The History Of Rush by Geddy Lee & Alex Lifeson: from 2112 to stardom
In part 2 of our look back at Rush’s 50 year career, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson reveal the secrets of their breakthrough album, 2112
Rush began 1975 as band in crisis. Their third album Caress of Steel sinks without trace, and the band faces being dropped by Mercury Records. What saves them is the brilliant concept album 2112. And yet, by the end of the 70s, there is another crisis for Rush–a crisis of identity, following the tortuous creation of their 1978 album Hemispheres. Here, the band’s bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson tell the story of the turbulent years in which they rose to fame, looked like ‘kamikaze kimono-wearing idiots’, were denounced as fascists, and were partly responsible for Gene Simmons getting stoned for the only time in his life…
The History Of Rush by Geddy Lee & Alex Lifeson: Part 1 – The Early Years
Alex Lifeson: When we finished Caress Of Steel we were so proud of it. We really felt like we were taking some chances and growing and going somewhere. We were experimenting.
Geddy Lee: The problem was that nobody really understood what the hell we were doing with that record. And I can’t say we really knew what the hell we were up to either. These long songs we had – The Necromancer and The Fountain Of Lamneth – they were very complex and dark. On The Fountain Of Lamneth were talking about Didacts And Narpets. It was kind of hard for people to understand.
Alex Lifeson: Caress Of Steel was very ambitious. The Fountain Of Lamneth was a story about life, which was a little precocious of us, three guys in their early twenties. When we made that record, we were still a very young band, learning our skills. We’d only been touring a year when we made that record. It was our jumping-off point.
Geddy Lee: The influences we had – those great progressive rock groups, Yes and Genesis – it was so visible in our writing. Looking back, sometimes it makes you go, 'ouch'. But over the years the cringing has subsided for me.
Alex Lifeson: The intent was always pure. Maybe the execution was not. But the last time I listened to Caress Of Steel, it reminded me of how important that record was to us at that time. We really loved that record. That’s why it was really painful for us to go on the road and see that there wasn’t any interest.
Geddy Lee: It was very disappointing. At that point, we didn’t possess the requisite objectivity to know how much was wrong with Caress Of Steel. We didn’t understand why it had failed so badly. That really shakes your confidence.
Alex Lifeson: We called it the Down The Tube tour. Everybody was in a state of panic.
Geddy Lee: When you’re in a band and you insulate yourself from reality, to a certain degree – through your sense of humour and your camaraderie. You prop each other up and say, ‘Yeah, we’re probably going down the tube.’ But really, we were so confused and disheartened.
Alex Lifeson: At least we had fun touring with Kiss. I remember Gene (Simmons) telling a funny story about that tour. Gene never took drugs, but one night in Detroit he was hanging out with us, and he accidentally he ate a hash cookie. He ended up so hungry, he had to go eat. He told me later, ‘We walked in a restaurant and my head felt like it was the size of a billiard ball and my voice was the loudest thing in the room as I was asking for a sandwich…’
Geddy Lee: After Caress Of Steel flopped, the record company, Mercury, had made it very clear to us that we were disappointing them – that we were not delivering on our promise as an up and coming band. But at least we still had a contract, so we knew we would get one more album that they had to release. We knew we’d get that much out of it before we went down the pan completely. We figured we’d be dropped if the next record didn’t do well. Deep down, I think we were all convinced that our careers were over and we would have to get ‘real’ jobs. So 2112 saved our career. There’s no question about that.
Alex Lifeson: We knew that Mercury could drop us after that record. But we thought: if they do, at least we gave it a try. We had to make a record that was true to us. In that sense, 2112 was the birth of the real Rush. And as unsuccessful as Caress Of Steel had been, we had to make that album to get to 2112.
Geddy Lee: My memory is that Neil (Peart, drummer and lyricist) had this idea for 2112 and that was the starting point for the whole record. He wrote the story for 2112, based on Anthem by Ayn Rand – an anti-totalitarian science fiction story. Neil and I had also read another of Ayn Rand’s books, The Fountainhead, and that was an inspiration to us. The Fountainhead is a story about an architect who was determined not to compromise his aesthetic, his vision, and he would do just about anything, even radical things, to stand up for his art and his right to be an individual. That spoke volumes to us while we were making 2112. It gave us confidence, in a way. We felt we were being pressured to compromise our art. People don’t like it when you term hard rock or prog rock as art, but to us, as creators of that music, it is our art.
Alex Lifeson: When you’re young it’s easy to look at the world as the good guys and bad guys. We thought we were good guys and that the record company had become the bad guys. One thing was for sure: we weren’t going to change.
Geddy Lee: For 2112, the 20-minute piece, we wrote all the parts in sequence, one rolled into the other and into the next. The exception, of course, was the Overture, which is something you always do last, because of the nature of what an overture is. You need the themes from all those other parts to put together in your overture. It’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come – kind of ‘the best of 2112’.
Alex Lifeson: We wrote the bits and pieces of 2112 while we were on the Caress Of Steel tour. We’d play it in sound checks and at every opportunity we got. So we were pretty well versed with it before we recorded it. It was always challenging trying to find the time to do that on the road, but we were very motivated.
Geddy Lee: We finished the tour and went straight in and made this record. Nobody at Mercury knew what we were doing. There was no playing of demos for the label or our manager. I’ve never done that in my whole life. From day one, we never had anyone in the control room with us, other than our producer Terry Brown.
Alex Lifeson: Most of the album was well rehearsed by the time we went into the studio. We were tight for time, as we always were. But in those days we always recorded like that.
Geddy Lee: We did the whole record in four weeks, which at that point was the most time we’d ever had on an album. The first album, because we re-recorded it, we had about a week in total. Fly By Night we recorded in ten days. Caress Of Steel in three weeks. So 2112 was our biggest budget record.
Alex Lifeson: The important thing was that we’d learned more about how we were working, and what kind of band we wanted to be. We were becoming better players and better songwriters. We knew what we were doing, and that’s a huge advantage. Then you just do it.
Geddy Lee: Before we got in the studio we had the layout of the album already planned: the big piece on side one and the shorter songs on side two. Having those shorter songs, it’s a nice break from the heavy concept of side one. And we had Something For Nothing to end the album, because the sentiment in that song related back to the story of 2112 in some sort of abstract sense.
Alex Lifeson: The Twilight Zone was a song we wrote on the spur of the moment in the studio because we felt we needed one more song on the album to balance it out. We put that song together in a few hours, wrote and recorded it. There’s a very cool dynamic to that song. Because 2112 is such a big piece, a lot of those other songs have been overlooked, but they’ve stood the test of time, and The Twilight Zone is really the sleeper song on that record.
Geddy Lee: We knew that this album could be a one-way ticket back to unemployment for us, but as we were making it there was no desperation in the room. It was really fun to do. It felt right.
Alex Lifeson: It all came together pretty seamlessly, actually. It was one of those records that just seemed to make sense. It flowed. We were very focused, we were playing well, and we were all on the same page.
Geddy Lee: We had long songs before, but 2112 was the first time we really pulled it off properly. It was so much more powerful and defined than The Fountain Of Lamneth. That became the roadmap for how we would go forward.
Alex Lifeson: 2112 was the first album where we really felt like we had an identifiable sound.
Geddy Lee: The cover of the album was also defining for the band. The artist Hugh Syme was a good friend. Neil shared all the lyrics with him, we played him some music, and he went off with all that in his head and came back with his interpretation: the image of the ‘Starman’. Aside from the horrible photo of us on the back cover, dressed as kamikaze kimono-wearing idiots, it was a great package!
Alex Lifeson: Hugh Syme was also a musician, and played keyboards on 2112. He made that spacey synth sound at the very start of 2112. He also played mellotron on the song Tears.
Geddy Lee: We were very happy with 2112. We felt that we’d made a good record. But we were not confident about how it would be received. Even before Caress Of Steel, when we made Fly By Night, some people liked it, but it was still disappointing from the record company’s perspective. So we had no reason to believe that 2112 would be any different. We didn’t know if we would be okay. We loved 2112, but we thought it might be too weird. We did not think it was a ‘get out of jail’ card by any stretch.
Alex Lifeson: Sales of that album were slow at first. And of course we also had that thing in the NME, where they called us fascists. It just didn’t make sense to us.
Geddy Lee: I was hurt by what the NME said about us. With the background that I have – my parents being Holocaust survivors – I was extremely angry and upset. Ayn Rand was the inspiration for 2112. We acknowledged that. But we had no connection to her rightwing politics. 2112 was an anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist story. And the ending of that story was purposefully ambiguous. What happens in that ending is either liberation or the invasion of another totalitarian state. It’s for the listener to decide which, based on their own sense of life.
Alex Lifeson: In the end we were lucky. 2112 connected with our audience and expanded it.
Geddy Lee: It was just a fantastic time. Pretty much everything changed for us with 2112. There were a lot of growing pains in terms of what kind of live act we were becoming, because we had to learn how to be a headliner and start developing a show, which we didn’t really have. We had to think in terms of providing a show and giving the people their money’s worth. We were the band they were actually paying to see!
Alex Lifeson: Going to Wales to record A Farewell To Kings at Rockfield studios was so exciting for us. It was our first time recording outside of Canada. We had toured the UK just prior to that – our first tour there. The promoter said he was really talked into bringing us over. As far as he was concerned there was absolutely no interest and nobody had heard of us there. But he got talked into it. And although the tour was small, the audiences were really enthusiastic. They started booking the follow-up tour almost immediately. It was an exciting time for us, for sure.
Geddy Lee: It was really a different experience for us: a different culture, everything was different. It was really healthy for us as people.
Alex Lifeson: The UK was the seat of so much music that we loved and grew up with. So to be part of the scene was spectacular for us.
Geddy Lee: It was always an adjustment to go to the UK, because it was all about hash over there. It’s true. Certainly it was when we were doing A Farewell To Kings. And it was so cool to be at Rockfield, a residential studio, out in the beautiful Welsh countryside, where there were no distractions while we were making the record.
Alex Lifeson: When we started work at Rockfield, we’d begin recording at eleven o’clock in the morning, or maybe one in the afternoon. But as the sessions progressed, we worked later and later into the night. The whole clock shifted.
Geddy Lee: Nowadays we’re old men. We have decent recording hours, and we go home for dinner. But in those days, when you’re recording at a residential studio, and you’ve got the nice ladies at Rockfield bringing us hearty British cooking every night, you’re staying up later and later, recording later and later, sleeping in…
Alex Lifeson: We’d finish late and watch Open University before going to bed, but I don’t think we were trying to learn anything. We’d just stare at the television at that point.
Geddy Lee: Xanadu was the first song that we did for that album, and we recorded it in the courtyard of Rockfield, to get the natural echo. I was playing bass and also synthesizer – plugged into the studio, no amplifier. So in one sense it was completely meaningless for me to be out there with Alex and Neil. But I was wearing headphones so I could hear what I was playing, and that way we could play together, play the part live, see each other and be connected.
Alex Lifeson: The way we worked at Rockfield, recording stuff in the courtyard at dawn with the birds tweeting, it meant that A Farewell To Kings had a great vibe to it.
Geddy Lee: There was also a kind of continuation of 2112 in Cygnus X-1. The one extends to the other. A lot of the musical themes in Cygnus X-1, like that whole spacey intro, are definitely connected back to 2112, although Cygnus X-1 is a bit more foreboding, I guess. But for sure, there would be no Cygnus X-1 without 2112.
Alex Lifeson: We felt that we had found our sound on 2112, and it was developing further on A Farewell To Kings.
Geddy Lee: It was a lot of fun to put that album together. That’s why we went back to Rockfield in the summer of ’78 to record Hemispheres. Only that was such a difficult record to make…
Alex Lifeson: With Hemispheres, everything was a struggle.
Geddy Lee: The whole thing took months, and it was tough.
Alex Lifeson: We started working on the songs in Toronto at a rehearsal space, and then we continued at a farmhouse just down the road from Rockfield. The place had a large living room, and we set up in there. The idea was that we would continue writing and we’d tighten up all the arrangements.
Geddy Lee: When we arrived in Wales we had very little written. We just had some desires. It’s kind of the way we always start: everybody has their own ideas of something they want to work on, the next project. Then when we sit down together it usually goes in a completely different direction, but at least we have a starting point.
Alex Lifeson: The problem with Hemispheres was that we were really lost in direction sometimes. It was all so difficult – even the keys we were playing in.
Geddy Lee: We wrote everything at the farmhouse and went straight into Rockfield to start recording it. So we never got a chance to kind of play it out and rehearse it, and for me to see where the range was. It’s one thing to sit down with a guitar, thinking, ‘OK, that’s going to work like that.’ But once you finish it and sing it out, you go, ‘Fuck, this is high!’ This whole record really pushed me into the upper register.
Alex Lifeson: We ended up spending a lot longer recording it than we’d planned. That’s what made it so hard.
Geddy Lee: There were a lot of songs that were a lot more difficult to sing than I imagined. I couldn’t hit a lot of notes, and I didn’t have the luxury that I have now. Now, if my voice doesn’t feel good or sound good we just shut it down and come back on another day. You get some recovery time, which is kind of logical. But with Hemispheres, we’d been in Britain for weeks and weeks making the record, and everything we did was like pulling teeth.
Alex Lifeson: In the end we went to another studio in London – Advision. It was where we’d mixed A Farewell To Kings and we’d been very happy with how that came out. But with Hemispheres, nothing ever sounded good there.
Geddy Lee: Vocals had to be redone, so every day at Advision I would go into a little vocal room and sing. Some days it would be okay. Other days my voice would be shot, and I’d just have to push through it. It was very frustrating.
Alex Lifeson: We actually went home for a week, and then came back to London to mix the album at Trident studios. By that point, finally, we were a lot more settled about where we were going with the record.
Geddy Lee: We spent a lot of time deep in that Hemispheres record. It was very ambitious, hard to record, hard for me to sing. It was even hard to mix. It really took a chunk out of us.
Alex Lifeson: There were some great songs on Hemispheres. I still think that La Villa Strangiato is one of the best things we’ve ever done. But we came out of that record feeling that we were becoming a bit formulaic.
Geddy Lee: The title track (Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres) was another side-long piece. It was in a sense a different version of 2112. The notes were different, the story was different, but structurally we started feeling that we were repeating ourselves. So we thought, this isn’t healthy for us. We’ve got to break out of that. We needed a new direction, and we found it with Permanent Waves…”