Queensryche’s ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ – a great Classic Heavy Metal Album in its own right, and one of the all time great Classic Heavy Metal concept albums. But have you ever wondered what about the full story the band were trying to tell on the album? Maybe got confused by an occasional gap? If so, you’re in the right place. Step right up to hear it in full.
Isn’t the internet great? When Classic Metal Hawk was growing up and listening to all the Classic Heavy Metal bands featured on here for the first time, there was no internet. And that meant that any questions you might have had about bands, or musicians, or songs, or albums were sometimes a lot more difficult to answer.
You could ask friends who liked the same kind of music. But not if you wanted reliable information. Yes, The Hawk was fed a ton of confident stories by friends back in the day who said they had some inside line (‘a friend of mine works for the record label…’). Spoiler – mostly utter bullshit.
Magazines on the other hand were a great help. In the UK, Kerrang and Metal Hammer were bibles at the time for knowing anything. Release dates, tour dates, line-up changes, any other news and gossip. In a funny way, that pre-internet magazine era was inconvenient, and yet at the same time memorable. Having to actually turn up physically at a shop and buy a paper magazine. But it definitely generated an air of anticipation whenever a new issue came out about what discoveries would lie within. And what do people do for posters anyway, now that there’s nothing tangible to buy any more?
But The Hawk is digressing unforgivably. What if the Classic Heavy Metal question burning you up wasn’t featured in a magazine, and none of your friends knew anything? Then what were you supposed to do? So yes, just googling the answer like we all do these days might not have quite the same air of romance, but at least you get to know what you want.
Which brings us, at long last, to the point of this post – exactly one of those specific questions that Classic Metal Hawk lost so much sleep over back in the day. Namely: What is the exact storyline being told on Queensryche’s ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ album.
(NB: Let’s get this out of way up front. The Hawk’s keyboard does not feature a ‘y’ with an umlaut over the top, and he can’t be bothered to look for one. Therefore all articles about Queensryche on here will feature only the regular ‘y’ instead. The umlaut feels a bit stupid anyway – there, I’ve said it.)
‘Operation: Mindcrime’ was Queensryche’s third studio album, and probably the one that paved the way for all the future success that followed. Not their biggest ever seller (the next offering ‘Empire’ did better), ‘Mindcrime’ was nevertheless a big breakthrough both critically and commercially.
One of the reasons for the success was that in ‘Operation: Mindcrime’, Queensryche pulled off a concept album / rock opera that probably was and is one of the greatest ever examples in rock and heavy metal. The songs are progressive compositions and stand extremely well alone, but put together they tell a story with an unusual amount of depth and rigour, in large part due to development of different characters as the album progresses – Nikki, Doctor X, Sister Mary, the Priest. That combination of storyline and musical composition was what got the critics raving, but the band were able to deliver it in the form of an album that people still wanted to listen to. No mean feat at all.
However, for The Hawk’s money, in spite of all the bands best compositional efforts, there are still unanswered questions on that story that are difficult to resolve just by listening to the record. It just always felt a bit incomplete. Maybe that’s partly deliberate – sometimes, works of art are made ambiguous by design. The creators treat their audiences like grown-ups, and let them put their own interpretations on stuff. And that’s great for people with enough imagination.
But The Hawk found it a little frustrating. Sure, the themes are obvious – drug addiction, anarchy, murder, love. But how do all those bits fit together exactly?
The Story In Full
Today, the internet means we can piece that all together with a degree of confidence. So, what do we now know about the full story?
There’s the main protagonist, Nikki. He was a deadbeat, down and out heroin addict – though still lucid enough to harbour intense political anger about the corruption and hypocrisy he sees all around him. And this means he is naturally drawn to anarchist ideas – tearing down all the corrupt structures of society, and replacing them for the benefit of the people. So when fate brings him into contact with the head of a shadowy revolutionary organization, there’s already something of a meeting of minds – a Revolution Calling.
The villain in question, known only as Doctor X, has developed mind control / brainwashing techniques to help ensure the obedience of his followers, and this is where the album’s title comes from. Nikki falls under Dr. X’s spell and ‘Mindcrime’ is the trigger word that transforms him into Dr X’s puppet. (Dr X is abe to play on Nikki’s heroin addiction as well, giving him even more leverage).It reminds The Hawk a bit of Operation Blackbriar from the Jason Bourne movies – assets are trained, brainwashed, and can be activated at any time on the command of the organization. And just like in those movies, Dr X activates Nikki to perform assassinations on behalf of his organization.
This is actually one of the ambiguities of the story. Nikki is naturally sympathetic to the idea of anarchy / revolution, so why does Dr X have to manipulate him with a combination of heroin addiction and brainwashing? Maybe Nikki would have come on board anyway. But maybe he wouldn’t have gone as far as to murder for his ideals if it were not for the mind control. Who knows?
Anyway, Nikki is certainly a big supporter of Dr X’s ideas, and becomes an influential figure in the criminal organization. As a reward for his loyalty, he is offered (via a corrupt priest) the services of sometime prostitute and nun Sister Mary. Naturally, love starts to bloom between the 2 organizational drones, and Nikki starts to question his actions and those of the organization. As with any cult, this one is built on corruption, with loyalty to the leader being the only important trait for members – much more so that furthering the supposed aims of the organization.
This is proved when Dr X notices the developing relationship between Nikki and Mary, and orders Nikki to kill both her and the priest. It’s both a test of Nikki’s loyalty, and a way to rid himself of the potentially subversive Mary all at the same time. Still under the influence of the Mindcrime program and somewhat under Dr X’s control, Nikki travels to the church intending to carry out the orders, and indeed murders the priest. But then humanity breaks through, and Nikki can’t bring himself to kill his new love.
Instead, he confronts Dr X, telling him that both he and Mary have had it. They are going to leave the organization together. But Dr X still has plenty influence over Nikki even though the brainwashing had failed to get him to murder Mary. The guy started out as a heroin addict after all, and so Dr X only has to paint a grim picture of life as an addict back on the streets to have Nikki’s doubts come flooding in.
Unsure of what his next move should be, Nikki returns to Mary only to find her dead, and he suffers a full-on breakdown upon making the discovery. Did he kill Mary under the Mindcrime influence without remembering? Did Dr X murder her as punishment for threatening to leave? Either way, Nikki can’t cope with his loss. He runs through the streets in the grip of insanity calling Mary’s name. That attracts the attention of the police, who find a gun on him and accuse him of Mary’s murder.
By this time, Nikki has suffered a total memory loss and ends up in a mental institution, which is where we find him at both the start and the end of the story. In the beginning, he has no memory, but then starts to have recall, piecing together the rest of the story.
Stranger to Himself
The album ends with one of the strongest songs on the album – ‘Eyes of a Stranger.’ Nikki looks into the mirror on the wall of his institution and only sees a stranger. He can no longer recognize himself at all.
Incidentally, the question of who did actually kill Mary is never resolved on the album – the band revealed on a later DVD, ‘Mindcrime at the Moore’ that her death was actually a suicide. But for Classic Metal Hawk, that’s more of a sideshow. The real tension that is brought to bear on the album lies in Nikki really not knowing what had happened. It’s only that unbearable combination of losing her and wondering if might be responsible that drives him over the edge into insanity, and the climax of the story.
A Classic Tragedy
And maybe Nikki would have felt responsible for her death even if he hadn’t actually pull the trigger. After all, meeting him had set in train the events that led to Mary’s death. They weren’t safe to have a real relationship within the organization, nor could they be permitted to leave. So, as for Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy was inevitable. It’s a classic storyline to go onto a classic heavy metal record.
Apparently, Queensryche singer Geoff Tate had become friendly with members of the Quebec separatist movement when he lived in Canada. He also had been friends with heroin addicts who ended up destitute. Together, these provided the main sources of inspiration for the Mindcrime concept.
‘Eyes of a Stranger’ and ‘I Don’t Believe in Love’ were released as singles, and became the first by the band to chart in the US, introducing them to a wider audience for the first time. So, as said, the songs stood well on their own, and helped pave the path to success. But it’s the whole album played end to end that really makes everything stand out. It’ s the full Shakespearean story of anarchy, love, and tragedy that makes the songs fully come to life.
The Sequel – Truth is Angrier than Fiction
The characters are later revisited during Operation: Mindcrime 2, a follow-up released fully 18 years later in 2006. By then, tensions within the band were approaching breaking point, and caused at least as much intrigue as the storyline in the Mindcrime sequel. So that’s worthy of a separate article.
In the meantime, at least now you know why Nikki was so highly strung.
Thanks internet. Let’s play out with another ‘Operation Mindcrime’ track, just because we can. Here’s ‘The Mission’, where Nikki starts to question some of his life choices.
Did The Hawk miss out any important parts of the Operation: Mindcrime story?
Share them in the comments below, if so, or send feedback direct to The Hawk. We’re on a mission here to get it complete. (And comment on the songs while you’re at it!!)