Sorting Through "Moving Pictures": Prog Review #3

Sorting Through "Moving Pictures": Prog Review #3

I read recently that the album cover for this is a triple entendre. The image shows people moving paintings that in turn elicit emotional responses from viewers. And the entire scene is a set for a film. Hence, three kinds of moving pictures. Knowing this makes me appreciate the album even more. That dedication to wordplay and just having a good time characterizes Rush. The puns don’t stop there. “Limelight” contains one of the band’s most beloved and hated lyrics: “with insufficient tact / one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact”. It’s a wordplay offensive enough to be reminiscent of Byron’s Don Juan, and appreciating that phrasing or not might be a determining factor of who does and does not enjoy Rush music in general.

People who know my musical tastes and contrarian nature well won’t be that surprised to learn that this is not my favourite Rush album; it’s not even my favourite of their prog-era albums. Power Windows and A Farewell to Kings respectively take those spots. There’s nothing wrong with this album, and it absolutely deserves its spot on the Rolling Stone list. This is a collection of six fantastic songs, and one mediocre song (“Witch Hunt”), that includes two of the bands most well-known and deservedly popular tracks. Individually, the songs shine, but as a prog album, Moving Pictures (1981) leaves something to be desired because there is no strong connection between songs, whether musically or thematic, nor is there any of the overt experimentation with structure or instrumentation that characterizes prog (Rush is known for being the prog band that doesn’t sound like prog). For that reason, and because the album is already so familiar to me, I figured I’d do more of a track-by-track commentary.

“Tom Sawyer”

This is Rush’s most well-known song, and Neil Peart has said he will always play the song live because it’s challenging and fun. Tons of drum fills and that unforgettable da--daaa da-duuN rhythm, plus the spaceout synth comprise the hook of this signature Rush track. It’s a fine song, but what Canadian hasn’t heard it far too many times?    

 

“Red Barchetta”

This is one of my favourite karaoke songs, which must annoy the hell out of other patrons since it’s six-minutes-long. A friend of mine who had never heard the song before remarked on how “exciting” the song was when I sang it once – I’m sure my terrible voice and weird dancing did not do justice to the original version. 

Like some of Rush’s other best songs, “Red Barchetta” is full of emotional turns and musical variety. The slow build accompanying the nostalgia of old cars leads in to the middle sections that get increasingly frantic, matching the speed and terror of the thrilling car chase the song documents. I had been about to write that this is a strange Rush track lyrically given its depiction of a simple joy ride in the country, aligning it with relatively conventional rock themes. But looking up info on the song on Wikipedia has corrected my mistake. This is actually a story set in the future where certain cars are illegal, and the chase is from an “air car” out to stop the lawbreaking speaker. So I guess it isn’t the Rush anomaly I always thought.   


“YYZ”

Named for the airport code for Pearson International Airport in the band’s native Toronto, the lesser known detail about this instrumental track is that the opening staccato rhythms, repeated in different ways throughout, are YYZ in Morse code. It takes a certain kind of nerd to truly appreciate the crazy ideas this band comes up with.

Sure this is the band’s most well-known instrumental track and often regarded as the best, but it’s not my favourite. There’s some cool noodling, fancy bass work, and ridiculous drumming. The bridge where the synths come after the guitar solo is pretty cool and it’s a fun song to get you moving, but it lacks the transcendent power of “Leave That Thing Alone” and “Hope”.

One interesting element of the song is the use of a whip crack sound a couple times in the middle. The album came out in 1981, the same years as the Pretenders’ Pretenders II, which also features a whip sound on the song “Bad Boys Get Spanked”. I guess that was just a cool effect at the time. 

 

“Limelight”

Like “Tom Sawyer”, this is one of Rush’s most overplayed songs. Unlike “Tom Sawyer”, it’s pretty conventional in song structure and instrumentation, making it one of Rush’s most accessible singles. Singable, familiar, lively, pertinent: the ruminations on the universal desire for fame is much more powerful in the social media age. Some good, prophetic advice here:

     Living in the limelight
     The universal dream
     For those who wish to seem
     Those who wish to be
     Must put aside the alienation
     Get on with the fascination
     The real relation
     The underlying theme

In a culture where seeming has become all important (be sure to like my facebook page and follow me on twitter!!), learning how to be is a rare gift.


“The Camera Eye”

The most progish song on the album, “The Camera Eye” is somehow one of the most out of place songs in Rush’s discography –  it’s not a self-indulgent atrocity like “Tai Shan”, though. On this album full of infectious and tightly written (for prog) tracks, “The Camera Eye” feels plodding and unnecessarily long. Strangely, the complex sound, variety, and power in the instrumentation belie lyrics that are neither profound nor narrative. It’s really just a description of two cityscapes.
It’s still a very good tune. I understand why many Rush fans love this one, but it’s nearly forgettable to me.  

 

“Witch Hunt”

Now we get to what is by far the worst song on the album, and possibly one of the worst of Rush’s entire career. The spooky opening with the twinkling bells and the synth sounding like a cello builds into a slow rhythm with reserved drum work, including low cowbells, and leads into horror-movie synths. It’s perfect accompaniment to lyrics about a literal witch hunt that then develops into a more general meditation on fear:

     They say there are strangers who threaten us
     In our immigrants and infidels
     They say there is strangeness too dangerous
     In our theaters and bookstore shelves
     That 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
     And fear walk hand in hand...

Once again, Peart’s lyrics become only more relevant with time.

The pieces are all there, but it’s just a downer to listen to. It takes too long to get going and it’s overall unsatisfying. There’s a ray of hope when the synths take over near the end and you get that high bass line, but by then there’s only about 30 seconds left.

The coolest part about this song is that it's part of a tetralogy called "Fear". Although this is part III, it was the first to be written and recorded. Parts I and II appear one each on the two following albums (first II, then I), and part IV didn't appear until the band's 2002 album, Vapor Trails. 



“Vital Signs”

Along with “Camera Eye” and “Witch Hunt”, this closing track is less well-known and less often performed than the other four. There’s some subtle dabbling with Reggae in the guitar part, but it’s the spacey synths and emotive drum on the outro that keeps this song sounding fresh and exciting no matter how many times I hear it.

Rush is at their best, I think, when they dig deep into the emotional core of human beings that dictates our visceral reactions to existence. I rank this one up there with songs like “Emotion Detector”, “Mission”, and “Animate” that all similarly deal with how people respond to external stimuli in different ways and how our variable emotions can lift us to soaring heights. A common refrain in these sorts of songs is about bringing our dreams into reality and the idea that “Courageous convictions / Will drag the dream into existence.”

Whether we respond to our own thoughts, our romantic attractions, or the harsh realities of life, Neil Peart’s lyrics frequently dwell on the power of the individual’s will to make sense of and control our environment. “Unstable condition / A symptom of life” indeed, and our thoughts and feelings no less unstable. “Everybody got mixed feelings / Everybody gotta deviate/elevate/escalate/ from the norm” Geddy Lee sings over and over on the outro above the increasingly wild drum fills to hammer home the idea that life is unpredictable, and so too must our own reactions be adaptable if we want to find meaning or peace amidst the chaos. I’ve just listened to this song three times through, and I still haven’t had enough.

I’ve rarely listened to Moving Pictures start to finish, so it has been a bit of an eye opener to listen to all these songs together and recognize how strong an album this really is.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

#1: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
#2: King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King
#3: Rush - Moving Pictures

ASK Rankings

#1: Rush - Moving Pictures
#2: King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King
#3:
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

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