The bar of the Newcastle Holiday Inn is dotted with incongruous, bedenimed teenagers - upmarket headbangers with enough bravado and money to get inside and buy enough drinks to keep themselves from being forcibly ejected. The penniless faithful cluster outside in the pouring rain. They've been there all day, scanning the hotel windows for a tell-tale mane of hair. They seem to accept a mid-afternoon thunderstorm as part of the payment for (maybe) catching a glimpse of their idols.
Kerraaang!! Rush have come to Newcastle!!
Like the other 17 dates of Rush's Tour of the Hemispheres, the two nights at Newcastle were sold out over six weeks beforehand, with kids literally sleeping out in the snow to lay those mitts on a couple of gold-dust tickets.
Over a hundred of them (maybe the same ones - they seem to have been cloned from some sort of Mark One Headbanger) have also hung around outside the crumbling City Hall all day, garbed in the usual denim billboards for Rush, Zep, Styx, Scorpions, Quo et al. A few hardy optimists have Rush albums under their arms, ready to be thrust beneath the pens of their heroes.
Without a scrap of faded denim between us, we foolishly throw ourselves into the melee, cowering against a wall at the side of the front stalls. The wall is perspiring more than we are.
As soon as Rush take the stage, Newcastle rockets out of its seat and is bawling its lungs out. A few seconds into 'Anthem' and the ghost guitar grungers have attained satori, long hair fluttering upwards like a convention of epileptic sea-anemones.
This ritual of catharsis lasts throughout Rush's two-hours-plus set. clenched fists and v-signs pumping in the air through 'Bangkok'. 'By-Tor & The Snow-Dog', 'Farewell To Kings', 'Hemispheres', 'La Villa Strangiato', 'Twilight Zone', 'Something For Nothing', '2112' and a host of others. Rush themselves spend the two hours playing with an unstoppable volcanic fury; Alex Lifeson scorching licks from his fretboard, Geddy Lee spending two-thirds of his time storming thunder from his bass and the other third at the controls of his enormous Oberheim synthesiser, and the phenomenal Neil Peart prowling around an all-encasing percussion frame.
Although I have serious reservations about their compatriots in the metallic zone, I like Rush. Towards the end of their set, the trio's drive, prowess and pure beaming energy had me mildly bopping (no mean feat) in a wasted, sweat-drenched kinda way.
Backstage a few kids have talked their way past the security and excitedly await a nose-to-nose situation with the Rush person of their dreams.
Rush take it in turns to give interviews. Tonight is drummer/lyricist Neil Peart's turn - precisely the one I was hoping for.
My previous knowledge/opinion of Rush pivoted around a certain "expose" published around the time of '2112' which labeled them as virtual Crypto-fascists. Preconceptions at the ready, I boarded the Newcastle plane half expecting the meet a none-too-pleasant bunch of Aryans who took little trouble in disguising their extreme reactionary views.
Weell...I'm ushered into a small dressing room. There's this tall, handsome honcho with a Zapata moustache sitting there, looking anything but like he's just finished a two-hour stint thundering around inside a gigantic drum kit.
ANY VAGUE hopes of getting A some copy resembling an NF pamphlet begin to fade as Peart opens his mouth. He's warm and friendly - genuinely so - and has little interest in erecting barriers of evasion or euphemism between himself and interviewer.
Still harbouring a nebulous suspicion, I pussyfoot around the theme of the tour. Newcastle - far from being the start of a new tour - is the tail-end of a gruelling 130-date-plus tour of America and Europe. The North American leg alone consisted of 114 gigs. Excluding the breaks, that's over 4 1/2 months of gigging.
"Every three of four weeks we try to have about six or seven days off, but it doesn't always work like that. We're doing 6 1/2 weeks straight here, which is longer than we like to but circumstances force it."
Far from feeling a slave to the pressures and hassles of touring, Peart looks on it as a beneficial experience with many hidden merits.
"I think travelling all the time is very healthy, you get a lot of creative input. We're not stagnating away on our country estates or anything. We're out living in the real world. We might be travelling around in a bus and living in hotels, but that's pretty hard-core reality - "he chuckles at his choice of adjective" - I wouldn't know how to begin describing it, but you stay in touch. No question about that. I've never begun to lose touch with the real world."
Both group and road crew have a very strong empathy and "camaraderie" on the road, and Peart actively enjoys the social aspects of touring. However; "We keep a pretty low profile. We have a quiet life offstage and we like to preserve as much as that as possible ?... we don't rage out every night, because playing well is important to us.
"That sounds pretty much like a commercial but that's the essence of it. When you start to get run down physically, it shows in your playing. And we just won't have that, either from each other or from ourselves. There's nothing worse than being on stage and not playing well, especially for two hours!"
Things seem to be going well so, with your leave, we'll defer the usual "Wot colour are your socks/Do you eat cornflakes??" biz until we meet Alex Lifeson tomorrow in Glasgow.
I tell Neil I'd like to settle this fascist schtick for my own benefit and for that of all youse in sunny Soundsland. He takes the question wearily and, it seems, still feels rather bruised by the accusations heaped upon him specifically and the band generally.
The NME interview, taking its lynch point from the social allegory, '2112' which was inspired by the plot of right-wing novelist Ayn Rand's book, 'Anthem', was, both Neil and (later) Alex, say, unfairly biased towards their supposed allegiance to right wing politics. (Sticky ground, this. It must be taken purely as Rush's opinion - I've neither the intention nor the right to start lambasting another writer). Neil was shocked by the accusation and staunchly denies any affiliation to right wing politics of any shape or size.
Perhaps rudely, I labour the question and pointedly ask his opinion of blacks, Jews, gays, women's liberation and ethnic minorities in general. He looks offended (rightly so - but it had to be asked) and says he has never held strong beliefs either way on the subject. "I give other people the same latitude that I expect them to give me," he says.
As can be gathered from the offending piece, Peart's main consideration is with the individual and her/his right to freedom of choice. He's politically unaligned and seems to see faceless governmental power (of any shade) as the main threat to liberty. If I were to quote Neil verbatim on his philosophy of self-determination/motivation, it'd eat up half this week's issue.
He seems, from a long conversation with him, to be a libertarian, is not an adherent of the Puritan work ethic and is an unalloyed romantic who actively practices the idealism he preaches. The idea of the individual determining his own status/lifestyle in society may seem at variance with Britain's 'Welfare State', but suffice it to say that in my eyes he acquitted himself admirably.
We move into the lighter area of musical tastes. Neil has "a pretty wide choice" in music, his favourites of the moment being Bill Bruford, Floyd (!), Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Camel and Barclay James Harvest. Then it slips out. What did you think of punk?!?!
He snorts. "I must admit I'm very jaded about talking about that. I didn't feel either way. I sort of felt that it was a fad, like disco was a fad ...... It hasn't really changed anything, but a lot of people I know got very upset. But it didn't take anything away from me, it didn't 'hurt' me. In the early days of the Sex Pistols, in fact, I thought they were excellent. Johnny Rotten was tremendous, the guy had Charisma."
A terrible sound of tearing wafts across the land as thousands of Sounds are shredded in HM fans' bedrooms ......
It's gone midnight and the band has to travel overnight to Glasgow. Neil's looking sleepy so I ask if he considers Rush to be a long-term proposition.
"Well, we all do. As far as the three of us are concerned, the usual things that break up a band don't exist. We get along so well.....which is part of the reason why we've remained as a trio. We just couldn't jeopardise the almost magical inter-relationship that we have......"
GLASGOW's set is as explosive as the previous night, although the audience is less inclined to git dahn and embarrass itself as it was in Newcastle. Barbara and I (standing - yet again) make up for them, anyway.
Afterwards, Alex Lifeson agrees to tonsil up to my tape recorder in a small cubby-hole backstage. He, too, is genial and open - a trait which seems to run through the band (but you can add on a touch of mischievous sarcasm for Geddy Lee).
It seems as though, on both nights I saw, the audience was less acrobatic while listening to the material from 'Hemispheres' - especially those parts involving tricky time-signatures and atmospheric electronics. Had they played anything off 'Hemispheres' on the last tour?
"It was too early, because we really hadn't written any material until two weeks before we recorded it. Because of the way we work - always on tour, and we tour so much - it's really difficult to find the time to get into the right frame of mind to write. When there's a bit of pressure we tend to work a lot better, and two weeks before recording there's a lot of pressure!"
Had he seen any of the reviews of 'Hemispheres'? Geoff Barton. frinstance, thought it could either be a mistake or a meisterwerk.
"I read the thing that Geoff wrote, but I never read what the Melody Maker or NME said. They don't like us very much, anyway. But the reaction to the album in America has been very good. There's a lot of new people who have got into the band with 'Hemispheres'."
He casts briefly back to the controversial '2112', saying that the reaction to the album "Was very good. I think there's a lot of strength in that album. I think it's really coming from the heart." Would such superlatives imply that maybe 'A Farewell To Kings' was something of a creative slump?
"Not really. 'Kings' was a step in a different direction for us. We introduced other instruments. Although we weren't very proficient at them, they did what they were supposed to do. And it was a start for us, Geddy playing keyboards and so on. We were adding a few more sounds, getting a little more involved in the arrangements."
This tack was, of course, extended in 'Hemispheres', which they see as the fruition of their more expansive style. Is this a direction the band will be following for a while?
"It has been. We've been getting into dynamics a lot more. With this album we're really starting to refine our sound. Now we feel we really have our own sound.
"It's probably the direction we'll go in. I'd imagine the next album (penciled in for December/January) will be made up of shorter songs. I think we've taken the concept-piece as far as we can. It'll start getting redundant otherwise."
There doesn't seem to be any overriding influence which caused the band to take a sharp turn into the field of short songs. But devotees of the band's 20-minute romantic epics needn't fret ......
"When I mean shorter I don't mean four or five minute songs. Maybe a couple of ten minute songs, three or four five-minute songs. We've always enjoyed doing shorter songs, a couple per album. You can really fit a lot in that and really build up the energy. In a long piece you've a lot more freedom, to feel around with dynamics and change things around a bit. Just from past experience, with the way 'Xanadu', 'Cygnus' and 'La Villa Strangiato' turned out, we like to work in that frame."
Taking 'La Villa Strangiato' as an example, I ask if the band would like to include far more eclectic styles and influences In their music.
"It's a lot of fun doing things like that ...... and it sounds really great. I think we will. We're always listening to what's going on and how other people are influenced and how we're influenced by them, by their attitudes to music."
Thousands of ghost guitar grungers across the globe have modeled themselves on Lifeson's on-stage persona - doesn't that make him feel eerie, especially when they're ten feet away and going at it like the clappers?
"I'm usually concentrating hard but I certainly notice stuff like that. It feels great. l used to do it myself. I used to have a lot of people who I idolised, and I remember being at concerts and doing the same thing."
"Back then? Well, Led Zeppelin were a very big influence, Jimmy Page. I remember the first time I saw them, in 1969, it was incredible. I saw Yes a few times, I've always really liked Steve Howe. I saw Genesis when Steve Hackett was with them ...... A lot of shows like that."
HOW DO you feel about the content of Neil's lyrics?
"I'm in a different space than Neil is. I don't spend a lot of time in politics. Neither does Neil really. He's a musician before anything. It's just things he feels really strongly about that he puts down in lyrics. I know where he's coming from, and I know basically that what he's saying is really right."
Alex says that Geddy is more involved with Neil's lyrics (naturally, seeing as he sings them every night) and that he has read much more of Ayn Rand's works than Alex. Apparently, '2112' is the only piece directly connected with Rand's writing in the group's repertoire:
"And the reason for that is that it was loosely taken from 'Anthem'. It's the same sort of story, the same state where the priests are in control of everything. The hero in the story rediscovers electricity, and of course they're not interested in that. He ends up running away and building his own life. At that time, it was a matter of saying, "Forget it. Just fuck off or give in completely"."
I mention the peculiar tendency of British fans to refer to themselves as Wolverhampton/Inverness/Wherever Priests of the Temple of Syrinx whenever going into battle on the letters page of Sounds. It seems a little odd that they're identifying themselves - no matter how superficially - with the oppressors in the story.
"Yeah, that's strange. I don't know why they would do so, unless it was just a convenience."
Might it not be a little dangerous?
"I guess it depends on how the individual takes the story. The ending is left like that - do the priests really take over or does a force from somewhere else come in, take over and start up something new? I really don't know if it would be that dangerous because I don't know if people are really that serious. If they are doing it for that reason, then I suppose it is a little dangerous. But if they knew where the band was coming from then they'd see that's not what we're about."
ALTHOUGH not singling Rush out as especially 'guilty', heavy metal is a very 'male' music and, like their HM peers, Rush have had their fair share of being accused of sexism. Alex seems to believe this is a non-subject; that no-one is stopped from buying their albums or coming to their concerts because of their sex (or colour or creed). Nevertheless, 90% of their audience is composed of heterosexual males in their mid-teens.
"I just suppose it's the way the music is. It's very driving, very straightforward. Not that we have a macho image, though. I guess if we did we'd have a lot more girls in the audience. It's always been like that with really hard rock."
You've also been accused of being male chauvinist pigs.
"No-one is like that at all in the band. I can't see how that accusation is founded in anything really. Our music and lyrical content applies to people, not just males or females, but to people in general."
Again it's getting late, so I slip a sneaky one in about his feelings on the future of heavy metal.
"I don't know. People have been asking that for five years now and it still seems to be going very strongly."
"I guess it'll continue to grow, and then again I'm not sure. There are a lot of social elements involved too. Heavy metal is very strong in industrial areas."
A "working class" music?
"Yes, basically. In America it's the same thing. Cities like Cleveland and Detroit are very heavy metal and they have been for years. And it's the new generations coming up into the music."
Do you actually - gasp, choke - mean to tell me that normal, level-headed society is stuck with it for a loooong while to come?
"I really can't say. People have been waiting for the next big thing after heavy metal, but it still hasn't happened."
Geoff Barton is 62.