Unlike some members of my generation, I never belonged to a cult. But I was kind of a fan of the aqua-hued, shellfish variety.
As in Blue Öyster Cult, the ’70s and on band that helped pioneer heavy metal music. Which in and of itself would not have been a selling point for me, as much as their interesting approach to song lyrics (and, to a lesser extent, packaging the rock product).
Spent some time on the deck recently listening to BÖC, and that didn’t change that opinion. So let’s reflect on the roots of a band that dates back more than 50 years, and early in its career was supposed to be the American version of Black Sabbath.
That ensemble was originally known as Soft White Underbelly — a name allegedly inspired by Winston Churchill’s description of Italy’s position in World War II, Nazi-controlled Europe — and originated on Long Island, N.Y., at Stony Brook University. From their inception, they were tied into a manager who was also a music critic and poet, Sandy Pearlman.
Pearlman penned a number of lyrics that would become famous with BÖC, including the epic “Astronomy.” He also created stage names/personae for the early band members, although only one of them stuck: lead guitarist Donald Roeser remains Buck Dharma to this day.
The band went by several other names — at one point changing names because of an unfavorable concert review — before settling on Blue Öyster Cult. It was claimed that BÖC was an anagram for Cully Stout Beer — a beverage which apparently never existed.
But the band manager’s poetry had also proposed a BÖC of extraterrestrials that controlled the development of the human race. Everything You Know Is Wrong, you know …
The first Blue Öyster Cult album, eponymously named, appeared in 1972. One of my many vinyl purchases influenced by Radio Free Madison, it was not only the music which caught my attention; the album cover’s allusion to the art of M.C. Escher was a bonus for me.
At a time when rock bands were increasingly working in longer forms and extended songs, BÖC’s debut album stuck mostly to the three-minute format, with nine of the cuts four minutes in length or shorter. The music was guitar driven — and driven fast.
But it was the lyrics, and song titles, that intrigued me as much as anything. “Workshop of the Telescopes,” for instance, with its “For those who see with their eyes closed.” The reference in “Transmaniacon MC” to the November 1969 Altamont Free Concert, during which a Hells Angels motorcycle club member stabbed and killed a member of the crowd during the concluding act, the Rolling Stones.
The lyrics of “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot” are about as weird as the title implies. Then there was “Stairway to the Stars,” with the groupie come-on “You can drive my motorcar/it’s insured to thirty thou.” (Dated these days, when $30,000 will get you a middle-of-the-road SUV.) And “Then Came the Last Days of May,” a headline-influenced song about a southwestern drug deal gone horribly wrong.
So I was primed when the band’s second album, Tyranny and Mutation, came out a year later. I didn’t find it lyrically as interesting, but there were still head-scratchers like “Mistress of the Salmon Salt,” and it was more commercially successful than its predecessor.
Tyranny also marked the first collaboration between the Cult and Patti Smith, the future punk poet who at the time was romantically involved with the one of the band members. Smith again penned one song for Secret Treaties, but most of the numbers were authored either by Pearlman or rock critic Richard Meltzer, mostly the former.
The Perlman lyrics on the third album were particularly interesting. What’s going on in “Dominance and Submission”? “Susan and her brother, Charles the grinning boy/Put me in the backseat, and they took me for a ride/Yeah, the radio was on, can't you dig the Locomotion/Kingdoms of the radio, 45 R-P-M/Too much revolution then.”
“ME 262” has got to be the only rock song ever about a World War II fighter, Nazi Germany’s breakthrough jet plane of the same name. The album concludes with “Astronomy,” where menace seems to simmer just below the surface, in a place from Pearlman’s imagining — Four Winds Bar, “… the nexus of the crisis/and the origin of storms” — “Four winds at the Four Winds Bar/Two doors locked and windows barred/One door let to take you in/The other one just mirrors it.”
Secret Treaties seemed a bit slicker, and was much more commercially successful. The fourth BÖC album, Agents of Fortune, was even more polished, and featured the group’s most successful single release, before or since. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is one of those overplayed FM Classic Rock numbers that I could live without hearing for a year or two, but it did give us that great Saturday Night Live skit. “More cowbell,” indeed …
The band, which in its early years had opened for the likes of the Byrds and Alice Cooper, by then had become arena-rock headliners and hugely successful. Their fifth LP produced a sleeper FM hit, “Godzilla,” which reprised the band’s tongue-in-cheek lyrical approach. The seventh album included their next-to-last charting single, and second Top 40 hit, “Burnin’ for You” — too much like “Reaper,” for my tastes.
But that album, Mirrors, barely made Gold, Pearlman had left to manage Black Sabbath, and it was the final LP for the original lineup. Though it went through a series of personnel changes, BÖC continued touring well into the new millennium, but went 10 years in the 1980s and ’90 without releasing a new studio album, and hasn’t released a new one since 2001.
I bought a BÖC classic album package a few years ago that included replacements for my well-worn vinyl copies of the first two LPs, and three later albums. Although the newer music is too slick and commercial, listening to the early albums on the deck the other night, that music still holds up pretty well.