of the Week #15
By Beppe Colli
"The further you go, the fewer past objects
appear in your rear-view mirror."
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
"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"
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
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
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
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
only Blue Öyster Cult song everybody knows, the one
that forever changed their fortunes. Kudos to Roeser, singer and writer.
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
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.
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
I Love The Night
"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".
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
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
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.
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.
"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
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.
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
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
Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver
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
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.
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