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Retro Rewind: “Moving Pictures” by Rush

Moving Pictures | Photo by UDiscovermusic

Have you ever had an album in your collection that you’ve been dying to listen to, though you’ve never gotten a chance to take it in? A work by one of your favorite artists that has eluded your eyes for quite some time?

It doesn’t matter whether that work is on a vinyl record, a CD or lurking in a Spotify playlist somewhere, but I’m sure that everyone has at least one of those records. In my case, that record has been “Moving Pictures” by the rock group Rush, one of my favorite artists.

Though I’ve listened to some of the tracks often (including the popular tracks “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”), it’s been sitting in my Spotify playlist for a couple of years without a full listen-through. However, this week’s Retro Rewind will be talking about the album.

Anthem Records released “Moving Pictures” on Feb. 12, 1981 with three singles to support it: “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight” and “Vital Signs.” It is Rush’s most commercially successful album in the United States, selling over four million copies.

The Band

Canadian progressive rock band Rush was founded in Toronto in 1968 by guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer John Rutsey, and bassist/frontman Jeff Jones. Jones was replaced by Geddy Lee within the first few weeks of their formation, and drummer/main lyricist Neil Peart replaced Rutsey (who left due to health problems) two weeks before they embarked on an American concert tour.

This lineup continued until the band ceased activity in 2018. Two years later, Peart passed away from brain cancer at the age of 67. Between 1974 and 2015, Rush released a total of 19 studio albums, 11 live albums and 11 compilation albums.

Known for numerous extended tracks as well as popular classic-rock-radio material, each member of the trio is considered among the best musicians in their respective fields.

Rush became a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

The Tracklist

Opening up the first side of “Moving Pictures” is one of Rush’s most popular tunes, “Tom Sawyer.” Co-written by Pye Dubois of the band Max Webster, Lee plays a fender jazz bass on the track instead of his usual Rickenbacker 4001.

Next is “Red Barchetta,” a dystopian rock song inspired by the short story “A Nice Morning Drive” written by Richard Foster. The instrumental “YYZ” (pronounced as why-why-zed) takes its name from the IATA airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport, and begins with those letters being played on various instruments in Morse Code.

Meanwhile, “Limelight” deals with the difficulties of fame and the absence of privacy in the life of a rock star. Lifeson has often cited the guitar solo in “Limelight” as his favorite to play live.

Side two begins with “The Camera Eye,” which runs for over ten minutes. The piece was referenced by name on “Limelight,” and contains two distinct sections: “NewYork” and “London.” Peart took a stroll in each of those cities and wrote lyrics based on his observations and the rhythms that he felt.

After “The Camera Eye” is “Witch Hunt,” a component of the “Fear” series which features a heavy synthesizer. Also featuring synthesizer is the album’s closer, “Vital Signs,” which takes influence from reggae music.

The Production

Rush agreed to start work on the follow-up to their 1980 album, “Permanent Waves,” while they were in New York City to support the album. Working at Phase One Studios in Toronto as guest artists on the Max Webster song “Battlescar,” Pye Duboissuggested a song for the band to record, which became “Tom Sawyer.”

Much of the record was written in Story Lake, Ontario, with demos completed back at Phase One with producer Terry Brown. A few of the album’s tracks, including “Limelight” and “TomSawyer,” were premiered prior to release during Rush’s live sets.

“Moving Pictures” was recorded in October and November 1980 in Quebec at LeStudio. This was Brown’s first digitally-produced record. The studio contained a new digital 48-track machine, which was foreign to the trio.

They also used a pressure zone microphone, fastened to Peart’s chest as he played, during recording to pick up direct sound. The guitar solo for “Tom Sawyer” was composed of five separate takes, while “Red Barchetta” was completed in a single take.

However, problems with equipment caused the band to finish recording three days later than expected.

What Critics Thought of “Moving Pictures”

Greg Prato, in a review for All Music, praised the album as “undeniably one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time.” He wrote later in his review “Rush proved with ‘Moving Pictures’ that there was still uncharted territory to explore within the hard rock format, and were rewarded with their most enduring and popular album.” Calum Slingerland, writing for Vice, also rated the album highly.

Kerrang! placed the album at number 43 in their list of the best metal albums, and Rolling Stone ranked it as the third greatest progressive rock album (behind “In the Court of the Crimson King” and last week’s subject “The Dark Side of the Moon”).

“Moving Pictures” was also voted the greatest drumming album in the progressive rock genre by readers of Rhythm magazine. It was included, along with the Rush album“2112,” in the guide “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.”

What I Think of the Album

I have been listening to Rush’s music since before I could talk, and its fascinating to me hearing all of these longer tracks like “The Camera Eye” or “Red Barchetta” coupled with the radio hits like “Limelight.”

What’s interesting as well is that the band manages to keep these longer tracks from turning stale and monotonous with complex rhythms and stellar instrumentation.

The production on the album is also very intricate, creating a layered soundscape that the band fully takes advantage of. On“Moving Pictures,” Rush showed that the world is indeed their stage.