“Take Off to Canadian Rock”: In 1985’s “The Big Money,” Rush railed against the abuse of power

By on July 25, 2017

For Night Flight’s “Take Off to Canadian Rock” — which originally aired on November 1, 1985 — we crossed the northern U.S. border for a look at some of the biggest recording artists from the Great White North, including Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Loverboy and Rush, who at the time were promoting their most dynamic and expansive album to date, Power Windows.

We shared their Rob Quartly-directed video for “The Big Money” — in which Rush railed against those abusing their power — in this special Canadian-themed show, and we’ll tell you all about it below. Subscribers can watch the entire episode over on Night Flight Plus!


The song’s title “The Big Money” — Power Windows‘ lead-off track — is actually from novelist John Dos Passos’s novel of the same name. That novel was part of his U.S.A. trilogy, which delved into the corrupting power of American capitalism.

Drummer Neil Peart, who usually wrote the band’s lyrics, has claimed to have been a big fan of Dos Passos — Rush had previously referenced Dos Passos with the song “The Camera Eye,” from the album Moving Pictures — and has said that he liked “Dos Passos’ stylistic ability, his poetic approach to prose.”

Peart also was mindful to point out that the ideas presented in the song was quite different from the ideas which Dos Passos exemplified.


Canadian power-trio Rush — Geddy Lee (vocals/bass/keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitar) and Neil Peart (drums) — formed in 1974, and over the rest of that decade, and into the middle of the 1980s, they made several transitions in their musical approach, starting off as a heavy progressive rock triumvirate before moving to a platinum-selling techo-rock combo.


Mid-70s era Rush

After the band’s tour for Power Windows, Peart would tell an interviewer that Rush’s sound was “…changing from having been progressive to not being progressive,” while also saying that he thought that Rush’s then-current musical style might “seem simpler” to an outside observer who is focusing solely on performance technique, but that the simpler-seeming music was just as difficult to compose and perform.


Although Rush had been using synths and keyboards with increasing regularity on three of their previous studio albums released prior to 1985, Power Windows ushered in a new synth-heavy sound for the band, thanks to the bright and crystalline sound of digital-sampling technologies.

Read more about Rush and “The Big Money” below.


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In the November 16, 1985 issue of the music industry trade paper Billboard — in an article published just a few weeks after we aired our “Take Off” special (“Production Opens ‘Windows’ for Rush: Rock Group’s New Album ‘Powered ‘ by New Sound”) — singer Geddy Lee said that all three members of the band were looking for ways to expand their artistic scope, and that they were learning from contemporary styles of playing and applying them directly to their new recordings.

Lee also said that the most obvious difference between their new album, Power Windows — which was their first to be released directly on compact disc, on October 15th of that year  — and their previous albums was the production itself, saying that Power Windows was “a lot more produced than any other album we’ve done.”


The band — who would launch a U.S. tour the following month, in November ’85  — had originally begun working with a new co-producer, Peter Collins, after deciding it was time to move on after a lengthy period of first working with producer Terry Brown, who had co-produced several of their albums leading up to recording tracks for the new album.

Collins had been recommended to the band by Thin Lizzy’s Gary Moore, who had been a Rush backup act.

Their first co-producing attempts with producer Peter Henderson hadn’t panned out like they’d wanted, and so they continued to search for the right person to man the studio boards, and that  turned out to be Collins, who Lee says was a good song producer, and wasn’t “hung up on technical stuff — he focuses on the song.”


Lee explains: “The search for a producer was confusing — we must have talked to at least fifty over the past three or four years. We still hadn’t found the ideal producer by the time we were ready to go into the studio with [Grace Under Pressure] so our second alternative was to find a good engineer/producer to get the album done. Our search led us to Henderson. He was good in that role, but afterwards we realized we still hadn’t found what we were looking for.”

Lee and the band began work in February of that year, and jumped from studio to studio, working at several studios in Quebec and Toronto, Canada, in London, England (including EMI’s Abbey Road Studios and Richard Branson’s The Manor), and at Associated Independent Recording (AIR) on the Caribbean island of Montserrat (just four year later, the studio was forced to close after Hurricane Hugo devastated the island and severely damaged AIR’s facilities in 1989).


Power Windows would also feature a 30-piece string section (including members of the London Symphony) and a 25-person choir, even though they could have achieved the same effects using synthesizers, but Lee said they made the choice to work with the singers and players because it was “more human and fun to do it this way.”

The idea to use live strings was actually Rush’s idea — they had wanted to work with Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley, who directed and arranged the string parts to the band — but they gave credit for the use of the choir to producer Peter Collins, saying that it was his idea.


There was no doubt, by the mid-80s, that promotional videos were helping the careers of some of Rush’s fellow Canadian bands and artists, including Corey Hart, who is also featured in our “Take Off to Canadian Rock” episode.

At the time, Lee still wasn’t convinced that their video being aired on MTV and shows like “Night Flight” was having any effect on their record sales, saying that he felt that the overall impact was greatly overestimated.

Lee: “I also don’t like that the power of music is in the hands of TV.”


Lee was probably aware of the fact that videos — which were pretty much the industry standard by 1985 — were being charged against the band’s artist royalties advance, as high as $60,000 per video at the time, and so he may have factored that into his comments.

Music video, TV and commercial director Robert “Rob” Quartly — another Canadian — was brought in to direct the video for the lead-off single from the album, “The Big Money.”

The video was produced by Alan Weinrib (Geddy Lee’s brother) for Champagne Productions in Canada.


During the 1980s, Quartly (yes, we spelled his last name wrong in our chyron) would produce or direct numerous Juno Award-winning music videos for lots of Canadian artists, including Corey Hart (1984’s “Sunglasses at Night”) and Gowan (Styx vocalist Larry Gowan would win a “Best Video” Juno for his “A Criminal Mind” in ’85).

Quartly’s video for “The Big Money” was a high concept clip, reflecting on the band’s dislike of power and its influence on “big money” and the sheer magnitude of trade in the modern global economy, particularly during the 1980s.

Throughout the video, Rush are shown performing on what appears to be an oversized Monopoly game board with the words “Big Money” in the middle, as if big business was nothing more than a game show in which the deck is stacked in favor of the host, while the contestants themselves are mere game pieces to be used as needed (“Sometimes pushing people around/Sometimes pulling out the rug/Sometimes pushing all the buttons/Sometimes pulling out the plug”).


The then state-of-the-art computer graphics were created by a company called Green Light Productions, looking similar to those seen in the video for the song “Money for Nothing,” by Dire Straits.

Actor Howard Busgang portrays “Mr. Big Money,” a man obsessed with the triple themes of business success, power and money.

The car featured in the animated intro has a license plate that reads “Mr. Big,” which was actually a reference to their producer, Peter Collins, who Rush would work with again on albums released in 1994 and in ’96.


Collins’s background had previously included writing and producing jingles for Canadian TV commercials, as well as producing techno-pop recordings and working with disparate acts like Blancmange, Nik Kershaw, Tracey Ullman, and Musical Youth.

One of Collins’ production associates included keyboardist/programmer Andy Richards, who also worked with popular ’80s-era acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Tears for Fears, Trevor Horn and the Pet Shop Boys, in addition to older ’70s-era British progressive rock acts like Strawbs and Propaganda.

It was Richards, in fact, who was mostly responsible for programming intricate keyboard parts and using digital samplers — including a couple of Emulator IIs — which helped Power Windows achieve the album’s overall keyboard-heavy, crystalline sound.


Rush’s Power Windows album was basically a concept album, thematically, addressing the band’s mixed feelings about media and industry contexts.

It focused primarily on the various manifestations of power and its abuse by those in power, with all of the tracks covering various aspects of those ideas, all of which fit together like pieces of a puzzle (a theory put forth in Bill Banasiewicz’s book Visions).


One of its other popular tracks, “Grand Designs,” was about the music business, and charts and graphs and lines, which pretty much covers the same themes as “The Big Money,” which is the monetary side of corporations who are more interested in their profit margins than they are in creative art.

This would be a theme that Rush would return to again and again in their long career, going as far back as 1977’s A Farewell to Kings and their huge hit “The Spirit of Radio,” which pulled back the curtain on the manufacturing of pop stars, and complained against arrogant profiteers for whom only the almighty dollar is a lodestar.


The album’s cover photo was a painting of by Toronto-based art director Hugh Syme — who worked with the band on at least a half-dozen of their albums by that point — showing a skinny, shirtless young boy, wearing white pajamas, holding a TV remote but aiming it at a barely-opened bedroom window (he occasionally appears in “The Big Money” video too).

Meanwhile, three weird-ass vintage TV sets (one for each member of Rush?) are seen sitting behind him.

That skinny blonde kid was Toronto-based model/actor Neill Cunningham, who, it turned out, “wasn’t a fan” of Rush’s music.

He was photographed for the cover by local and somewhat legendary Toronto rock photographer Dimo Safari, in a bedroom in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighborhood.

The concept for the cover seems to indicate that the boy is eager to explore the outside world, beyond that bedroom window.


Critics were mostly mixed on the album, although it did get a lot of praise from David Fricke of Rolling Stone — who frequently championed the band’s recordings, being one of the lone voices at the magazine to do so — who pointed out the the band’s inventive linking of older progressive rock traits with new post-punk innovations, and even declared Rush to be “the missing link between Yes and the Sex Pistols.”

Fan reaction to Power Windows was particularly guarded, many finding the album too high-tech, too glossy, and with not enough of Lifeson’s powerful guitar, and years later — despite claiming it to be one of his favorite of their albums — even Peart would reluctantly agree, to a point, that they were a little “keyboard-heavy,” saying:

“Those two albums [’85’s Power Windows and 1987’s Hold Your Fire] were very much embroiled in all that. We were working with Peter Collins, who was equally ambitious as a producer and arranger and song designer in a lot of ways. And we were working with a keyboard player Andy Richards in England at that time who was king of the flourishes and the dramatic moments and all of that.”


Peart later said he considered Power Windows and Hold Your Fire as forming a synergistic pairing, saying:

“If you try to divorce yourself from musician to fan, I think as a fan I would particularly like those records, just because they are such a feast to listen to — so much texture and so much variety and rhythmic exploration. To me, they remain very satisfying pieces of work to listen to. So I think that’s about the highest tribute I can give it: they are something that I would like as a fan.”


“The Big Money” — released as a single in October ’85 — peaked at #45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the Mainstream Rock chart (#46 UK).

Power Windows would reach its peak in the U.S. at #10 on Billboard‘s 200 list, #9 in the UK, and #2 on Canada’s RPM100 Albums chart.

The track has been featured on several of the band’s compilation albums, including Retrospective II, and The Spirit of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987, and a full-length version of the video has appeared on numerous VHS and laserdisc releases of Rush’s A Show of Hands tour concert film, although we’re showing you the edited version, which was released to MTV and other cable TV outlets.

Have a look at Night Flight’s “Take Off to Canadian Rock,” which, in addition to Rush’s video for “The Big Money,” also features videos by Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Platinum Blonde, Honeymoon Suite, Parachute Club, Idle Eyes, Loverboy, and Canadian super-charity-group Northern Lights. Subscribers can watch it now on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.