It was the morning of May 26th, 1986. I had just turned fifteen, and my family and I were visiting my uncle Walter and aunt Minerva in California. As I sat at the kitchen table for breakfast, they asked if I wanted to see Rush in concert that night with them. I was apprehensive. My understanding of music at the time was still a bit shaky – I was into the obvious radio stuff of the era such as Thompson Twins and Rick Springfield, with a dose of 70s pop jazz such as Chuck Mangione and Gato Barbieri, courtesy of my mother. The “heaviest” I got was maybe Van Halen’s 1984 album, and in hindsight, one can hardly consider “Jump” and “Panama” to be metal. And yet that’s exactly what I thought Rush was: heavy, HEAVY metal. I mean, didn’t they have an album cover with a woman holding a cross as she was burned alive? I was afraid Rush was some sort of “satanic band” my uncle and aunt were into (after all, they lived in California). But after some thought, I said yes.
As a teenager, I was already feeling a tingle of rebelliousness and unhealthy interest in real rock ‘n’ roll. So off we went to the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa and sat somewhere in the lawn. The place was packed, the smell of Mary Jane was in the air, and my heart was racing. By the end of the night, somewhere between Neil Peart’s drum solo, the lasers shooting around me, and the chorus of “Tom Sawyer,” I was a Rush fan. And no, they weren’t metal.
Rush was on the last leg of their Power Windows tour that evening. I would buy it a couple of months later and listen incessantly to it. Although they had fully dabbled in progressive compositions somewhere between their third and sixth albums, by 1980 they had moved on to more radio-friendly rock. This is not a diss in any shape or form – Rush had started pretty much as a poor man’s Led Zeppelin before embracing a more conceptual style which brought them legions of fans, then took those concepts and made them more streamlined and cohesive, tightening their sound experimentations and becoming more accessible in the process.
Out were long narratives like “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” (off 1978’s Hemispheres) and in were reggae-induced ditties like “The Spirit of Radio” (off 1980’s Permanent Waves) – just looking at those two titles is a perfect example of the band’s transformation. However, the risk paid off and brought them new fans while keeping the old. Better yet, it didn’t seem like “selling out”: They became a tighter outfit while keeping the time changes, tonal shifts, and intricate note patterns of progressive rock largely intact.
By mid-decade the band – singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart – were a successful rock trio, with hits such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Subdivisions,” and in true 80s fashion they’d begun to sprinkle their sound with more and more synthesizers. Power Windows is probably the culmination of this: The electronic embellishments are an integral part of the album’s overall sound. The results are a mixed bag to be sure, but by now I can’t separate them from the experience of listening to the whole record. Cheeky opener “The Big Money” has everything from synth bass to synth horns to synth pads, and even though they’re kitschy, I have no idea what the song would sound like without them (being that the lyrics are about wealth and power, the artifice seems oddly adequate).
Same goes for “Grand Designs,” with its recurring keyboard motif and extensive sequencing, and “Marathon,” in which the synth-heavy chorus eventually builds into a dreamy bonanza of (real) choral voices and strings. It’s all a bit over-the-top, and on a track such as “Emotion Detector” so much decor makes the cornball lyrics even harder to take: “Right to the heart of the matter / Right to the beautiful part / Illusions are painfully shattered / Right where discovery starts / In the secret wells of emotion / Buried deep in our hearts.” Ugh.
Don’t get me wrong, Rush was always about the play of light and dark, major and minor. These three Canadians were never a gloomy bunch, and entrenched within their songwriting formula is a keen sense of positiveness. Even when they ponder serious stuff like the atomic bomb in “Manhattan Project” or nationalism in “Territories,” it never comes across as solemn. Whereas a progressive band like King Crimson would’ve taken these themes and made angular, searing compositions that would have made you consider suicide, Rush likes to end on a note of hope. I can see how detractors would find it off-putting – sometimes it feels too earnest. However, when it works it’s amazing to hear: Just listen to “Middletown Dreams,” one of the standouts here and perhaps one of my favorite songs by the band.
The lyrics are simple and straightforward. Better still, they’re immediately relatable: “The office door closed early / The hidden bottle came out / Another day as drab as today / Is more than a man can endure.” Lyricist Neil Peart paints three stories of small-town, uneventful lives: A tired salesman, a restless boy, a middle-aged beauty queen. But they all have in common the possibility of escape: “He’d be climbing on that bus / Just him and his guitar / To blaze across the heavens / Like a brilliant shooting star.” By the time we get to the end, we’ve been transported right along on Lee’s passionate vocals, Lifeson’s screeching guitar licks, and Peart’s precise drumming. And the moment when Lee sings the last chorus, making the emphasis on “Driiive you when you’re down…” is just pure rock heaven to me.
The other track that gives me chills in Power Windows is “Mystic Rhythms.” Just the beginning alone with the electronic drums and the slinky bass immediately hypnotizes me. This is a song about mood, and it is right there in the interplay between the textured guitars, the haunting synths (more restrained here), and all the sonic bells and whistles Peart can muster up from behind his set. It’s a song about the unknown, and with cinematic and emotive lines such as “Mystic rhythms / Under city lights / Or a canopy of stars / We feel the powers and wonder what they are,” the band closes this set of songs beautifully.