Chapter V: 1988-1989: Operation: Mindcrime Era
By Brian Heaton
After toying with themes on both of its previous albums, Queensryche finally tackled a full-on concept record, delivering an album and story fans and critics put on-par with legendary recordings such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Who's Tommy. That album is the much-heralded Operation: Mindcrime.
Operation: Mindcrime is considered a heavy metal masterpiece by most critics and recently landed in the top 100 prog albums of all time, as voted by the readers of Prog magazine. The album features Geoff Tate's operatic vocal range in full effect, displaying the tension and emotion of both Nikki and Dr. X. Ripping guitar leads by Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton – both solo and harmonized – are in abundance, while Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield's pounding rhythm section enhances the story's drama. Lyrically, the concept was the brainchild of Tate, who got inspired during his time living in Montreal during 1987 and his observations of a terrorist group while in the city.
Operation: Mindcrime begins with the spoken word cut "I Remember Now," where the main character, Nikki, reflects on his memories of getting involved in a revolutionary group led by "Dr. X." Throughout the opening salvo of "Anarchy-X," "Revolution Calling" and the title track, Nikki becomes an assassin and protester for the organization. As the story progresses, Nikki starts a relationship with a prostitute-turned-nun named Mary.
On the album, Tate and a local singer by the name of Pamela Moore sing the vocals of Nikki and Mary, respectively. Moore was contacted by Queensryche to record the vocal parts for Sister Mary after the band discovered her doing radio and television commercials for a music store she was working at part time in the late 1980s.
In an interview with this author, Moore categorized the experience as "a whirlwind." She remembers getting a call from DeGarmo about the part of Mary and then flying to Montreal the next day, where Operation: Mindcrime was being recorded. Tate and DeGarmo explained the album concept and the Mary character to Moore, handed her a cassette of the song "Suite Sister Mary," and the next day she cut vocals for the track.
"Geoff's vocals were already recorded, so I recorded my parts separately," Moore said. "I think the first time we ever sang the song together was when I toured with them on the [Building Empires] tour."
"Nothing can ever compare to the adrenaline rush you get singing in front of so many fans," she added. "It was then I realized how fortunate I was to have been able to participate in something so special."
As the Operation: Mindcrime storyline moves along, the bond deepens between Mary and Nikki. Dr. X then orders Nikki to kill both the priest and Sister Mary, fearing both had too much knowledge of his revolutionist plans. Mary dies, but the band was coy on how it happened. Was it Nikki? Did someone else kill her? The answer was revealed in Video: Mindcrime, a home video (later re-released on DVD in a special edition of Operation: Mindcrime). If you let the video go past the credits, the answer to the riddle can be found.
The approximate hour-long tale concludes with the epic "Eyes of a Stranger." At the end of the song, Nikki brings the story full-circle, saying "I remember now," harkening back to the opening track, leaving the listener to wonder whether the events actually happened or, as some have suggested, they were just all in his mind.
It was around this time in Queensryche's career when the group started being dubbed "the thinking man's metal band." While the moniker was complimentary in nature, many band members scoffed at the nickname, thinking it pretentious. But the descriptor is still prominently used by journalists when describing Queensryche today.
Editor's Note: A later lineup of Queensryche went on to release a sequel to Operation: Mindcrime in 2006. While Geoff Tate spearheaded the project and claimed in promotional interviews that a sequel to the story was "always planned," that was not the case. The band emphatically stated in interviews from 1989-2005 that Operation: Mindcrime was a standalone story.
Touring for Operation: Mindcrime was a challenge. At first, the record did not sell well. Opening for Def Leppard and then Metallica, the band could not (and ultimately did not, until the next tour) perform the album in its entirety. It wasn't until a video for "Eyes of a Stranger" appeared on MTV that listeners caught on to the story. The video rocketed Queensryche to mainstream attention and the band went from being an underground secret to the rising stars of heavy metal and hard rock in a span of three months.
By April 1989, the band was headlining its own shows across Europe, Japan and the West Coast of the United States to crowds in the thousands. The setlists drew heavily from Operation: Mindcrime, featuring all of the record except for "Suite Sister Mary" and various segues. But the live shows were notable for the performance of songs such as "Prophecy" and "London," which would not be played again by the original lineup of the band.
Title: Operation: Mindcrime
I Remember Now -- (DeGarmo/Tate/Wilton)
Key Tracks: Eyes of a Stranger, Revolution Calling, The Mission.
Notes: If you're reading this, you're no doubt already familiar with Operation: Mindcrime. Lauded by both fans and critics, the album broke Queensr˙che through to the mainstream. In fact, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden told Maiden leader Steve Harris that Operation: Mindcrime was better than Iron Maiden's concept record Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (Harris disagreed, obviously). See http://teamrock.com/feature/2015-09-04/iron-maiden-album-by-album-in-their-own-words.
Operation: Mindcrime is approximately an hour long, and showcases Queensryche's maturity as songwriters. Released in May 1988, the record expertly combines elements of prog, hard rock, metal to support the varying emotions found in a tale about revolution, manipulation, addiction and relationships. The idea behind the concept was Geoff Tate's. While living in Montreal, the singer overheard various tidbits about revolutionary plots from seedier characters at bars. According to Tate, he was walking home one night, and found himself drawn to enter a church, and the basis for the story that would become Operation: Mindcrime came to him in a flood of imagery and ideas.
After sketching out a rough outline, including the creation of the character "Sister Mary" (who is based on a woman who was dressed as a nun at a club Tate and DeGarmo visited while on tour in Europe for Rage for Order), Tate brought the idea to the band, who were dead set against doing it. Tate eventually won over DeGarmo, however, who immersed himself into the concept, and then convinced the band to give it a shot. The idea finally clicked with all of them, and Queensr˙che started work on the project in earnest.
Operation: Mindcrimeis the tale of three central characters: Nikki, Sister Mary, and Dr. X. Nikki, a bit of drifter, hears rumblings on the street about a revolution and gets roped into becoming a hit man for Dr. X, the leader of the revolutionary movement. As the story unfolds, Nikki gets involved with Mary, a prostitute that has "reformed" and become a nun. Mary isn't nearly as "reformed," however, as she "services" the priest over her, before becoming involved with Nikki.
To test Nikki's loyalty, and growing addiction to drugs that Dr. X provides, X tasks Nikki with killing Mary, along with the priest. Nikki meets Mary, but finds himself unable to kill her. The priest is shot, and Nikki ends up finding Mary dead afterward. Nikki then finds himself on the run from the police, who have targeted Nikki as the killer of both, even though the whole operation was orchestrated by Dr. X.
As the story concludes, Nikki finds himself depressed, heartbroken over Mary, and firmly painted as a murderer, all while Dr. X continues with his life. The record ends with Nikki trying to come to grips with who he is. At the end, the listener notes that Nikki is still in a mental hospital. This leads to the inevitable question of whether the story really happened, or was it just a drug-induced dream from an insane person?
Music & Vocals
Musically, Operation: Mindcrime is firmly rooted in the twin heavy metal guitar attack of Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton. The band is arguably at the height of its technical prowess here, as DeGarmo and Wilton play off one another not only in trade-off and harmonized leads, but to create huge chords as well.
"One area where DeGarmo and Wilton particularly distinguish themselves is in the orchestration of their rhythm parts," said John Walker of Dinosaur Rock Guitar. "Their approach is closest to [Judas Priest's Glen] Tipton and [K.K.] Downing's: two players using dissimilar tones and different chord inversions to separate themselves in the mix. But DeGarmo and Wilton take this approach further by combining two different chords to create one complex chord. When they do this, DeGarmo normally takes the lower part, and Wilton stacks a higher part over the top of it. This is hard to do without creating sonic mud. But by separating their sounds spatially and using different timbres, they achieve definition."
To help further that definition between the two players, the guitars of DeGarmo and Wilton are at times separated in the mix, with DeGarmo appearing in one channel, and Wilton the other (specifically on trade-off solos). Each play to their collective and individual strengths on Operation: Mindcrime, with Wilton handling some of the more aggressive leads ("Speak," "Revolution Calling," "The Needle Lies," etc.), while DeGarmo provides solos for the more emotive songs ("The Mission," "Suite Sister Mary"). The two harmonize or trade-off on most of the others.
While the guitars are a huge part of the record, don't forget the contributions of Eddie Jackson (bass) and Scott Rockenfield (drums) on Operation: Mindcrime. Both are playing arguably the most aggressive rhythms of their careers on the album, providing a steady, yet complex backdrop for the story to be told. Guitarists are often noted for helping drive the emotion of a song, but on Operation: Mindcrime, the rhythm section holds significant responsibility in this regard.
It should also be noted that the record is circular (much as how The Warning was supposed to be) in that the end fades into the introduction of the first track.
Geoff Tate gives arguably the most storied performance of his professional life on Operation: Mindcrime, both as a singer and a lyricist. Tate showcases all areas of his operatic range and a penchant for taking on character roles and delivering them with conviction. Pamela Moore lends her sultry vocals on "Suite Sister Mary," breathing life into a character that fans would praise for decades to come. Tate and Moore sing separately and in harmony on the track, providing a captivating climax to the Operation: Mindcrime story.
Regarding Pamela Moore, at the time she was working in a local music store and lending her voice to various commercials. DeGarmo heard her voice on one of those commercial, and sought her out specifically for the role of Sister Mary. Moore didn't actually sing with Geoff in the studio, however. DeGarmo and Tate explained the story to her, and handed her a tape upon arrival in Montreal. She tracked her vocals the next day. See http://anybodylistening.net/4.html for more on that.
Originally, Neil Kernon was going to produce Operation: Mindcrime, reprising the producer's role he held on Queensr˙che's previous record, Rage for Order. He got tied up with producing Dokken, however, and the band instead turned to Peter Collins, and a team of Paul Northfield and James "Jimbo" Barton to handle the production, engineering, and mixing, respectively, on the album. Michael Kamen, who did orchestration on The Warning, handled orchestration on Operation: Mindcrime as well. The record was recorded in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
The choir vocals were handled by the "Moronic Monks of Morin Heights," who doubled, in their spare time, as the staff of Le Studio in Montreal. ;-) Anthony Valentine played Dr. X, Debbie Wheeler was the hospital nurse, Mike Snyder's voice was used as the TV anchorman, and the late Scott Mateer played Father William.
The ending of "Eyes of a Stranger" on the album differs from how the band used to end it live. During live shows, Queensryche came up with a way (after they were done recording the record) to reprise "Anarchy-X" to close "Eyes of a Stranger" before the sonic montage and ending of "REVOLUTION" and "I REMEMBER NOW" lines concluded the story. Fans dubbed this added section "Anarchy-xtra." The reprise was consistently played from 1988-1997, and heightened the dramatic finale of Operation: Mindcrime, and usually, the main set of the band's shows. It was changed somewhat once DeGarmo left the group in 1997, and the current version of Queensr˙che typically does not play it.
Credit-wise, some may not know it was actually Michael Wilton that came up with the chorus to "Speak" -- "Speak the word. The word is all of us."
The album was remastered and re-released with some live bonus tracks in 2003, and then released as a 25th Anniversary box set in 2013.
Title: Video: Mindcrime
I Remember Now
Approximate running time of 40 minutes.
Notes: Queensryche released Video: Mindcrime on Sept. 26, 1989. The VHS contained the videos shot for Operation: Mindcrime, including, after the credits, how Sister Mary ultimately met her demise. (It blinks on the screen during an alternate video take for "I Don't Believe in Love.")
After the success of the "Eyes of a Stranger" video, the band was told by EMI it could either release one more video and have a promotional campaign for it, or shoot a series of videos connecting the Operation: Mindcrime story and release it as a standalone home video. The band chose the latter. It was released on VHS, and also on Laser disc in Japan. Video: Mindcrime was finally put on DVD in 2013, as a part of the 25th Anniversary deluxe box set edition of Operation: Mindcrime.
The Operation: Mindcrime Tour (1988-1989)
Queensryche began its tour in support of Operation: Mindcrime opening for Def Leppard on the tail end of its tour for Hysteria and later, Metallica on the "Damaged Justice" world tour. By late April 1989, however, Queensryche was firmly established as a legitimate headlining act, thanks to the airplay of "Eyes of a Stranger" and "I Don't Believe in Love" on MTV.
As one would expect, the setlist drew heavily from Operation: Mindcrime, peppered with "Queen of the Reich" as the opening cut, and "Take Hold of the Flame" mixed into the set. "Walk in the Shadows" was also rotated in once in awhile. Queensryche made a concerted effort as an opener to represent as much of Operation: Mindcrime as possible, likely because they wanted fans to understand it was a concept album.
While Queensryche held its own on both support legs, they didn't really mesh with Def Leppard's poppier brand of hard rock. And then when Queensryche jumped on the Metallica tour, they weren't quite heavy enough for Metallica's thrash audience. Queensryche generally won fans over with its own aggressive set, but Metallica's loyal fans made them work for it. Metallica was given the nickname of "Alcoholica," but they weren't the only band on the bill at the time. Apparently the thrash titans annoited Queensryche as "Krellryche" during this period, allegedly due to the band's fondness for cocaine (although that has never been verified by Queensryche).
When Queensryche played headline shows (briefly in Nov. 1988, New Year's Eve 1988 in Seattle, North Carolina dates in Feb. 1989, and then their own month-long European, Japan and U.S. west coast tour in Spring 1989), the band played all of Operation: Mindcrime except for "Suite Sister Mary" and the segues "Waiting for 22" and "My Empty Room." In the early headline shows, "Queen of the Reich" was the lead track, but during the actual headline tour, "NM 156" became the opener and "Queen of the Reich" was in the encore. To vary things up in Japan, the band swapped in "Prophecy" and "Surgical Strike," particularly since they played multiple nights in Tokyo.
Here are examples of the opening and headlining sets on this tour: