Alex Lifeson on 40 Years of '2112': 'It Was Our Protest Album'

Guitarist reflects on LP where trio found its signature sound

By Kory Grow,, March 29, 2016

Forty years ago this week, the three white-tunic-clad prophets of Rush foretold an intergalactic war on their prog-rock magnum opus, 2112. They predicted that in less than half a century, in the year 2062 to be precise, the universe will finally find peace - and oppression - as the Solar Federation unifies warring planets and instates the music-hating Priests of the Temples of Syrinx as overlords. Everything will change, however, in 2112 when an optimistic, anonymous free thinker finds a "strange device" (a guitar) and martyrs himself while attempting to bring melody to the stars. And that's just half of the story.

On their lofty follow-up to 1975's commercially unsuccessful Caress of Steel, Rush finally reached the pivotal moment where they became capital-R Rush, the bigger-than-life hard-rock dreamers they always knew they could be, ever since vocalist-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson formed the group as Toronto high schoolers during the late Sixties. The band members, which by that point included drummer-lyricist Neil Peart, were all in their early twenties, and they let their imaginations run wild on 2112.

To the chagrin of the record company, one half of the LP contained the 20-minute, eight-movement suite "2112," an Ayn Rand-inspired science-fiction ode to individualism, while the other found the trio singing about marijuana tourism ("A Passage to Bangkok"), the TV series The Twilight Zone (the song "The Twilight Zone") and more individualism ("Something for Nothing"), among other subjects. This strange blend earned the band a triple-platinum plaque from the RIAA and changed the members' lives forever.

Alex Lifeson, now 62, spoke to Rolling Stone from his home in Toronto in early March to reflect on how the album set into motion four decades of defying expectations.

What was your headspace around 2112?
We were still quite young, 22 years old, when we did that. We were touring so much that we wrote it mostly in arena dressing rooms, and in the car and the van. It was done in pieces. The great thing was that we had a chance to rehearse it during soundchecks, so we were well prepared by the time we got into the studio.

How long did it take to record?
It was about two weeks to record and mix. I remember it being a lot of fun, and we felt really positively about it. We were working with Terry Brown at the time, at Toronto Sound, which was a very small 16-track studio. I remember there was a lot of smoky haze in the room [laughs]. When we worked on "Discovery," I think it was honey oil [marijuana] that was around at the time, so that was a wonderful inspiration. And I do remember working late nights 'til six or seven in the morning with our feet up on the console and suddenly all of us waking up to the flapping of the reel going around and around on the tape machine. It was just the feeling of being in a wonderful place.

Caress of Steel was not a hit record. Were you worried about recording the follow-up?
The record company was concerned. We called the tour for Caress of Steel the "Down the Tubes Tour." We had passes made that had that on it. But that experience gave us the courage to stand up to what everybody was demanding of us. I remember clearly saying, "OK, screw it. We're may go down in flames, but at least we know that we've done it our way." There's no way we're gonna remake the first record [1974's Rush] just because that's what the record company wants and they're worried about sales. So we dove into 2112 and there's a little more angst in that record than with Caress of Steel's [suite] "The Fountain of Lamneth," which was structurally the same sort of thing.

Your record label explicitly asked you not to do another suite like "The Fountain of Lamneth." How did you present 2112 to them?
[Laughs] Well, Ray [Danniels], our manager, went in and lied to them and basically told them, "Yeah, the band is working on a great record. It's gonna be a real commercial success and the songs are very straightforward." And then we delivered it. The fortunate thing is our deal at that time was a production deal. So, really, we had full control over content, including artwork. Once we delivered it to the record company, it was theirs to work with. So we were really lucky.

It took about a year to go gold. So it was a slow but progressive evolution. Once it got to that point where it really started to take off, there was word of mouth and more interest in the band, and all of those things came together to make a movement. That really bought our independence from the record company.

Why do you think this album resonated better with listeners than Caress of Steel?
I think Caress of Steel was more exploratory. We weren't really sure of what we were doing and how to put the pieces together and work them in a strong, dynamic way. There are a lot of ups and downs on this album. It wasn't a miss, but it was a stepping stone to something we wanted to do in the same vein.

"2112" was a suite with an overture, akin to a rock opera. Were you guys huge Who fans?
Oh, for sure. Tommy, Quadrophenia. Oh, yeah, definitely.

I can also hear a little bit of Pete Townshend in "Discovery," in some of the ways that you stacked the guitar chords.
Yeah, he was an enormous influence on me. I've always thought that rhythm guitar is such an important part of a band. And I found his chording - his strumming particularly - and just his thought process on how to put guitar arrangements together very inspiring.

Where did the big crawling riff in "Temples of Syrinx" come from?
We wrote that on the Canadian tour in a small arena in Sault Ste. Marie, in Northern Ontario. I can visually picture us being in this little, freezing-cold room, with a Pignose tuning amp, and we were working through the tempos and that rest and the chords for that song, and working with the lyrics at the time, too. Once we got to the studio, we really did have a lot of fun with it.

At what point did Neil become the band's designated lyricist?
I think that was about two weeks after he joined actually [laughs]. I really wasn't interested in writing lyrics. Around the first record, John Rutsey, our original drummer, was the lyricist, but for some weird reason, he didn't want to use his lyrics on all these songs that we had his lyrics on when we went into the studio. It was really strange; he was a very, very odd guy sometimes. So Geddy and I put together the lyrics. But it took away from where we wanted to concentrate, which was on the music.

Neil was obviously very well-read guy and very articulate. So we offered the role to him. I think he might've been slightly reluctant in the beginning. But then he kind of really rose to it and enjoyed it a lot. It was a really nice split in the band; everyone was doing something, and everybody made a contribution that was equally as important. We kept a good balance between everyone's contributions.

Do you remember your reaction to Neil's "2112" lyrics?
I thought they were very serious. He was reading some Ayn Rand at the time. I was not a big Ayn Rand fan; I read Anthem - I think that was the only book of hers I've read. Neil and Geddy read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and that was an inspiration. What appealed to us was what she wrote about the individual and the freedom to work the way you want to work, not the cold, libertarian perspective. For us, it was striving to be a stronger individual more than anything, and that's how the story came together.

I don't recall exactly the conversations we had, but I'm sure Neil pointed out that this is a similar story to her stories of finding something that's beautiful and developing it, learning to share it, crafting it and then being shut down by "The Man." It was our protest album.

Ayn Rand has always been controversial, and Rush received some backlash to calling her a genius on the 2112 sleeve. Did that bum you out?
Oh, yeah. I have to admit, it did. I'm a very liberal guy. I always have been. I remember during our second tour of England, we did an interview with a journalist, who was very hard-left socialist, for New Musical Express [in 1978]. Ayn Rand wasn't quite as contentious as she is today. But he set forth his point of view, and then Neil took the opposing view, as more of an exercise than anything. And they ran it as this big exposé [laughs]. It said that we were Nazis and we would leave our grandmothers starving in the street because we were so selfish and uncaring.

Ged's a child of a Holocaust survivor. It was just such a stupid, stupid thing. That's the way the press works sometimes. We got over it but they dogged us for the longest time. And we were perceived as some sort of ultra-right-wing rock band, when to be honest, I had no political interests at all at that time. I think that was true of really all of us.

What got you through that?
We had a strong fan base that was building and knew something different and cared for our music and for who we were. We didn't really need to have the press. But, as I said, it is hurtful. You learn to let it roll off your back eventually, but at the same time it does hurt.

Let's talk about Side Two, which was separate from the suite. What are your favorite songs there?
I really like "Twilight Zone." It's a quirky song with a lot of tempo changes. It had a really cool little atmosphere to it. It was a difficult song to put together, to have that feel about it. All the parts were awkward guitar stretches, so it was a real test.

The Twilight Zone TV series had been off the air for over a decade. Why did you write a song about it?
I think it was playing in reruns. Growing up, The Twilight Zone was probably the favorite TV show of all three of us. Rod Serling was just so cool. He wrote so many of those episodes. He was our total hero.

What are your favorite episodes?
The one where the woman was in the hospital having her face operated on [titled "The Eye of the Beholder"], and the doctors unwrap her face and she's beautiful and everyone else is seriously grotesque. They all look at her, and they can't even look at her 'cause she seems so ugly to them. I really like that one. And then [in "Time Enough at Last"] when Burgess Meredith was a bank clerk who's a real loner, and he goes into the vault because he likes to read his book in peace and there's a nuclear holocaust and he's the only one left alive. He starts saying, "Yes! Finally, I'm alone with my books!" And as he goes to the library, his glasses fall off his face and smash [laughs]. They were brilliant.

"Lessons" is an interesting song because you wrote the lyrics. How did that come about?
We just thought it would be kind of cool if Ged and I wrote lyrics for at least one song. He wrote "Tears." That was really the reason. I can't say that I'm comfortable writing lyrics. Even later on with my solo record, Victor, it was the hardest part. It doesn't flow for me the way I would like it to. And I'm not sure that would be different if I did it more often. You know, Ged's "Tears" is so typical of the kind of stuff that he likes to write and do, even today. He likes those more ballad-y pieces that are emotive and sweet. I'm the dirty, heavy guy [laughs].

Speaking of heavy, "A Passage of Bangkok" was almost a guidebook to where the best marijuana was grown at the time. How much weed were you guys smoking back then?
Probably not as much as now [laughs]. We were average, maybe slightly above average smokers. Ged less so; he was never a heavy smoker. But Neil and I and a few guys in the crew were. We just thought that the whole idea of traveling the world to find the best [weed] that you can would be such a fun thing to do. It was a fantasy journey for all of us. But as Neil was putting it together, the lyrics were so great. It had a little exotic, kind of Eastern feel to it. Now you don't have to go very far.

Lastly, the record ends with "Something for Nothing."
Yeah, that, too, is one of my favorites. I loved playing that song during that period. And it ties into the whole concept of "2112."

It's kind of a coda.
Yes, exactly.

That back cover of 2112 has a photo of the three of you in white medieval garb. What do you think when you look at your fashion back then?
[Laughs] We took that photo with a fashion photographer. We didn't really know what we were doing, and those were the days where we were still wearing fashion robes and scarves and platform shoes and all of that stuff. I think the photographer made the suggestion to dress up all in white with a wind machine and take this pose. It was a very awkward thing, I remember.

The inside photo of me shows me with a Panama hat. I thought, "What the hell was I wearing that for? This is a space record [laughs]. I'm wearing a stupid Panama hat." It was a very, very weird photo session. I don't think my pants could've been tighter, either.

Were you surprised the way that the "Starman" art, showing a nude man walking into a pentagram, took off?
No, I thought it was really powerful when Hugh [Syme] showed it to us. It just seemed so iconic that we knew then that this would last for a long time. I do remember some interviews where people thought it was some sort of occult association with the pentagram, and we were like, "What?!"

Yeah, Rush are total Satanists.
[Laughs] Yeah! It's like, "Oh, OK. Where's that honey oil again?" [Laughs]

Does the tour for 2112 stand out to you as a special one?
It was definitely a turning point. That was the time where we felt that we had arrived at a Rush sound, where we sounded like us.

You've said that the live record you made on that tour, All the World's a Stage, was the end of the first chapter of Rush.
Yep, we did that often back then. We finished each period with a live record as kind of a bookend for that particular chapter.

A lot of people consider 2112 a touchstone for prog rock. Do you feel that way?
Well, I don't know if we ever considered ourselves a prog band, in the sense of King Crimson or early Genesis, although we've found those bands very influential. We always considered ourselves a hard-rock band. We pushed ourselves to make things difficult so they'll be hard to play and keep us up to a certain standard, so in the literal sense of the word "prog," yes, I think we were quite progressive, and we'd like to think us as being such. But in terms of a genre, I don't know if we ever thought of ourselves as a progressive-rock band.

Where do you place 2112 in Rush's legacy?
I think it's one of the most important pieces of work that we've done. I think the influence that it had on a lot of listeners, just judging from the comments I read in the mail and even comments from other bands that have been influenced by us, that's really a signature record for all of them. And that's a wonderful thing. If you're going to leave something as your legacy, having something that is so influential on other people that it has improved their lives or just made them more understanding of something, I think that is the ultimate.