I. Blown Away
It was a beautiful spring day.
At least so it seemed. The calendar said it was still February, so officially we were still in winter. But Winter 1981 in Lexington, KY, was unseasonably warm.
On that fateful afternoon, I met up with my friend Greg Sims at the end of the school day. We hopped into his Chevy Monza (or, ‘The Monza-rati’ as we called it) and he drove me over to the K-Mart on New Circle Road. I went in, quickly located a copy of the new Rush album, Moving Pictures, made my purchase, and headed back out to the car. Greg gave me a ride home, and then took off, as he had to work while I had the night off from my job.
I don’t remember the exact day it was when I made this purchase, but it likely was the same day the album was released. While that detail is fuzzy through the haze of thirty three years, I can say with confidence that I hadn’t heard so much as a single note of the record yet. At that time, listening to FM rock radio was a big part of my music consumption, and songs from Moving Pictures (especially Tom Sawyer) were in heavy rotation almost as soon as the album was released. Knowing that I had not heard any of the album before I listened to it on that fateful day tells me that it most likely was its release date.
I opened the window in my bedroom to get in some of that nice spring-like air and then quickly removed the cellophane from the album cover. The vinyl record was removed from its sleeve, and put on the turntable. I set it in motion to start playing before quickly but comfortably implanting myself into an oversized beanbag chair I had in my room. As I pulled out the liner to look at the lyrics, I heard the needle make contact with vinyl, hearing the first few cracks and pops that were so common to music lovers of that era. And then …
… the synthesizer intro to Tom Sawyer, the drums pacing things underneath. Oh my God.
Right then and there I knew I was listening to a great album – Rush’s masterwork. To some, it might have seemed like I was jumping the gun. But there are some things you just know. And based on nothing more than the first few seconds of Tom Sawyer, I knew. Oh man. This is going to be a great album.
A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride
Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh
(oh man, this is AWESOME!!)
Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh
Duh duh duh duh DUUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNHHHHHHHHH
I was soooooo hooked and I wasn’t even one minute into the first song. With every Alex Lifeson power chord, with every pluck of the Geddy Lee’s bass, every keyboard note, with every drum beat from Neil Peart, my conclusion of greatness was confirmed and reconfirmed.
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you
And then came the synthesizer solo. There are no words that can describe my state of mind at this point. ‘Ecstatic’ … ‘thrilled’ … ‘mesmerized’ … all were inadequate. The rapture of a Rush fan.
Nevertheless, the rational part of my brain was still fully functioning. As I listened through the rest of Tom Sawyer, it was clear that Rush was in the process of making a quantum leap forward. This didn’t just sound like any other Rush album … it sounded like all the Rush albums. But I knew would have to distill that thought a bit to bring it into focus.
Red Barchetta was up next. I loved it immediately. It was more guitar driven than the previous song, but still had a certain refinement not heard on some of their earlier guitar-heavy works. And it didn’t take long to recognize the lyrical themes of freedom vs. tyranny, the individual vs. the collective, and the free man vs. the state that I had first encountered on 2112 (discussed here). One of the things I had loved about Rush when I first heard them was all right here in one neat little package.
Then came YYZ. Another instrumental, just as they had done on Hemispheres with La Villa Strangiato. However, this one was much more focused, much tighter. It certainly could not be called “an exercise in self-indulgence” as the band had referred to its previous instrumental. Full of great riffs and great playing, this one is still instantly recognizable all these years later, and still one of their live centerpieces.
Side one drew to a close with Limelight, and again I knew I was listening to an instant classic. The music included some thick power chords from Lifeson’s guitar, not unlike some of their earliest works. Yet, it still seemed very fresh and new. The whole feel of this song was great. Something new and yet something familiar. The song ended and the needle returned to the resting position, but my state of euphoric shock continued.
After flipping the vinyl record over and starting the turntable for side 2, I noticed that the first song, The Camera Eye, was a bit extended in length. Not a sidelong suite like 2112 or Hemispheres, but more comparable in length to the excellent Natural Science from their previous album, Permanent Waves.
I kicked back again to the comfort of the beanbag and listened to the city noises that preceded some random synth buzzing before some proper keyboard lines made their appearance. Eventually, Lifeson joined the party, as the song moved forward with some heavy grace. A brief pause intervened, and then a more frantic keyboard line announced “here we go!” And just like that, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were off to the races.
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
DAAAN dun dun
(Yeah, we are cruisin’ now, baby!!)
It was as if we were being transported somewhere. We arrived when the instrumental section gave way to Geddy’s vocals. He delivered lyrical imagery of life in New York City from the point of a detached observer contemplating it all. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I loved it nonetheless.
After that, the cycle repeated, and off we were transported to London for some images and observations of that city, and a contrast with New York.
A more fantastic beginning to Side 2 would have been impossible. Five songs in, and my hastily drawn conclusion of the album’s greatness didn’t seem so hasty now. On the contrary, my initial gut feeling had been right on target.
The mood of the music definitely took a shift with Witch Hunt. With this song, I followed the lyrics more closely than I had with any other. While I was never one to be particularly rebellious, I have long had a skepticism for authority and for others who “knew what was best” for me. Thus, when Geddy delivered the line “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves,” it hit home.
I had some ideas of the particular intolerant a**holes to whom the lyrics referred at the time, but as I’ve learned over the years, the lyrics are broadly applicable to intolerance from all across the political spectrum.
Six tracks up, six tracks down. Every damn one of them incredible. Only one left to go.
Vital Signs made it seven for seven. A quirky synthesizer and guitar with a reggae beat? Who can pull that off? Well, Rush can. I laid back and enjoyed the music as the album I had dubbed a masterwork in its opening bar raced to its conclusion.
The familiar cracks and pops returned for a few seconds before I heard the needle lift and the arm move to its resting spot. I sat there and contemplated what I had just experienced, and drew a few more conclusions.
I knew this album was going to be huge. Every Rush fan and their grandmother was going to want a copy, and it would also bring in legions of new fans. While the hipster critics would hate it (but who cares about them, anyway?), the fans, both new and old, were going to love it. I knew Tom Sawyer would be their signature song. It was played at each of the four Rush concerts I witnessed subsequent to the release of Moving Pictures and appears on every video concert of Rush that I have watched. I knew that this would be the end of one era and the beginning of another for Rush. And I definitely knew that in my little bedroom on Marlboro Drive, on my modest stereo, this album was going to spend a lot of time on the turntable. Through the remainder of 1981, there was not another album that even came close.
Rush albums generally take a few listens before they truly sink in with me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, it’s something I like about Rush. Having the various layers revealed through multiple listens can be very rewarding it its own right. This album, on the other hand, did not. It strongly resonated with me right out of the gate. Just one listen, and I truly was blown away.
II. The Sum and The Whole
Moving Pictures was many things. For one, it was an album that took the best of everything Rush had done before then, combined it, and distilled it into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a culmination of their previous work in the same way that Close to the Edge was for Yes; it was the album that made the statement “we have arrived” the same way Dark Side of the Moon did for Pink Floyd.
The music of the first few Rush albums were centered around heavy guitar. As the band honed their chops, they began writing extended pieces, first with The Fountain of Lamenth and then hitting big with 2112. In A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, the role of keyboards in Rush music changed from simply providing atmospheric background to a more prominent role in the melodic discourse, often times being a featured instrument for sections of songs. In the meantime, the band took a more experimental approach, both musically and lyrically. And on Permanent Waves, the band pared back some of the excesses of previous albums while tightening up their songwriting.
Moving Pictures takes something from all of the previous Rush albums and combines it into something new – and greater. Here, Rush took pieces from every one of their previous albums and put it together into something that sounded both fresh and familiar. On the outstanding documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Peart states “As I define it, that’s when be became us … I think Rush was born with Moving Pictures.” He further states “It represents so much that we learned up to that time about songwriting, about arrangement, that’s when we brought our band identity together.” Both statements – but especially the second – really hit home for me. Moving Pictures pulled it all together into one package that is both synergistic and perfect.
III. And Ending and a Beginning
Given that Moving Pictures is a culmination of everything the band had produced up to that time, it represented (at least to me) an ending to the first phase of Rush music. But as much as it was an ending, it was also a beginning. Moving Pictures also served as a segue to and a launching pad for Rush’s output in the 1980’s. Particularly notable on Moving Pictures was the integration of the keyboards into the music. To be sure, most Rush albums prior to Moving Pictures had included at least some keyboards. However, keyboards seemed to be featured primarily when the other instruments stopped, most notably evident in keyboard solos that appears in songs such as Xanadu, Circumstances, and Jacob’s Ladder. This has been the source of a significant amount of controversy among Rush fans, with Moving Pictures being the dividing line. Nevertheless, anecdotally anyway, most Rush fans I have known like this album, irrespective of where they stand on their prior or subsequent work.
For my money, Moving Pictures was the first in a sequence of four albums that marked a portion of Rush’s career that was creatively very fertile. Following with Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows, the tighter integration of the keyboards that began with Moving Pictures continued even further, while the number of outside influences that made their way into the music continued to increased. This trend eventually played itself out in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Rush began to return to a more guitar-centric sound, with 1993’s Counterparts being most emblematic of that shift. However, in the twelve years leading up to that album, the echoes of Moving Pictures could be heard in every intervening release.
IV. Lasting Impact
I’ve heard every album of original Rush music (I have not heard Feedback, their album of remakes … but I’ll get to it). None of them are bad, most of them are at least good, and a number of them are truly great. I’ve been astonished at their ability to produce so much good music over the course of their career. I’m even more astonished that they have been able to produce such excellent music so late in their career (Clockwork Angels, anybody?) at a time when other bands are typically doing nothing more than rehashing their glory days or producing sub-par output.
Still, no Rush album has ever had an impact on me that is as lasting as Moving Pictures. If I had to choose only one Rush album to take to a desert island with me, this would be it and it wouldn’t even be a tough decision. Now as you can guess from what I’ve written above, that is not a criticism of any of their other albums. It’s just a simple recognition that not only did Moving Pictures have an immediate and powerful effect on me on that February day in 1981, it’s that the effect has never faded. Higher praise than that is simply not possible.
13 thoughts on “Synergistic Perfection: First – and Lasting – Impressions of Moving Pictures”
Reblogged this on Stormfields.
Wonderful piece, Erik. Brings back warm memories of buying Moving Pictures myself on release day. I was so desperate to hear it that I stopped off at a friend’s on the way back from the record store rather than wait another 20 minutes to listen in my own home!
We put it on the turntable and sat down – then jaws hit the floor and pretty much stayed there until it was time to get up and turn the disc over. We played side 2, then played the whole thing again. Then again, a third time – at which point my friend’s mum intervened and said to me “isn’t it time you were heading home?” 🙂
I feel sufficiently inspired that I might start writing my “In Praise of Steel” piece tonight…
Thanks, Nick – looks like I wasn’t the only one who experienced Moving Pictures in this way!
Great essay, Erik. I totally agree that “For one, it was an album that took the best of everything Rush had done before then, combined it, and distilled it into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.” Well said!
Thanks, Tad – I had a lot of fun writing it, as you may have noticed 😉
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Man, what an essay. I totally agree with you. The first time I heard Moving Pictures was in 1991, ten years later, here in south of Brazil. Since that, my life changed. And today, in 2014 I am still listening to Rush in a turntable (the best way to do it in my opinion) with my kids. Thank you for sharing your experience. Probably it was almost the same with different kids in different parts of the globe. That is the magic of these 3 guys who we call RUSH.
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Thank you, Luciano. I hope you were one of the lucky ones that made it to Rio for the Rush in Rio concert!
Great write up. I experienced and think the same thing about thus album. I was a senior in high school and heard it played at midnight on DC101 early Tuesday morning February 1981. When I got to school the next the many friends I had there who were into Rush had the gleem in our eyes. Without speaking we knew what the deal was. Heavy discussions all week long. Riff learning to be had for us musicians. The joy of that one album. Motivated me to the potential of possibilities.
DC101 in Washington DC was a big supporter of Rush for many years early on. I taped the album that night while listening and played the tape for a couple months constantly and then bought the album to refresh and experience it with the official record in my hands. It was heavily played for the rest of the year only to compete with Exit Stage Left that Fall but I would switch between them a lot. 😀 my brother and I always believed it’s the ultimate Rush Desert Island Disc.
And I really thought that moving pictures was a museum relocating it’s painting. Hahaha. That was a good one though.
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