. However, Hugh and I know 'tis the way of the world, and we can but choose our battles.
The first project Hugh and I collaborated on was Caress of Steel, in 1975. We brainstormed the ideas for its illustrations and layout, but as will be told, not all went according to plan. As if jinxed somehow, that album was fated to be “star-crossed” for the band in every way. It didn't sell, didn't get airplay, and spawned a tour of dwindling and depressing gigs that we and our crew came to wryly call the “Down the Tubes Tour.”
But never mind—for Hugh and me, that album's crucible was the beginning of a long and richly symbiotic relationship.
In the band's early years, it was necessary for us to make a few “experimental” albums, to find and define our common ground. We more-or-less arrived there (for the first time) in early 1976, with 2112. Conceived as an angry rebellion against corporate conformity (“the man”), it would be our first gold record. (Though that too was only validation from “the man”—the real treasure it gave us was freedom from meddlesome salesmen!)
It is likely no coincidence that 2112 was the project that really came together for Hugh as well. The bold, luminous front cover with its striking colours punched the viewer with the same uncompromising energy that the music expressed, while on the inside cover (after years of pleading we finally got a proper gatefold cover!), the Starman would become an iconic symbol for four decades. Although Hugh and I always rejected the idea of “logos,” and constantly changed typefaces and images from one project to the next, that one star, circle, and naked man—the individual against oppression—has endured and recurred. It's just undeniable.
For the 2112 album Hugh was also involved in the “soundtrack” aspect of the music, creating the spacy intro to the title piece on his ARP synthesizer, then contributing keyboards to Geddy's song “Tears.”
Later cover designs came to include more of our shared sense of humour—the shameless puns of Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Power Windows, for example. Signals, Presto, and Counterparts featured a dry, even sly humour, and then there were the “icon” covers, like Test for Echo and Clockwork Angels. I also have affection for the “quieter” ones, like Grace Under Pressure, Hold Your Fire, and Vapor Trails.
Summing up, I can offer no higher tribute than this: In four decades of my life and work, every recording, tour book, instructional DVD, or published book that has my name on it, has Hugh's name on it. That's why I off-handedly referred to him one time as “serving a life sentence as my art director.”
And that's why he will never be granted parole . . .