Pick of the Week #15
Blue Öyster Cult
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 21, 2021

"The further you go, the fewer past objects appear in your rear-view mirror."

Makes sense.

But it happens that we regard past objects in a very simplified - and often misleading - way.

A perfect case in point being Blue Öyster Cult. Let's see what nowadays the group is famous for. We find three songs: (Don't Fear) The Reaper, Godzilla, and Burnin' For You. The first can be described as "a sentimental electric ballad"; the second as "cartoon metal"; the third as "a kind of lively Seventies recreation of a pop song from the Sixties". All are sung by somebody possessing a kind of "female"-sounding voice: thin, capable of hitting very high notes, with not too much bass.

Let's see what's the given image - and past size - of Blue Öyster Cult: a group that's labeled "hard rock" or "proto-metal", wearing dark glasses and leather pants, with a predilection for mystery and the occult, with loud guitars and amplifiers set to 11, playing arenas sitting 18.000 paying customers, featuring spectacular lasers, with impeccable instrumental technique, and hordes of howling fans.

The sum of these factors is equal to a set of paradoxes. A group that's not too well-known, but has sold millions of copies. A whole series of albums that can still be listened to with great pleasure but are almost completely ignored by both critics and audiences. An excellent guitar player - not a formal innovator, but a brilliant soloist who can offer something creative in many different styles, whose mode of expression is always succinct and quite elegant - whose name is not featured "among the greats". While the group's releases in the first decade of their career - ten albums - are a perfect specimen of that kind of "American" album that captures one's attention instantly, offers many hidden layers that one can discover later, and sounds fantastic.

"America's answer to Black Sabbath": this was the apparent intention of Blue Öyster Cult's manager and producer, Sandy Pearlman - one of the first American "rock" writers - when "formatting" a group of sizable experience, good technique, and fine versatility, after their two "false starts" with record companies. Pearlman submerged the group in a "dark", mysterious, light that, while providing the band with a strong image - a side that was definitely not their forte - in the end would greatly limit their expressive palette, while also making the group an easy target for accusations of being a "manufactured" entity. It goes without saying that when the group tried to play by a different set of rules, so effortlessly achieving the commercial success that had eluded them for so long in their "men with leather" phase, there were those who'd scream "sell-out", while others celebrated the group's new-found authenticity.

In their first few years as a group - their first album of same name being released in 1972 (later albums will appear regularly, one per year) - Blue Öyster Cult were often regarded as an "intellectual rock group from New York", and they sure got a "critic coverage" of the first kind: songs lyrics were written by Sandy Pearlman and by another world-famous pioneer of US rock criticism: Richard Meltzer; soon Patti Smith - still disguised as a journalist, but already a writer of poetry - will add hers; while the other "noise boy", Lester Bangs, will write a very favourable review of the group's first album for Rolling Stone magazine, also giving them space in Creem, the "America's best alternative rock" magazine where Lester Bangs was a star. (Blue Öyster Cult won in the "Best new rock group" category in the yearly Creem referendum.)

"By Silverfish Imperatrix whose incorrupted eye/Sees through the charms of doctors and their wives": this is the start of Workshop Of The Telescopes, one of the ten tracks appearing on the group's first album. The important fact being that the lyrics did not appear on the album's cover - they never will - so making the aura surrounding the group even bigger. (One could send a self-stamped, self-addressed, envelope, and $0.50, to receive the songs' lyrics, printed by computer. I got them thanks to a relative of mine who had emigrated to California.)

Let's try to listen to Blue Öyster Cult's first album without paying any attention to what critics said. With the only exception of Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll, where one of the themes is "directly inspired" by The Wizard, off Black Sabbath's first, the album offers a very clear panorama: This is an American rock group, with track #1 immediately showing that group members had more than a few Rolling Stones albums in their collection; there's a "sinister-sounding" ballad; a few minutes of "slow-sounding" guitar psychedelia; echoes of Grateful Dead, MC5, Doors, Steppenwolf, and so on, i.e., the background one could easily expect, given the fact that the group members were already active at the end of the Sixties; one could also add such groups from the "British Invasion" as the Yardbirds and the Troggs; also, such "home-made meteors" as Iron Butterfly.

Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser is the fine guitar player I've already mentioned (Pearlman had thought of giving each group member an "invented name" - following Captain Beefheart's footprints? - but Roeser was the only one who kept his). Albert Bouchard was the group's drummer; Allen Lanier (at the time, he was Patti Smith's boyfriend, and he brought the group her lyrics) was the keyboard player and "rhythm guitarist"; Joe Bouchard (Albert's brother) was on bass; with Eric Bloom being the (very nasally-sounding) singer. The music was for the most part written by Roeser and Albert Bouchard, though the fact of writing songs after the concert, in hotel rooms (those who don't work, won't eat, the five receiving a not-very-substantial weekly allowance), explains why many songs on their first few albums have so many writers.

Blue Öyster Cult's first three albums - the album of same name from '72, Tyranny And Mutation, and Secret Treaties, alongside the double live album On Your Feet Or On Your Knees - are what is usually called the group's "black and white" period. A label that, like others we know well - "The Berlin trilogy", "The 'ditch' trilogy" - is easy to use, but can conceal differences that are more important than the similarities. As we've seen, the first album is a composite entity; while Tyranny And Mutation features a Side One that sounds as harsh as the group's live concerts, with Side Two being more sophisticated, though the instrumentation is mostly guitars, with keyboards just starting to appear (in a short while, they will greatly widen the group's horizons); Secret Treaties is a perfect realization of the group's aesthetic, featuring many songs that will be part of the group's stage act for a very long time.

(A fantastic-sounding edition of Secret Treaties was released by Audio Fidelity, as remastered by Steve Hoffman: here the Hammond organ sounds clearer, one can easily tell one cymbal from another, the sound of the Precision bass is well-defined, guitars sound "dangerous" but not "raspy".)

Though its recorded sound is not what one could hope for, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees is an excellent testimony of the group's assuredness and precision in their live dimension. The decision to release a live album was also a way of taking time, think about what to do next, and choose what changes to add to the formula (those changes, as we'll see in a short while, would be numerous, and decisive).

There were other factors at play, though at the time they were kept a secret: Roeser was found as having a heart condition - I think he suffered from arrhythmia - which for a time appeared to endanger the group's life (also Roeser's, of course). The guitarist managed to exorcize his fear by writing a song, (Don't Fear) The Reaper: it went Top 20, forever changing the group's  commercial fortunes.

(This is the perfect place to say of the group's propensity to cultivate a few traits that one could define as being partially responsible for their somewhat limited success. As a for instance, check Roeser's song Your Loving Heart, off his solo album Flat Out (1982). Here Roeser uses the literal sense of the cliché about "an heart in love": A man waiting for an heart transplant receives - at first, unknowingly - an heart from his loved one, who "committed suicide" in order to give him what he needed in order to survive. The melody is quite captivating, the arrangement will remind one of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall, the music video is well done, but... the end result, quite macabre, is not what the doctor ordered to get to the Top of the charts.)

While Blue Öyster Cult were recuperating, each member received a TEAC 4-track tape recorder as a gift, just to see what would happen. Maybe unexpectedly, there was an explosion of creativity and the birth of individual styles that will make the group's commercial success a reality, and - I think - will give their music longevity.

Production work got more colourful, there was more money to spend at the time of recording, better-sounding studios were chosen, while David Lucas - the man that had been the group's guiding light at the time of their recording their first album - started working with the group again, alongside usual producers Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman. An extremely important fact, the cover of their new album, Agents Of Fortune, is very colourful and pleasant to the eye, the group appearing for the first time in full colour in the inner spread. It will be only with the following album, Spectres, that the group will be given the chance to appear on the front cover.

Pearlman the wordsmith won't go away, but the group will start using other writers, and other quirkiness, besides their own. Eric Bloom showed he liked sci-fi, bassist Joe Bouchard demonstrated he liked vampire stories, the other members ran the gamut.

The fact of featuring five brilliant individuals made Blue Öyster Cult something unusual, even though it was precisely this fact that made it impossible for them to develop the peculiar "division of labour" that can give a group its iconic identity. Think about Led Zeppelin - but the image was patented by The Who - with the "heroic" guitarist, and the singer twirling his microphone. Or Jimi Hendrix, solo. The commercial formula shows that an audience needs to know where they have to look.

On stage, Blue Öyster Cult were a quite peculiar entity. When he didn't sing, the singer went to the back of the stage, to play synth or keyboards. The lead guitarist sang "the hits". The keyboard player came to the foreground to play intricate twin leads together with the lead guitarist. The drummer howled his rock anthems from the drum-stool. All five members played guitar in a loud finale.

(On album, starting with the first one, everybody sang, with the drummer - Albert Bouchard, a good singer, but not a "technical" singer - as the perfect impersonator of a "wild rock singer ". But with later albums, completely different styles emerged.)

It appears that the bass player had studied classical guitar, piano, and voice. Hence, more sophisticated piano moments and guitar arpeggios.

Agents Of Fortune ('76) and Spectres ('77) are two episodes of the same story. Great sales, a lot of space in magazines, and more than a bit of incredulity on the part of the sceptics.

The live album Some Enchanted Evening ('78) gave the group some time to breath. Not a double album as On Your Feet... (a CD re-release doubled the number of tracks, in my opinion diluting the impact), the album became a best seller (two million copies). The group is heard playing more recent material, and two covers of old war-horses by MC5 and the Animals.

Looking for a more commercial sound, Blue Öyster Cult chose a chart-man, Tom Werman, for their next album. As it was not too difficult to foresee, the group made their old fans angry, while not getting any new ones. Both Eric Bloom - "Mirrors is only good as a frisbee" - and Albert Bouchard were nonplussed, the others were more "realistic" in their approach.

When looked at objectively, Mirrors (1979) is not a bad album, even if it shows a very partial image of the group. Werman takes a lot away, so the sound of what remains is quite spectacular. Though quite inappropriate here, female background vocals were everywhere in the charts. Donald Roeser is obviously the featured item, both as a singer and a songwriter. As it often happened at the time, Allen Lanier's contributions were the most original, given the context. Besides being an excellent keyboard player, his songs were the real outliers, from the "almost-country" acoustic ballad In Thee to the "almost-disco", Clavinet and all, Lonely Teardrops.

Trying to contain the damage, Blue Öyster Cult got Martin Birch, the record producer who had guided Deep Purple in their "In Rock" phase. Results were fantastic, both Cultosaurus Erectus (1980) and Fire Of Unknown Origin (1981) becoming successful hits.

Guitar ferocity, a giant push from the drums, an expanded palette of sounds, lotsa keyboards, and many original song topics - a sword that talks, astronauts in space that replicate the horrors they had tried to escape from by leaving Earth, an attack to Ayatollah Khomeini, the boy who wants to get his girlfriend back by becoming a guitar hero, boys in withdrawal syndrome, monstrous appearances from outer space, the girl who uses her father's razor to cut her palm and taste her blood - all make Cultosaurus Erectus an album to be listened to.

While quite good, Fire Of Unknown Origin is not as brilliant. Unfortunately, the best part of the story ends here. Albert Bouchard leaves the group, everybody's tired, and with the exception of the aforementioned solo album by Donald Roeser, Flat Out (1982), none of the following albums qualify as indispensable.

The music by Blue Öyster Cult is not difficult to listen to. So I decided to avoid describing their albums in great detail. What follows is a kind of personal "Best of", though these songs are not the only ones worth listening on their albums.

A personal memory.

In December, 1980 I attended a pre-Christmas party alongside a few US soldiers, who were stationed at the nearby NATO base. Albums played that night (all quite recent): Scary Monsters by David Bowie, Gaucho by Steely Dan, One Trick Pony by Paul Simon (not my favourite album by any means, but the fact that a giant Afro-American SGT looked approvingly at the names on the album cover - Steve Gadd... Richard Tee... - convinced me to keep my mouth shut).

The host, a good friend of mine, decided to gently make fun of me, asking why I didn't like any "regular" rock groups.

"Not true", I replied. "What about Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult?"

Laughing, my friend looked at me, and she said: "Those are "weird" rock groups, not "regular" rock groups..."

Then Came The Last Days Of May
A beautiful ballad that started a whole series of songs written and sung by Donald Roeser and that was brilliantly performed on stage, the song hides under a calm mood the story of three guys who wanted to get rich buying and selling a large quantity of "stuff". But their driver, and intermediary, stole their money and killed them while they were driving in the desert. (A true story.)

She's As Beautiful As A Foot
While many wonder about the real meaning of this text by Richard Meltzer, the song exhales a subtle "Indian" psychedelic perfume that makes this song one of many "minor Cult classics".

Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll
A loud "rock" moment, for a long time the group's warhorse live, this song always comes alive thanks to Albert Bouchard's "over the top" vocals. Great guitars by Roeser.

Wings Wetted Down
A very "psychedelic" solo traveling the stereo channels, this is the first of many funereal ballads written and sung by bass (and keyboard) player Joe Bouchard. One wonders if those are vampires or helicopter wings (in Vietnam). (Sure, we know helicopters don't have wings.)

Mistress Of The Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl)
Death and decomposition in the cycle of life are (maybe) the main topic of the lyrics (by Sandy Pearlman) of a song whose mysterious music, dark and full of guitars, really captivates the listener. Albert Bouchard wrote the music, Eric Bloom sang it, Donald Roeser played the guitars.

Dominance And Submission
The Pearlman/Albert Bouchard team is here again for a quite "vivacious" song that the group played a lot live. Why is New Year's Eve, 1964 "the final barrier"? Why did radios appear? Great drum performance by Bouchard, who also explores all the nuances - from hysterical to sinister - as the song's vocalist. As a bonus, a great guitar solo by Roeser.

Cagey Cretins
Eric Bloom is at his best as the "nose vocalist", Albert Bouchard howls from behind, in a nervous-sounding story. Music by Bouchard, lyrics by Meltzer, great drums, great guitars.

A classic melody, the song was for the most part written by Joe Bouchard. Excellent nose by Bloom, lyrics by Pearlman ("Call me Desdenova"), their most spectacular moment in concert, with blinding lasers and a long guitar solo; this is the shorter, but highly captivating, studio version.

Live album On Your Feet Or On Your Knees makes one "see" the group in concert. Not the kind of "blind" energy that negates finesse, as this longer version of a song off Secret Treaties brilliantly demonstrates.

Hot Rails To Hell
Not to be outdone by his colleagues, bass player Joe Bouchard shouts a quite "alcoholic" performance describing the horrors of the subway. Faster and faster, formidable solo by Roeser, "dive-bombing" from the bass guitar in an explicit homage to Bill Wyman's 19th Nervous Breakdown.

Buck's Boogie
Roeser's guitar roots really come alive in this brilliant instrumental that also features an agile and vivacious Hammond organ by Allen Lanier. Exuberant and joyous.

(Don't Fear) The Reaper
The only Blue Öyster Cult song everybody knows, the one that forever changed their fortunes. Kudos to Roeser, singer and writer.

Morning Final
A shooting, a homicide, the subway, are the main characters in this song, as written and sung by Joe Bouchard. Fine keyboards, excellent background vocals, many instrumental colours.

Allen Lanier was never a great singer, so here he wisely borrows Eric Bloom's nose. A fine performance for an inventive-sounding track, well-written, skillfully arranged, with unexpected instrumental sections.

Donald Roeser as writer and performer of "cartoon metal". A legendary riff, perfect drums by Albert Bouchard, a burning guitar solo, a moment "a la Stanley Clarke" from the bass, an intermezzo sung in Japanese, and the inevitable moral: "History shows again and again/How Nature points out the folly of men".

I Love The Night
A "vampire story" that maybe involves the use of heroin, a ballad by Roeser that hides its dark side under a "pop" sheen. The echoes on the drums can work as "a guide to the way echoes sounded in the Seventies".

Joe Bouchard writes and sings melancholic-, sinister-sounding music, Helen Robbins/Wheels writes the tale, impeccable piano and "string ensemble" by Allen Lanier, vocals and guitar solo are drenched in effects (see the already-mentioned "a guide to the way echoes sounded in the Seventies").

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
A new live album, Some Enchanted Evening presented the group's most recent repertory with crunch and finesse. As a bonus, a fine interpretation of a classic by the Animals, showing the "British Invasion" roots of the US quintet.

Moon Crazy
The instrumental side of the Doors - a precise piano, a "thin" guitar - can be heard for a moment in this song by Joe Bouchard, whose sound scenario greatly benefits from the streamlined approach chosen for commercial reasons by album producer Tom Werman. "Vampires in space"? Who knows. What I know is that the guitar entry at the moment of the solo with the "string ensemble" as its background sounds quite moving, while the final guitar solo is one of those "bizarre" moments that the group loved to feature, once in a while.

Lonely Teardrops
A "disco" mood, introduction by Clavinet, "string ensemble", a hypnotic-sounding - and, I think, quite "toxic" - moment by Allen Lanier, perfectly sung by Donald Roeser. Listen to the rhythmic finesse in the guitar solo.

Divine Wind
The martial, brutal, music of this song makes one aware of the absence of the blues in the music recorded by Blue Öyster Cult. Here Roeser starts connecting with the new guitar styles of the time (does anybody remember the "Kahler vs. Floyd Rose" arguments?), with a great use of the whammy bar. Aggressive, belligerent nose by Eric Bloom for a song by Roeser that's an attack on Ayatollah Khomeini (these are times of the hostages, the way Carter lost his presidency). "If he really thinks we're the devil/Then let's send him to Hell". A roadie wearing a Khomeini mask gave the audience "the finger" while the group played this one.

Hungry Boys
Only Blue Öyster Cult could think of having a group of boys - just speeded-up vocals, really - sing a story about withdrawal syndrome (from heroin, I think, but I'm not an expert in such matters). It starts with backwards piano, "fast" Albert Bouchard on drums - here, as on the whole album, the drum sound will make true rockers cry - at a tempo that almost promises to crash the song into a wall.

Lips In The Hills
An apocalyptic-sounding track married to one of the most inscrutable lyrics by Richard Meltzer, Lips In The Hills puts Blue Öyster Cult at the top of Metal. Kudos to Eric Bloom's throat, Albert Bouchard's accelerating drums, and Donald Roeser's guitars.

Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver
As was the case with the previous album, Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire Of Unknown Origin greatly benefits from Martin Birch's production work. Burnin' For You was the hit song: an agile, unpretentious moment penned by Roeser/Meltzer that Roeser had thought as being the most commercial song on the solo album he was working on at the time, and that the group welcomed, maybe a bit uneasily, on a new group album that was not guaranteed to sell a lot. The only group song played as a trio - Eric Bloom on both vocals and bass guitar - Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver (lyrics by Sandy Pearlman: "Into the whirlpool/Where matter vanishes") sounds quite normal until one tries singing the "bridge".

Don't Turn Your Back
The last album recorded by the original line-up ends with a song that perfectly illustrates the group's versatility for a whole that sounds highly sophisticated and highly communicative at the same time. "Elastic", "airy" movement from bass and drums, fine "rhythm" guitar, tasty-sounding keyboards, fine vocals by Roeser, sounding relaxed despite the featured theme (secret agents?). The songwriters: Lanier/Roeser/Albert Bouchard.

Flaming Telepaths
The 12" copy of Burnin' For You had on the flipside two recent - at the time - live tracks: Dr. Music (an unpretentious rock'n'roll with lyrics by Meltzer that was the opening track to the controversial Mirrors), and a group warhorse. Flaming Telepaths (lyrics by Pearlman, so: failed experiments? tales from the supernatural? the toxic use of veins?) comes from Secret Treaties and easily shows how the group can convincingly interpret, with a lot more instrumental assuredness than before, a "dark story" from the past. And since these are the times of the "digital delay" and the "infinite repeat" in a live setting, here they are also used in the guitar solo. But it's the sinister laugh that at first appears to come from the same room one is sitting in while listening to this song, that makes this version unique, ending as usual with the "tiny piano" that accompanies the song famous epilogue: "And the joke's.../On you!" ("On you!", obviously, being put in "infinite repeat").

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 21, 2021