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Queensryche interview - how we made Operation: Mindcrime

Queensryche onstage in 1989
Queensryche onstage in 1989 (Image credit: Niels Van Iperen / Getty Images)

Operation: Mindcrime is that album that briefly crystallized the previously wandering artistic visions of Queensrÿche into something exciting and challenging. An almost flawless collection of songs, it went against the grain by proving that a heavy metal band was capable of displaying intelligence in their music. 

On the other hand, …Mindcrime was so good that it became a millstone around the necks of the band from Bellevue, Washington. Their next album, Empire, outsold it by some margin, but still the group’s fans continue to use …Mindcrime as the benchmark against which they measure everything else the band do. 

In 2003 Classic Rock sat down with the band to talk about the album.

Fifteen years after it was first released, Operation: Mindcrime still sounds fresh and inventive. What’s more, its futuristic plot line – involving terrorism, murder, censorship and governmental corruption – now rings truer than ever. 

It was among the first significant concept albums of the heavy metal genre. At the time of its release in May 1988, early mentors Iron Maiden had beaten Queensrÿche into the shops with their own Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son by a mere two months; Savatage’s equally celebrated concept pieces, Gutter Ballet (1990) and Streets: A Rock Opera (’91), were still a long way away. 

…Mindcrime was the third full-length album from vocalist Geoff Tate, guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield. It was received positively by the critics, with the leading UK rock magazine of the day proclaiming: ‘Every song is a monstrous achievement’. 

However, the album proved to be something of a slow-burner in the group’s native US, possibly due to the fact that their previous album, 1986’s shape-shifting Rage For Order, had under-performed commercially. Had you asked the average headbanger back in ’88 what he thought of Queensrÿche, responses would probably have varied between wild enthusiasm, mild interest, disdain and bafflement. 

The band had come together from a covers outfit called The Mob, sifting through a variety of disparate influences. 

“I never was a metalhead. Personally I was always more into David Bowie and Depeche Mode,” the banshee-voiced Tate told me a couple of years ago. “Eddie [Jackson] and Scott [Rockenfield] were huge Maiden fans, and you could recognise our influences on our first two records. We had a screaming, high-pitched singer and all the right ingredients to be a heavy metal band during the early 1980s, but I recognised early on that there was already a great band called Iron Maiden.” 

In 1982 Queensrÿche released their self-produced, self-titled debut EP on their own 206 record label. It sold 60,000 copies and led to a deal with EMI. 

“We must have been walking under a lucky star,” Tate said years later. “But before I knew it I was signing on the dotted line and flying home to Seattle a rock star.” 

Working with Pink Floyd producer James Guthrie on 1984’s full-length debut The Warning wasn’t exactly sticking to the accepted denim-and-leather plot, nor was an – in hindsight, highly regrettable – image revamp that saw them wearing pantomime shoulder pads and satin cloaks and, circa Rage For Order, in Tate’s case even a Woody Woodpecker-style hair quiff. 

DeGarmo would later admit that Queensrÿche had “teetered on the edge” of extinction in 1986. Similarly, Tate later said that the follow-up to Rage… needed to “recapture the street-level feel” of the debut EP that had catapulted them to fame half a decade earlier.

“What I probably meant by that was that we’d been experimenting with a considerable amount of hairspray and various unusual accoutrements,” the singer chuckles. “We knew that we needed to present ourselves in a wiser way, maybe start letting the music do the talking instead of the image.” 

“Were we under pressure to deliver sales?” Rockenfield follows up. “Until that point we’d been consistent, but I suppose we were rising much slower than some people had hoped. Making a full-blown concept album was viewed as a radical thing for us to have done, but we’ve never been known as a band to go with the flow. We’ve always been kinda dangerous in that sense.” 

In fact, the seeds of what eventually became Operation: Mindcrime came to Tate quite unexpectedly. At the time, he was living in Canada, and in friendly contact with members of a political activist group. 

“I wasn’t part of their organisation, but I was sorta guilty by association,” he now acknowledges. “I knew some people who were part of it all, and they talked a lot – especially over a few drinks. It’s funny, when you’re a musician people sometimes converse with you more freely than they would to other professions.” 

Tate initially worked alone on the basic storyline of what would later be described as a “thematic album about manipulation through drugs and the media”, before selling it to the rest of the band. But Chris DeGarmo was the only other band member to share the singer’s enthusiasm and Tate had to persuade each of the other three on a one-on-one basis. 

“Just like any idea, it takes time to fully explain the potential of something,” Tate reflects. “A band is always a very political entity. I had to do some wheeling and dealing to make it happen. Once I had one guy interested in my idea it kinda snowballed. And Chris really launched into it with me.” 

Among the first songs to be written were Eyes Of A Stranger and The Mission, while the military-flavoured opening clarion call Anarchy X was developed from an idea already worked up for Rage For Order but then abandoned. Slowly but surely, the concept fell into place.

The central character of the storyline was Nikki, a street kid left to fend for himself who ends up bitter and strung out on heroin. Enter the sinister Dr X, who moulds the anger of his young protégé to his own revolutionary ends, getting him to assassinate the city’s political and religious leaders. 

Sister Mary, a former hooker-turned-nun, then joins the plot. She’s been hired by Dr X to be Nikki’s conscience, thereby enabling his killing spree to continue. Inevitably, Nikki and Mary become lovers. But when Dr X realises Mary’s usefulness is over he orders Nikki to kill her. In the best storytelling style, Queensrÿche leave the listener to make up his own mind about the conclusion. But we are at least given a few final clues: Nikki refuses to kill Mary; he finds her hanged by her own rosary. 

By that time Nikki has already been committed to State Hospital and is being detained under extreme security; meanwhile he struggles to piece together his muddled memories: did he really kill Sister Mary, or did Dr X indoctrinate somebody else to do it? 

Just to complicate matters further, Queensrÿche opt to tell the tale in flashback form, Nikki kicking things off with the dramatic proclamation: “I remember now…” 

“Geoff had wanted to write about the moral decay of society,” Michael Wilton explained several years later. “It could easily have backfired on us if we’d done a sloppy job. We didn’t record it in the sequence you hear it on the album, so we had to make sure the songs fitted together correctly. It was like reading a movie script.” 

Looking back, the band say that they experienced moments of inspiration and frustration during the making of the record.

“Some parts were easy, others… were not necessarily difficult, more time-consuming,” Tate says. “Communication-wise, we were on a roll. Having made a couple of records by then, we had a good system in place. The segues between the songs, for instance, required quite a lot of planning, but you don’t mind that when you’re enjoying your work.” 

The brainwave of introducing a hooker-turned-nun character to the tale dawned upon Tate in, of all places, an Amsterdam nightclub. 

“It was a late, late, late night, and in my party-influenced stupor I happened to see this woman dressed as a nun – I’m not sure whether or not she really was one,” he explains. “She was clutching this teddy bear and dancing to really loud, pummelling techno music. She seemed mesmerised by her own sadness. That image stuck with me, and she became our Sister Mary.” 

The casting of various non-musical participants was another headache. Actor Anthony Valentine, of Colditz and Callan fame, proved to be an inspired choice to play malevolent surgeon Dr X. 

“We had to try to figure out in our heads what his voice would’ve been like,” Tate explains. “Guys would come in, and in their best Shakespearian delivery would say [adopts plummy, Donald Sinden-like tones]: ‘Kill her, that’s all you’ve got to do.’ It was just too over the top. Next!” 

Pamela Moore, who had come to Chris DeGarmo’s attention via a local radio commercial, took on the Sister Mary role for the album and tour, and still sometimes makes the occasional appearance with the band. 

“Pamela had a very distinctive voice,” says Rockenfield. “She was quite a popular singer in Seattle.” The initial recordings took place in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, then the operation was moved to Le Studio in Montreal. With producer Peter Collins and engineers James ‘Jimbo’ Barton and Paul Northfield, creativity abounded. 

Englishman Collins had collaborated with Gary Moore, Billy Squier and even Tom Jones, but it was his work on three Rush albums that endeared him to Queensrÿche. Once on board, Collins engaged himself with the minutiae of the sessions

Just like everything else with ‘…Mindcrime’, the moons seemed to be aligned to make it great

Scott Rockenfield

“A lot of time was spent thinking about things like the nurse walking across the room [in Remember Now],” Tate recalls – “‘How big would that room have been?’ ‘What would the reverb have been like?’ Paul Northfield was also incredibly important in those decisions, because you’d ask him what kind of shoes the nurse was wearing and he’d have an opinion. He’d also have an idea of how to recreate the sound.” 

“The window of Dr X’s limousine rolling down at the start of Suite Sister Mary, that was another of Paul’s productions,” Rockenfield elaborates. “You can buy sounds like that on special-effects albums but we pulled a car upfront of the studio and stuck up a microphone. It was freezing cold in Montreal but it made all the difference to do it that way. Just like everything else with ‘…Mindcrime’, the moons seemed to be aligned to make it great.” 

Another of the album’s delicious moments of detail comes when the aforementioned nurse injects Nikki with a sedative, saying: ‘Sweet dreams’ then adding under her breath: ‘You bastard’. “The ‘you bastard’ part was definitely inspired by The Young Ones,” Tate grins unexpectedly. “We used to watch that series all the time.” 

“That line’s still popular with the fans,” Rockenfield adds. “To this day, whenever we roll into the beginning of …Mindcrime, the whole audience screams it back at us. It still makes me laugh.” 

Michael Kamen (who would play an even more crucial role on the band’s subsequent album, Empire) displayed the arrangement skills later used by Metallica when he directed the choirs and atmospheric use of cellos that so effectively decorate Suite Sister Mary

“We’d first worked with Michael on The Warning and we knew we needed him again,” Tate says. “He really threw himself into creating the whole vibe of a Catholic church.” 

“Like the rest of us, he was so excited when he heard how it was going to sound on the record,” Rockenfield adds. “But he still made us credit him as the Archduke Of Darkness – which was a very fitting name.”

According to Tate, neither the band nor the production team had any idea of the magnitude of what they had created until the final touches had been added. 

“By then I was physically and mentally drained,” Tate recalls with a wince. “There’d been a lot of late nights and brainstorming sessions along the way. But once the record was done we could sit back and listen without any of the pressure. When you’re a young man like that it’s a pretty exhilarating thing to be able to do.” 

Possibly the record’s only significant flaw was the story’s lack of a conclusion. It has been speculated that Queensrÿche had cannily left things open for a sequel. 

“It’s great that the fans still feel so passionate about Operation: Mindcrime, but we refuse to go back to it. To me it doesn’t need improving,” Tate insists. “We felt that its story just mirrored life. Lots of tales don’t have endings, sometimes they just dissolve and evaporate into thin air.” 

“I’m not even sure the story could have had an ending,” Rockenfield says thoughtfully. “It was just a period of time for the characters. Nikki could’ve died, I suppose, and that would’ve been an ending, but I’m not sure that would’ve had the same impact.”

When one UK publication quickly acclaimed Queensrÿche as “the thinking man’s heavy metal band” after …Mindcrime, that tag stuck. It’s an epithet that still makes them smile. 

However, there were certainly those who failed to comprehend the complexities of the record. According to an apocryphal journalistic story, a certain British writer who should have known better had spent an hour grilling Queensrÿche enthusiastically about the significance of the album’s concept. Then as he was leaving he delivered the killer parting shot: “By the way, what was the name of your band again?” 

“Ha-ha. That’s a great story!” Tate laughs. “I’d like to think it was true, but I really can’t remember. I wish I could.” 

While the UK had been quick to embrace Operation: Mindcrime, Queensrÿche’s US fans were less appreciative. Although the record had received some glowing US reviews – one paper gushed: “A brilliant album by a band whose potential has turned into pure greatness” – it was too complicated for some. 

“America definitely didn’t get ‘…Mindcrime’ at the start,” Tate affirms. “They seemed to think that we should be making music that sounded like Mötley Crüe or whatever was selling at the time. But our records always take time to listen to.” 

“People tend to forget that it took a while to be accepted,” Rockenfield says. “The specialist magazines liked it, but generally the press and the fans found it a ‘getting to know you’ type of record. We were very lucky that MTV was beginning to pick up on our style of music. They made it known to us that if we made videos then they’d play ’em. So we did one [for Breaking The Silence]. And it seemed like within weeks we had a gold album.” 

Three further singles – Eyes Of A Stranger, Revolution Calling and I Don’t Believe In Love – were released. The Queensrÿche train was finally beginning to pick up a head of steam. Another crucial factor was that by now the group had a new and powerful management team behind them. Local record store owners Kim and Diana Harris had been the first to discover Queensrÿche, pressing up their independent EP and becoming the band’s first managers. But the arrangement was never destined to last. 

It was no coincidence that Queensrÿche’s breakthrough came as part of the powerful Q Prime management team that also represented Metallica, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Dan Reed Network, and later became involved with Madonna.

“Q Prime were capable of putting us on any stage in the world,” Tate says now. “And that’s what they did. [Company boss] Peter Mensch was an interesting person to work with. He was always very forthright with his opinions, but he and his company taught us to keep an eye on business, which was a valuable lesson.” 

Another thing Q Prime did was to form a protective cocoon around the group’s recording sessions, shielding them from the demands and expectations of EMI. 

“When Peter and Cliff [Burnstein, Q Prime partner] stepped in they stressed that the creativity should continue to come from us,” DeGarmo said at the time. “They just contribute their advice and they don’t interfere. We submit everything to Cliff and Peter, and it’s them who talk to the record company.” 

Q Prime were also able to up the stakes, putting Queensrÿche onto a tour of Europe with their stablemates and the hottest band of the year, Metallica. Then, more significantly, came a 48-date, coast-to-coast tour of the US by the same pairing. Before that Queensrÿche played support to another red-hot Q Prime band, Def Leppard. 

At the time, Leppard were playing their shows ‘in the round’ and still promoting the previous year’s enormous hit album Hysteria. When I ask Geoff Tate which of those tours he enjoyed the most, he fixed me with a gaze that suggests I’ve just asked a complete no-brainer. “Hmmm, let’s consider that one for a moment,” he ponders. Def Leppard: giant stages to play on… sell-out shows… scantily-clad women dancing at the front of the stage and baring their breasts at us. Metallica: sweaty young boys throwing bottles at us. Now let’s see, which of those would be the most fun?” 

Once the laughter subsides, Rockenfield adds: “The real truth is that those tours were equally important for us, because they both did different things for Queensrÿche. Metallica were in the middle of this huge global onslaught, and halfway through they began to realise that this was a really cool package. By then our record was starting to explode, too. 

“The Leppard thing was a completely different type of audience. They crossed the boundaries into pop, so we began to pull in a few of those fans. And like Geoff says, some of them had very big breasts and definitely wouldn’t have come to a Metallica/Queensrÿche show.” 

Whatever the gender of their fans, Queensrÿche were certainly attracting their fair share of deranged ones. In 1989 an astonished Tate told current Classic Rock writer Malcolm Dome: “There was this particularly exuberant fan in America who pleaded with us for a backstage pass. He said he’d do literally anything to get one. So, as a joke, Eddie [Jackson] told him to staple his forehead. At which point the guy got hold of a staple gun and fired four staples into his head. We gave him the pass!”

In the UK Queenrÿche were able to maintain their upwards momentum via a pair of quite incredible headlining performances, at which they played Operation: Mindcrime almost in its glorious entirety. 

Tate: “Aaah, the legendary Town & Country [now called the Forum] show. Funnily enough we were talking about that only a few days ago, trying to recall whether that was the best one, or the Astoria.” 

For me, the Town & Country was the most memorable, though the Astoria wasn’t too far behind. 

Tate: “So let me ask you a question: what made it so good?” 

It was a combination of factors but basically it just seemed to be the right band, with the right album, at exactly the right time. 

“The audience that night was absolutely amazing, too,” Michael Wilton chips in from an adjacent table. “They were unbelievable.” 

The memory of Jethro Tull’s Crest Of A Knave sneaking up on the blind side in 1988 to steal a Grammy award that was widely expected to go to Metallica’s …And Justice For All album still causes an ironic smile. As does Tull leader Ian Anderson’s victory comment: “Poor Metallica, bless their little spandex shorts”. But few of us recall that Operation: Mindcrime was also shortlisted in the same Best Hard Rock Album category that year. 

“All of Q Prime’s bands were nominated that year,” Tate says, waving his hand dismissively.

“We didn’t expect to win; we’d already won just by being nominated,” says Rockenfield (who later tasted disappointment again when one of his outside projects was pipped for a Grammy by Lou Reed). “And the after-show party was a lot of fun.” 

In 1989, Queensrÿche released a longform video essay of the album, called Video: Mindcrime. Linking live footage shot on a soundstage, and imagery telling the story of the record story (using actors for the main parts), it served as a precursor to the more impressive video and CD package that would eventually be titled Operation: Livecrime.

By then Queensrÿche were two years older and wiser. Despite the fact that they were now promoting the Empire album (its huge, Michael Kamen-scored Silent Lucidity single had helped the band to secure a spot on the bill at the ’89 Castle Donington festival) the band went the whole hog and filmed a full concert performance of Operation: Mindcrime

“With Empire, we’d purposely stayed away from making another concept album,” DeGarmo emphasised back in 1991. Indeed it was brave of the band to return to Operation: Mindcrime at such a crossroads in their career. 

Three shows they played in Madison, Wisconsin, were filmed by Wayne Isham and a team that included director/lighting designer Howard Ungerleider, who had worked for the previous 17 years with Rush, as well as with Def Leppard. 

Queensrÿche performed the album in front of screens that were 18 feet high and 24 feet wide, with movie-quality film sequences projected behind them. 

“Isham does Ricky Martin videos now,” Rockenfield chuckles. “It was an experience to work with him. The synching of the audio with the visual was sometimes quite a fiasco, but it worked.” 

Fortunately, Queensrÿche had already performed …Mindcrime around 160 times on tour by that point so, apart from walkways that sometimes refused to function, they’d experienced many of the mistakes that were likely to plague an undertaking of the size of those Wisconsin shows. Such as… 

“One night when we played in Texas, Sister Mary was up on the screen, with her hair blowing backwards,” Tate recalls. “She’s a striking platinum blonde, and the way it’d been shot it looked like she was on fire. At one point in the show the combination of heat in the building and our projectors not being set up correctly caused the film to melt and then burst into flames. It was pretty spectacular to see Mary on the screen burning in front of me. Not that the audience realised that anything was wrong.” 

Just to give an indication of the popularity of Operation: Livecrime, EMI sold more than 260,000 copies of the original video format before deleting it in 1998 and then transferring it to DVD. Tate admits that the band have even discussed making the concept into a movie. 

“Yeah, we talked to a few people about it,” he says. “The idea’s come up several times, we just haven’t really found the right outlet for it yet. The worrying thought is that it might be like somebody making your favourite book into a movie, and when you see it it never matches up to your imagination. In fact as recently as six months ago a producer and director flew to Seattle for talks.” 

“Just like the record, it would need the right combination of people to make it work,” Rockenfield says sagely. “Who knows, maybe the Wakowski Brothers – the guys who did The Matrix – will call us some day? But until then we’ll probably keep on saying no."

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 58, in August 2003.