Originally published Hot Metal #7, 1989
By IAN McFARLANE
THE heyday of the Blue Öyster Cult was during the 1970s and despite being rarely seen on the current heavy metal scene they will always be remembered for the combination of melody and mayhem, mysticism and intelligence they lent to the genre.
The Blue Öyster Cult (BÖC) world was an eerie, twilight zone of damnation, destruction, OD-ing of life itself, sado-masochism, corruption, urban terror, even teen romance, all wrapped up in music delivered with thunderous abandon; certainly the stuff on which HM thrives to this very day.
While the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, Poison and Def Leppard and even the power metal contingent (Metallica, Anthrax, Kreator, Exodus, Manowar) have well and truly surpassed BÖC’s highest achievements, the band remain pioneers in the field. The band’s first six albums are milestones in the annals of HM and are testament to their early greatness.
The core of the band (lead guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser and keyboardist Allen Lanier) came together in Long Island, New York, during the late ’60s. Originally known as Soft White Underbelly, then Stalk-Forrest Group they recorded two albums for the Elektra label, neither of which was released at the time. Stalk-Forrest Group mutated into BÖC in 1971, with the addition of singer/guitarist Eric Bloom and the Bouchard brothers, Joe (bass) and Albert (drums) and their fortunes began to improve.
BÖC scored a new deal with Columbia Records (CBS in the UK) on the strength of a demo tape that the band’s manager, Sandy Pearlman, had submitted. Together with Columbia’s Murray Krugman, Pearlman became an important element in the band’s rise to prominence. Working closely with the band, these two Svengali figures conceived an approach to heavy rock which was based on the two UK bands they most admired, the Yardbirds and Black Sabbath.
In fusing the Yardbirds’ blues-based guitar fireworks with Sabbath’s dense occult riffing, BÖC came up with a rock and roll mutant of awesome power. Pearlman and Krugman also produced the band first seven albums, with Pearlman regularly contributing song lyrics which reflected his demented obsessions.
By the time the band’s self-titled debut album came out in January 1972, they had already forged a distinctive sound. Even the thin production values couldn’t dampen this remarkable debut. From the opening power surge of ‘Transmaniacon MC’, the band whipped up a frenzy of merciless hard rock sounds. The set contained several songs that were to remain in their live show for many years – ‘Stairway to the Stars’, ‘Before the Kiss, A Redcap’ and ‘Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll’ (the first single).
There was also a refined melodic sensibility to the album, evident on ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ which was Roeser’s chilling tale of a dope deal going terribly wrong. All up, the album presented a heady brew of astronomy, ancient myth, pop mythology, black humour and plain madness.
Blue Öyster Cult promoted the album with a US tour supporting Alice Cooper. Watching the headliner, then at the height of his theatrical period with the Killer album, convinced the Cult they too needed a dynamic stage act. In front of a huge replica of the BÖC logo, the ancient Greek symbol of Kronos (Saturn), the band would present all manner of visual delights, swiftly
establishing themselves as a live force to be reckoned with. The focal figure on stage was Eric Bloom, while Buck Dharma was very much the foil to the singer’s black leather nightmare. Buck was the small, dapper figure in white suit who would step forward to solo with frantic power or chiming clarity.
Columbia release a limited edition 12-inch EP, Promotional Bootleg, at the end of the year. It contained live versions of ‘Cities on Flame’ and ‘Workshop of the Telescopes’, together with ‘The Red and the Black’ (a taster for the next album) and ‘Buck’s Boogie’. In February 1973 the second album, Tyranny and Mutation, was released to a favourable critical reception.
The set was divided into ‘black’ and ‘red’ sides, with the first featuring later stage favourites in ‘OD’d on Life Itself’, ‘Hot Rails to Hell’ (the single) and the epic ‘Seven Screaming Diz-Busters’. The second side concerned itself with weird beasts and paranormal happenings summed up in the likes of ‘Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl)’ and ‘Baby Ice Dog’, the latter having been cowritten by Lainer’s girlfriend, Patti Smith.
The first two albums sold poorly yet constant touring had elevated the band to major headlining status. It was their next album, Secret Treaties, which broke them big in the States. The album, released in April 1974, was a multi-layered treat loaded with a sense of implied threat and dripping with symbolism. Among the songs were two show-stopping anthems, ‘ME 262’ (a tale of supernatural Nazi plots) and ‘Astronomy’, while ‘Dominance and Submission’ (possibly the all-time killer Cult cut), ‘Flaming Telepaths’, ‘Harvester of Eyes’ and ‘Career of Evil’ (the single) rounded out a classic album.
(Although BÖC didn’t achieve great popularity in Australia, the legendary Radio Birdman played ‘ME-262’ and ‘Dominance and Submission’ regularly during their early days.)
Next up, the Cult tried to capture the power of their stage set with the double live album, On Your Feet or on Your Knees (1975). It was a patchy set, however, and between a scattering of gems like ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ and a cover of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ (released as a single) was some dross like ‘Maserati GT’. Not surprisingly it wasn’t a favourite of the band who were eager to move on to fresh challenges. BÖC saw out the end of 1975 with a tour of the UK which primed them for later success on that market.
The fifth album, Agents of Fortune (1976) was the one that finally pushed BÖC into the premier league. With the minimum of creative input from Pearlman, the band rallied all their resources and came up with a near-perfect blend of melodicism and mayhem. The stand out cut, the Roeser-penned ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ (it was a love song!) became the band’s first hit single (No. 12 in the US and No. 16 in the UK) and in turn gave the album an extra boost sales wise.
Once again Patti Smith was in evidence, both singing and composing (by now, well known in her own right). With quality tracks such as ‘E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)’, ‘Tattoo Vampire’ and ‘This Ain’t the Summer of Love’ (the second single), the album finally justified its sales. Indeed, BÖC came up with their best one-two-three punch on record with ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, ‘E.T.I.’ and ‘The Revenge of Vera Gemini’.
The band consolidated its position with the album Spectres (1977), which spawned another hit single in ‘R.U. Ready to Rock’. The set also featured Roeser’s foot-stomping ode to the Lizard King ‘Godzilla’, ‘The Golden Age of Leather’ and a track Bloom co-wrote with Ian Hunter (ex-Mott the Hoople) called ‘Going Through the Motions’. The album presented a more melodic and refined side of the band with an impressive trio of ghostly love songs in ‘Death Valley Nights’, ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘I Love The Night’ (another single).
After further periods of touring, which again included UK dates, another live album was released in September 1978 called Some Enchanted Evening. This was a spirited effort, far superior to its live predecessor and notable for great versions of ‘Godzilla’ and ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’, as well as a frantic workout on the MC5’s ‘Kick Out the Jams’ and an atmospheric rendition of the Mann/Weil tune ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ (originally a hit for the Animals) which was released as a single. (continued below)
All this activity was beginning to take its toll, and as a result the next album, Mirrors (1979), was a major disappointment. For the first time Sandy Pearlman was absent from the producer’s seat (he was working on the Clash’s second album, Give ’Em Enough Rope, in the UK) and BÖC seemed to be floundering around for direction. Only ‘Dr. Music’, a bizarre tale of sado-masochism, lived up to the band’s usual high standards.
Nineteen eighty brought a rapid return to form, however, with the release of Cultasaurus Erectus, which was a conscious move back to metal mania. Standout tracks included ‘Black Blade’, ‘Divine Wind’, ‘Lips in the Hills’ and the singles ‘Deadline’ and ‘Fallen Angel’. The album was produced by Martin Birch, who had recently completed work on Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell album. The connection was further enhanced when the two bands went on tour together, billed as ‘Black and Blue’. Subsequently, the album became their highest charting in the UK (No. 12).
Nineteen eighty-one’s Fire of Unknown Origin was again produced by Birch but as a whole it was a lacklustre effort with the band seemingly content to plunder their own past, rather than explore
new territory. Roeser’s melodic centrepiece ‘Burnin’ for You’ was another US hit single nevertheless, while the set’s other highlight was the wildly tasteless ‘Joan Crawford (Has Risen
from the Grave)’.
This decline in standards was symptomatic of deeper problems within the Cult camp and after an ill-fated tour of the UK drummer Albert Bouchard left the band. Eventually he was replaced by Rick Downey. Needless to say there was very little BÖC activity during the 1982/83 period, with the exception of the release of the rather tedious ETL (Extraterrestrial Live) in-concert set and Roeser’s disappointing solo album, Flat Out, which disappeared without a trace.
The Cult next surfaced with the 1984 album The Revolution by Night. This was much in the same vein as Fire of Unknown Origin although the two singles lifted, ‘Take Me Away’ and ‘Shooting Shark’, made little impression on the charts. Similarly, BÖC’s UK tour that year was, by all accounts, far from inspiring; the spark of a once great band was beginning to fade.
Surprisingly BÖC’s 1985 album, Club Ninja, was a decent effort, part of the album’s success attributable to the return of Sandy Pearlman as producer. He gave the heavier numbers such as ‘Make Rock Not War’ and ‘Madness to the Method’ the edge they needed, while allowing the more up-tempo, melodic numbers such as ‘Perfect Water’ and the single ‘Dancin’ in the Ruins’ free rein to weave their eerie spell.
The recording sessions, however, had been fraught with difficulties. Long-term keyboardist Allen Lanier left halfway through the sessions after falling out with Pearlman over new material and new drummer Thommy Price (ex-Billy Idol) only stayed long enough to finish basic tracks. Both were eventually replaced by Tommy Zvonchek (ex-Aldo Nova) and Jimmy Wilcox (ex-Rick Derringer) respectively.
The last that’s been heard of BÖC up to this point was the Imaginos album from 1988. Not a particularly inspiring effort but with a couple of decent tracks (‘I Am The One You Warned Me Of’ and the title cut) lurking in the shadows. The current status of the band is uncertain but it’s not difficult to deduce that BÖC will re-emerge. It should be remembered that in their heyday during
the ’70s, BÖC pioneered a brand of hard rock that mixed equal parts intelligence, mysticism, fantastic imagery, melody and sheer mayhem, the effects of which are still being felt in the development of heavy metal to this day.