‘Moving Pictures’ was the eighth studio album released by Rush in 1981, a band that had thus far in their career created definitive prog epics such as ‘2112’ and ‘Hemispheres’. However, this is a vital record in the respect that it acted as a musical keystone; it fused their past silk kimono wearing, prog epic days with a new approach inspired by the ever changing musical context they were living in. Rush embraced the sounds made by New Wave bands such as XTC and The Police without compromising their own musicality displayed on their past records. The result was that ‘Moving Pictures’ became their most popular and commercial record, reaching #3 on the billboard charts. However, it could be argued that the music on this record does not always fit the ‘commercial’ tag it is labelled with. That would surely suggest that as musicians they have had to lower their own musical standards in order to make something more ‘friendly’ for easier listening. This certainly isn’t the case; a band such as Genesis, for example, took a much stronger commercial direction with albums such as ‘Duke’ and ‘Abacab’ released also in the early 80s. Unlike Genesis, Rush still retained its masterful prog sound, playing on top form as always to create a record that is more musically challenging than it first appears on the surface.
The songs on this record re-define Rush’s sound rather than completely changing the entire meaning of it. Many of the tracks including ‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Witch Hunt’ and ‘Vital Signs’ used synthesisers that had been missing in past Rush records but adds a welcomed colour to their overall sound. This is already one example of how Rush was, not necessarily moving away from prog, but ’moving’ their own sound from the past into the present to match the digital sounds of the then modern New Wave sound. Perhaps in this respect it is fair to call this a ‘commercial’ record as Rush welcomed a key feature of the 80s pop sound into their own music. This is not to say that the synths cheapened the music; rather it makes the listener appreciate the power of the atmosphere they created. ‘Witch Hunt’ is a perfect example of this, in which the synths succeeded in creating a dark and eerie atmosphere at the start of the song, but then are also used to build the drama and intensity of the piece, in conjunction with Lifeson’s awesome guitar riffs and as a result a triumphant timbre is achieved. In fact Rush would go on to create records such as ‘Grace Under Pressure’ that were even more reliant on synthesisers. However on ‘Moving Pictures’, Rush finds a neat balance between the atmospheric synthesisers and the hard rock sound they were well known for creating. Lifeson’s guitar certainly doesn’t disappoint relying heavily on a classic rock sound at times. ‘Limelight’ is an example of this, beginning with a killer guitar intro that sounds like it could be the start of an AC/DC tune. Thinking about this album as a ‘commercial’ success, ‘Limelight’ certainly catered for the commercial market as it is extremely catchy, follows a typical verse-chorus structure and in the Rush catalogue, isn’t as musically challenging. Despite this, Peart always created interesting drum parts and ‘Limelight’ is no exception to this; the drums are lively, syncopated and still as fill heavy as ever.
Yet, there are many moments on the album where the music does not match its ‘commercial’ label. ‘YYZ’ is an extremely complex instrumental piece that takes no prisoners. It throws the listener straight in with an introduction in 5/4 rather than the conventional 4/4 meter, demonstrating rhythmic complexity on a tritone interval which gives a dissonant, menacing sound. In fact the whole song requires a lot of discipline, especially during the call and response section before the guitar solo. Lee’s killer bass solos in the response sections are out of this world; it’s difficult to comprehend the skill required to make a bass guitar produce such a sound. Then there is the guitar solo which rejects the typical bluesy style of solo and instead revolves around the harmonic minor scale; this is a stark contrast to the style of playing in ‘Limelight’ which may be regarded as more ‘commercial’. ‘YYZ’ could easily be a song from ‘Hemispheres’, one of Rush’s most complex albums; it could be viewed as the twin of ‘La Villa Strangiato’. Yet here it appears on a ‘commercial’ record apparently! The other song that stands out as non-commercial is ‘The Camera Eye’ which is just over ten minutes long. Without even analysing the song, the fact that its ten minutes certainly doesn’t scream commercial. It’s a fast paced song that explores many musical ideas, of which some are musically interesting. The main theme of the song alternates by a semitone between a Db major chord and a C major chord which makes the overall tonality ambiguous. For a song that explores the cultural differences between the cities of New York and London, a changing tonality could perhaps represent those cultural differences. The repetition of this main theme allows Peart to show off his mastery on the drums, adding complex fills into the mix. Rush used this semitone chord progression frequently on this album: songs such as ‘YYZ’ and ‘Red Barchetta’ used this technique to great effect. ‘Witch Hunt’ is also harmonically interesting as it uses a hexatonic chord progression between the G minor and B minor in the verse; hexatonic meaning that the G minor and the B minor are an interval of a major third apart. This produces a strange yet highly interesting sound – certainly not a commercial approach to a chord progression. One last thing to notice is the profound and thoughtful subject matter – there are no commercial love songs for instance. In fact, Peart’s lyrics for ‘Tom Sawyer’ were inspired by Mark Twain’s 1876 novel ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, meanwhile ‘Red Barchetta’ was motivated by Richard Foster’s 1973 short story ‘A Nice Morning Drive’. Again, Peart refused to take a commercial approach to lyric writing as the subject matter was far from commercial.
On the whole, Rush didn’t take a commercial approach with ‘Moving Pictures’. Instead Rush brought prog into the 80s but in order to adapt to a changing musical landscape, dominated by New Wave bands; they merged their prog style with a cleaner and technology inspired sound. The fact that they succeeded in doing this is a massive achievement, especially with the paradox of this album; It’s success is based upon its commerciality and radio friendly material but this isn’t truly a commercial album – in this respect this album is commercial prog (which is an uncomfortable oxymoron for prog fans). Rush’s mutually keen desire to record another album straight after the tour for ‘Permanent Waves’ showed their musical unity (which contrasts the relations between the members of other progressive rock bands during this time which wasn’t so unified) and that is why they were able to make this record so successful. Rush, a mere trio of musicians succeeded at the impossible and have deservedly been rewarded for it.
Written by Prog Rock Review writer Dominic Sanderson