Moving Pictures – Rush (released in 1981)
We’ve come now to the third album in our series on “foundational progressive rock albums,” Moving Pictures by the Canadian band Rush. Most progressive rock fans consider albums 2112 or Hemispheres to the prototypical Rush prog albums, and they would be correct. However, these articles are meant to be introductory and it is my feeling that albums like Moving Pictures provide a newbie with a better gateway into Rush’s music than beginning with other, more overtly progressive albums.
I will admit from the outset that talking about Rush’s music with any level of objectivity is difficult for me. I grew up listening to various album rock radio stations on my transistor radio, but I loved both the Jackson 5 and KISS. It wasn’t until 1982-83 that I discovered Rush. I was told by a classmate at school that MTV would feature the band in concert that Saturday night. I had a babysitting job that evening but, after putting the kids to bed, I flipped the channel over to MTV and my life changed forever.
Of course I loved all of the songs. But seeing guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee playing their double-neck guitars on the song “Xanadu” completely knocked me out. What I saw was similar to the picture below. Seriously! What could be cooler to a music-obsessed boy in Grade 8 than something like this?
I decided that very night I was going to learn to play the guitar (which I did) and become a musician (which I also did).
Rush’s music presents tremendous challenges to a young musician. Lee and Lifeson are both considered virtuosos on their respective instruments while drummer Neil Peart is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest drummers in rock music. The songs contain numerous unison passages that are difficult even for seasoned guitar and bass players. Peart’s drum tracks are very complex and the band is just as likely to write a song in and odd time signature (e.g. 5/8, 7/8, 9/16) as they are in 3/4 or 4/4.
Most young instrumentalists learn Rush songs in the privacy of their bedroom and that is that. Not so for me. I was blessed with two other friends who were as eager as I was to learn this complex music. And learn it we did. I will never forget the feeling of satisfaction when the three of us made it all of the way through “Fly By Night,” “Natural Science,” or “La Villa Strangiato” for the first time.
Ever since 1978-79, Rush has moved away from sprawling, epic compositions and toward shorter, more succinct musical statements. They have also expanded their palate to include synthesizers, sequencers, and electronic drums. These two developments have alienated some early fans of the band that prefer the longer works of the band’s early career as well as the purity of the guitar/bass/drums format minus all of the electronic extras. For most fans, Rush is a band that has held true to the “power trio” format while continuing to augment their core sound in exciting ways through technology.
Rush’s scaled-back approach first appeared on record on the 1980 album Permanent Waves. But it was on the 1981 album Moving Pictures where the band fully hit their stride and produced one of the finest progressive rock albums ever released.
After the jump you will find a track-by-track exploration of Rush’s Moving Pictures.
Unlike the last two albums featured in this series (Close to the Edge by Yes and Selling England by the Pound by Genesis) which seem content to impose themselves gradually upon the listener’s senses, Moving Pictures wastes no time making its presence known. “Tom Sawyer” kicks off the album in explosive fashion with a fast drumming pattern and the guitar and Oberheim OB-X synthesizer playing an ominous, growling low E. The song’s lyrics (penned by Peart and Pye Dubois) speak of idealistic free-spirit with a pronounced swagger whose “mind is not for rent to any god or government.” The song’s instrumental section shifts subtly into ⅞ time, shifts into 13/16, and then ends with a typically virtuosic drum solo by Peart.
“Tom Sawyer” was a bit of hit in its day, reaching number 44 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song remains a staple of classic rock radio and the song’s lyrics are revered by some Libertarians who admire the song’s contra mundum individualism.
“Red Barchetta” is a song with a lyric inspired by a 1973 article in Road and Track magazine called “A Nice Morning Drive.” His imagination fired by the Road and Track article, Peart crafted a lyric envisioning a draconian future where most automobiles have been outlawed by “the Motor Law.” He also envisioned a young, idealistic firebrand (a pattern?) who is only too eager to violate said law. It just so happens that the uncle of the protagonist has a an outlawed car at his farm: ”a gleaming red Barchetta from a better, vanished time.” The song chronicles the protagonist’s adventures as he fires up the car’s willing engines, hits the open road, and is chased by “a gleaming alloy air-car” belonging to enforcers of the “Motor Law.” The protagonist manages to elude law enforcement and returns safe and sound to his uncle’s home.
Musically, “Red Barchetta” is a masterpiece of subtlety and form as the music (written by Lee and Lifeson) marries beautifully with Peart’s road tale. The intro and outro of the song feature a Rush musical trademark–Lifeson playing an understated guitar part with Lee’s bass guitar taking a lead role.
“YYZ” is a instrumental designed to show off the band’s instrumental prowess. It is also an homage to the band’s home town as the song’s title is taken from the identification code for Toronto Pearson International Airport. Peart has stated that he heard YYZ tapped out in morse code, loved the rhythm, and incorporated that rhythm into the song’s introduction. The song showcases the incredible tightness of the Lee/Peart rhythm section and a haunting guitar solo by Lifeson.
It is well-known among Rush fans that Lee and Lifeson are the “public faces” of the band and that Peart is a notorious recluse who typically avoids interviews, press conferences, and after-concert “meet & greets.” Peart attempts to explain his uncomfortableness with fame and fan adulation in the song “Limelight.” Peart explains that living life on a stage “approaches the unreal for those who think and feel.” The drummer also admits, “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” “Limelight” is one of the more thoughtful looks at stardom mainly because Peart is not a “typical rock star” bent on dealing with fame through self-medicating himself with drugs and alcohol. Having to pretend that every fan is your best friend, that you are always glad to see everyone, and signing one’s name over and over are certainly “first world problems” of the rich and famous. But the humdrum monotony of it would wear on a person and Peart’s lyric captures that feeling in a way that is neither ungrateful nor cliched.
From the big opening riff and haunting solo in the song’s middle section, “Limelight” is all about Lifeson’s guitar. In fact, fans of the band usually cite the solo on “Limelight” as one of their favorites. The opening notes feel very exposed and isolated, a musical personification of what Peart describes in the song’s lyric.
The Camera Eye
“The Camera Eye” is the lone epic on Moving Pictures although, at a mere 10:56, it is much shorter than some of the other extended songs from earlier in Rush’s career. The song is rather simple lyrically as Peart offers his reflections as an astute watcher of people. In the song’s first verse Peart describes an “angular mass of New Yorkers” as he observes the hustle and bustle of life in (ca. 1980-81) in the Big Apple. Verse two shifts the activity across the pond where Peart offers his perception of “…life’s ancient tales steeped in the history of London.” Summing up his experiences in both cities Peart writes, “I feel the sense of possibilities. I feel the wrench of hard realities. The focus is sharp in the city.”
The music of “The Camera Eye” compares favorably to the music penned for “Red Barchetta.” The intro slowly builds to the full band’s entrance and then it is off on what can only be described as a careening thrill ride of a song. If the music for “Red Barchetta” felt at times like a sports car opening up into wide open spaces, the music for “The Camera Eye” feels like the wild taxi ride during New York rush hour traffic. The song resets after the “New York section” and then dives back into the same music accompanying the lyric about London. The song continues to build to a majestic Lifeson guitar solo (my favorite of his on the album) before finally exhausting itself with one final “the focus is sharp in the city” and collapsing breathlessly as the song fades.
“Witch Hunt” is part three of a four part series of songs (spanning four different albums) dealing with the concept of fear. Peart states that the series explores the concept that people are not ultimately motivated by love, money, reason, or the pursuit of happiness, but rather by fear. In the case of “Witch Hunt,” Peart explores the concept of fear as it drives mobs of people to believe and act in a certain way. The song is fairly vague in its descriptions. We are told they are “madmen fed on fear and lies” who are threatened by “immigrants and infidels” “strangeness” found “in our theatres and bookstore shelves.” Is this a mob of religious zealots, anti-government activists, or pro-government thought police? Peart the lyricist is unwilling to specify. The high-point line of the song comes when Lee sings, “Those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves.” Taken in isolation this line sounds quite heroic and noble. However, given the context of the rest of the song, the underlying message is darkly ominous.
The music for “Witch Hunt” is equally ominous. The song fades in with the sound of a mob shouting in the distance and a foreboding ostinato that builds to Lifeson’s main guitar riff. The synthesizers play a major part in the texture of as they add another texture of “Witch Hunt” as they add strange noises as well as dark, sustained chords to mix.
“Vital Signs” is the most overtly quirky song on the album and is (in retrospect) a trustworthy barometer of where the band would head in later albums. Lifeson’s reggae-inspired guitar riff is pushed to the background, Peart’s snare drum is heavily processed, and a computerized sequencer pattern dominates the sound of the track.
Lyrically, the song speaks of the sometimes uneasy intersection between humanity and technology. The album was released just a few years before the ubiquity of “home PCs” and so some of the lyrics are quite prophetic as they speak of technology being simultaneously good and bad. In addition, the lyrics also prove prophetic in how they describe the future direction of the band. Most of Rush’s 1980s albums delve further and further into technology and this created quite a fault line amongst longtime fans. Many fans embraced the band’s new, high-tech sound; others did not. The predominance of synthesizers even caused a small rift within the band as Lifeson pushed back at the end of the 1980s, reasserting the guitar sound in the band. One line from “Vital Signs” (“Everybody got mixed feelings about the function and the form”) seems to sum up what everyone at the time was feeling about the sound and direction of the band.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it is difficult for me to talk about Moving Pictures with any sort of objectivity. In writing about his love for the band Big Big Train, Brad Birzer stated, “[M]aybe I’m such such a fanboy that I’ve gone past subjective and into some kind of bizarre objectivity.” I feel that way with this album in particular. This is music that I grew up living, breathing, analyzing, learning to play on guitar and bass, playing in garage bands with friends, and singing me to sleep in my headphones at night. Every nuance of the album feels like an old friend and yet always like an old welcome friend; never like an old friend that overstayed their welcome long ago. The songs feel ageless, the production amazing (just how did engineer Paul Northfield achieve such an amazing drum sound?), and each thoughtful lyric is met and paired with music of equal value and depth. As progressive rock polymath Steven Wilson said, “Moving Pictures is that rare thing: a 40-minute album without a wasted note or even a weak moment.”
I am writing for a predominantly Christian audience here at Kuyperian Commentary and so we need to ask ourselves what should be the takeaway for Christians from a band like Rush and specifically from the Moving Pictures album. Although Peart’s lyrics would take a much more aggressively agnostic turn following a pair of personal tragedies he suffered in the late 1990s, Moving Pictures-era Rush was still drinking largely from the intellectual well dug by Ayn Rand and similar thinkers. Although “Witch Hunt” might be an exception, any overt angst toward “organized religion” in Peart’s lyrics was still a few years away. In the 1980s Peart was more of a “cynic” than forthrightly antagonistic toward Christianity. Therefore, from a lyrical perspective, Moving Pictures is largely about rugged individualism in the face of interference, a rejection of groupthink, mixed emotions about a high-tech world, uneasiness with celebrity culture, rebellion against the harsh strictures of the nanny state, and a musical love letter to their home town in the form of an instrumental based on morse code. This is not the typical “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” Nor is it the average three chords repeated over and over again rock songs. This is thinking person’s music as it explores topics that even Christians should think through.
Moving Pictures offers seven rugged pieces of rock virtuosity capturing various levels of truth, beauty, and goodness. It is the sound of three friends and virtuoso musicians who catching lightning in a bottle seven times. In fact, it is only fitting that Moving Pictures be comprised of seven songs; seven being the biblical number of perfection of completeness. Moving Pictures is a perfectly complete album in every sense of the word.
The received history of pop/rock music from the 1980s suggests that the “truly important” albums of the decade were created by the likes of Paul Simon (Graceland), Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms), Peter Gabriel (So), U2 (The Joshua Tree), The Police (Synchronicity), and Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska). Any list of “truly important” albums from the 1980s that does not include Rush’s Moving Pictures is an incomplete list.
Here is the entire Moving Pictures album online on YouTube:
Derek Hale has lived all of his life in Wichita, Kansas and isn’t a bit ashamed about that fact. He and his wife Nicole have only six children–four daughters and two young sons of thunder. Derek is a ruling elder, chief musician, and performs pastoral duties at Trinity Covenant Church (CREC). Derek manages a firmware lab for NetApp and enjoys reading, computers, exercising, craft beer, and playing and listening to music. But not all at the same time. He blogs occasionally at youdidntblogthat.tumblr.com.