Oh man, now we’re getting to the really, really good stuff. You can’t be a rock n roll fan and not love Rush’s 1981 LP Moving Pictures. I can’t believe it’s been 40 years – actually 41, I think this was delayed by Covid – since this landmark LP came out. To this day I can’t hear the iconic drumming that starts “Tom Sawyer” and not reach to turn up the volume. Rush is celebrating their masterpiece with the release of Moving Pictures: 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe that includes the original album and a full concert from the 1981 tour.
It’s hard to overstate how big Rush were in the late 70s. For those of us of a certain generation they were kind of like our Zeppelin. Three virtuoso musicians – Geddy Lee (bass, vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and the late Neil Peart (drums extraordinaire) – blended perfectly. While their self-titled debut album (released before Peart joined the band) didn’t sell well it caught the attention of Jimmy Page who became an early fan. It wasn’t until their 4th album (missing out on “my third LP is the charm” theory), the Prog-rock 1976 epic 2112 that Rush captured middle America where I live. It wasn’t until years later when I was in late junior high or early high school that I heard the whole first side of 2112 at a party that this guy Billy Edwards had. His father was an alcoholic and had vodka bottles stashed all over the house and Billy would steal them and his dad couldn’t really say anything about it. Anyway, drunk on screwdrivers we all jumped around playing air guitar to “Overture/Temples of Syrinx.” I was playing my “air guitar” so furiously I vaguely recall tearing off my thumbnail. Rock n’ roll, baby! I went out and bought the LP the next day.
Usually in those days if I bought an LP by a band and dug it, I’d plunge through the whole catalog. For some reason I didn’t do that with Rush (until much later). They were putting out an LP every year and it was really hard to keep up especially on my paltry allowance. They were one hard working band. And they were very prog rock in those early days and I think that scared me a bit. I bought a now obscure greatest hits LP, single vinyl named Rush Through Time but I was disappointed it didn’t have “Working Man” on it and so sold it. Argh. There was so much music coming out that I liked in those days I just never seemed to focus on Rush. They were always there, in the background, on the radio. I’d hear the epic “Xanadu” or “Closer To The Heart” from A Farewell to Kings or “The Trees” from Hemisphere on KY102 our local rock station. They loved Rush. My mother didn’t… she thought Rush stood for “Ruled Under Satan’s Hand” but then she probably would have been on the PRMC if she’d been married to a Senator.
Permanent Waves came out in 1980 and you couldn’t escape the songs “Freewill” or “Spirit Of The Radio.” The band was crafting shorter songs, well, relative to some of their older output in an attempt to be more radio friendly. Although saying that it sounds like they were consciously trying to be more “popular” and I don’t think that was the case. I mean, side two had “Natural Science” with their famous “I., II., III.,” prog rock subtitles. I think their writing style was changing. They thought, as did their record company, that Permanent Waves was going to be their huge break out record that would take them from semi-cult status (and lets be honest it was a pretty big cult) to mega stars in the same way that Born In The U.S.A. would break Springsteen a few years later. While the album was a success it didn’t have the effect they thought it would. It was their biggest album up to that point. After the tour for that album they did what they always did – took a short break and headed right back into the studio. I guess the fact that these guys weren’t hard partying rock stars but toiling musicians helped them avoid burn out. They decided, screw mega success, we’re going to take a detour and do our own thing…
Moving Pictures, their supposed “detour,” was actually the album that made Rush a household name. It was clearly influenced by what was happening in New Wave at the time. Side one is about as perfect a side of music as you’re going to find in rock n roll. I knew this guy I used to hang out with a bit. I wouldn’t say he was a friend, but an acquaintance. His name was Mickey Congress (name obviously changed to protect the guilty). He had this sweet Mustang with a powerful car stereo. He had two speakers mounted on the A-frame of the roof of the car, the pieces that hold up the roof of the car. We went out partying one night and he had Moving Pictures on tape. I had only heard “Tom Sawyer” at that point. I remember thinking, “Cool song, at least Peart has moved on from that idiot Ayn Rand and is now inspired by Mark Twain.” I was so critical in those days, “rock snob extraordinaire.” Anyway, Mickey had the entire LP on this cassette. The only problem is the guy was addicted to treble. He had the high end so turned up when he cranked the album, and he just kept playing it over and over again that night, it was so piercing it would melt your fillings. It sort of ruined the album for me at the time. It wasn’t until later, after I saw them in concert, that I bought the album and heard it without the high treble that I realized how great an LP it truly was/is.
“Tom Sawyer” is the opening track and what a classic. It has caused many a man to play “air drums.” It’s simply put a rock standard. “Red Barchetta” about a sci-fi, fantasy car is one of their most beloved songs in their catalog. As a youngster I wanted a Red Barchetta, only to find out there was no such car. “YYZ” which everyone thought was a secret code – it’s not, it’s the airline code for the Toronto airport – is one of my favorite of Rush’s many instrumentals. “Limelight” is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and a great rock song. I think they’ve played all four of the songs on side one at every show they’ve done since then. Side 2 is no slouch either. It starts with their last 10-minute plus epic, “Camera Eye” which is just a killer prog rock track. Other than “Xanadu” its one of my favorite long Rush tracks. The final track, “Vital Signs” even touches slightly on reggae. There’s nothing Rush can’t do.
I was lucky enough to see Rush at Kemper Arena on April 24th 1981 on the Moving Pictures tour. Only the biggest bands – Bob Seger, Journey, Styx (yeah, I know, Styx?) and Rush could come in and play two back to back sold out concerts at Kemper. They probably played to over 25,000 people in 2 days. Alas, my seats were in the nose bleeds, behind the band. I could see the techies working behind the scenes but couldn’t really see Geddy. I remember being disappointed after the show but that was because of my vantage point, and the sound was bad behind the band. Another disappointing first experience. I saw them again only a year later on the Signals tour and I was in front of the band that time… much better sound and experience.
The bonus on this 40th Anniversary package is a full concert from that tour. They released a live LP after, Exit Stage Left, but I always felt it didn’t do that tour justice. Now we have a whole show in it’s full glory. This is the exact same setlist that they played at Kemper the night I saw them – or saw their backs – in 1981. If you don’t have Moving Pictures yet the concert makes this a must have. It is the sound of one of the greatest rock bands ever at the height of their power. They open with the iconic “Overture/Temples of Syrinx” from 2112. They play tracks from every album in the catalog. And they play with a mighty force. The new stuff from Moving Pictures sounds fresh and fantastic. They play all the tracks that were in heavy radio rotation – “Xanadu,” “Spirit of the Radio,” “The Trees,” just to mention a few – but they don’t shy away from some of the great prog rock in the catalog with a healthy dose of Hemisphere’s “Cygnus” song cycle. While I had a shitty seat at the show, I can say the band was on fire that night. I would kill for a do over. This live concert in the 40th Anniversary box would stand up amongst any of their great live albums.
Rush, as usual, really comes through on this 40th Anniversary set. Unearthing this fabulous concert is a great gift to the fans, and there are many of us. I bought the album after seeing them in concert that April night in 1981 and I really had bad seats. I’m glad I did. This concert feels like unearthing a hidden artifact from my childhood, a rock n roll Rosetta Stone, if you will. If you dig rock n roll and Rush this is must have for all of you. I feel like holding a lighter over my head in one hand, and flashing the devil horns of rock n roll in the other…
“Cast in this unlikely role, ill-equipped to act with insufficient tact, One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.”
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