By the time Rush released Moving Pictures early in 1981, they’d already completed a major phase shift from blues-based hard rock to full on prog rock and then produced no fewer than four indisputably classic albums. Moving Pictures represents the final bit of arc in that second phase, marking the band’s second major transition, this time to a more modern and streamlined rock and roll, still progressive, though less aggressively so.
There’s no doubt music nerds will forever argue over which Rush album is the best, but there’s really no disputing the objective truth that Moving Pictures was and is the band’s most successful, having sold more than 4 million copies worldwide and featuring in countless lists and discussions of the best rock music ever. How did that happen for a band that had previously met with success, but mostly within a niche defined by hard rock sounds and progressive songwriting, which is hardly chart-topping territory?
People tend to talk about Rush’s music as an object of either love or hate, an experience with no middle ground. That may be true in a broad sense, but both the immediate impact and enduring legacy of the Canadian power trio’s eighth album come down to features that actually make Moving Pictures heavy music’s ultimate bridge album.
Most obviously, but not necessarily adequately appreciated, Moving Pictures was responsible in a big way for bringing prog rock back to the mainstream during a time when the mainstream had all but abandoned it. More than that, and maybe most importantly, Moving Pictures invigorated a rapidly aging heavy music image with the modern sounds and textures of the 80s. (That decade would go on to drown itself in plastic, and Rush would happily oblige, but in 1981, the integration was perfectly balanced.)
The bridging of eras was more than symbolic, as well, as Moving Pictures was the first album that Rush and Terry Brown recorded digitally, part of an overhaul of their sound for the modern rock era. Geddy (mostly) set aside his trusty Rickenbacker in favor of a pawn shop 1972 Fender Jazz, its tone notably bigger, crisper, and, again, more modern. Geddy also brought a heavier dose of synthesizers into the mix, giving them more space than they’d been afforded before, though the synthesized sounds were still supportive and yet to truly assert their dominance. Lifeson imbued his guitar tone with that 80s spirit, too — clean texture and bright sheen — but he kept a foot in the 70s, remembering prog’s intricacies in flashes and bursts while always of a piece with the band. Neil Peart’s inimitable drumming beat at the core, of course, but maybe even more importantly, his lyrics set the tone for a smart record, deep, dark, and dystopian, and yet somehow inward looking and optimistic. The dualities inherent in those stories play such an important role in the album experience and are reflected wonderfully by Hugh Symes’ album art, which hits the double entendre and then even sneaks in an extra layer (hint: remember to check behind the scenes).
The heady nature of any Rush album gives the impression that the band’s process must be long and arduous and reliably methodical, but Moving Pictures was more the product of a spark than a plan, at least at its inception. Barely into a two-year album development strategy devised by the band’s manager, it was Peart who noticed the fire of inspiration coming out of routine goings-on, like sound checks and rehearsals while on the Permanent Waves tour. What was to be a highly structured, outcome-driven marketing plan evaporated in the heat of creative inspiration and after a few months of writing and playing and then recording, Moving Pictures was in the can.
The relative quickness of Moving Pictures’ creation is even more remarkable in light of its wide span of impact. So often, and frequently for good reasons, bands set out with the intention to create a bridge album, a record that will bring together disparate ideas or eras or genres or audiences, and they end up trying to do too much, to be all things to everybody, and they end up being too little of anything to appeal to anyone. The organic provenance of Moving Pictures meant that its ultimate impact was unhindered by intention. It was just the album the band made from the energy that fueled them in the moment, which just happened to be an energy the world needed more than it knew.
Moving Pictures connected heavy music and prog rock, a classic foundation with modern and forward-looking style, the past with the future. Most importantly, it connected so many of the people within those spheres: headbangers with prog nerds, guitar purists with synthesizer trailblazers, rockers with thinkers, even parents with kids. Moving Pictures opened up whole new worlds of music appreciation for millions by shining a light on what apparently disparate communities had and still have in common. [LONE WATIE]
The opening track to Moving Pictures is Rush’s most played song on Spotify. Album-mate “Limelight” sits at number two, but it does so by a difference of nearly 100 million plays. That absurd level of popularity for a single song in a 50-year career can act as a double-edged sword: For the diehard fans that have been around since the early days of Rush, “Tom Sawyer” may now be the overplayed song they’ve come to hate. On the other hand, this song has achieved a level of greatness that sees it hitting nearly 160 million listens on an online music service that didn’t even exist until 27 years after the song was released.
Another example of the song’s popularity transcending time is its inclusion in the 2007 video game Rock Band. While Rush’s hit track regularly appeared on classic rock radio, the generation coming of age in the early Aughts had primarily turned away from the medium and this game gave the beloved progressive Canadians a new unexpected set of fans. I can recall many a time sitting in my friend’s basement with drumsticks at the ready, filled with excited anxiety as that first spaceship note descended. It didn’t take long for Neil Peart’s drum parts in “Tom Sawyer” to become far too difficult for my gangly teen limbs to keep up with.
Peart’s drums may not seem overly complex on a casual listen, but his nuance has always been one of the band’s greatest strengths. Those fills around the 2:30 mark are divine as they launch him into a new stratosphere of mini runs for the remainder of the song. Not to be outdone, Lifeson offers a wicked jamming lead around the halfway mark, and Lee’s bopping bass keeps “Tom Sawyer” driving ever forward, while his synthesizers mark one of the most iconic sounds of Rush’s career. For those that first heard the cover version that was included on Rock Band, it became even more delightful to hear Lee’s eccentric witchy vocals on the real deal.
Some people may dislike the popularity of “Tom Sawyer,” but when more people can tell you about the song than can tell you about its namesake novel, that says something about its staying power. [SPENCER HOTZ]
There are a hundred (or hundred thousand) apt words one could use to describe Rush’s music. Intelligent, intellectual, and introspective; also literary, proudly nerdy, and sometimes playful. Technical, progressive (duh), impressive, catchy, melodious, irresistible, and provocative. It’s uplifting many times and sorrowful at others. I could go on and on, but one word always comes to mind when thinking of Moving Pictures’ second track:
“Red Barchetta” is an absolute delight of a song, as easy to instantly enjoy as anything in the Rush catalog, despite running for over six minutes and being almost deceptively complex. It also perfectly follows their most famous tune by contrasting it in nearly every way, starting with a slow build of soft guitar harmonics and keys before a clean verse allows Geddy plenty of room to weave Neil’s tale of his uncle’s home in the country and that titular car. The tune rides this mood through varying styles and volumes — sometimes with some legitimately hefty riffs to back up Geddy’s wails — all the while maintaining that palpable vibrance and sense of bliss.
Then the sudden shift. A punchy, wonkily-timed passage describes the escapism of hitting the throttle of the car:
In my hair
Shifting and drifting
Alex’s ensuing solo — which carries a certain sweetness without losing his signature hot tone or play style — allows that feeling to sustain, riding every line like the narrator rides that crimson race car. The song is absolutely teeming with nostalgia and escapism, but despite speaking of a “better vanished time” never seems to be yearning for an idealized past that never truly existed. Rather, it is about remembering those people and things that keep small but eternal flames in our hearts. People and things that we cherish sometimes much more than we normally realize. People and things that are simply delightful, like this delightful song. I could write a “Red Barchetta” about “Red Barchetta” itself. [ZACH DUVALL]
My in-depth introduction to Rush came in the very early 90s, a full decade after Moving Pictures was released. I was first learning to play guitar and bass then, and of course, they were exemplary in both fields. Some high school friends and I formed a band, and we’d spend hours upon hours in our drummer’s bedroom, running through takes on “Anthem” and “Closer To The Heart” and a handful of others that never came together. We worked endlessly on what we thought would be our tour de force, something not unlike a version of “YYZ.” (We didn’t have a keyboard player, so we took some liberties with the arrangement.) I couldn’t tell you how many times we played that song, but as the bassist, I can probably tell you how many times I played it well: approximately zero. I’ve had an additional 30 years to practice — although I haven’t played it more than about five times since that band split up in the mid-90s — but I doubt I could play it worth a damn now, either. At least I’m consistent.
Coming a few years past “La Villa Strangiata,” which might well be the greatest instrumental rock song of all time, “YYZ” shortens the overall length without sacrificing any of the intricate arrangement techniques that made Rush prog-rock deities in the previous decade. Famously based on Morse code for the Toronto airport designation, the rhythm starts in 5/4, Peart’s cymbal work pinging out an insistent and distinctive pulse before being joined by Geddy’s bass playing a tritone combination of F# and C. Peart and Lee are locked in perfectly, pulling off one of those spiraling tandem fills a la “The Spirit Of Radio” that leads into “YYZ”‘s main riff, and pretty much there, a minute into the song, is where my high school drummer and I fell apart every time. That main riff’s a syncopated funky bit with Alex playing a hooky melody while Neil holds down a swinging groove beneath and Geddy’s just going bananas in the middle of it all. The bridge has Alex blasting out some stinging chords, with the rhythm section trading fills during his breaks, both Geddy and Neil showing exactly why they’re considered gods of their respective instruments. Mostly left out of the flashy fun thusfar, Alex brings it home with a solo that’s both oddball and catchy, as he tends to do, before the whole thing drops into a quick downtempo keyboard-led turnaround (this is 80s Rush, after all), only to kick back in and repeat the main section to wrap, another tandem fill leading into a heavily staccato revisitation of the 5/4 intro… and scene.
So many instrumental rock songs just sound like songs no one ever wrote lyrics for, but Rush constructed instrumentals that function as actual songs. (A case in point for the first half of that sentence: The boring ambient half-finished idea that beat out “YYZ” for the instrumental rock Grammy that year.) Rush instrumentals aren’t just instrumentals because there are no words; there are no words because words are unnecessary in those songs. The music is what matters, and no one made music like this. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
I don’t remember when I first heard it. I don’t remember how it made me feel. Hell, I didn’t even remember that I owned Moving Pictures on CD until a few days ago.
But I do remember some things, like how at first I hated Rush when they appeared on my radar in the Roll the Bones era. Things turned around with Counterparts, but there were older tracks that still annoyed the crap out of me. I won’t even go into when I thought THEY were the ones doing the borrowing with regards to Primus’s “John the Fisherman.” Somewhere around there, though, came “Limelight.” Maybe it was the unlikely classmate whose listening habits consisted of Rush and various Christian rock bands. We’d sit in geometry class and he’d tell me about his Rush albums, show me the pages where he’d written out the lyrics to his favorite Rush songs, and how much he loathed the Melvins when he saw them in concert together.
Come to think of it, that guy was probably more important than I realized. I was a budding musical nerd hungrily seeking and devouring new bands from local rock radio (when it was still worth a damn), local and national print magazines (R.I.P. RIP), MTV, and word of mouth. Problem was, most of the other kids at my grade level didn’t give a damn about any of that. So here’s this guy who is not only really into this band Rush, but he really wants to talk about them all the time. What else could I do but listen to more Rush and try to turn these into two-sided conversations?
To that end, there was no better Rush song for an angsty teen than “Limelight,” Neil Peart’s rumination on the alienation and discomfort that came with living a life in the public eye. Unrelatable on the surface, the notion that “All the world’s indeed a stage / and we are merely players” binds us, unifies us in the knowledge that we are all being watched, all the time, just by virtue of living. It’s up to each of us, then, to “Put aside the alienation / get on with the fascination / … / the underlying theme” — whatever that theme is. The rest of the Holy Trinity focuses on that with a composition so positive, so uplifting, that it makes you forget whatever it is that had you down in the first place. Put it all together and you have a song that fills you with a surge of life in a way that few others can. [DAVE PIRTLE]
THE CAMERA EYE
The longest song on Moving Pictures (and the longest the band has released in forty years), “The Camera Eye” uses its length to span the Atlantic. Written as a contrast between New York and London, the song showcases the magic of rhythm and timbre in musical storytelling. Synthesizers and heavy guitars paint the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the first movement of the song, when Lee provides a startling contrast by describing “grim-faced and forbidding” New Yorkers in the least grim-faced way ever set to chords.
“I feel the sense of possibilities,” the chorus tells us, and “The Camera Eye” encourages the listener to feel them too, in the thick wash of phasers on guitars, in the glorious reverb on the toms, in the spacious expanse of arpeggiated chords, in the violin-like screeching of harmonics. Open your eyes and ears, the structure of the music seems to say. Look up, instead of always down. Feel the rain, you need not be oblivious. “I feel the wrench of hard realities.” And of course we do, as well. The contrasts between what could be and what actually is are, if anything, even starker in 2021 than they were in 1981.
“The focus is sharp in the city.” Forty years later, “The Camera Eye” describes hopefulness in an ever-shifting landscape. A camera sees light, not darkness. Why be grim-faced? Why be oblivious? These are choices, not dictates. We, like the camera, can see
Of light unique to
Every city’s streets.
“Commercial success” are two words people often associate with Rush’s 8th album, Moving Pictures, and with FM radio-conquering dignitaries such as “Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ” and “Limelight” afoot and taking up the whole of side A, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to understand why that’s the case. But even with the more direct, friendlier song structure kicked off by Permanent Waves and magnified further through Moving Pictures netting oodles of new recruits, Rush still managed to keep a significant portion of its old fanbase thanks to one particular provision: They never lost touch with the joys of embracing maximum nerdliness. So, even though the songs were shorter and less fantastical, they were still intricate, often inspired by literature and / or innovative viewpoints, and of course very progressive in both structure and vision.
For its part, “Witch Hunt” marked a precipitous bend down a darker path (compared to the rest of the record) by introducing the first of what was initially intended to be a three-part series of songs covering the concept of fear—also included were Part 2, “The Weapon” from 1982’s Signals; Part 1, “The Enemy Within” from 1984’s Grace Under Pressure; and eventually a newly added Part 4, “Freeze” from 2002’s Vapor Trails. Now, why would the first song in the “Fear Series” coming from the earliest album of the four be designated Part 3? No idea. Likely something delightfully nerdy. Each of the four songs also completed the cycle of ‘fade in / close abruptly’ (“Witch Hunt”), ‘begin abruptly / fade out’ (“The Enemy Within”), ‘fade in / fade out’ (“The Weapon”), and ‘begin abruptly / end abruptly’ (“Freeze”). Again… NERDLY NERDLETONS UNITE!!
The song itself is decidedly doomy—”Witch Hunt” tiptoes into your speakers with impish, atonal chimes that mingle alongside the distant shouts of an angry mob. Lifeson’s principal riff here is dark and menacing, and it marches in step with Lee’s grim caution of “The night is black / Without a moon,” with Peart’s booming strikes augmenting the overall peril to great effect. In time, praised be, the listener is spared perdition through two notably well-timed utilizations of absurdly epic keys (provided by cover artist Hugh Syme, oddly enough) that lift all fearful souls within earshot above the din and darkness, and Lee’s domineering bass picks up the heartening shift toward the song’s conclusion.
In truth, “Witch Hunt” feels fairly straightforward, and it is, particularly for a Rush song, which makes the tales of its worrisome cut & paste construction in the studio all the more remarkable. However, what the song lacks in twists and turns architecturally, it more than makes up for in its eternal and very timely message: Intolerance sucks, and we must always be mindful of those who endeavor to control the populace through fear. One would hope the human race would eventually assimilate that valuable lesson, but here we are in 2021 still trying to get a grip on that very same message.
“They say there are strangers, who threaten us
Our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness, too dangerous
In our theatres and bookstore shelves
Those who know what’s best for us—
Must rise and save us, from ourselves
Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
Walk hand in hand”
The easy angle on “Vital Signs” is that it’s “Rush goes reggae.” Of course, this wasn’t the first time our intrepid explorers dipped their toes in the style, although that classic reggae rhythm was only featured briefly in the closing section of Permanent Waves‘s “The Spirit of Radio” one year prior. Still, even if the reggae pulse is undeniable, there’s an unsettling undercurrent that runs throughout “Vital Signs,” in particular with the fluttering synthesizer that tracks with Geddy’s bass in the verse, and with how Peart’s drums on that first bridge are intentionally clipped and made artificially brittle. Lifeson’s guitar throughout is a paragon of restraint, only even barely pushing into frame towards the end and laying out almost entirely for Geddy’s high-tonic synth break.
As the song goes on, though, it only builds in fullness and confidence, opening up and eventually reaching an extended crescendo not so much by adding new layers as by tweaking the production on the instruments as we move from verse to verse, chorus to chorus. It’s a neat trick that puts into musical form the same “mixed feelings” of the lyrics, the terse, epigraphic treatment of technological change driving change in social interaction (or possibly the other way around). The juxtaposition of the warmth and soul of reggae against the cool detachment of synthesizers and electronic tones was a persistent flirtation in new wave music, but Rush harnessed those contradictions even further against a backdrop of propulsive, ineluctably progressive rock, closing out this absolute titan of an album not with an archly closed parenthesis, but instead with an open-hearted ellipsis.
Everybody gotta evelate, y’all. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]