Revinylization #31: Rush's Moving Pictures at 40

Certain albums stand as monuments because of the influence they had on contemporary and future musicians despite having little commercial success. The Velvet Underground & Nico comes to mind. So do the early Ramones albums. And then there are albums that had just as much influence but were megahits—a much rarer thing.

One of those, surely, is Rush's Moving Pictures, a multiplatinum seller with hits that have stayed in rotation on certain FM radio stations ever since the album's release more than 40 years ago. Moving Pictures has influenced generations of rock, prog, grunge, and even jazz musicians. Its pairing of virtuoso musicianship with radio-friendly riffs, hooks that are at once edgy and direct, and lyrics that are at the same time plain-spoken and enigmatic captured the imaginations of nascent MTV-generation rock fans. It still holds a special place in many musical hearts, including mine.

After the success of 1980's Permanent Waves, Rush toured extensively and planned to release a live album, but new music and lyrics emerged while the band was on the road, and a joint recording session with Canadian band Max Webster (including Canadian poet Pye Dubois) resulted in collaborative lyrics for a song that became "Tom Sawyer." The band decided to do a new studio album instead.

They continued to develop the song ideas during the summer of 1980, then went out on the road for a short North American tour to hone the tunes further. They started recording in October, at Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec. By the end of November, the album was complete. It was released the following February.

With big ambitions and a bigger budget, Rush pushed the 1980 state of the art. The album was recorded by Paul Northfield on 48 tracks—two interlocked Studer A80 24-track, 2" tape recorders. Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig told me that half of those tracks were for Peart's drum mikes, including a Crown pressure-zone microphone duct-taped to his chest. The album was mixed through Le Studio's Solid State Logic 4000E console. The resulting two-track masters were recorded digitally to ¾" U-matic videocassette via a Sony 1600 A/D converter. This was a daring, high-tech way of recording for 1980. No analog backup tape was made.

Ludwig cut the lacquers from this digital master. The resulting LP sounded punchier, brighter (in a good way), and more detailed than most rock albums of the era. It stood out on home stereos, in cars, and on table radios— and not because it was louder. "When I heard the first notes of their master, I thought it sounded amazing," Ludwig told me in an interview. At least some of the early CD issues were likely made from the same digital master.


Now there's a 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe reissue: five 180gm direct-metal–mastered LPs, three CDs, and a Blu-ray disc. Also, a handsomely illustrated hardcover book and a grab bag of physical artifacts including inscribed metal guitar picks, drumsticks, and a die-cast metal "Red Barchetta" after one of the album's hits—which, remarkably, as we learn from the booklet text, was recorded in just one take.

The first LP contains the not-quite-40-minute original album; the other four contain a complete 1981 concert recorded at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, mastered by album coproducer Terry Brown. That pattern is repeated on the three CDs: The first contains the album, the other two the live concert. The audio-only Blu-ray disc contains the first-ever Dolby Atmos version of the album, a new 5.1 surround mix, and four music videos, including a new one for "YYZ."

But this is a vinyl column, so let's talk about the LPs. Years after the album's first release, probably in the 1990s, a two-track analog backup was made from the Sony 600 digital master. That backup tape is the likely source for Sean Magee's 2015 remaster, which was made at Abbey Road Studios. Magee's remaster, in turn, is the source of this reissue and all the other LP reissues since 2015. All, including this one, were direct-metal mastered, at GZ Media.

Magee's remaster, like so many other recent rock remasters, increases the bass energy and crunches peak dynamics to make the album "loud," like modern rock releases. That's what I'm hearing on this reissue: The low end is very loud and the balance between bass and drums is significantly different from the original, especially noticeable when it's heard on full-sized speakers at room-filling volume. The stereophony is also different from the original, maybe because certain frequency bands were increased in volume relative to others. Pressed at GZ Media, the LPs are clean, flat, relatively quiet, and well-packaged in protective inner sleeves.

For the most part, it accomplishes what it aims to, what Magee aimed to accomplish with his 2015 remaster. Over smaller speakers and through most headphones and car systems, this new reissue will sound modern, just as a 2022 rock'n'roll fan expects it to sound. But it's less dynamic than the original, and it sounds quite different. The original 1981 LP may seem thin to 2022 ears, but it was Rush's original statement.

Perhaps the highlight of this set is the live recording. Those who had the privilege of seeing Rush live in that era will likely love it. It's looser and less polished than Exit ... Stage Left, the live album released later in 1981. It sounds just like what the audience must have heard when Rush played, on March 24 and 25, 1981, in front of their hometown crowd after a month of touring the album. The excitement is akin to a Stanley Cup hockey game.

Nicholalala's picture

Sheesh, 40 years ago I bought this album at 15. My mom was young but hated Rush. At least she liked Blondie. I’m not really into most boxed sets, but hope we see a decent cut of the album one of these days. I’ll have to find an original pressing to hear what I listened to back then.

MLP's picture

The original LP is a good addition to this box set. The sound is different, the original intention. The way the original LP was mastered was a one-off because of the hand-made nature of cutting directly from the digital master mix tapes. Luckily, the maximum number of copies were pressed back in the day, so there are plenty floating around for sale.

HoldyourfireAl's picture

All you have to do is A/B the 2015 Sean Magee remaster to this new one that is labeled as being the 2015 Sean Magee remaster and you will immediately find that it's false advertising. Sean's 2015 remaster was actually contrary to the Loudness Wars style of higher volume sacrificing dynamics. We've discussed it at length here:

Catcher10's picture

Thanks for the great write up Tom, good to see Rush get their fair shake now. I saw this tour as well the Exit Stage Left tour, so yea the live material on this box set is a much welcomed addition, as well brings back so many memories as a teenager.
I have several copies of MP on LP and still my original RLx2 stamped cut version is the best sounding, the low end is amazing and the whole record is literally perfect.
The Abbey Road Magee variants are very good, much cleaner sounding with a bit less deep punch than the original RL versions.
The highlight of this box set is the 4-LP live sets, amazing.