TAKE A peek at the photograph on the back of '2112', the circa 1976 album by the rock band Rush.
More a rock 'n' roll Lord Of The Rings nightmare than knights with shining guitars, three young men stare, in a defiant fashion, from under sculptured barnets.
The trio went on to become sure stadium fillers. Their Tolkienesque lyrics and their overblown, pompous orchestral rock won them legions of fans, of the devoted, long-haired variety. Hence they were deemed by many to be utter bullshit.
Rush - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart - have just released their eleventh album, 'Power Windows', and are now dutifully making themselves available for interview/interrogation/slaughter. Rush know full well by now that their type of noise does not greatly fire the imaginations of the music press. I mean, these guys fill an album-side with one song - regularly. Rush are one of those rare creatures, an 'albums band', the strange phenomena that hover on the periphery of popular music.
Hugely successful, and apparently liked by no one.
Alex Lifeson is stockily built and, dressed in army fatigues, he looks more like an off-duty marine than a rock guitarist. No sunken eyes or bad habits here. We meet for a chat in the hideous opulence of the Mayfair Hotel, which, judging by the killer glares I received as I made my entrance into the lobby, is not overly familiar with musically orientated people.
Someone I used to know at school was one of the aforementioned long-haired, devoted Rush fans. When pictures of Rush wearing baggy suits and short hair were published he was really shocked - you know, genuinely disturbed.
"I remember getting asked that a lot of times," laughs Alex. "Why did you cut your hair?" I just replied, "Oh. I'm sorry, I don't seem to have my rock and roll rule book with me!"
The good-humoured, lucid Canadian sitting in front of me does not fit the 'seriously boring' tag so often tied tightly around Rush's neck.
"Well, people look at a serious piece of work, and they figure, These guys must never laugh, they must be serious all the time, they must be so boring! And rock and roll's supposed to be, Yeah, let's party, let's have a great time! But it's whatever you make it, it's music first of all, and it's a lifestyle and all that sort of thing after.
"I know we got a really had press from certain American journalists, and they hate us to this day. It doesn't matter what we've done, or what we've said, they have their own idea of the way we are. You can't fool them, they know..."
The good boys of rock, right?
"Er...Aha! Yeah! I mean, you take care and pride, you try and be careful about what you do, you work very, very hard...that's the difficult thing when you read a bad review of a record. So you think about those criticisms, and perhaps you'll try a little harder next time, I mean, you work on something for four and a half months!"
Quality has always been part of the Rush promise - the playing, the production, and the packaging, the latter being something that the band have complete control over. A Rush album has acquired a sense of occasion over the years. Hell, I've always had time for Rush, if only because they never let you down.
"We're very lucky, we write, record, produce and deliver a finished package. It's a lot more satisfying, you know that you've done it all yourself, it's been done right, and after it leaves your hands anything that gets screwed up is not your fault.
"You try to make it as satisfying to look at and to listen to as you possibly can. Quality has always been really important to us. We strive more with each record."
Another reason, no doubt, for the serious reputation. Albums, which Alex refers to as projects, are worked on until they feel right - nothing less will do.
"I just read all these things about - Rush are back, and I thought, Where have I been? Since the last record was released, we took a short period of time off, then we went on the road. Then we took a couple of months to write this album, and four and a half to record it. Now we're gearing up for the next tour. We've been working constantly."
The album-tour syndrome, a state which many bands claim they don't want to get into, is Alex's (and Rush's) life. He loves nothing more than to discuss, analyse and criticise music, especially his own.
"Our tastes are quite varied. Everybody listens to a lot of different things. It's very satisfying just to sit down and listen to music, no matter how different it is. It changes the way you listen. I hear a lot of folk music from really obscure countries, and you get such a feel for the people and the way they live.
"My parents are Yugoslavian, and there was quite a bit of folk music in the house, and whenever I hear it now, whether its instrumental or with lyrics, it grabs somewhere inside me. Not because of my upbringing, but you listen and you feel the emotion in people.
"I hear Chinese music, and there's something in the melody that must grab some guy up in the hills of Mongolia like it grabs me. That's why it's so universal, it's like laughing. It's something we all do and all have within us."
RUSH HAVE always played the class swot to everybody else's playground bully. Rush went to lessons. 'Power Windows', not unlike 1981's 'Moving Pictures', is a lean animal, a classy, structured collection of modern rock songs. Gone are the lush, self-indulgent days of yore.
"It wouldn't be satisfying any more. After we did 'Hemispheres', we reckoned we'd taken that whole concept thing to its maximum. Anything beyond that would have been really redundant. It was time for a change. It was a nightmare, no days off, long, long hours, losing sight of the end at times. I think that was part of the reason why we thought we'd taken it as far as we could. There was really no point in trying that again."
And yes, even here in this seemingly quiet backwater of rock, there's rebellion. Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist, often touches on topics a little beyond the average rock prattle. For instance 'The Trees', a track from 'Hemispheres', is a pretty tale about trees arguing among themselves in a forest. Yet it actually tells, in true Animal Farm style, about bloody insurrection. Then there's 'Red Barchetta', about a guy who goes for a spin in his car after driving has been outlawed. The intellectuals of the revolution care about the politics of life.
"Yeah, you see, when you deal with the politics of left and right...that has a tendency to be more overblown than dealing with everyday things. Those sort of universal ideas are more accessible, more understandable, because you deal with them day to day," says Alex, feasting on a more down to earth breakfast of strawberry yoghurt, grapefruit, toast and orange juice.
"You ask yourself the same questions, and get stumped by the same frustrations. Neil does a lot of reading, that's where he gets most of the input for his writing. His lyrics take a bit of thought and a bit of reading to understand completely what he's talking about."
Several tracks on the latest Rush 'project' continue in the same vein. "Normally Neil writes from outside observations, whereas with 'Manhattan Project' he took facts, and put them together as an objective point of view about the power of technology and science, about how we use and have used it, and how it changes where we're going. 'Territories' deals with a more global power that we have as people, people on the same planet.
"I guess in some ways it is dark, but it is optimistic...we don't need to fight over stupid pieces of dirt. The whole gist of 'Territories' is something that he feels very strongly, that we do need to break down the borders, and perhaps we could get along better as people rather than as Americans or Canadians or whatever. In that way we are all political, but as far as rigid politics go..."
You're more interested in the politics of getting on with your life in the most responsible manner.
Rush, although bearing all the hallmarks of a mega-rock production, have always remained distinctly un-American. Has living in Canada affected your music greatly?
"Canada is a very big country with a small population. There are only a handful of major cities, so outside of those cities Canadians are a bit slower paced than Americans, and we have fewer things to worry about, having a big strong neighbour. Ha!"
Could you apply that description to Rush?
Vast and easy going?
"Yeah, I suppose you could, l never really thought of it like that. We get influenced from both ends, America and Britain. Canada seems to be in the middle between the two. We are quite serious about our music, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. We're just regular people, like Canadians are. Yup! That's rightee!"
You never regret all the sword and sorcery business? Music to listen to while you play Dungeons And Dragons...
"No, that was an integral part..."
Of growing up?
"Exactly. From the playing point of view, it brought us, as musicians, more in tune with what the lyrics were saying. It wasn't that you threw the two together, you know, playing big chords and saying Awlright baby! It was trying to evoke a mood in the music that leant itself well to what the lyrics were saying. It was a story, and you coloured the story.
"'Xanadu' for instance, I think that's a good example of that. Without that sword and sorcery type of upbringing. I don't think a song like that could have worked."
RUSH ARE a 'music business' within themselves; not a company operated money machine, but a dedicated outfit, a team...
"We're a family," grins Alex. "You know, we get a lot of mail from fans who are upset that we're not still writing '2112', as if that was our high point and everything since then has been downhill. We're at a peak with this record now, in that we've learned and progressed from the last two records,
"You put so much work into something and you are satisfied, but you get away from it for a while and you think, Oh, that could have been better. It is important that you always have to be moving forward, and wanting to do things better and to change things, otherwise you stagnate.
"The same happened with Grace Under Pressure - you always think the last thing you wrote is the best. But this record does seem more cohesive...it just seems really right to me."
And if Alex ever succeeds in his obsessive quest for perfection, he'll give up.
"Hopefully, in a year from now, I'll say this record doesn't leave me 100 per cent satisfied. I think that if we find a record that's perfect a year later, then it'll probably be our last. There'd be no point in going on. For Neil, that's something that he loves to do. He drives himself.
"For us to think of a Rush fan, we think of ourselves, and you have to really satisfy yourself that what you're doing is a step forward. Once you don't, then there is no point other than to try and make a lot of cash. And that's not the reason that you were there in the first place."
I make way for the next interviewer, and Alex begins to tell the tale of Rush all over again. On my way home I ponder on another, older tale - perhaps Rush have been playing the tortoise to everybody else's hare? And you know how that story finished.