In 1981, Rush had planned to release a live album, but riding a wave of good vibes & inspiration, they changed their minds and decided to record an album of new material instead. It turned out to be their best-selling album, and years later the band would still look back on it fondly. Most of their biggest hits are on this album titled Moving Pictures, but this episode we’re turning our ears on a lesser-known (but fan favorite) track, “The Camera Eye“.
“The Camera Eye” (Words by Peart, Music by Lee and Lifeson) Copyright 1981 Core Music Publishing
— Don’t forget to follow this show, so you never miss an episode.
Invisible airways crackle with life, bright antenna bristle with the energy, bringing you the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your host, Brad Page. Some songs inspire me, some songs are fascinating to me, some really get to me emotionally, and some songs are really intriguing. Some just capture my imagination. Whatever the case, I always wonder why that is. What is it that makes a song so great? Well, that’s the idea behind this podcast– discovering what goes into making a great song.
This time on the podcast, we’re sticking our toe back into progressive rock. These songs are always tricky because the music can get complicated, and we try not to get bogged down with a lot of technical stuff on this show. And the songs are long and don’t always fit the format here. But I’ve been wanting to explore this track for a while now, so let’s do it. This is Rush with “The Camera Eye”.
In the 1970’s, Rush evolved into one of the leading purveyors of progressive rock, or Prog Rock, as both fans and detractors like to call it. Releasing their “2112” album in 1976 established them as fan favorites in the genre. And in 1978, they recorded their most proggy album ever, “Hemispheres”. So after something like that, where do you go from there?
Well, that instigated one of the major shifts in the band over their 45-year career. They started working on shorter songs. Not any less creative musically, but tighter, more focused. Guitarist Alex Lifeson would graciously step back a bit and leave more room for bassist Geddy Lee to also add more keyboards to their sound. And besides playing bass and keyboards at the same time, Geddy was also their singer, and he changed his vocal approach around this time, singing in a little lower register.
And then drummer Neil Peart, who wrote all of their lyrics, changed the things he was writing about. Gone were the Sci-Fi epics and the tales of fantasy. Now Neil wrote more about the things that affected him in his daily life and about the world around him. Across the board, this was a big change for the band. It was a risk, but it paid off as the 1970’s came to a close. Rush began the new decade by releasing the “Permanent Waves” album in January 1980, and it was a big hit. It would become one of their bestselling albums and remains a favorite amongst their fans.
The band embarked on a successful tour. In fact, I think this was the first tour that they actually made any money on. And during the sound checks and rehearsals, they started coming up with new material. The original plan was for them to release a live album after “Permanent Waves”. But the band was feeling pretty enthusiastic, and the vibes were good. So, when one of their friends at their record label, Mercury Records, suggested that they try recording a new studio album, they said, “let’s do it” and changed their plans.
The result was “Moving Pictures”, which would become their best selling and most popular album.
Recorded at Les Studio in Quebec, and produced by their longtime producer, Terry Brown, the album would spawn their biggest hits and concert favorites like “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight”, “Red Barchetta”, “YYZ”– all from this album. In fact, they’re all packed on Side One of this album.
But Side Two of “Moving Pictures: opens with a song called “The Camera Eye”. The song clocks in at 10 minutes and 58 seconds, almost eleven minutes long. It’s the longest song on the album, and this would be the last time Rush would record a song this long. They would never record another song over ten minutes.
The song was produced by Terry Brown, the music was written by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, and the lyrics written by Neil Peart. “The Camera Eye” was the first song written for the album, at least as far as the lyrics. While on tour, Neil Peart would sometimes walk the different cities, and he came up with the lyrics to “The Camera Eye” based on his impressions of the different feel and different rhythms of two cities in particular, New York and London.
Neil Peart was often seen with a book in his hand. He was one of the most well-read men in rock, certainly the most well-read drummer in rock history. Neil had read the work of John Dos Pasos, in particular his “USA Trilogy”. And in those books, Dos Pasos uses a literary device he calls “the camera eye”. That’s where Neil got the title from. One of the books in the USA trilogy is called “The Big Money”. Neil would later write a song based on that, too.
“The Camera Eye” opens with the sound of a city. It’s a city street scene. According to Geddy Lee, when they were putting together that pastiche of sound effects, one of the clips they used was a bit of audio from “Superman”, the 1978 movie with Christopher Reeve. Here’s the street scene from the movie:
Now, let’s go back and listen to the song. And if you listen closely, you can hear that guy saying “fresh fruit”. At that point, Geddy Lee’s keyboards come in. He was using a mix of Oberheim synthesizers, Taurus bass pedals, probably some Korg keyboards as well. Let’s pick it up from there.
The synthesizer is making a burbling sound underneath. That’s created using a process called “sample and hold”.
Now we’ll hear the first musical motif that will occur throughout the song.
Neil is doing some subtle snare drum work here. Also, Alex Lifeson is adding some guitar bits, playing harmonics or just making some interesting guitar sounds. Alex is chucking his guitar strings in sync with Neil’s snare drum. Let’s play that back.
Neil comes in there with a pretty straightforward drum beat for Neil. And that takes us into the next section of the song. And Neil was doing some nice cymbal work underneath that keyboard part. Let’s hear that.
More of that sample and hold synthesizer brings us into the next section of the song.
I think this is one of the all-time great Rush riffs. Let’s hear Alex’s guitar playing that riff.
Now, up until this point, Geddy has only been playing his keyboards, but this is where his bass guitar comes in.
We’ve reached the verse and it wouldn’t be Rush without some interesting time signature stuff going on. Leading into the verse here, they’re alternating between measures with four beats and measures of six. Let’s try to count that out. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6 .
Now, once the vocals start, they change it up again. Most of the verse is in 6/4 time: six beats per measure, except the second measure of each line has only five beats. So let’s try counting that. 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6.
So let’s go back and listen to all of this again. But I don’t want you to try to count it, just listen to how it flows. To me, part of the magic of Rush is not how they’re able to play the technical stuff, it’s how they’re able to make it sound so natural.
We talked about how this song is the tale of two cities. This first verse is about New York, and as you would expect from the pen of Neil Peart, the lyrics are vivid and insightful.
“Grim faced and forbidding, their faces close tight.
An angular mass of New Yorkers
pacing and rhythm race the oncoming night
they chase through the streets of Manhattan.”
And let’s listen to Geddy’s bass part here. Then they go back into the main riff, and this introduces us to a new part of the song– maybe my favorite part of the song. Beautifully orchestrated, the way they put this together.
We’re still in New York in this vignette, but he references a rain “like an English rain”; he’s connecting these two cities together, and we’ll wind up in London soon.
Geddy plays a nice little bass lick before the next line. Let’s hear all of that together again.
And more great drumming by Neil during this part. Let’s go back and hear some of those drums. As this section continues, Geddy brings some of those keyboards back in.
As the lyrics speak of the buildings and their limitless rise, the keyboards subtly climb up in the background. They’re going to stay on the same basic chord changes here, but Neil is going to change up his drum pattern which starts to build up the drama. And listen to Geddy’s bass here. Neil ramps up the drums even more.
That kind of dramatic buildup and release. I don’t think any band did that kind of thing better than Rush. Let’s go back and just listen to Neil’s drums during this whole section. That basically brings us back to the beginning of the song as we start again in a new city.
I just love Neil’s drum part there. Let’s pick it back up there. Great guitar work by Alex here, too.
We’re cycling our way back through the different parts of the song again. Let’s hear Alex playing that riff again. Sounds to me like one guitar panned left and one panned right. And we’ve got to listen to Geddy’s bass part there, it’s really something.
And that gets us to the second verse. And let’s listen to what Alex is doing on guitar. I think there are three guitar parts here. An electric in the middle with two acoustic guitars panned left and right. Those guitars are really jangly. My guess is he’s either playing with a capo or in a special tuning.
Let’s hear more of Geddy’s bass. Let’s check out that drum fill.
The last time around, we didn’t pay much attention to Alex’s guitar part in this section. So let’s go back and listen to that.
OK, it’s time for a little mythbusting. You can hear a voice in the background there; I’ve seen speculation online of all kinds of things, even that that was Geddy burping and then saying, “Oh God”. But if we listen to the vocal track, it’s simply an old English greeting. Remember, the setting is London.
Let’s pick it back up at that spot. There’s another great line.
“Pavements may teem with intense energy,
but the city is calm in this violent sea.”
Then we get a great guitar solo from Alex Lifeson. The sound is stripped down to just bass, drums and the guitar solo. And his guitar tone is super distorted. He must have been using a fuzz pedal for this solo.
After the guitar solo, we head into the big finale. They repeat this section from earlier, and I love these lines.
“I feel the sense of possibilities,
I feel the wrench of hard realities.”
You know, people go to the big city to make their mark, make their dreams come true, right where it all seems possible… but you’re often confronted with the harsh realities. The competition is intense, you get taken advantage of, dreams get crushed. That’s the risk. I think Neil really captures all of that in these two lines.
I just want to rewind and listen to Neil’s drum climax at the end there. It’s really good, but you’d expect nothing less. There’s a long fade-out on that final chord. There’s some cymbal and snare work from Neil, and a few extra notes in the keyboards, but mostly they’re letting that last chord ring out as long as possible.
And the last thing we’ll hear is the sound of church bells in the city.
“The Camera Eye” By Rush
“Moving Pictures” was their 8th album, their best-selling album in the US. And probably their most popular worldwide. They would go on to release eleven more albums, 19 studio albums in total, and there is not a bad one in the bunch. Of course, you’ll like some more than others, but they all have merit.
Neil retired from touring in 2015, and in 2018 the band officially called it quits. And on January 7, 2020, Neil Peart died as a result of brain cancer.
Geddy and Alex are still with us. They’ve stayed out of the limelight for the most part these last few years. There’s talk of them doing some new music together. It won’t be Rush– that’s over, but it would be nice to hear them make music together again. Still, 19 great albums. If that’s all we get, I can live with that.
Thanks for listening to this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. We’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode. Until then, get caught up on all of our previous shows on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com, and of course, you can find us on all of the podcast apps and services too.
Don’t forget to follow the show so that you never miss an episode. And if you’d like this show to continue, the best thing you can do is to tell a friend about it, because your recommendation really means a lot.
So, from my remote little corner here on the Pantheon Podcast network, I thank you again for listening and remind you to support the artists you love by buying their music. Now, go dig out your copy of “Moving Pictures” and crank up “The Camera Eye” by Rush.