Drag the Dream Into Existence

Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece

by Sean Murphy

23 October 2011


'Moving Pictures' is where new wave meets hard rock...

“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.

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