"It could have spelled the end for us."
Alex Lifeson is on the phone, calling from his Toronto home, thinking back to the time between Rush's third and fourth albums in the winter of 1975 and 1976. It's difficult to believe now, some 40-odd million albums sold later, but the Canadian rock trio was at a crossroads then. After a pair of decently received albums, 1974's Rush and 1975's Fly By Night, follow-up Caress of Steel floundered both commercially and critically. Morale between guitarist Lifeson, bassist/singer Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart was low, and the pressure was on from American label Mercury Records to put out something as "relatable" as early hits "Working Man" and "Finding My Way." The writing was on the wall: Album number four was either going to break the band, or, well, break the band.
"I remember thinking," Lifeson says candidly, "'I had eight years of playing rock in a band, and it's awesome, I love it, and I don't want to compromise. If this will be the end, I dunno, I'll go back to working with my dad plumbing, or go back to school, or something else.' To me it was impossible to take a step backwards and do something we'd already done just to please a record company."
The story is the stuff of legend. Rush stubbornly stuck to their plan, following up an album that had an ambitious 20-minute conceptual piece with an album with an even more ambitious 20-minute conceptual piece. Structurally 2112 was very much similar to Caress of Steel, only the band's vision was clearer, their musical chops were stronger, the songwriting was more advanced. Best of all, they sounded grown up.
"'What are we going to do next?'" Lifeson remembers thinking. "'Are we going to do what they want us to do, which is basically the first album again? Or are we just going to say, 'Screw you, we're going to do what we want to do?' This was us giving them the finger. That's the way we looked at it right from the beginning. And then of course it turned into something else, something grander. We just wanted to let them know that they couldn't push us around."
For the first time Rush sounded truly assertive on record, like a band ready to conquer the rock world. Forty years after its April 1, 1976 release, 2112 is widely regarded as a classic album, a major influence on hard rock, progressive rock and heavy metal. Featuring the spellbinding sci-fi storytelling of the masterpiece title track and its five eclectic deep cuts that range from fun to introspective to ferocious, it was also the breakthrough Rush was so desperately in need of.
"My first reaction was, 'This is like a futuristic prog rock spaceship ride,'" says Timothy Tiernan, a shipyard worker in Newport, R.I. who was a pre-teen when he first heard 2112 in 1978. "It was like rock and roll storytelling. The more you listened, the more you tried to find hidden messages. The album tempo would be a roller coaster ride. One song would be mellow, and the next would blow your face off. Just the way they would tie three songs together was like nothing the fans had heard. I was hooked from the jump."
In late 1975, Rush was convinced it had struck paydirt with Caress of Steel, Lee, Lifeson and Peart emerging from the sessions with producer Terry Brown immensely proud of what they had done. In retrospect, the album has its moments, such as the bracing heavy metal of "Bastille Day" and the more wistful tones of "Lakeside Park," but for all the admirable spirit of the 12-and-a-half-minute "The Necromancer" and the 20-minute "The Fountain of Lamneth," both tracks are bogged down by dense songwriting, not to mention some outrageously lofty fantasy lyrics courtesy of Peart.
"For me it sounds like the early experimental time for us, which is exactly what it was," Lifeson says. "Neil had just joined the band, we wanted to do something with a little more substance to it after Fly By Night, how he was writing lyrics, his contribution to what Geddy and I felt naturally, and the whole idea of us doing a concept 'side.' 'The Necromancer' was kind of a mini concept too, we broke it down into parts. With 'The Fountain of Lamneth,' it was a much meatier project. I think for us it was very satisfying on an artistic level. Obviously it wasn't a great success."
Critics had agreed. "I played the latest (and admittedly rather derivative) Rush album Caress of Steel in the office the other day, and unfortunately it received howls of derision," wrote influential British critic Geoff Barton in his review Sounds magazine. To this day Caress of Steel remains one of the only Rush albums not to be certified platinum in America, having taken nearly 20 years to achieve gold status.
" was a response to the indifference that [greeted] Caress of Steel," Lifeson says. I think we were at a point where we were evolving. We were becoming better musicians, we were playing better, we were working towards having more of a signature Rush sound. When we got to '2112', we were all set for that.
As was the norm in the '70s, if a young band was energetic and willing to work, record companies had them crank out new music at an alarming rate by today's standards. The bulk of 2112, which required meticulous attention to detail, especially on the title track, was written during the fall and winter of 1975, while the band was touring.
"I recall writing in arenas, in dressing rooms, in the car," Lifeson reminisces. "We were playing in between 220 and 250 shows a year. We didn't have the luxury we would have later on where we would go somewhere for a month and just concentrate on writing. It was all written on the fly. So it had quite a different feel to it in its construction and in the way we developed it. We already had all the pieces written, we'd rehearsed them at sound checks, we knew the album, we knew all the material."
The storyline is a simple one, refreshingly linear compared to such bloated rock operas as The Who's Tommy and Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: In the year 2112 the world is under totalitarian rule of the Solar Federation, and all art and culture is controlled by the priests from "The Temples of Syrinx." A young man discovers an ancient guitar, learns to play it and suggests to the priests that its music would greatly benefit humanity. Citing the guitar and the music it yielded as a reason the previous civilization failed, the priests destroy the guitar. Distraught, the young man kills himself as chaos reigns, an ominous booming overhead: "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control."
"'2112' took you somewhere; you can see it all playing out in your mind's eye," writes Vancouver-based music writer Rob Hughes. "It's the stuff of a million bad student screenplays. I always interpreted the '2112' suite's ending as destruction preceding renewal. Sure, the hero has died, but his transgression has sparked anarchy, which in turn has signaled the elder race — the ones who escaped the planet to build an enlightened society — to return to claim their former home. The voice that announces, 'We have assumed control,' comes from neither the priests nor the hero. It's the voice of hope."
What attracted a lot of attention, especially from liberal-leaning music writers, was a statement inside the album's gatefold: "With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand." The work of the Russian-born American novelist and philosopher was indeed an influence on Peart, particularly the 1938 dystopian novella Anthem and the 1943 philosophical novel The Fountainhead. Both books espoused individualism over collectivism, which especially rankled NME writer Barry Miles, who in a 1978 feature compared Rush's views to Nazism, ignorant of the fact that Lee's Jewish parents were concentration camp survivors. He went on to write condescendingly:
All the classic hallmarks of the right-wing are there: the pseudo-religious language ... which extends right down to the touring crew: road masters instead of road managers; the use of a quasi-mystical symbol — the naked man confronting the red star of socialism (at least I suppose that's what it's supposed to be). It's all there.
They are actually very nice guys. They don't sit there in jack boots pulling the wings off flies. They are polite, charming even, naïve — roaming the concert circuits preaching what to me seems like proto-fascism like a leper without a bell.
"What Neil found in [Rand's] writing was not so much about her libertarian views," Lifeson explains. "What he's always got from her writing is that it's about the power of the individual, to do great things, to rely on yourself, nobody's there to do anything for you. You have to do it on your own, you have to craft what you want to do, and to the best that you can. That's really what it's about: You don't owe anybody anything for your hard work. That's what permeates all this writing, that sensibility. Those two books were probably more important to him in terms of how he found inspiration for the lyrics, but ultimately it was that very individual spirit."
"Ayn Rand's outlook is motivating, even comforting, when you're in ninth grade and surrounded by your idiot classmates," says Hughes, who recalls that after listening to the album he went running to the library to read Rand's books, "but at that age you're trying on and burning through ideas faster than sneakers. When I listen to 2112 now, it reminds me of those restless years of figuring out how to negotiate the world and the people in it. Just as I can look back and see what a breakthrough 2112 was for Rush, I can remember being that naïve kid about to make a few breakthroughs himself. The biggest lesson that 2112 imparted was that you can improve yourself without compromising your true nature."
Essentially a seven-part suite comprised of song fragments and reprised musical themes, what sets "2112" apart from Rush's earlier epic-length experimentation like "The Fountain of Lamneth" and Fly By Night's "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" is its accessibility. The exploration of dynamics, atmospherics and program music was a huge creative breakthrough for Rush, and the ambition and synthesis of styles would help the album appeal to a wider audience, one that could appreciate both the technical chops and the pop hooks. "I love that Rush combines total prog-nerd wankery with music that's actually catchy," writes Amanda Falke, a musician and software engineer based in Portland, Ore. "Rush may sound nerdy, but at heart they're pop musicians. There is a warmth and presence to their music that very few bands have."
In the title suite's third chapter, "Discovery," the listener hears the babbling sound of a stream, as well as the protagonist picking up the old guitar. Lifeson plucks and strums awkwardly, completely out of tune, and gradually tunes the acoustic guitar ("How does he tune the guitar and learn to play it so fast?" Lifeson jokes), ultimately working his way to a pretty chord sequence. "What can this strange device be?" Lee sings plaintively. "When I touch it, it gives forth a sound."
"We wanted it to feel like we were in a cave," Lifeson explains. "It's not a rock delivery. Sonically there's lots of reverb, there's the water trickling down the creek that's inside the cave. It became more visual, cinematic in a way, and that stuck with us for a long time. Now we had a structure that was working for us, that we felt confident with and were interested in."
It has been stated of more than one young rock musician that the two essential attributes are ignorance and arrogance. At the age of 22, Lifeson and his bandmates had learned to ditch convention in favor of experimentation. Gone was the overt Cream worship of the first album. In its place on 2112 was supreme self-assurance as well as youthful bravado. Coupled with the restraint and discipline that comes with artistic maturation, it was a perfect combination.
"We'd been touring so much, we really felt comfortable in our skin as a band," Lifeson recalls. "If I listen to '2112' now, playing it on the last number of tours, there are some really interesting musical parts. There's lots of bluesy stuff on that, and maybe because of that there's a purity about it that grabs you. It's not too heady. It's a little more from the gut. With that record as well, there was the economy of it. That was important. It's more approachable than Caress of Steel."
"When it comes to space-age nerdy prog rock with massive compositions, Rush did it first, and they did it best on 2112," Falke writes. But she insists there's something more to Rush than technical innovation and sci-fi concepts: "Rush also has something most heavy bands today lack: vulnerability. The ending of '2112' (the song) is incredibly triumphant, and you only get that with the dynamics that result from total vulnerability in your music. That's so inspiring."
Lifeson says the band pulled from many sources on the way to finding its own sound. "We were all fans of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson. Pink Floyd as well. But we really wanted to do our own thing. We've found a lot of inspiration in a lot of different areas, from reggae, to country, to pop, to heavy metal. And that's always been a cool thing about us. We haven't been truly an overly progressive metal type band. We mix things up there, lots of ups and downs, lots of dynamics. We don't always play balls to the wall. We don't always try to make everything super complicated."
For an album that's been embraced as a "classic," the flipside of 2112 never gets as much attention as the song "2112" itself. You have the proto-stoner rock of "A Passage to Bangkok," the surreal, startlingly refined "Twilight Zone," Lifeson's wistful "Lessons" and Lee's melancholy "Tears" and the raucous "Something For Nothing," which reprises the individualist sentiment of the title track.
"'Twilight Zone' was a difficult one," Lifeson muses. "There are a lot of weird time changes in it. The positioning of the guitar was awkward and uncomfortable. It wasn't as easy to do as some of the other things. 'Bangkok' is a really fun song for us to do, it's our homage to smoking pot around the world, finding the best that you can."
Following its release, attention to 2112 grew slowly. Eventually it charted as high as No. 61 on Billboard's album chart. But although the momentum was slow initially, it started to snowball to the point where the band would be an upper-tier arena and stadium act for the rest of their career. Every Rush album released since has charted higher — after 1980, every studio album but one has peaked in the chart's top 20.
"Everything was slow but steady," Lifeson says, but "2112 bought us our independence. [Mercury] never, ever bothered us with material or studio work. They just left it up to us. They figured, 'Okay, they know what they're doing, and it works for them. As long as we're popping the cash register open, we're happy.'"
The album has continued to win new fans. Drummer Taylor Hawkins of the band Foo Fighters, who played with Rush on stage when the band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, says he came to the band as an adolescent half a decade after 2112 was released, and began working his way backward through its discography. "The overture grabbed me," he says. "I liked the fact that it was really hard rock. I loved Yes and Genesis when I was 10 or 12, but most of those prog bands were not really heavy. Not like 2112, which mixed heavy metal with technical stuff. It's so clear that they were such a huge influence on Metallica, that kind of technical metal at the time. I just loved that. It was as hard as Sabbath or Zeppelin, but the technicality was on a whole other level. That was the first time they put it all together."
Canadian illustrator Danille Gauvin, who has made artwork for nearly two dozen metal albums since 2009, describes 2112, which she encountered in 2005, as "an enabling factor for a hungry mind fascinated by horror, science fiction or fantasy." The fact that the band was also a homegrown was a bonus. "I cannot stress enough how the Canadian midwest can be very isolating for anyone growing up admiring the visual masterpieces of [designers] Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Richard Corben," she writes. "It was a place that did not take seriously the pursuit of art and design as anything but a childish fancy. 2112 did what great rock, and indeed great art, continually does in an infectious quality. It persuades you from feeling alone in your strangeness, and to celebrate it by making your own work."
Looking back on the album 40 years after its release, Lifeson says, "I'm very happy with it. Of course, I want to re-do the whole thing, just like all our records. When I go back and listen to the original record, I feel really proud of it. I can still remember how I felt at the time we were making it, and how important it seemed, and how satisfied we all were when it came together. We felt we played really well on it, and the recording experience was fantastic. We were such a real team holed up in that studio of Terry's.
"When other bands cite us as an inspiration or an influence, [the theme of 2112 is] what they're talking about, more than anything. I've often read when we're mentioned as an influence for a band they'll say, 'We're big Rush fans, because they did it on their own, they did it their own way, and that told me that I could do the same thing. If I stick with it, persevere, I can do things the way I want them to be.'"