Normally, when we talk about power windows we think of vehicles that sport this feature as opposed to rolling them up and down with a handle. However, Rush’s idea of Power Windows came in the form of an album. Released on October 29, 1985, the eleventh studio album from the Canadian progressive rock band came after completing the Grace Under Pressure tour. After briefly taking a break, the trio of Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson returned to the recording studio to work on what became yet another certified platinum production with Music Canada and the Recording Industry Association of America. With the U.K.’s British Phonographic Industry, it was certified silver. After Power Windows was released, it peaked within the top ten of the official album charts between Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.
Grace and Signals
The 1980s featured music that heavily relied on synthesizer-style music. Rush made good use of this exploration as the band continued to mix and match different instruments, as well as a choir, to fuse together a running lyrical theme. With Peter Collins as co-producer, Rush recorded Power Windows in England and Montserrat. Andy Richards was also part of the lineup as he was the man behind the additional keyboards that were used in the recordings. From the album, there were two singles were released. “The Big Money” and “Mystic Rhythms” became hits. “Territories,” “Manhattan Project,” and “Marathon” also appeared on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
According to Alex Lifeson, Rush wanted to combine the strongest elements from 1982’s Signals and 1984’s Grace Under Pressure and use them for Power Windows. For him, this was one of the most cohesive and satisfying recordings he and his bandmates ever put together. This began after Rush took a short break from their Grace Under Pressure Tour before heading to Elora, Ontario’s Elora Sound Studios. It was at this location the band wrote and rehearsed new musical material.
Neil Peart, the band’s primary lyric writer and drummer, wrote lyrics from the studio’s farmhouse while frontman Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson worked on the music from the adjacent barn and its recording studio. With Lifeson, he had a collection of his own tapes of ideas to assemble the music for three of the album’s tracks, “The Big Money,” “Mystic Rhythms,” and “Marathon.” Each song took up to a week to put together before the trio worked on “Middletown Dreams,” “Marathon,” and “Grand Designs.”
Once the material was worked on, Rush headed to Florida for a warm-up tour in March 1985. The group wanted to sharpen their performance level as they tested out the new songs on stage before recording them. In the meantime, Peart continued to work on the lyrics from his hotel room. It would be in Florida the band met James “Jimbo” Barton, a musical engineer from Australia that was recommended to them by their new producer at the time, Peter Collins. Thanks to some of his recommendations, Rush was able to improve upon some of the musical material.
After the working vacation was over, Rush returned to Ontario, ready to pick up where they left off. Peart continued to write out the lyrics while Lee and Lifeson puzzled together the musical compositions to make their latest recording project work.
Part of the challenge Rush experienced during the mid-1980s was the change of rock and roll music shifting from progressive to non-progressive. According to Peart, Power Windows may have seemed to be a simpler album but it was actually just as difficult to compose and perform as any other. At the time, Lifeson was reluctant to put emphasis on keyboards, a trend he observed since Signals as his guitar parts were pushed more to the background as a result. However, there was an agreement Rush achieved a greater balance between the guitar and the keyboard just as successfully on Power Windows as they did with 1981’s Moving Pictures.
Don’t Hold Back
While recording Power Windows from April to August 1985, Rush used five different studios. The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, England, was the first as Rush spent five spontaneous weeks recording music. According to Lifeson, this was a more enjoyable album to put together than Grace Under Pressure. Power Windows featured elements of musical material Rush never used before, allowing them to break several boundaries as recording artists. This was the album that Rush agreed to not hold any of their creativity back.
While at Manor Studios, Andy Richards was brought in to play additional synthesizers, as well as help with the programming of the music. It was while in England that Peart was driven around by his drum technician, Larry Allen, to collect a set of African and Indian drums in London. He used these for “Mystic Rhythms” and “Territories.”
The second studio Rush recorded in was AIR Studios, which was located in the Caribbean’s Montserrat. For several years, the band thought about recording there so when the opportunity was present to book the facility for three weeks, they took advantage of this. After this, they returned to England to record in London’s SARM East Studios before heading over to Abbey Road Studios. The fifth and final studio recording took place at Angel Recording Studios, which featured the choir featured in “Marathon.”
Once the album was completed, Geddy Lee oversaw the mastering while he was in New York City.
About Power Windows
The lyrics behind Power Windows focused on the manifestations of power and how society reacts to it. The album’s cover was painted by Hugh Syme as he used reference photos that were taken by a photographer named Dimo Safari. Toronto’s Neill Cunningham was the model featured on the cover.
For the most part, Power Windows received positive reviews from music critics. Some felt it was Rush’s coldest album to date while others regarded this as one of the best works yet. Among the fan base, with over one million copies sold just in the United States alone, it was evident they liked the album too. The additional synthesizers that influenced the sound of Power Windows had Rush continue to explore new directions as a progressive rock band
Real Meanings Behind the Songs on Rush’s Power Windows Album
#1 – The Big Money
On the US Billboard Hot 100, “The Big Money” peaked at number five. It was a number four hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. This was a song about how money moves the world when it comes to the global economy. As the 1980s saw more international trade come about, it became more evident the power of money behaved as a form of dictatorship that was reshaping the world. Released in 1985, this came at a time when television shows like Dynasty focused heavily on big families with big money, along with all the ups and downs that came with it.
Neil Peart was a big fan of John Don Passos. After reading his book, he was inspired to write out the lyrics to “The Big Money.” In the music video, Rush was seen playing a board game similar to Monopoly.
#2 – Grand Designs
Rush never made it any secret what they thought about corporate music expectations. This is what partly made them so popular as they chose to cater to music fans, not big business. “Grand Designs” loosely criticized mainstream music for its superficiality, which all too often strips away an artist’s individuality. This song demonstrated why Rush was able to outlast and outperform the majority of the rock bands that started at the same time as they did. Instead of catering to what labels expected from them, they took a page directly out of Frank Sinatra’s book by doing things their own way. That worked for them as the vision of Neil Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson continued to evolve as a band, as well as insightful human beings.
#3 – Manhattan Project
The lyrics behind ‘Manhattan Project” came to Neil Peart as he researched the actual Manhattan Project. It was already his intent to write out lyrics to accommodate what he learned. At this point, he already had a head start on three other songs, namely “The Big Money,” “Mystic Rhythms,” and “Marathon.”
“Manhattan Project” explored the first nuclear weapon that was developed, the atomic bomb. Classified as the “Manhattan Project,” this was the ambitious World War II project that was led by the United States and supported by Canada and the United Kingdom. From 1942 until 1946, Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directed the research and development of this project. It was Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the bombs.
The “Manhattan Project” got its name as its first headquarters were in Manhattan. Once the first nuclear device was ready for detonation, it was designed as an implosion bomb for the Trinity test. This was conducted at New Mexico’s Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range on July 16, 1945. A month later, the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For Rush, this wasn’t an easy track to put together as Peart had difficulty as a songwriter sharing an objective point of view. He didn’t want to approach this song as a mere observer with limited facts. According to Geddy Lee, when Peart did the research for “Manhattan Project” he was as thorough as humanly possible as he filtered through a pile of books before writing out the lyrics.
#4 – Marathon
At first, “Marathon” seemed like it was going to be a tough song for Alex Lifeson to arrange and record. This was the song that used a choir at the end where producer Peter Collins found it humorous to have pregnant women and old men sing to this song. Part of the inspiration behind “Marathon” came after Neil Peart took up cycling while the band was taking time off between the conclusion of the Grace Under Pressure tour and the start of Power Windows as their latest recording project.
“Marathon” was a song about lyrically discussed the feeling of running a challenging race. This was actually used as a life metaphor as each human being has their own marathon to run as they handle one hurdling obstacle after another. The idea was to take them on one at a time instead of running too fast and having to take them all on at once.
In 1989, a live version of “Marathon” became a number six hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. It was a released single from Rush’s live album, A Show of Hands.
#5 – Territories
“Territories” was a song that lyrically discussed the topic of nationalism. For Rush, this wasn’t an easy song to put together. At first, the lyrics written by Neil Peart were too difficult for Lee to sing. So, Peart went back to the drawing board and wrote out a more direct approach that made it easier for the lead vocalist to perform. The lyrics included “Better Beer,” which was an inside joke shared by the band.
For Neil Peart, China was the nation that came to mind as the song’s title came was inspired by an area around Hong Kong called The New Territories. This, combined with Canada’s Northwest Territories, offered a poetic sound that enabled Peart to visualize the musical essence of “Territories.”
Today, China calls itself the Middle Kingdom. This is also the term used to describe itself as the middle between Heaven and Earth. Mainstream Chinese culture shares a belief even though they’re slightly below heaven, they’re also above everybody else on Earth. This is the same viewpoint of many nations and people who share this same brand of pride.
#6 – Middletown Dreams
Similar to “Subdivisions,” “Middletown Dreams” was a song that explored the suburban lifestyle and how it drove people to seek a temporary escape from it. This was a song that required several rewrites before each member of Rush was satisfied with it.
As a song, lyricist Neil Peart chose “Middletown Dreams” as a play-off from “Territories.” Where “Territories” warned about a device in “Middletown,” this song pointed out the reality that most states across the U.S.A. have towns that share this exact same scenario. This song also brought up the strong sense of neighborhood shared among citizens who try to go about their daily lives as normally as possible.
As a way of looking into a world with an eyeglass in reverse, Peart used his experience while cycling the American countryside as a source of inspiration behind “Middletown.” From his point of view, observing a town at a much slower pace than using an automobile allowed him to observe communities from a different perspective. The lyrics reflected the lives of men, women, and children as each of them went about their business like ordinary citizens. As they lived, they also dreamed.
Covered in the first verse was a writer named Sherwood Anderson who left his small town, following the railroad tracks that would lead him to Chicago, Illinois. This was used as an example, as was the young aspiring musician described in the second verse. There were parts of “Middletown Dreams” that could have passed as an autobiography for so many people, including Peart.
#7 – Emotion Detector
When Neil Peart began to work on the lyrics for “Emotion Detector,” there was a discussion with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson about installing a ballad to Power Windows. When Peart presented what he wrote to his bandmates, it worked well with the material they were working on at the time. This song, along with six others, was assembled on a demo tape and then presented to Peter Collins for recording.
For Rush, “Emotional Detector” proved to be a real challenge as each band member wanted to get this ballad done right. The song itself dealt with the range of emotions people feel that sometimes make them feel insecure. Emotions behave much like a nuclear reactor, especially when triggered just enough for someone to hit the panic button.
Throughout mankind’s history, some of the biggest blunders made came from people who were unable to control their emotions. Instead of taking the time to practice discernment, hasty judgments are made that always lead to actions that make a situation go from bad to worse. Among the population that learns how to steer their emotions by exercising discernment, it is they that come up with better solutions when it comes to dealing with problems.
#8 – Mystic Rhythms
According to Geddy Lee, “Mystic Rhythms” was the most synthetic song on the Power Windows album. Although Alex Lifeson was playing an acoustic Ovation guitar, it generated a synthesizer sound once it was plugged into the amp. When this was released as a single, it became a number twenty-one hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. It was also used for NBC’s 1986 broadcast program as its opener.
The lyrics behind the song reflected how each person’s thought patterns tend to work. Human beings are easy to distract as we each share basic instincts that put us into situations that force us to make a decision. Although we all have this in common, what makes each person different from the others is how they choose to respond to what they’ve encountered. Everyone has a heart and everyone has a thought process. “Mystic Rhythms” not only pointed this out but was designed to come across as if it was a magical phenomenon.
Real Meanings Behind The Songs On Rush’s Power Windows Album article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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