It’s A Good Record, Man: “Moving Pictures” by Rush (music review)

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Music has always been an important component of my particular brand of nerd-dom. So, it surprises me that I haven’t written a blog post about it before now. I’m a musician (of sorts). I can’t read music at all, but I do play keyboards by ear, and—as I like to say—I own a couple of guitars which aren’t threatened by my abilities to play them at all. I recently had a jam session, on keyboard, with my granddaughter, who is learning to play the flute. Most of my musical talent, however, seems to lie in the area of music appreciation. I like to listen to music.

Like most of us, however, the music that I like the most seems to come from a particular time. My personal Hot Zone is music from the 1970s and ’80s. There is music, and artists, that I appreciate from both before and after this range, but the bulk of the music I still listen to today comes from this time.

This is an admittedly biased opinion (Are all opinions, by their very nature, biased? Discuss this among yourselves), but I think most of the best music ever was produced during this time.

The first music I ever “owned” was on 45s, something the youngsters may know little about. My first 45 was “Hanky Panky,” by Tommy James and the Shondells. A few years later, along with my Uncle Richard, who was only about three years older than I was, I managed to convince an AM radio station located near my grandparents’ house to donate to us all the 45s they no longer needed. I was about 7 years old, which made Richard 10. From my current semi-adult perspective, I can only imagine that the station personnel were just impressed with our boldness, although it had seemed like a perfectly reasonable request to me at the time. Anyway, it worked, and this music haul formed the base of my collection until I graduated to the L.P., or long-play, format, known as record albums, which rotated at 33-rpm instead of 45-rpm. (My Granddaddy had a few 78s, but that’s even before my time.) I played my first albums on a Mickey Mouse record player, with a picture of Mickey inside the lid and the stylus concealed within the oversized white glove on his arm. I graduated to a real stereo a few Christmases later.

This is why, when I talk about music, it’s couched in the format of record “albums.” Digital music downloading didn’t exist until much later in time. Sure, I owned a few 8-track tapes as well, since my stereo also played them, but albums formed the bulk of what grew to be a considerable collection (all wiped out in a house fire when I was in my later teens). By the time I was in high school, cassette tapes were the more popular format, with the advent of boom boxes. But, I still called them “albums.” And I believe that albums were meant to be experienced as a complete presentation, a unified work of art. This may sound a little too hipster to some of you, but I still believe this is true. Along with jacket art and liner notes, an album was something that was meant to be experienced in its entirety, from beginning to end.

The title of this music blog—”It’s a Good Record, Man”— was inspired by a childhood friend named Butch, who had an older sister whose musical tastes influenced both of us while we were still in grammar school. We were listening to The Eagles, Bad Company, Chicago, Zeppelin and countless others while our classmates were still way into Alvin & The Chipmunks. Butch later worked at Square Records in Lancaster, South Carolina, for many years, with a rock-and-roll mane of hair and his ultimate musical recommendation, “It’s a good record, man.” I purchased a lot of music there over the years, some of it based on Butch’s recommendation.

Back in the sixth grade, Butch and I also got into KISS in a big way. His favorite KISS band member was always Peter Criss, as I recall. Mine was Gene Simmons, of course. But, I digress—

In this blog, I’m going to talk about the albums I have enjoyed through the years. I’m not addressing them in any particular order, and there are other places you can go to in order to get track-by-track reviews, so I don’t think I will do that here, even after saying that the best way to appreciate an album is listening to it from first track to last.

No, instead, I think I’ll talk about the people, places and times I associate different albums with, and my favorite individual tracks. I reserve the right to not follow my own plan, however.

The first album I want to talk about is “Moving Pictures,” by the Canadian rock trio Rush. To date, it retains its spot as my favorite Rush album, and I believe I’ve owned them all by this point.

I recently listened to this album, from first track to last, for probably the thousandth time. As I’ve been sitting here at the computer keyboard, thinking about it, I’ve discovered that I have some weird associations with this album. I think I can remember the first time I heard “Tom Sawyer,” the opening track on the album.

The album was released in February 1981, when I was still fifteen. Still too young to drive. I no longer rode my bicycle everywhere, and would often walk long distances to get where I wanted to go. As I recall, it was still cold out, and I was bundled in my winter coat walking to a video game arcade located approximately two miles away from my house, near Crown Cinema. This was something I did regularly. It was five minutes away by car, maybe forty on foot. When you’re walking, the world is a much bigger place. I had gone no more than half a mile when a car pulled over and someone called out to me.

I didn’t know the young woman, who may have been in her early 20s, and I don’t remember her name now, even though I’m sure she introduced herself. I remember that the car was something sporty, like a Corvette or Camaro, maybe. And I thought she was pretty.

Anyway, this young lady offered me a ride. She said she often saw me out walking and she felt sorry for me on this day because it was so cold out. Before I continue with this story, let me interject that this doesn’t head towards Penthouse Forum letter territory. There was nothing racy about this, just a concerned young woman who offered me a ride to the video game arcade. Two things stand out in my memory about the short ride. The first was that there was an empty beer bottle in the car. It was brown and may have been Michelob Light, but details are sketchy. Second, the woman popped in her cassette of “Moving Pictures” and the song “Tom Sawyer” immediately imprinted itself upon my brain. The album must have just been released because I had never heard the song before this. And “Moving Pictures” eventually went quadruple-platinum in the U.S., so it got a lot of radio airplay. In those days, I still listened to the radio.

That’s the entire story. I found out what group and record album it was, then I was dropped off at the video game arcade, where I spent all of my quarters and then walked home. No one picked me up on the way back. But I didn’t forget about Rush or the album. I bought it—-on cassette—at some later date. I wore out the cassette at least once, and later purchased it on CD. It has remained on my long list of favorite record albums since. Not always in the same position, but always on the list.

“Tom Sawyer” is one of my favorite songs of all-time. Not just one of my favorite Rush songs. Is it overplayed on classic rock radio? Absolutely. And so are a lot of other great songs. It’s the first track I heard on this album, and I was immediately hooked by Geddy Lee playing the bass pedals and Neil Peart’s incomparable drumming. Of course, at the time I didn’t understand that the science-fiction sound I heard was bass pedal synthesizer music. I also didn’t know until later that it was only three musicians making all this sound. But, I knew I loved the sound of the bass guitar on the track, and I knew that the drumming was something special. Lifeson’s lead guitar work is always something special, of course. When I realized Geddy Lee was playing bass guitar, foot pedals and synth, all while singing lead, I realized that this was some serious next-level musicianship.

The lyrics? Well, here I have to confess that I still don’t understand all of them. I’ve read the lyrics at some point, and what I read wasn’t entirely what I had been hearing for all those years. Peart normally writes the band’s lyrics, but this was co-written with someone else. My misinterpretation of the lyric starts at the very beginning of the song. I always thought the “modern day warrior” line was “Monday warrior.” I have this issue with a lot of Lee’s vocals. I love his voice in these songs, I feel I have to add, and the feeling of the song is more important to me than the lyrics themselves. Having read the lyrics, I still don’t completely understand them, but I love the song’s anthemic feel. Mostly it’s about the music. Only today did I figure out that “the River” may have been talking about the Mississippi River, since the title of the song is “Tom Sawyer.”

Speaking of lyrics I don’t understand, the second track on the album is “Red Barchetta,” another favorite. The song tells a story, and even before the Internet Age I knew it was about a hotrod automobile. I didn’t know that a Barchetta was a Ferrari, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. I caught the gist of the science-fiction nature of the story being told, but even until just a few minutes ago I thought the lyric was “gleaming yellow head car” instead of “gleaming alloy air-car” and my enjoyment of the song wasn’t diminished in the least. Mostly, to me, this track is fun and rousing, evocative of a car chase. A perfect summer road song.

By now I realize I’m going to talk about all the tracks on side one of this album. “YYZ” is an instrumental number and is, simply put, amazing. It’s based all the airport call sign of some airport in Canada, I believe, and I’ve heard it as “YY-Zed” by at least one of the Rush guys (those wacky Canucks). The rhythm of the song is adapted from the letters YYZ in Morse code. A few years ago, I detected an homage to “YYZ” in the middle of a Mastodon track. “The Last Baron,” I think. The prog rock influence continues.

“Limelight” is the last track on side one of this album. It’s mostly about how Neil Peart feels about the pressures of fame. Things were about to get worse for Neil: he didn’t even know. Not a lot of synth in this one, and it offers some good advice as well. Put away the alienation and get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme. Okay, I don’t understand all of that either. I liked the music, though.

I always listen to side two when I listen to the album, and I also love these songs, just not as much as side one. “The Camera Eye” is a bit of a throwback to Rush’s earlier albums, clocking in at over eleven minutes. “Witch Hunt” has scary music and disconcertingly prescient lyrics. Although “prescient” is probably the wrong word. History tends to repeat. Read the lyrics and then tell me what you think. “Vital Signs” has parts that sound like a minor-key reggae song. Rush has always been good about varying the sounds of their songs, but probably never better than on this album.

I don’t skip a single track on this album. Ever. Not even while I’ve been writing this.

“Moving Pictures” is a special album. One that always transports me back to a certain time, and always makes me feel good. Even when I’m hearing “Tom Sawyer” playing in an Adam Sandler movie.

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