Cult of Personality

A fond look back at Blue Öyster Cult's hits and misses

I don't have wild memories about Blue Öyster Cult. I didn't see them play all decked out in mirror shades and leather pants, shooting lasers at the sweaty crowd. I haven't gotten wasted on Boone's Farm and come home with a tattoo of the hooked Kronos symbol that serves as the BÖC logo. I've never taken one too many tokes and searched for hidden meaning in the elaborate perspective drawings that artist Bill Gawlik created for their first few records. And I haven't stood by my mailbox for the two years it takes to receive a printout of the BÖC lyrics that you can order from their P.O. box. Until the late Eighties, my familiarity with them was pretty much the same as everyone else's: I remembered the hits.

In the Seventies, I was well aware of BÖC's crystalline yet unsettling classic "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," because my friend would play it as a slow-dance song at his parties when he wanted a creepier alternative to Foreigner's "Starrider." (Later, I came to know "Reaper" as the subject of the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Christopher Walken plays an overbearing BÖC producer who insists, "I've got a fever and the only cure is more cowbell!") I had interpreted BÖC's "Burnin' For You" as an anthem that die-hard new wavers--during that whole six-month period when we had all decided to become die-hard new wavers--could stand behind: It had vocal harmonies, a really punchy melody, and some mysteriously combustive lyrics. (Just why exactly was BOC "burnin'"? Was it self-immolation? Or did they just have some nasty STDs?) In short, I knew most of the AOR warhorses that BÖC will likely revive to a swarm of raised Bics when they perform at the 93X Hair Ball this Saturday. But what grabbed me when I started digging into their history a dozen years ago were the non-anthems: the lesser-known tunes from their first four albums, which have recently been reissued on Columbia Legacy.

Oh, sure, BÖC had as many huge, teen-pleasing riffs as the next hard-rock band. But they also sneaked far more subtlety into their grooves than most headbangers. Their reissues--which come with lyrics sheets and liner notes by Nuggets compiler Lenny Kaye--demonstrate how BÖC came to wear the mantle of "thinking man's metal band" with their tongues in cheek, but without condescension. The bizarre lyrics on these albums, mostly penned by cofounders--and, later, rock critics--Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer (who gave them their umlaut!), detail a claustrophobic cosmos of bloodthirsty Mounties, German bomber pilots, and other opaque arcana (which is easier to decipher with the help of the encyclopedia in issue six of British music/art mag the Sound Projector). And the music draws on the catchy sounds of the Fifties and Sixties in its effort to keep up with the hard-rock galoots lumbering out of Britain at the time.

Still, BÖC's self-titled debut from 1972 shows that such musical "heaviness" never smothered the band's early influences: folk-rock harmonies, traces of Little Richard, and epic psychedelic-guitar freakouts--vestiges from BÖC's earlier, San Francisco-psych-obsessed incarnation the Stalk-Forrest Group (whose lovely, pastoral St. Cecilia had been shelved for 30 years before its recent release on Rhino Handmade). Yet the gargantuan riff on "Cities on Flame With Rock 'n' Roll" hints at the strong influence of iron-guitar contemporaries Black Sabbath.

Indeed, BÖC's 1973 release Tyranny and Mutation is fast and mean even by Sabbath standards. "I'm a Lamb but I Ain't No Sheep," a cornerstone of their self-titled platter, gets retitled "The Red and the Black" and speeds to proto-thrash tempo, its formerly languid interjections of "It's all right" building into a truly ferocious call-and-response. "OD'd on Life Itself" is more jaded than Aerosmith, its freewheeling hippie harmonies highlighting the band's general anomie. And even with its Beach Boys harmonies and surf guitar, "Hot Rails to Hell" is still a train ride to the sulfur pits.

Yet it's 1974's Secret Treaties that, contrary to popular record-guide commentary, remains a pivotal, cohesive moment in the BÖC catalog, as well as an unusual entry in the metal canon. The perfectly balanced guitars and keyboards seem vacuum-molded to the rest of the music, and the songs flow into each other like one long, beautifully written symphony. The album opens with a song by onetime FOBOC Patti Smith: the calculating "Career of Evil," whose oily keyboard line and sinuous guitars augment singer Eric Bloom's cool, sinister threats to "rob you of your sleep" and "do it to your daughter on a dirt road." (The Reaper is nothing compared to this creature.) And "Subhuman," a jazzy epic that features long, liquid guitar solos by Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, foreshadows some of Tom Verlaine's more languid and colorful moments on Television's Adventure.

Alas, only 1976's Agents of Fortune attempts to steer BÖC's hard sound toward the pop charts. "This Ain't the Summer of Love" looks back at flower power with a snarl. "True Confessions," with its frothy, soulful feel, reminds the listener that BÖC's roots lie in classic rock 'n' roll. And, of course, the Buck Dharma-penned "Reaper" practically sleepwalks its way through dreamy harmonies and doomed, gothic-romantic lyrics, which, their author swears, are not about suicide. (Even so, don't dedicate it to me.)

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