How Rush Went Pun-Wild With ‘Moving Pictures’ Cover
Hugh Syme, Rush's longtime art director, compares album cover design to songwriting: Some concepts take ages to work out, and others arrive instantly.
"I'm always jealous when I hear [my favorite] songwriters — Donald Fagen or Joni Mitchell or Peter Gabriel or Don Henley — say, 'I wrote that song between coffee and lunch,'" he tells UCR. "What an accomplishment. But I also hear they herniate over other songs, taking weeks or months to bring them into focus."
His vision for the prog-rock trio's eighth LP, 1981's Moving Pictures, crystalized as soon as he heard the title from drummer-lyricist Neil Peart — conjuring visual puns. "I Immediately saw people moving pictures," he says.
Not that Rush were immediately onboard. "The band didn't get it at first," Syme says. "I said to Neil, 'We've gotta have some people moving pictures.' It was another one of those 'What?!' kind of moments. It took a little more description from me to fill in the details."
It's a layered joke: The cover shows a crew of workers physically moving pictures (paintings of dogs playing poker, the "Starman" character from 2112 and a burning Joan of Arc) and a group of people being moved to tears by these pictures.
Syme originally pictured a grandiose backdrop, like a "truly historic place in Europe," for the photo. Instead, the crew kept things local: "Budgets being what they were at that time, we ended up using the Ontario Legislature in Toronto's Queen's Park as a nice nod" to Rush's hometown. "Pink Floyd used the Battersea Power Station on their Animals cover, so why not?"
"Unwittingly, there were three arches and three pillars," he adds. "That also became a play on the Rush triumvirate, the trio of elements."
Rush covers often feature Easter eggs and in-jokes, using friends and acquaintances multiple times across their catalog. One participant was Syme's pal Bobby King, who previously played the suit-clad "[René] Magritte character" on Hemispheres, the "willing bare-assed character for the Starman [on 2112]" and the man in the stage wings on Exit … Stage Left. For Moving Pictures, he shows up as "the prime mover — no pun intended." ("I made good use of his good will," the art director adds, "and his cheap modeling fees."
Photographer Deborah Samuel, who shot the cover, pulled double duty — also appearing as Joan of Arc. And that painting was itself a reference to the Moving Pictures song "Witch Hunt," on which Syme added synthesizer.
"I thought Joan of Arc was definitely the iconic moment in history to play on," he says. "We couldn't find the right witch, so half a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan Scotch, some Ronson lighter fluid, some burlap and a wooden post later, I shot Deborah as the cameo witch. Necessity is the mother..."
The photo became a "little more Fellini-esque" because of the overcast day after he added "a group of Bolshevik people" to play the distraught characters in the right part of the frame.
"They were the parents of a hairdresser at Vidal Sassoon," Syme says. "Her parents were Russian, and her father owned one of those iconic bearskin hats. They arrived on set, and they just looked the part. It was fantastic that they just fell into step. I said, 'Your groceries have just fallen; your art museum has been pillaged; and you're feeling very forlorn.' When I mentioned, 'Just look as somber and woeful as possible,' [the mother] immediately took out a handkerchief and started into a mock weep. I thought, 'This woman's great.'"