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35 Years Ago: Rush Put the Focus on Songs and Make Their Leanest Album, ‘Moving Pictures’

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In a way, Rush‘s career can be boiled down to this: everything before Moving Pictures, and everything after Moving Pictures.

There were signs before that album’s release in February 1981, most prominently on the previous year’s Permanent Waves, where the Canadian trio took a tentative step away from the prog that got them through the ’70s and toward more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll — and, in turn, an open door at AOR radio. But Moving Pictures changed everything.

Before Moving Pictures there were side-long, seven-movement songs based on Ayn Rand books. The tracks on Moving Pictures, while not always more navigable without some type of map of fantasy and philosophy literature, were tighter, more focused and easier to follow from Point A to Point G or whatever. The nerdy prog workouts that made them stars of the geek underground would still be a major part of Rush’s live shows, but the records became more palatable. Everyone talks about how 2112 is the band’s masterpiece, but Moving Pictures is the better album.

Permanent Waves was still rooted in the band’s proggy past, but its two best songs — “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” — are the ones almost everybody knows. And for good reason: They’re the ones that almost immediately lock into a groove (no waiting three or four minutes for something to happen), and they don’t overstay their welcome. Moving Pictures was pretty much designed as an entire album’s worth of songs like that. Only side two’s opener “The Camera Eye” breaks the 10-minute mark.

The rest of the album is lean: “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta” (well, it’s six minutes, but it doesn’t sound like it). Working within more conventional rock templates, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart fashioned a record that finally got them consistent radio play, especially on rock-oriented stations looking for a power group to fill the void left by Led Zeppelin, who broke up the year before.

Suddenly a band that struggled to get noticed in most markets found itself in regular and heavy rotation. They’d have to wait until the next year for their first Top 40 hit, “New World Man” (which peaked at No. 21 and remains their highest-charting song on the pop chart), but “Tom Sawyer” was inescapable during the spring of 1981. Their tour was huge. And Rush finally broke the shackles of cult band.

Remnants of their past were still there — especially in the instrumental “YYZ,” which employs one of the complex time signatures Peart frequently favors — but Moving Pictures pointed to a new future for Rush. It was their highest-charting album for years, climbing to No. 3, and selling more than four million copies in the U.S. To this day, it’s the best introduction to the group’s music — easy to get into, engaging and, most of all, filled with the sort of songs that still sound great blasting out of speakers more than three decades later.

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Next: Top 10 Rush Songs

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