How Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ Cover Fused Storms and Retro Hairdos
Severe storms, retro hair styles and erroneous newspaper headlines all factored into the memorable cover for Rush's 1980 album Permanent Waves.
This was the first of the prog-rock band's many LPs — including the very literal art for Moving Pictures — designed around visual puns. Longtime art director Hugh Syme filled the image with maximum varieties of "waves," tapping into fashion, weather and politics.
But the original, ultimately abandoned concept was less playful and more highbrow.
"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," Syme tells 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."
The aim, Syme notes, was to be "all growed up" on that cover, moving toward the "cerebral" by showing those "three disparate graphs." But after they discussed the idea further — and "stumbled upon [his] glib puns" — they abandoned that concept altogether.
"We covered a few bases in our conversations," Syme continues. "I remember saying to the band, 'We should have a girl with a permanent Toni hairdo, which was a DIY product women used to use in the '50s and '60s when they chose not to visit the salon to curl their hair.
"I mentioned the girl and the hairdo and that she should be walking out of a tidal wave — and there could be some twit in the background, waving – and maybe there's a newspaper blowing through the scene with an erroneous, and ironic headline," Syme adds. "And that's when Neil [Peart] reminded me of 'Dewey Defeats Truman.'"
Peart was referencing the 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune issue that incorrectly reported the U.S. presidential election results. Syme originally incorporated that infamous image into the final product, but legal threats reportedly forced them to obscure the headline on later pressings. (As Syme told Louder in 2016, Coca-Cola also asked that they remove the company's logo from a billboard that appears in the background.)
Syme clearly sold the band on this bizarre idea, but Rush took their time processing the pitch.
"We were talking about [various things], including political trends and waves — and after describing it, I could tell the room was getting silent," he says. "Geddy [Lee] went as far as to jokingly say, 'Leave your name with the girl at the door.' Three days later, he called me and said, "We love that idea. We want to do that.'"
With everything onboard, Syme now had to find "great photography of tidal waves" — a difficult task in the pre-Google era. But he found the name of a well-regarded photographer named Flip Schulke.
"Apparently, legend has it, [he] would strap himself to lamp posts, wait for the [storm's deluge] and just photograph until it became perilous to stay there," Syme says. "He took some pretty iconic photographs in these perilous weather conditions.
"When I finally got a hold of his number, I called down to Mobile, Ala., and his wife answered the phone: 'Uh, hello,'" Syme says, employing a Southern accent. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm calling for Flip.' She said, 'He's here, but he's up on the roof right now.' I remember thinking, 'How colorful.' I said, 'Have him call me. What's he doing on the roof?' She said, 'He's taking a tree out of the attic. We just had a hurricane here.' Ironically that had just happened to them."
Schulke called back and offered up a shot he took in Galveson, Texas.
"He didn't donate it, but I expected someone like that who has photographed such high-profile images would have charged the Earth and made it prohibitive for us to use it," Syme adds. "But he generously allowed me to make that my environment for the whole cover — he even sent me a dupe of his original negative to work from! Thank you, Flip."
Syme then recruited photographer Finn Costello — partly because of his expertise in "photographic grain" — for their shoot in Toronto, capturing model Paula Turnbull and her aforementioned Toni hairdo. (She would later appear on the cover of Exit … Stage Left, reprising her character.)
Then came the hard work of piecing together the final image. "In the darkroom, all the disparate elements were emulsion-stripped and combined onto one common large-format negative — and exposed onto the final sheet," Syme says. "[Costello] helped me marry the disparate elements into the final composited image while he was in Toronto. Then the retouching began!"
That intricate process was, ultimately, all in pursuit of silly puns. And Syme's happy they set that precedent on Permanent Waves.
"Thank goodness [Rush] were so inclined," he says, "as this allowed us a lot of latitude for fun in the decades to come."
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