Moving Pictures - In The Studio

In The Studio with Redbeard, Show #28, week of January 2, 1989

Welcome to "In The Studio", bringing you the stories behind the greatest rock-n-roll albums in history. Today we'll go in the studio with the most popular album ever by Canada's preeminent, progressive rock trio.

ALEX: Hi, this Alex Lifeson of Rush.

GEDDY: Hi, this is Geddy Lee of Rush - in the studio for Moving Pictures.

HOST: In the 1980's, the music of Rush has become a stable of rock-n-roll radio. Audiences are now used to hearing the sound of Geddy Lee's voice, Neil Peart's lyrics and complicated drumstrokes, Alex Lifeson's lightning guitar lines. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, it took Rush eight albums to break into the limelight of mainstream success. And the one that finally did it for them, the album that secured their position as one of the world's biggest concert draws, was Moving Pictures - released in the spring of 1981. Moving Pictures made it to number three in the Billboard album chart. That's the highest position of any Rush album ever. And its success sparked a renewal of interest in the band's earlier material. The albums 2112 and All The World's A Stage, originally released in 1976, didn't go platinum until *after* the release of Moving Pictures, five years later. Moving Pictures was recorded in December of 1980 at Le Studio in Montreal. But the songs for the album were written and rehearsed months before that. The band had recorded demo tapes for such songs as Tom Sawyer and Limelight earlier that summer in a converted farmhouse outside of Toronto. Geddy Lee remembers those rehearsals...

GEDDY: But I think it was...actually Ronnie Hawkins' farm that we had rented. He had a nice farm; and there was a farmhouse and the barn was soundproof because I think he used to rehearse with his bands in there. We set up in the same fashion. We would just hack it out there. We had a lot of different kinds of synthesizers at our disposal, too, which was I new thing, too; I mean we've used synthesizers on records previous, but they were making them much smaller, much more portable at that time. So there were a few we'd brought up to the farm with us that we had lying around. Oberheim was one of the ones we had, and we found this amazing, growling sound which we knew we had to write a song around; and it turned out to be that growling sound that's at the beginning of Tom Sawyer. Really, that was almost the inspiration for the sound of that song...

[TOM SAWYER is played]

HOST: Alex Lifeson of Rush.

ALEX: I remember when the opening keyboard thing, when we layered it on top, how cool it sounded...browwww (trys to imitate the growling), and what power and punch the opening had. And the toughness of the way Neil played in that opening where it's just basically the drums and Geddy with this synth rasping away in the background - then the rest of the band diving into it and screaming all the way through. I always thought that we had really, again, achieved what we set out to with that song, of having that real punky, kind of rebellious attitude to it. The full of a band, and I think...well obviously that's the appeal of the song. That's what people look for in it, I think.

HOST: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson met in 1968 when they were in 9th grade together in suburban Toronto. With drummer John Rutsey, who lived across the street from Geddy, they put together the band that would eventually become Rush. Their first gig was in the basement of a Toronto church, and it wasn't long before they were playing the saturday night party circuit. Alex Lifeson remembers those early days...

ALEX: We started the was called the Projection at first, for about a year. We were just a basement band. We played parties; we never played for money or anything; and we were horrible. But we knew about a dozen songs and we knew how to play them really badly. We just kept repeating them over the course of the night until everybody would leave (laughs). But, you've got to start somewhere, and you may as well start in your own basement so you don't have to walk home from there.

HOST: Their interest in popular music began, not surprisingly, with the Beatles. But, for Alex Lifeson, it was seeing a Who concert in Toronto that convinced him he wanted to be in a rock-n-roll band. For Geddy Lee, it was the music of Cream and Jeff Beck. As Geddy says, they were like millions of teenagers all over North America.

GEDDY: I think we were very typically suburban. What you'd call weekend warriors kind of thing. We were growing our hair, and by virtue of the fact that we were growing our hair long, we became sort of that club of rebels, I guess is the best way to describe it. I think we long to break out of the boring surrounding of the suburbs and the endless similiarities; you know what I'm saying, the shopping plazas and all that stuff. And our way, I guess, of trying to be different and not wanting to conform was by growing our hair long. This music that we were into sort of spoke to us in a way that it was a vehicle for us to speak out against whatever you speak out against when you're a teenager. That's part of teenage life--going through all these hormonal and pychological changes that you don't even know what you're doing half the time (laughs). I would describe us as the kind of kids that ... we were growing our hair, we were playing in a band; we thought we were hip. I guess we thought that we were kind of cooler than the next guy, but we probably weren't.

HOST: They worked their way up through the Toronto club circuit, and by 1973, had released their first album on an independent label in Canada. In 1974, after the record got some airplay on American radio, Rush signed with Mercury Records who re-released that debut album in the states. Just as the band was scheduled to begin its first American tour, John Rutsey decided to quit. Geddy Lee remembers auditioning for a new drummer.

GEDDY: We really didn't know how to start, so we just went with recommendations from other musicians that we knew. Someone had mentioned Neil's name to one of our managers at the time. He told us about him. We said, well, go see the guy. So he drove out to St. Catherine's where Neil was working in his father's farm equipment store. At that time, Neil had just, I think a year earlier, come back from trying to make it in Britain, and sort of resigned himself to not being happy with the way his career was going. He was happy working for his father and playing drums on the weekends in local bands. So, it's kind of ironic for him because here came an opportunity that he had covered half the earth looking for. When he least expected it, it came walking in the door for him.

ALEX: He had a very small set, I think, yeah! Rogers. And he pounded the crap out of them. He really hit them hard. Incredible power and strength even back then. Of course, Geddy and him just hit it off. They, being a rhythm section, just got into a groove, and they were playing like mad. It took my ear a little longer to get a little more warmed up to Neil. But after Ged and I talked about it, we decided that this guy's it--he's just too good...

[YYZ is played]

HOST: That's Y-Y-Z which received a grammy nomination for best instrumental and is named for the luggage tag codes at Toronto Airport. Next, we'll hear the story behind the Red Barchetta . You're in the studio for Rush's Moving Pictures...

[Commercial Break]

HOST: Although bass player Geddy Lee is Rush's lead singer, the man who writes all the lyrics is drummer Neil Peart. I asked Geddy if he knew Neil was a songwriter when he joined the band.

GEDDY: At the time, he had never written any lyrics...had never thought of it, I don't think. When he joined the band, really we had one week to rehearse before our first American tour. We had a date, like eight days later to play at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena opening for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann. So that was first and foremost in our minds; we were just looking for a drummer. We never thought about lyrics or anything like that (RED BARCHETTA starts to fade in). The more we got to know Neil, the more we realized his immense knowledge of the English language and his interest in reading. He was a very different person for us-- a person full of ideas and very verbose. Alex and I just looked at each other-- this is the guy to solve all or problems (laughs)...

[RED BARCHETTA is played]

ALEX: That was the intention with Red Barchetta-- to create a song that was very vivid, so that you had a sense, if you listen to it and listen to the lyrics, of the action. It does become a movie. I think that song really worked with that in mind; it was succesful with that intention. It's something that I think we've tried to carry on-- become a little more visual with our music, since then. But that one in particular was very satisfying. It was always one of my favorites. I think it's probably my favorite from that album. I like the way the parts knit together. I like the changes. I like the melody of the song. I love the dynamics of it, the way it opens with the harmonics and creates a mood, then gets right into the driving, right up to the middle section where it's really screaming along, where you really feel like you're in the open car, and the music's very vibrant and moving. And then it ends as it began with that quiet dynamic, and lets you down lightly. So it picks you up for the whole thing and drops you off at your next spot.

HOST: Rush's earlier albums were characterized by epic length songs--compositions that would take up an entire side of an album. Fantasy-laden tales of futuristic adventure. By the time of Moving Pictures, Rush was beginning to work with shorter songs and more varied lyrical themes. They were also incorporating the sounds of synthesizers. Here's Geddy Lee...

GEDDY: Our ambitions were getting bigger in one sense-- in the way that we eventually thought we could sound. We suddenly accepted the fact that maybe there were other ways to enhance the sound of our band, and other textures that we couldn't ignore from the technology that was growing up around us and existed in other areas of the music world. We were happy with the challenge of being able to write side-long works. We'd done it a number of times by then, and we felt it was almost becoming a cross to bear for us in a way that it was almost limiting us in what we wanted to be. We sort of tried to get back to our original desires as songwiters. I think we wanted to become a little more concise and be able to get our ideas across in a more concise and more contemporary manner. Music was changing, rock music was changing dramatically at that point. There were a lot of bands coming in that were doing things quickly on a low budget and doing things very good, and also doing things that were more rhythmically more interesting. And with the influence of reggae and white reggae, and more sort of aggressive punk music that was comming out. We very much wanted to be a part of that. We very much wanted to learn what was going on and reflect the times as opposed to being left behind.

HOST: In many ways, Moving Pictures was a refinement of techniques that Rush had been using on its previous album Permanent Waves. Permanent Waves foreshadowed the trend towards shorter songs. It also was the first time the band made demo versions of its new songs and then tried them in concert before recording the final version. Geddy remembers the writing process...

GEDDY: Alex and I would write music during the day, and Neil would work on lyrics at the farmhouse. In the evenings we would come together and put the two things together. Really, that was the beginning of a technique or a writing method that we would use for many years after that. I think we actually did a little bit of that in preparing for Permanent Waves, but we did it more with Moving Pictures. Most of the material from Moving Pictures was written before we started recording it-- which was also a bit of a different thing for us because with A Farewell To Kings and especially Hemispheres there was nothing written before we went into the studio. So it was a very long writing process. We were now learning how to do pre-production, how to write songs ahead of time, rehearse them, arrange them, and I guess being a little more sophisticated about our method of recording.

HOST: One of the most ambitious songs on Moving Pictures was Witch Hunt. It was conceived by Neil Peart as part of a trilogy called Fear which was to be stretched out over three albums. Alex says the song was meant to be the grand production piece of Moving Pictures. In spite of its complicated musical arrangement and ominous tone, Alex says the recording of the song was actually quite funny.

ALEX: We had a riot, as a matter of fact, doing the opening where you have this scarry piano part and the mob ranting and raving. We went outside of Le Studio and it was so cold, it was really cold; we were well into December by then I think. We were all out there. We put a couple of mics outside. We started..rauw..raew..wrow (starts mumbling), ranting and raving. We did a couple of tracks of that. I think we had a bottle of Scotch or something with us to keep us warm. So as the contents of the bottle became less and less, the ranting and raving took on a different flavor and you got little lines remember Roger Ramjet (sp?), the cartoon Roger Ramjet? What was the bad guy's name...his gang of hoods, they always had these little things they would say whenever they were mumbling...mrrblaarrr..mrrblaarrr..crauss. It started to take all this...we were in the control room after we had layed down about twelve tracks of mob--in hysterics. Every once in awhile you'd hear somebody say something really stupid. We'd come in and against this backdrop of very tense, atmospheric music .....(had to flip my cassette, so I missed this 10 second segment). That time, by the way, was probably one of the greatest times that we've had in the studio up until the last couple of records. It was very enjoyable making Moving Pictures, it flowed, everything sounded good, the vibe was good, everybody was in great spirits during the whole process. Usually, recording at that time, or through the early years, was tedious, very hard work.

[WITCH HUNT is played]

HOST: That's Witch Hunt, with music and mumbling by the members of Rush. When we come back, we'll find out why Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson often find it uncomfortable to be living in the limelight...

[Comercial Break]

HOST: One of the most intriquing aspects of Rush's music is that while bass player Geddy Lee does all the vocals, the words that he sings are not his own. It is drummer Neil Peart who writes Rush's compelling lyrics. I asked Geddy if it was difficult trying to express someone else's feelings.

GEDDY: You take two kinds of attitudes when you're a singer I think. The one is that you write the lyrics or you believe in the lyrics that have been written so strongly that you become the same statement. You have to understand and agree in order to sing it with conviction, I guess is the term I'm looking for. Then there's the other point of view where you look at yourself as an interpreter of someone else's thoughts, very much like an actor who takes a screenplay and goes out, and he didn't write the words, but he's, to the best of his ability, trying to convey the feelings that the person had written. So, I think those things come into play as my role in this band.

[VITAL SIGNS is played]

HOST: That's Vital Signs from Moving Pictures. The members of Rush are involved in every aspect of their career, from the making of videoes and the design of their stage set, to the cover art for their albums. For instance, the cover of Moving Pictures is a monument to double meaning. There are workmen actually moving pictures, there are people crying because the pictures are so emotionally moving, and then there's a film crew making a moving picture of the whole scene. That cover photograph was so expensive to stage that the record company refused to foot the bill, and the band had to pay for it. Geddy Lee.

GEDDY: It really was the concept of the album. We looked at all those songs as little films, I think. We loved the play on words about moving pictures, and the fact that we were taking cinematic approach to writing that kind of rock music which to many people, I guess, seemed like a kind of silly notion; but to us-- it worked. At the same time we were trying to make these stories that we were telling affecting and having some kind of emotional impact and moving to the listener. So that was really the inspiration behind the title, and the title really suited what we were trying to accomplish on that record.

HOST: Since the release of Moving Pictures, Rush has not had a single album fail to make the American top ten, even though Rush has rarely had hit singles. In the twenty years since they started playing together in that Toronto church basement, Rush has become one of the most consistent headlining bands in the world-- selling out arenas wherever they play. I asked Geddy what the success of Moving Pictures meant to Rush's career.

GEDDY: It really cemented our career and guaranteed a kind of longevity that we've had since. It was tremendously well-received and even to this day, I don't think ever stopped selling. It was a culmination of so many things for us, so many of the experiments musically and the discussions and the honing of our craft, I guess. A lot of those things came together for us on that record. It was a record that we were always very proud of and very proud to tour; but in terms of its affect on our career I think it really gaves us a kind of acceptance and a credibility that none of our records previously had done. I think (it) opened the way for us to be accepted more readily on radio. There was just sort of a permanence and legitamacy that came along with the success of that album.

HOST: And...Alex Lifeson

ALEX: I guess it allowed us to keep making records that much longer. I mean we re-negotiated our record deal on the strength of that record. So that automatically added on to our longevity. We knew that we had the budget for so many albums, for the next 8 or 10 years or whatever. So in that way it guaranteed us that freedom to make whatever records we wanted to make. And to, I guess, instill some confidence in the record company that we were capable of making records that they could be commercially happy with-- which is not a big priority with us, believe me. The artistic end of the album is what's most important.

HOST: The members of Rush certainly aren't your average rock-n-roll stars. They are quiet, unassuming, serious musicians. They all still live in Toronto. Alex and Geddy play tennis while on the road. Neil spends his spare time bicycling through mountains and rafting down jungle rivers. And as Geddy Lee explains, it was Neil who wrote the words to Limelight.

GEDDY: Well, Limelight was probably more of Neil's song than a lot of the songs on that album in the sense that his feelings about being in the limelight and his difficulty with coming to grips with fame and autograph seekers and a sudden lack of privacy and sudden demands on his time...he was having a very difficult time dealing with. I mean we all were, but I think he was having the most difficulty of the three of us adjusting; in the sense that I think he's more sensitive to more things than Alex and I are, it's harder for him to deal with those interruptions on his personal space and his desire to be alone. Being very much a person who needs that solitude, to have someone coming up to you constantly and asking for your autograph is a major interruption in your own little world. I guess in the one sense that we're a little bit like misfits in the fact that we've chosen this profession that has all this extreme hype and this sort of self-hyping world that we've chosen to live in...and we don't feel comfortable really in that kind of role.


HOST: I'd like to thank Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson for taking a moment to make time stand still for us. We'd like to send our special thanks to Val Azzoli and Kim Garner from SRO Management in Toronto, and Drew Murray from Polygram Records.....Thanks for listening and please be with us next week when we go behind the scenes of another landmark rock-n-roll album--in the studio.