[24 October 2010]
It’s difficult to imagine how music might have sounded in the ‘70s and, by extension, today, if Rush had not made 2112. If Rush had never made 2112, they certainly would never have had the opportunity to make their masterpiece, Moving Pictures. While few bands can boast about creating two genre-defining statements, the reality—almost impossible to believe today—is that Rush almost never got the chance to make the first one.
Considering the first, 2112, led to the next, Moving Pictures, it makes plenty of sense for Eagle Rock’s Classic Albums to focus on both as the alpha and omega of Rush’s slow (and in hindsight, inevitable) ascension to superstardom. Rock fans and Rush fanatics could, and perhaps should, immediately ask why each album does not merit its own feature. It’s a fair question, and the simple answer is that they do. But the 50-minutes of bonus material mitigates the concerns and, in a sense, each album is ultimately given about an hour of loving examination.
For anyone not familiar with the Classic Albums series, the segments feature interviews and input from actual band members, which makes them equal parts compelling and imperative acquisitions for casual as well as hardcore fans. This one begins, appropriately, at the beginning, when bassist/singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson are teenagers in the Great White North, emulating late ‘60s legends like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Along with original drummer John Rutsey (who later left the band due to health reasons, which were exacerbated by concerns of an exhaustive touring schedule), the band released their eponymous debut on their own label, and it may have disappeared into the Great White Nowhere, except a disc jockey in Cleveland (that great rock and roll city!) began playing it. After Rutsey exited, stage left, the band fortuitously auditioned an unknown Neil Peart, who became principal lyricist and eventually established himself as the premier drummer on the planet.
Rush’s follow-up, Fly By Night, fared well but their ambitious third album, Caress of Steel sold poorly. After an endless and thoroughly depressing series of gigs, which they not so fondly referred to as the “down the tubes” tour, there was genuine concern that their label might drop them. At this point, as Lifeson recalls, “there were one of two directions (to go): give in to the pressure or go for it.” The band all agreed that despite admonishments (and/or insistence) that they create a commercial-minded, radio-friendly effort, they were going to do it their way and feel good about it, no matter what the outcome.
After putting the finishing touches on their fourth album the band, and producer Terry Brown, strongly suspected that they’d captured something special. They were right. 2112 went straight to #1 in Canada and broke into the Top 75 in the US. Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.
The band, and Brown, reminisces about the music, how it was created, and the way(s) it was received. The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing and indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrate punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians.
Curiously, the songs “Tears” and “Lessons” are skipped, although some welcome time is spent on the lighthearted ode to herb, “A Passage To Bangkok”. Likewise, the dated but not quite embarrassing “Twilight Zone” (which manages, all these years later, to sound almost charming in its way) is discussed while actual clips from the episodes referenced in the verses are shown. 2112 remains important as much for what it enabled as for what it did: it is no exaggeration to claim that we would never have gotten to Moving Pictures without it. The band agrees with the assessment that 2112 was the effort where they found their sound which they perfected over the course of their next several albums.
While Rush improved with every year (and new release), disco, punk and new wave were ascendant, and virtually all of the old prog rock bands took their eight balls and went home. To Rush’s considerable credit, they were acutely aware of these new developments (the ugly, the bad and especially the good), and eager to incorporate them into their ever-evolving sound. Moving Pictures then, in so many ways, is the opposite of 2112. It is, without any question, not merely Rush’s masterpiece but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents a culmination and a progression: the peak of their development to that point and a blueprint for their subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way certain rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.
Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the consummate rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs, which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.
Of course, one of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ‘80s (the opening seconds of “Tom Sawyer” practically scream “meet the new boss!” and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his “shriek”) is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.
For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is Sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is is the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the scarcely believable fact that several of the songs could (and did!) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums—no matter how unique and convincing—Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other band would begin to emulate and envy.
After all this time, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance. “Red Barchetta”, an adrenaline rush set to music, is less about lyrics (inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive”) than about feeling. This track exemplifies the band’s evolution and increased confidence: they are now able to harness and convey the same type of emotion and effect that they’d spent entire albums sides developing, and condense it into six minutes. As much as any of the tracks on Moving Pictures, “Red Barchetta” is one you can imagine the nerds, jocks and stoners (to sardonically choose three random stereotypes) all breaking out the air guitars for. And yet the themes of individual autonomy and freedom still resonate from 2112 (indeed, that dystopia of a world without music is now a world without cars…the horror!).
“YYZ” (which anyone not already in the know can discover is the Toronto airport code and is pronounced Y Y Zed) remains a fixture in Rush’s live set. This instrumental is likely the song that initially caused scales to fall from the eyes of sleeping listeners and critics. Little, if anything the band had done to this point could have caused anyone to anticipate this one: Peart and Lee bring the funk while Lifeson brings the noise, making this perhaps the most pure distillation of the band’s unparalleled musical chops.
“Limelight” captures Peart’s reaction to people beginning to show up at his house, and following the band around before and after shows (something he was too prescient by half about, not guessing this phenomenon was about to become a more intense and full-time adventure going forward). Lifeson refers to his solo on this song as one of his favorites; he is able to invoke the alienation and loneliness of the lyrics, and it is a somber yet searing tour de force.
Then, of course, there is “Tom Sawyer”; their signature song, and the surprise hit that put them over. Part of the appeal, in addition to the irresistible music, is the lyrics. 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 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 that has more to do with resistance than cynicism, “Tom Sawyer” (with enduring lines like “his mind is not for rent/to any god or government”) is in many regards the penultimate ‘80s statement. The astute observation that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is” could also aptly summarize the four-decade trajectory of the band. Rush remains humble, if a tad incredulous about the success of “Tom Sawyer”. According to Peart, “we still think it’s a wonderful thing that such a bizarre song would be so popular!”
While the entire second side of Moving Pictures is skipped over, it’s hard to quibble with what is presented. Plus, the aforementioned bonus material is going to be catnip for the more passionate fans. Each member talks in detail about their influences and their impressions of their band mates (not surprisingly for a band that has soldiered on through four decades, there is ample love and respect to go around).
There’s extended footage of the band playing along to the original tracks, which illustrates that the boys have hardly lost a step. A bonus-bonus is the inclusion of (yet another) new Neil Peart solo, which begs only one question: how does he (still) do it? Let’s face it: watching your heroes reenact some of their finest moments is a dream come true, and this feature more than delivers the goods. Rush is the type of band that has cultivated a loyal following, and most if not all of them need little enticement to pick up this DVD. The real value of this release may be the education (and enjoyment) it stands to offer folks who are late to the game, or are interested in learning more about a band –and two albums—that figure prominently in the history of rock music.