31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush

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Moving Pictures. Rush.
1981, Anthem. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rush is a band that has divided people for years, but I’ve always been firmly on their side! Moving Pictures is a record that displays the band’s virtuosity, but also packages it in a more radio-friendly, catchy style. It’s still easy to get carried away by the grand displays of talent; it takes me back to my awkward teen years when I knew I had discovered “The Greatest!” Amazing bass and drums, cool guitar, and great songs.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I am not the greatest. Whatever category you have there, I’m not the greatest. I don’t box or play baseball or paint, so I’m certainly not greatest at those pursuits. But even among the things I do, and the things I’ve done and the things I am, I’m not, and never was, the greatest. I’m not the greatest writer1. I’m not the greatest bass player. I wasn’t the greatest comedian or actor or playwright or chemist. I’m not the greatest QA guy or husband/father/son/brother/friend.

Don’t worry! I’m not spiraling down a depressive pit of despair! I’m generally satisfied with my abilities, or my abilities to improve my abilities. It’s just that I think any discussion of a person as “greatest” at anything is, practically speaking, silly and not worth my time and energy.

Perhaps it’s my career in science that provides me with an analytical view of such things, but to my mind the term “greatest” implies something measurable. “Among his friends, Roy has the greatest number of guitars.” We can all get together, count guitars and there can be no dispute. The term “best” is a little more slippery, but in a scientific setting it can be (and is) tied to actual data. Statisticians use “best fit” to assess data points. Drug researchers review study results (data!) to select the best drug candidate.

Given the inextricable relationship between measurements and assessed hierarchy, it’s clear that the further away from science (measurable things) one moves on the continuum of human pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to proclaim something “best” or “greatest.” And since art is about as far from science on that continuum as possible2 calling something the “greatest” in art simply doesn’t make sense. What are you measuring to call it the best?

In this modern, commerce-obsessed, capital-worshiping era, there is at least one measurable aspect of art: sales. However, when most people are speaking of “great art” or “great artists,” I don’t believe they’re basing the assessment on money. For example, the highest-grossing films ever don’t have much overlap with best films selected by critics or the general public. Unless you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll rarely hear many serious debates over whether The Avengers or Furious 7 is the better film. The same goes for best-selling albums vs. critics‘ and listener picks, although there seems to be more overlap in this arena. Best-selling books vs. critical picks align very closely over history, but this is because the books critics love are purchased over and over for centuries. But year-by-year the best-selling books are rarely the winners of well-known literary prizes.

Whenever I hear an artist, or a work of art, called “The Greatest,” or “The Best,” I nod along and grit my teeth like a high school English teacher hearing a stranger use the malaprop “for all intensive purposes.” I understand it’s my own pet peeve, and I have enough wherewithal to keep it to myself that I wish The Oscars® awarded “Most Well-Liked Picture” instead of “Best Picture.” But it’s everywhere you look, particularly in music writing. “Greatest Album.” “Best Guitarist.” “Greatest Songs.”

I get what people mean when they say “greatest.” When people talk about the Great Guitarists, for example, they usually mean somebody whose style and ability blows you away. So I recognize that people will say The Greatest guitarist is Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix or Prince or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Brad Paisley or Albert King or Keith Richards or Randy Rhodes or Yngwie Malmsteen or Catfish Collins or Stevie Ray Vaughn or John Mayer or George Harrison or Billy Gibbons or … or … or … I mean, come on. It gets ridiculous after a while. Especially when you consider the question: “Who gives a shit?” The Ramones did this, and it was awesome, so who cares whether or not Johnny Ramone played a solo? The Edge played three notes in this song, big deal! Technical ability is impressive, and it’s fun to discuss the styles and merits of all types of artists – writers, composers, dancers, sarangi players – but when it comes right down to it, art is not a contest. Artists are not contestants. No artist can be “the greatest3.”

That’s how I feel about it now. But there was a time, as a teen, that I had no doubt about who were the greatest and I had no problem letting you, or anyone else, know who they were and why. And the Greatest Band was Rush. And the Greatest Guitarist, Bassist and Drummer were Alex Lifeson4, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart, respectively. And I would argue all day with you about that.

There is little doubt today why I had so few girlfriends as a teenager.

I’ve written before about first getting into Rush via the drummers in my high school marching band, about long teenage hours spent in my basement, letting their music take me away. Their songs were attractive to a kid like me: socially awkward, interested in puzzles and games, confident about little besides my schoolwork, always feeling stuck on the outside looking in. Their songs and lyrics made them sound like they were just as awkward and outsider-y as I was, yet they reveled in it! They were dorks like me, but were proud to be dorks, churning out album-side-long, hard-rock epics in the days of 2-minute, 3-chord punk songs and repetitive disco beats. They were happy to be respected by their fans even if the cool kids (i.e. critics) mocked them. They were a fantasy of self-confidence brought to life for a kid like me, idols for reasons beyond simply their music.

And when things like “greatest” mattered to me, as individuals they were always ranked highly in all the lists I could find. Neil Peart on drums5. Geddy Lee on bass6. Alex Lifeson on guitar7. This seemed to validate my appreciation of them despite their lack of cool-kid-cred.

The band has embraced their nerdiness, playing it up in a Hollywood movie, I Love You, Man. Their equally-nerdy fans are known to be a bit obsessive and do things like bring glowing drumsticks to concerts to “play” along. Family Guy loves poking fun at the band’s fans, who include the guys from South Park, who produced a video to introduce the band at concerts in the late 00s.

Even though I’ve changed a lot since those teenage years of proclaiming “the greatest!” and even though my tastes have broadened and changed, the deep bond I formed with the album Moving Pictures remains. I’m no longer worried that I won’t fit in, I’m no longer seeking excellence outside myself to validate what’s inside myself. But I still love this record. I still get a tingly sense of awe when I hear that swirling synthesizer chord I’ve heard a million times, the one that opens Moving Pictures, and their most well-known song, “Tom Sawyer.”

That synth growls beneath Peart’s tight drum beat, and right off the bat I’ll just have to say it: You’re going to have to deal with Geddy Lee’s voice. Many folks can’t get over that hump, and if that’s you, well, this write-up is going to seem twice as long as usual. The bass and drums really carry the song from the beginning, on those majestic four-note motifs after each verse (starting at 0:14) and the snaking bass line that begins at 0:39. While playing bass, Lee also plays foot-pedal synths (as shown in a glimpse of his funky shoe at 0:45). You may wonder why you have trouble out on the dance floor with “Tom Sawyer” after the synth solo at 1:39. That’s because during the solo the song shifts out of the comfortable 4/4 time signature into the two-left-feet-generating 7/4 time signature. The song hangs there during Lifeson’s amazing guitar solo at 2:01, while Lee’s pulsing bass and Peart’s flurry of drums move through changes with ease. It builds to a satisfying conclusion around 2:36 and sticks the landing like a gold-medal gymnast back in 4/4 for the final verse.

It’s these instrumental freak-outs, with deft transitions between parts and time signatures, played by three guys who seem to be loving what they’re doing, that endear the band to fans. That and the lyrics, by drummer Peart, which are typically about self and art and people, and sometimes present his convictions very directly. They are lyrics that are at times ripe for parody, but those of us who sang along as teens never found them funny. “Tom Sawyer” was a message to us fans to stay true to ourselves.

Another style of lyrics that Peart writes are stories, particularly of the futuristic, sci-fi variety; for example a society in which driving a car is against the law, and the thrill of breaking that law. That’s the story of “Red Barchetta,” always my favorite on the album.

This is the song that made me want to be a bass player, and for years I thought of it as my “second-favorite song” behind only “Strawberry Fields Forever.” From Lee’s opening runs behind Lifeson’s ringing harmonics all the way through his little bass solos during the outro of the song, I air-bass-guitared along to this one a million times. Lifeson plays a subtle line behind the verses that I love8. The song really kicks in, and I get my flashbacks to youth, after the first verse, at 1:16. The story of the freedom of driving, and the thrilling music behind it – back then it sounded like escape to me, and even though I didn’t realize it, escape was what I wanted. The drums are amazing – the 20 seconds between 1:30 and 1:50 show Peart’s inventiveness, supporting a simple 4/4 back beat with brilliant kick drum fills. It’s got “lead bass” (as opposed to “lead guitar”) throughout, creating a dual lead situation during the wonderful guitar solo of Lifeson at 3:24. Peart’s drums behind the last verse, around 4:00, just swing, with that cymbal on the upbeat and the couplets on the kick drum. This song meant so much to me 35 years ago, and it’s wonderful to listen nowadays and to experience bits of those feelings once again. As hard as those teen years could be, this song brings back only the good vibes.

We’ve established that the three members of the band are quite proficient, but like true nerds everywhere – comparing calculus solutions or topping off their friend’s robot with the perfect flame-shooting nozzle – the band wallows in their virtuosity on the wonderful instrumental “YYZ.”

“YYZ” is the three-letter airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport, the Canadian band’s home airport, and the main riff is actually built on the Morse Code signal for the letters Y-Y-Z. (I told you they’re nerds.) I don’t have much to say about the song other than “holy moley, it’s so fucking good!!!” I love the back and forth, as the band trades solos; I love Lee’s inventive playing; and I particularly love Lifeson’s Middle Eastern sounding solo, beginning around 2:20.

The band returns to a more grounded, standard pop format, yet still with a Rush spin, on the AOR radio hit “Limelight.”

Of course, as “pop” and “radio-friendly” as the song is, once again dancefloor denizens would be stymied by its odd time signatures, switching deftly between 7/4, 3/4 and 6/4 with a few odd 4/4 bars thrown in. It’s got a strong melody, and while Lee’s high-pitched voice is front and center, it’s a tame version, with few screeches. Lifeson’s guitar solo at about 2:42 is one of my favorites of all time9. It begins with long, atmospheric sounds which gently progress, with more distinct notes added. It shows a guitarist who doesn’t hue to the Classic Rock formula of “more notes=better solo.” The lyrics express Peart’s ambivalence about stardom, thoughts on how a shy, introverted man makes his way through international acclaim from millions of fans. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

By Moving Pictures, the band, which had been routinely placing album-side-length, 20 minute songs about dystopian futures on their albums, had scaled back these efforts to 10 minute songs about Coleridge poems and nature. On this album, an 11-minute epic comparing New Yorkers and Londoners is featured: “The Camera Eye.”

The song starts with gurgling synthesizers that bubble beneath the entire song. I haven’t pointed out yet, but you may have noticed, the band really likes introductions and fanfares to their songs, and this one is no different. I love how it builds through the first 2:20 to the alarm-bell synth, which begins the main guitar riff. The song stays in standard 4/4 until the verse at about 3:35, where it switches to either alternating 6/4 and 5/4, or simply 11/410. It’s stuff like this that makes us fans love them, as it just seems like they’re having a great time. Plus it sounds really cool! I love stuff like the bass at 4:00, and the switch to a mellow interlude at 4:40. And Peart’s drumming: I mean, come on. I haven’t said much about it, as what can really be said? He’s a student of drum history and technique, and his own creativity and ability are overwhelming. His speed across well-tuned toms is one thing, but check out the perfectly phrased fills between 5:50 and 6:00, slowing the song’s pace with an intricate tap on the breaks, then the funky high-hat and kick drum between 6:10 and 6:20 as the song revs back up. I find it so much fun to listen to.

I think the band is at their best when they’re fun11, and through five songs they’ve been that. However, “Witch Hunt” isn’t fun, and isn’t a song I really connect with. Of course the playing is brilliant, and the anti-hatred lyrics are excellent and particularly relevant today given the state of American policy efforts. But it’s slow pace and repetitive nature leave me a bit cold.

The closing piece, “Vital Signs,” steps up the fun once again.

The band has said they were big fans of all kinds of music, and that fandom was reflected in what they wrote. In the late 70s, new wave and ska were happening, and this song sounds like the band’s spin on The Police or Talking Heads. I love Lifeson’s chopping guitar, and the slinky bass line Lee plays throughout. (As an MTV fan in the early 80s, I loved this video for Peart’s Montreal Expos hat!) The snare sound at about 0:40 is very strange for Peart, very 80s/Casio sounding. After 1:10 it’s back to normal. It’s a fun, catchy song with more burbling synth, and it’s nearly danceable, as it stays in 4/4 throughout! They are living their lyrics here, deviating from their norm!

I’m comfortable with my fandom now, despite the fact that cool-kids of a certain generation may still regard my love for the band as a bit silly. I can laugh about the earnestness with which I devoured their lyrics and learned their sounds, and argued with all-comers about their musical brilliance. I get it – they could overdo it, and we fans could overdo it as well. But the fact remains that they were important to me, and I still love a lot of their music. Back when an assessment of “The Greatest” was important to me, I thought Rush were the greatest. And now I finally understand why: they made me feel great, too.

Track Listing:
“Tom Sawyer”
“Red Barchetta”
“YYZ”
“Limelight”
“The Camera Eye”
I. New York
II. London
“Witch Hunt”
“Vital Signs”

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3 Responses to 31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush

  1. For all intensive purposes, there will be nucular foilage this fall.
    I will take pitchers if you axe.

    There was one year where I listened to Moving Pictures a lot. Then I got over it. 🙂

  2. 1. You are my greatest brother. Fact.
    2. I had this album and enjoyed it lots back in the day.
    3. I also enjoyed (and still enjoy) the album cover pun.

  3. Pingback: #29: Automatic For The People by REM | 100 Favorite Albums

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