Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’ at 40
Every band, if they’re lucky, is able to create a definitive work — a document that embodies their unique qualities. Most great bands, at some point in their career, successfully produce an enduring statement. Some artists, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, are able to capture — or create — the Zeitgeist on more than one occasion On the other hand; there are plenty of worthwhile and beloved bands who have never quite been capable of distilling the necessary ingredients of a classic recording. Finally, there are those almost unfathomable works that only a handful of bands can claim credit for. These exceptional albums are wholly original yet fully accessible and remain influential and imitated long after their release.
Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents both a culmination and a progression: the peak of the band’s development as well as the blueprint for Rush’s subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.
Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ’70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.
The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.
Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, inevitable. There is also a palpable sense of confidence infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.
Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s considerable purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the great rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.
Considering other albums that would make the short list for all-time status, it is difficult to isolate ones that don’t have a weak link or a song that, no matter its merit, sounds slightly out of place. For an example of the former, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has some fluff (“Lovely Rita”) and the almost-immaculate Abbey Road has the love-it-or-hate-it “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the (almost) universally reviled “Octopus’s Garden”. For an example of the latter, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is quite difficult to quibble with on any level, but “Money” has always seemed like the song that could — or should — have been released as a single. There are probably many other excellent examples, just as there likely more than a few rock music aficionados who would insist there is no such thing as perfection, much less a perfect album. Finally, as previously discussed, perfection and how to define it is, at best, a dicey and ultimately futile endeavor. Put another way: who cares? Do we need to debate the parameters of a perfect album or, worse still, which albums are “more perfect” than others? Ultimately, all that matters is why the music works and why it warrants consideration.
One of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ’80s (the opening seconds of “Tom Sawyer” practically scream “meet the new boss!” and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but it manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his “shriek”) is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally, or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.
For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is it the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the almost unbelievable fact that several of the songs could (and did) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums — no matter how unique and convincing — Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other bands would begin to emulate and envy. And four full decades after its release, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance.
“Tom Sawyer”, of course, is the signature tune (of this album and in the band’s catalog); the song that single-handedly transformed Rush from cult heroes to mainstream act. It remains a crowd-favorite in their concerts and epitomizes the unique appeal of the band itself. Featuring words (co-written with Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois) that are evocative but, in the end, somewhat opaque, the song invites multiple interpretations. By name-checking Mark Twain’s famous rebel and giving him a cold war sensibility, Rush were now officially adults making music that could resonate with a younger as well as a mature audience. They also pulled off the improbable trick of creating a successful, if inscrutable song after being criticized for making too-obvious and obscure music. As a rallying cry for individualism (something Peart would specialize in for the next several albums) that has more to do with resistance than cynicism, “Tom Sawyer” is in many regards the penultimate ’80s anthem. The astute observation that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is” could aptly summarize the four-decade trajectory of the band.
“Red Barchetta”, an adrenaline rush set to music, is less about the lyrics (inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive”) than about the feeling. This is another example of the band’s evolution and increased confidence: they are now able to harness and convey the same type of emotion and effect that they spent an entire album side developing and condense it into six minutes. Listening to anything before Permanent Waves, it would have frankly been improbable to anticipate Rush creating a song like this. And as much as any of the tracks on Moving Pictures, “Red Barchetta” is one you can imagine the nerds, jocks and stoners (to sardonically pick three random stereotypes) all breaking out the air guitars for.
“YYZ”, the title a tribute to the identification code for Toronto International airport, is another fan favorite and fixture in their live set. This instrumental is likely the song that initially caused scales to fall from the eyes of sleeping listeners and critics. Again, little if anything the band had achieved to this point could have prepared anyone for the dexterity and flair Rush could now conjure up, seemingly at will. The playful interaction — a “dueling banjos” of sorts — between the bass and drums signifies another unique element the band had added to its arsenal: their virtuosity is unabashed, almost celebratory, but the humor and mirth are now unmistakable; this is a band having fun. Then there is Lifeson’s short but scorching guitar solo that sounds less like a nod than a gauntlet being thrown at the feet of Eddie Van Halen, the then-reigning guitar god.
“Limelight”, while not quite as universally worshipped as “Tom Sawyer”, is arguably Rush’s most important song to this point. At a time when the band was poised to break through in momentous fashion, Peart writes the ultimate ode to independence from inside the glare of the “fish eye lens”. Peart articulates his growing alienation with the dubious trappings of fame, which he largely considered intrusions on his personal space. At the same time he crafts a manifesto of sorts for the persona he would cultivate over the ensuing decades: the brilliant, aloof and uncompromising icon in one of the world’s most popular bands. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend” is a line that continues to cause controversy all these years later, but Peart was writing from the heart, and he needed to convey that message. His wariness, of course, was justified, since the fans who complain the loudest about lyrics like these are often the people for whom they were intended.
Did someone say sci-fi and fantasy? The two prominent allusions on Moving Pictures are from Shakespeare (“all the world’s a stage”, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It — which was also utilized as the title for their first live album) and novelist John Dos Passos (“The Camera Eye”; Dos Passos would be referenced again on “The Big Money” from 1985’s Power Windows). In fact, the outward glance and engagement with the so-called real world Rush demonstrated on Permanent Waves is further fleshed out all through Moving Pictures. “The Camera Eye” (the last time the band would record a song lasting more than ten minutes) updates the macro view of ecological concerns from “Natural Science” and focuses on the uneasy harmony of frenzied urban existence. A recurring theme on both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures — and one that would resurface in most of their later work — is the struggle for human beings to connect in a hyper-modern society.
“Witch Hunt”, while invoking the hysteria of both the Salem trials and the McCarthy hearings, functions as an austere reminder that “the more that things change, the more they stay the same”. Serving as the first installment of Peart’s trenchant “fear trilogy”, the messages from “Witch Hunt” endure in large part because successive generations remain incapable of learning from the past. Condemning the mob mentality that vindicates violence, Peart laments that “ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…” Rush, as previously noted, had gradually cultivated the status of a band that could endorse individuality and advocate for the underdog. Now, Peart was introducing a sociopolitical element into his lyrics, and Rush would increasingly give voice to an ongoing critique of the apathy and avarice that sustain the status quo.
Last, but definitely not least, is the ideal album closer that keeps one foot in the present and the other stepping audaciously into the future, “Vital Signs”. Although arguably the least “popular” song on Moving Pictures, it remains, in some ways, the most impressive or at least multi-faceted. As Peart has noted, this song was the result of Rush’s penchant for attempting to create one semi-spontaneous, studio-created piece per album. It is (literally) forward-looking in its playful use of what Peart called “Technospeak”. The lyrics, which mention “short circuits” “crossed signals” and “warm memory chip(s)”, are not a catalog of trendy terms so much as an ingenious commentary on how humans were (and would) increasingly becoming machine-like. If anything, Peart’s reflections seem prescient considering the ways our electronic “toys” have become indispensable parts of our daily routine. “Everybody got mixed feelings about the function and the form,” he observes with neither complaint nor approval. The proposition, which remains an unassailable call to arms for artists and fans alike, is attempting to “elevate from the norm”. Most striking is the actual sound the band achieves, which certainly anticipates the direction they would head for the next several years. “Vital Signs” recalls the reggae rhythms first heard in “The Spirit of Radio”, but also incorporates the more central role the synthesizer would play (for this song the perfect message of music and lyrics). Also, and most astonishing, this song manages to rock and groove: Rush, the whitest band in the history of music, is convincingly funky here.
Moving Pictures is, in every regard, a “quantum leap forward” where new wave meets hard rock; the rarest of albums where all elements mesh together. Looking back, this postmodern period piece endures as a reflection of how intriguing music had begun to seem and sound at the beginning of the ’80s. Rush would capitalize on this artistic momentum and continue to craft significant albums that helped define the sound of a decade.
This piece originally appeared in 2011 at PopMatters.
(Much) more on Neil Peart here and especially here.
More on Rush on the occasion of their overdue induction into the R&R Hall of Fame here.