Listen to this track by hard rock prog trio hailing from Willowdale Ontario of all places (just north of Toronto for you out of towners …) Rush. It’s “Red Barchetta”, a cut off of their 1981 landmark album Moving Pictures. That album kicked off the decade for them as a new-wave influenced, although still rock-oriented unit and with this song being a stalwart fan favourite and live number, often introduced as “a song about a car”, which it is. But, there’s more to it than that.
This song is set an era when the ominous “Motor Law” makes muscle cars and Italian sports cars illegal, enforced by gleaming alloy air cars roving the roads in search of joy-riding perpetrators. The intricacies of this aren’t really outlined, and it probably doesn’t matter. If you were a teenager in 1981, you’ll know why. How many muscle car-driving Rush fans were there at that time? Too numerous to count. For all of the time-shifting math rock and seamless and staggering musicianship for which the band is known, they knew their audience.
But, what else influenced the writing of this song?
Well, one was lyricist and drummer Neil Peart’s interest in both engines and in speculative fiction. The song was inspired by a story that was published in Road & Track magazine in the early 1970s called “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard Foster, in which an MG Roadster is the central focus of the narrative as opposed to the flashier Ferrari Barchetta. The song hooks into a recurring theme in the band’s catalogue, that being personal freedom and individual choice. “Free Will”, “The Trees”, a good chunk of 2112, and even lead single from this album “Tom Sawyer” are all pertinent examples. Here that freedom takes the form of a car, a trip to the countryside, and the disobedience against a law enforced by a nanny state. In some ways, it’s a reflection of sentiments against real laws, which changed the way that cars and motorcycles were made in and around the time Foster’s story was published, with reduced speed due to heavier materials being used in line with increased laws on safety.
But, political undercurrents aside, it really is the band’s audience that drove this song’s popularity. As a kid with a first car, it was easy to connect with the idea of freedom embodied in shifting and drifting, mechanical music, and adrenaline surges. This is a common experience, which is why there are so many rock songs about cars, with rock music itself having been something of a symbol against repressive societal constraints, at least at one time. The nature of those constraints, and perceptions of them, tend to vary of course. But, the impulse to rebel is useful, and certainly relatable, with only the circumstantial details behind it making it a thing to be judged in the moral sense. This song appeals to the adolescent version of that impulse, with a mischievous thumbing of the nose against the Establishment, or perhaps the simple embrace of instant gratification at all costs that was pretty common to hormone-driven teens listening to Rush records in 1981.
As for this song’s literary roots, the author of the original story that inspired it, Richard Foster, would be a mysterious reference in the liner notes of the album, with the man himself elusive to even Peart at the height of the band’s popularity in the early 1980s. But, Foster would eventually meet Neil Peart and bond with him through their mutual love of motorcycles. Foster would join him on a road trip in West Virginia during the band’s Snakes & Arrows tour in the mid-to-late 2000s.
Moving Pictures would become Rush’s best-selling album in the United States to date for the band, eventually achieving quadruple platinum status. More importantly, it would establish a firm foothold for Rush coming out the 1970s and going into the digital landscape of the 1980s. Thanks to their embrace of technology tempered with an adherence to the core strengths of what each player brought to the whole, Rush would easily retain their audience, and get lots of radio play to build it further, winning new fans for a new decade. They would do this without compromising their sound during a time when the pressure to do so was pretty fierce for established rock bands of their vintage.
If we’re going to talk about individual choice and lack of compromise, this is probably the most meaningful expression of it where Rush was concerned.
Rush is a going concern today, of course. You can find out more about what this now legendary band is up to at Rush.com.