Watch the full interview on Daily Vice
Recorded between four studios in England, Rush's Power Windows was largely a foreign affair. However the Juno-winning album artwork for the 1985 record from the Toronto-bred rock trio was comparably home-grown. The interior scene sees a skinny, shirtless young man in white pajamas pointing a remote control at a window while flanked by three vintage television sets was actually shot in a bedroom in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighborhood by local rock photographer Dimo Safari, and was then painted over by art director and long-time Rush collaborator Hugh Syme—also based in Toronto at the time. The model at the center of all that imagery is Neill Cunningham, 52, now the owner of Pandemonium, a fifteen-year-old used books and record shop in the city’s Junction community. Cunningham also appears on the cover’s reverse, peeping through a set of binoculars à la Alex Colville’s famous To Prince Edward Island painting, a shot he reprised in the music video for the album’s lead single, “The Big Money,” and one that makes another faint appearance on the screen of the television set closest to Cunningham on the cover. Most fans would expect all this to add up to a record shop owner’s well-cherished legacy, but until now, Cunningham’s mostly kept devotees of the long-nicknamed “biggest cult band in the world” in the dark about his association with the group. The one time a stranger actually recognized him from the album art, Cunningham actually denied it.
“I was just embarrassed. There would’ve been no harm in making her day by saying, ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ but I was somehow just embarrassed about it,” Cunningham says. “My scene was the black leather jacket scene—not the jean jacket scene—so when the album came out I told all my friends, but it was not really a points getter at parties.” Then in his early 20s, Cunningham was a waiter that dumped his pay cheques to see touring acts like the Cramps and the Ramones when Marcus Pearson—a friend that would take him to gigs for foundational local punk acts like the Viletones—told him about the opportunity. Pearson was working as an assistant for rock photographer Dimo Safari, who had already developed a reputation shooting the likes of the Rolling Stones. When Cunningham heard Safari was looking for a “skinny blonde guy” for a cover, he assumed it would be for the newest from Madonna—a recent client of the photographer’s—and jumped at it. “When [Pearson] said Rush I said, you know, ‘That’s great, too. What could be better?’ Iconic Canadian rock, even in 1985, you know? They were a big deal.” While he “wasn’t a fan” back then, Cunningham’s since converted, though. If asked to pick a favorite Rush record that’s not got him on the cover, he’d pick Fly by Night (1975)—more a fan of Rush’s “unadorned trio power rock,” he calls it “a fine piece of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Nevertheless, in more recent years Cunningham has amassed a modest collection of Power Windows memorabilia, and when Universal Music Enterprises announced plans to reissue remastered editions of the group’s Mercury-era records to mark the band’s 40th anniversary in 2015, he made arrangements to stock up on Power Windows. A number of copies now fill the wall space behind the register, reminding Cunningham of another time, and after a profile with the Toronto Star made the rounds last week, Cunningham’s been edging out his place in dad rock legend, reluctantly fielding questions from Rush fan sites and shipping autographed copies of the record to places as varied as Hamilton, Ontario, and Wichita, Kansas. “It was strange that I didn’t want that attention and I’m a media slut now.”
Noisey: So how did you end up on the cover of Power Windows?
Neil Cunningham: That’s a good question. My friend Marcus Pearson was working for Dimo Safari in the 80s as his assistant photographer, and we were all very jealous of the job because he got to go to all sorts of concerts and backstage and all sorts of stuff. So he called me because he heard that Dimo and the art director [for Power Windows], Hugh Syme wanted a skinny blonde guy for the Rush album cover, and he suggested that he knew a person who might be just the what they were looking for, and I went and met them and apparently I had a look that they liked.
You sort of jumped at the opportunity because you knew Dimo was working with Madonna, right?
That’s the way I recall it. It’s funny because when my friend phoned me at work, I’m positive I said, “Who, Madonna?” when he said, “Do you wanna be on an album cover?” I’m positive that’s what I said. Dimo did all sorts of work for big names in music. He was one of the two go-to professional photographers in Toronto. He would fly down to Monserrat to shoot the Rolling Stones, so why not Madonna? And I thought that would be so much fun. And when he said Rush I said, you know, “That’s great, too. What could be better?” Iconic Canadian rock, even in 1985, you know? They were a big deal.
But you weren’t particularly a fan of their music at the time.
You know, I wasn’t a fan of the band. It wasn’t my scene. My scene was the black leather jacket scene—not the jean jacket scene—so when the album came out I told all my friends, but it was not really a points getter at parties because it was just kind of the wrong scene, but it was a lot of fun. Everybody was kind of a little agog at “how do you get on a record cover like that?” or really any record cover. And really it’s just a fluke in my case.
Where were you in your life when this opportunity came to you?
I was a waiter, I loved music, I was going to punk shows every night. I was just on the Queen Street scene night and day. That was my scene, and I did whatever work I could to get money to do that. Which… it’s a lot of bouncing around. I thought a change in career to record modeling would’ve been good. And I actually was on another record cover. I was on a Honeymoon Suite record cover [for The Big Prize (1986)]. They dyed my hair black ‘cause they didn’t want the band to know that I was the guy on the Rush album cover. It’s a fantastic photograph. And I wonder what happened to that guy [pointing to a guy in leather at the back of the shot] because he looks really wicked. The best thing about this one is the 45. They did a shoot and my bride and I are in a heart-shaped bathtub together. You’ve gotta find that 45. It’s super hard to get.
What was working with Dimo Safari and Hugh Syme like?
Dimo’s great. He’s a wonderful guy. It’s interesting hanging out with a guy who’s flying down to Montserrat to hang out with the Stones. It was interesting, because it was March… this [indicating the Power Windows album art] is a wonderful painting Hugh Syme did of a photograph, and Hugh was so particular about the image he wanted that I was there for eight hours and they were shooting from outside the window, from here, here, here, they were moving the TVs around—you have no idea how many times they moved me around—and then it took [Syme] two months to do the painting. A lot of work. Hugh’s album art… he’s done so many iconic album covers. He lives in LA. He’s a fantastic artist.
Hugh did some keyboard stuff for Rush, too, didn’t he?
He did. You actually hear him noodling on the live record, too. He was a good keyboard player, too. He was in a Toronto band.
Was this staged at an apartment, or did you do this on a set?
This was a house in Cabbagetown. The person who owned the house knew Dimo… and Hugh—I think he knew Hugh, because he had a studio in the backyard. I think it might’ve been Cabbagetown Studios, but I am not sure about that.
Album cover for Honeymoon Suite's 'The Big Prize'
What was the concept behind the shoot?
The thing with Rush is their music’s really involved, their lyrics are generally really conceptual… it’s almost high art. It’s like prog rock, where they’re giving you story… the single on this—“The Big Money”—the lyrics are intense because they’re talking about the evils of big money, but what they don’t do… they don’t do love songs, they don’t do songs about girlfriends… not a lot of love songs, but a lot of high concept, a lot of politics, a lot of futurism, control—this [image] was really all about control. There’s a lot of imagery going on there. And you know, Rush fans pour over the lyrics of Rush, and you’d have to find one and ask them. They will explain.
What was it like filming the music video for “The Big Money”?
Oh, it was lame [laughs]. Yeah, that was terrible. That was very disappointing. Alright, here’s the deal. So, I was not union, and when I got to the video shoot, I was kind of offered this flat rate of dough, and then I saw they had like 30 actors there for this crazy idea about… the video was for “The Big Money,” and it was this big involved story with up to 30 actors in it. And they had the food spread and then I made the mistake of talking to them and finding out what they were getting. And I was kind of like, “Oh. That’s not good.” So I kind of made a fuss and they made me a little happier, and then… it was funny, because none of them are in the video, and I am, and it must have cost them a fortune to hire those actors and then for it to not work out… it really is not a high point in music video at all. It’s kind of fun in that way. I really enjoy it that way. It’s like you could use it as a 101 how not to do a music video.
Did you get any other shots at record modelling?
Here’s a story—Hugh moved to L.A. when Rush was putting out the Hold Your Fire record, which came out after Power Windows, Hugh’s idea was to include me on that record cover as well. And he had a concept that involved me and some actors, so they flew me down to L.A. and I got a funny haircut because they wanted to make my hair look like it did on the Power Windows album cover, which it never really did—trying to make my head look like a painting was kind of fun. And six months later the record came out, I had to go and buy it, and I wasn’t there. If you look on the other record, you’ll see inside the cover where I should’ve been. That was disappointing.
What's your relationship with Power Windows like now?
It changed when I heard that they were reissuing all the vinyl. I kind of got excited and I thought, “Wow, I can finally do something with my experience with Rush.” I get my 15 minutes now, and I didn’t get it then. And I kind of didn’t really want it then. Now it’s different, I sell records, so this is a little handy. It is fun. I’ve always had a Rush lithograph on the wall, and people ask and I’ve let them know what it’s about, but to let it become common knowledge is different. I am enjoying it.
The Star article mentioned you’d been recognized on the streetcar, but you denied it. Why?
Why did I deny it? It was the jean jacket/leather jacket thing. I was just embarrassed. There would’ve been no harm in making her day by saying, “Yeah, that’s me,” but I was somehow just embarrassed about it. It was strange that I didn’t want that attention and I’m a media slut now.
When you look at this album today, who do you see a portrait of?
It’s interesting. I don’t feel over 50 years old, I don’t feel 50… my environment probably helps me feel or imagine that I’m still 30, but, you know. I know that guy well. It’s me. I haven’t changed really. I don’t get out to shows half as much, but I see dinosaur punk shows when they come to town. I actually went and saw the Bowie Tony Visconti show [with Holy Holy at the Opera House in Toronto] last week and that was wonderful. I bought my tickets before Bowie passed away, so my interest really is in music that I know and have known, and when I see bands that I’ve enjoyed in the past get back together and go on tour, I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll go see Peter Murphy again.”
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.