A black pall has hung over the world since July 16th, 1945. Throughout the course of human history, people have incrementally discovered new and innovative ways to advance the species. On the heels of the industrial revolution, the world opened up in ways previously unimaginable. The printing press made information accessible. Manufacturing made goods plentiful. Airplanes, railroads, and automobiles created opportunities for new trade routes and opened up the world to the common man. Because of the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer and others involved in the secretive Manhattan Project, the looming threat of instantaneous global devastation jumped from scientific speculation to horrifying reality.
The Father of the Atomic Bomb has become an object of pop-culture fodder this summer in no small part due to Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster thriller, Oppenheimer. Released this weekend, the film is a studied portrait of a tortured mathematician and an indictment of the moral ambiguities of science for science’s sake. In this quicksilver age of the internet and artificial intelligence, these themes have become more relevant than ever.
Canadian prog-rock superstars Rush have always held the reputation of being a “thinking man’s band.” While this standing can be mostly attributed to the group’s complex songwriting prowess and absurd levels of talent, their thematic content runs neck-and-neck with the musical dexterity of each member. Much of this can be attributed to the insatiable curiosity and intellect of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. In a 2021 interview with Rolling Stone, Rush frontman Geddy Lee explained of Peart: “It wasn’t his idea to write the lyrics. Alex [Lifeson, guitar] and I sort of said, ‘Make him do it. He reads a lot of books. Let him do it.’”
While the title might seem like an offhanded reference to what was then a new technology in some automobiles, Rush’s 1985 album Power Windows was actually all about the nature of power itself. As Alex Lifeson told Kerrang! In 1985: “Here we are dealing with different aspects of power, from the power of science and how we use it (‘Manhattan Project’) through to the power that we have over each other in our day-to-day relationships (‘Emotion Detector’). It covers a broad spectrum of things, but power is the theme which runs throughout.”
With interests ranging from science fiction and philosophy to politics and history, Neil did indeed read a lot! In order to prep for the song “Manhattan Project,” Peart read no less than 10 books on Oppenheimer, his cohorts, and the lasting global impact of their tests. In the 2002 book Merely Players, Peart is quoted as saying of the song: “I wanted to write about the birth of the nuclear age. Well, easier said than done, especially when writing lyrics. You’ve got a couple of hundred words to say what you want to say. So, each word counts, and each word had better be accurate. I had found I was having to go back and read histories of the time and place, biographies of all the people involved—having to read a dozen books and collate all your knowledge and experience just so you can write, you know, if it says the scientists were in the desert sands. Well, make sure they were and why, and all that.”
A heavy concept demanded a certain level of precision; one that made a great deal more sense to someone who operates in lyrics and percussion like Peart than to his bandmates. When asked by Bruce Pollack in a 1986 interview if he thought of the drum track while writing lyrics, Neil said: “Being a drummer helps me a lot, because words are a subdivision of time. Sometimes I give my verse to Geddy and he’s perplexed by how he’s supposed to deliver it and I have to express it with my toneless delivery. Things have to be phrased in less obvious ways sometimes, across a bar line, with one syllable stretched and another compacted.
“In a song like ‘The Manhattan Project,’ where it is essentially a documentary, I wanted the delivery to be like punctuation, and the chorus had to be more passionate and more rhythmically active. It was hard to express exactly how I wanted it. The first time we worked on the music, they had phrased the lyrics in a very slow manner and I had to protest. The phrasing of the line was two short lines and then a long line and two short lines and then a long line. There were internal rhymes and internal relationships among the words and within the delivery that had to remain intact for it to make sense at all. It was so carefully crafted that it couldn’t be delivered any old way.”
In a 1986 interview with Guitar World, Geddy Lee said of the structure of the song: “We pulled things out, but tried never to lose the focus of the trio. In ‘Manhattan Project’ on verse one and verse three it’s vocals, drums, and keyboards. This is not a typical thing for this band. Let’s pull the bass and guitar out? How can you do this to a Rush song? But it worked and I loved the effect of it.” Clearly, he wasn’t alone. Although it was never officially released as a single, “Manhattan Project” nonetheless peaked at number 10 on the Billboard chart.
Check out the lyric video below.