Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 1: Moving Pictures, otherwise known as 'the music of the universe'

Less than a week from the epic R40 concert in Chicago, and Will and I wrap up our countdown with an entry that will surprise no one.

No. 1: Moving Pictures
Released in 1981

Highlights: Every. Single. Song.

Least glorious moments: None.

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“They say there are strangers, who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness to dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves”
-- "Witch Hunt"

Moving Pictures isn’t just the best Rush album. It actually might be the best album ever.

This is perfection on vinyl – and cardboard, because the album cover is brilliant, too.

Even Rolling Stone magazine, which hates all things good, had to begrudgingly rank Moving Pictures among its best albums of all time.

Moving Pictures was released in February 1981, my junior year in high school. I embraced it about as hard as a high school kid can embrace anything, carrying me through all the joys and sorrows a 17-year-old can muster.

Much of the music from the 1980s sounds dated. That’s not a bad thing if you, like me, love all things 1980s. But all the songs on Moving Pictures still sound fresh and exciting. They are timeless.

We are going to have to go through each of the seven brilliant tracks.
Here's a live version of "Tom Sawyer" with the classic "South Park" intro.  

“Tom Sawyer”

“Tom Sawyer” is “the music of the universe” according to an episode of Chuck, with the song serving a central role in the plot.

In the spring of my junior year, I boldly ran for treasurer of the General Organization, the not-so-cleverly named version of our student council. This was a strategic move, as I knew I was not popular enough to be president or vice president, but knew enough of the popular kids to think I might get enough sympathy votes to snag a lower office. Everybody wants to run for president, but who wants to be treasurer?

I designed a populist campaign around the idea of allowing local bands to perform concerts after school. Naturally, I used “Tom Sawyer” lyrics for my campaign posters.

“What you say about his company is what you say about society
Catch the mist – catch the myth – catch the mystery – catch the drift”

I came in second out of three candidates, but gained office midyear when the very nice girl who won left early for college.  Serving on the council with me was the sister of the acting Baldwin brothers, who also was very nice.

I’m not sure if credit for the one little victory of sorts goes to Neil Peart, or to Pye Dubois, the Max Webster lyricist who collaborated with Peart and likely never had to work again.

“Red Barchetta”

The lyrics were inspired by the short story “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard S. Foster. Set in a future when cars are banned, our protagonist goes for a ride in a brilliant red Barchetta preserved by his uncle and encounters the authorities, whom he eludes after a high-speed chase.

Neil tells it better, of course. But all high-school boys love the idea of rebelling against the authorities.


This is a tale of heartache, which is pretty neat for an instrumental.

I wrote concert and album reviews for the Berner Beacon, our school paper. It was, perhaps, the only thing I did that was cool.

The sporadic publishing schedule meant that an issue included both my glowing album review of Moving Pictures and an equally glowing review of the tour stop at the Nassau Coliseum.

Now, like any good Rush-obsessed fan, I was aware that YYZ was the three-letter airport code for the airport in the band’s native Toronto. I also knew that the opening notes of the song were those letters in Morse code. I even knew that, being Canadians, the guys in Rush pronounced the letter Z “zed.”

In those days, we wrote our stories on a typewriter and turned them over to the editors who turned them over to someone else to typeset. This was a dangerous thing, as I learned.
The morning the papers were delivered, I rushed to the stack to see both my reviews in print and bask in the praise.

Then I read the copy.

Someone – the editor, the typesetter, who knows – either decided I didn’t know what I was talking about or wasn’t paying much attention and changed “YYZ” to “XYZ.” They did this in both reviews.

Not even the retired Pye Dubois would have been able to find the words to describe the sorrow and humiliation of that day. Because, for the rest of the day, people stopped me in the corridor to inform me that the name of the song was “YYZ,” not “XYZ.”

I know, friends. I know. I will get over this someday – but not any time soon.


“Limelight” is a top-five Rush song and has always been a favorite. But I didn’t quite understand the full meaning of the lyrics until I read "Roadshow," one of Neil’s travel books, where he writes about riding his motorcycle between shows.

Throughout the book, Peart tells about how he is uncomfortable meeting fans, leaving that role to Alex and Geddy. He’s uneasy with the trappings of rock stardom, which is fine.

“Cast in this unlikely role, ill-equipped to act  with insufficient tact. One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.”


“Living in a fisheye lens, caught in the camera eye. I have no heart to lie. I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

So if you run into Neil, don’t tell him how “Time Stand Still” changed your life and ask for an autograph. Just say “Thank you for the music” and move on.

“The Camera Eye”

This is a Rush song about New York. Do I need to say more?

“The Camera Eye” – the phrase doesn’t appear in the song – actually compares the homeland and London. Clocking in at nearly 11 minutes, it was the last of the long Rush songs. And all of it is glorious.

“Witch Hunt”

I had a really cool creative writing teacher who allowed us to bring in a song that we thought had great lyrics and play it in class.

If you’ve read this far, you knew I was going to use this opportunity before a captive audience to extoll the virtues of Rush. I settled upon “Witch Hunt,” with its soaring keyboards and haunting lyrics about prejudice and fear.

I remember beaming as one classmate said, “That was pretty cool, Dave.” Any opportunity to spread appreciation for Rush. 

“Vital Signs”

Moving Pictures ends with the fairly experimental, “Vital Signs” which merges reggae and electronica to create a Rush classic.  

The lyrics are unusual by Neil standards. But he ends with the phrases “Everybody got to deviate from the norm” and “Everybody got to elevate from the norm.” When you are a teenage boy who feels like an outcast much of the time, this is a rallying cry.

The album cover

I have a wonderful job that allows me to meet many incredible people and visit amazing places. One special day, I was allowed to tag along when my boss visited Toronto.

Now, there were many fascinating things that occurred on that day, including sitting in the far back seat of an SUV wedged between the general consuls of two countries. These are the kinds of things the uncool kid in high school would have a difficult time believing could ever happen to him 30 years on.

Our agenda that day included a meeting with the premier of Ontario. As I sat in her outer office, it occurred to me that I was not just sitting in a beautiful and historic Canadian building. I was sitting in the Ontario Legislative Building.

Had we arrived at the main entrance, and not a side entrance closer to the street, I would have seen the three distinctive arches and short steps.

Yes, I was in the very building on the cover of Moving Pictures.

While there were many interesting things on the walls, I could not find the framed paintings of the Starman logo or the dogs playing poker.

It’s all well and good that I didn’t realize this right away. Because I’m not sure the others in my travel party would have appreciated my demand that we all re-create the album cover. 

So there we are, with Rush albums ranked from the least glorious to Moving Pictures.
What did we learn from this exercise?

First, there is something special about a band with longevity, especially when you become a fan fairly early in its career. Rush was with me from high school to college to jobs to a marriage to kids and friends to new jobs and homes and growing older.

Second, Rush is really, really good. The bulk of the music stands the test of time. It was a challenge ranking the albums, especially in the middle. There are great songs and great memories associated with all of them. 

And Will jumps in:

No. 1: Moving Pictures
Released in 1981

Well, I couldn't have said that any better ... but I'm going to try.

No, just kidding. After all that, what's left to say?

I have a few things, and I'll do them in bullet form:

* "Red Barchetta" was THE song that got me into Rush, period. Loved the story, loved the sound. That said, it isn't my favorite song on the album. "Witch Hunt" is.

* Six of the seven songs made my top 1,000, the highest ratio of any album with that many songs on it. The only albums that had more songs make my list were the double album Quadrophenia, by The Who, and Ten, by Pearl Jam, which has more songs than Moving Pictures does. The only song from Moving Pictures that didn't make my list is "Limelight." It was an early favorite, one of the many things I played to death back in the Eighties ... which is why I probably don't like it as much any more. I just got tired of it, unlike, say, "Tom Sawyer," which I played to death but probably never will get tired of hearing.

* Moving Pictures is not my favorite album of all time by any group. (Quadrophenia is.) I didn't do an album ranking, but Moving Pictures has to be in my top 5, maybe No. 3. The only albums I know for sure I'd rank ahead of it are Quadrophenia and Duke, by Genesis. I'd probably also rank Lifehouse ahead of it if it existed as a Who album in 1971 the way Pete Townshend finally assembled it in 1999 as a solo effort. (Most of Lifehouse ended up on Who's Next. You might have heard something off that album once or twice ... or 10,000 times.)

* I've cited Bill James before, and because he's my favorite author, I'm going to close by citing him again: In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, James writes about how Satchel Paige is a victim of revisionist history (or attempts to make other players look better). He says it's become common to write things like Paige wasn't even the best pitcher on the Monarchs, let alone the best pitcher in Negro League history if not all of baseball history. James doesn't buy it, and the reason is that Paige is the reference point in any such discussion. Everyone has to compare with Paige, because ... well, he IS the greatest. The same thing with Walter Johnson and his fastball. As James points out, Johnson was the reference, because his fastball WAS the best.

You see this with music. It's become hip and cool to make lists of albums where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles isn't listed No. 1. Heck, you often will see that it isn't even the No. 1 Beatles album. Someone will rank Revolver or Rubber Soul ahead of Sgt. Peppers, saying that those albums laid the groundwork for Sgt. Peppers and hold up better than Sgt. Peppers does: "Revolver is the best album, not even barring Sgt. Peppers." It's the same thing as with Satch or The Big Train. Sgt. Peppers IS the best Beatles album--and, by extension, the greatest album of all time--again, because it's the reference point.

That's where we are with Rush and Moving Pictures. Moving Pictures IS Rush's greatest album, period. The difference between Moving Pictures and Sgt. Peppers is that NO ONE tries to argue that another Rush album is better than Moving Pictures. Sure, people might have different favorites--my brother the other day told me he'd put Signals in his top slot--but if we're talking quality, the vote is unanimous.

So, that's all I have to say. I'd like to thank Dave for including me in this exercise. It was fun, and I'm looking forward to Good Ol' No. Pete Rose--14, as in this will be my 14th Rush concert. If it's my final one, because the boys aren't going to tour any more, I leave with no regrets.

And here is the rest of your Rush R40 Countdown:

No. 2: Hold Your Fire (Dave), Presto (Will)
No. 3: Permanent Waves (Dave), Signals (Will)
No. 4: Roll the Bones (Dave), Permanent Waves (Will)
No. 5: Power Windows (Dave), Roll the Bones (Will)
No. 6: Test for Echo (Dave), Grace Under Pressure (Will)
No. 7: Signals (Dave), A Farewell to Kings (Will)


Will said...

OMG!! There it is! THE REVIEW!!

XYZ, indeed ... >:-(

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Like I said, I'll get over it someday. Oh, sure, it's been 30 years...

Dale Van Demark said...

My most awesome wife bought tickets for the R40 show in Philadelphia which we attended a couple of nights ago. Interesting list - I definitely do not agree, but that is one of the great things about these guys; they have been uniquely creative for so long that it is not possible to truly agree on "the best." For me, Hemispheres has to be #1 and Moving Pictures is a 2, 3 or 4 - in the mix with Permanent Waves, Presto (highly underrated IMHO) and Clockwork Angels. You might like Stockton and Tweed's Church of Baseball.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Awesome, Dale! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the countdown. We loved the R40 show in Chicago!!!