1979 through to the live albums and bonus albums...
The 1979 album Mirrors, which punted Pearlman, Krugman and Lucas from production duties in exchange for Tom Werman, who had worked with Ted Nugent and Cheap Trick, showed an increasing reliance on acoustic guitars (“The Great Sun Jester”, “In Thee”) and pseudo-disco songs (“Lonely Teardrops”), and features the inclusion of background female vocalists on certain tracks – presumably in a bid to bolster the band’s appeal among women. It doesn’t really work, at least in the context of the band; some of it sounds a little too close to a poppy Boston-style sound than remaining true to the heavier aspect of the group. So it’s more of a pop record than a metal one, which might turn you off if you long for the BÖC of yore.
The disappointment chart success for the band (the album failed to get Gold certification) led to a change of producers (Martin Birch) for their next outing, 1980’s Cultösaurus Erectus, which appears to cheekily reference the band’s dinosaur status amongst punk rockers by featuring ancient creatures on the cover art. But it was a much more harder-edged revisiting of the band’s original sound (sort of, just with more of an ‘80s polish), and “Black Blade”, which Moorcock had a hand in writing, is particularly enduring in a fun way. “Monsters” features a rather jazzy Steely Dan-esque saxophone break that is actually interesting and shows the band stretching out. “The Marshall Plan” is even noteworthy for sounding a little like a mid-tempo version of the types of songs that the band would have included on their first three albums. Cultösaurus Erectus isn’t particularly revelatory, but as an attempt to win back over its core fanbase, it largely works as an agreeable stab at generic hard rock. As an indication as to what kind of draw the group had live at the time, the Cult would perform with Black Sabbath behind this record on the “Black and Blue” tour, which is apt considering that BÖC were originally conceived as the American version of the venerable British band.
If Cultösaurus Erectus was a slight return to form, then 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin pushed things even further. This is clearly the group’s best record since their halcyon mid-‘70s days, and produced yet another Roeser written (this time with the help of Meltzer) song that made it in the Top 40 with “Burnin’ for You”. The album is remarkable in that much of the material was made up of songs that were to make it onto the soundtrack of the animated cult film Heavy Metal (case in point: please see “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver”) but, save for “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, were rejected for some reason or another – and yet the record is successful as a thematic whole; after all, “Burnin’ for You” is delightfully nestled after the title track. (This would be the band’s first, but not final, taste of being passed over by Hollywood. This box set’s rarities disc includes three songs that were to be included in the 1984 Nick Nolte film Teachers, but were rejected for the likes of .38 Special and Ian Hunter, who actually – here’s irony for you – co-wrote “Goin’ Though the Motions” with Bloom back in ‘77.) The record isn’t all just fantasy and science-fiction twaddle, though: “Joan Crawford” is a hysterical skewering of the famous movie actress, whose abusiveness and control freaky-nature would be chronicled in the film Mommie Dearest that same year. With its solo featuring all sorts of sound effects, and lines like “Policemen are hiding behind the skirts of little girls / Their eyes have turned the color of frozen meat” and the chorus “Joan Crawford has risen from the grave”, it’s just a great slice of off-kilter rock.
For awhile, things got dodgy for the band. After drummer Albert Bouchard was ejected for supposedly erratic behaviour in ’81 (though he would briefly rejoin as a last-minute substitution during a 1985 tour), Lanier would wind up leaving the group in the mid-‘80s, and bassist Joe Bouchard would take his leave not long after; the band basically became one big revolving door. It should be of no surprise that the group’s records during this era – 1983’s The Revolution By Night and 1985’s Club Ninja – would pretty much render them irrelevant. Of note, future American Idol judge Randy Jackson would play bass on “Shooting Shark” from the former, which might be the only real thing it has going for it aside from some nice guitar shredding on “Take Me Away”. However, the band is sounding just like about any other stadium rock band of the period by now, and a lot of the magic had disappeared. (A claim I make that I feel is bolstered by the point that “Let’s Go” features the rather clichéd and inane chant: “BÖC / You can be whatever you want to be / You’ve got the power / We’ve got the key / Yeah, BÖC.”)
And the less that is said about the awful pap that is Club Ninja, the better – it almost makes The Revolution By Night seem as profound as OK Computer thanks to its dated, slick, big ‘80s rock sound and even more trite lyrics (there’s even a song here titled, gah, “Make Rock Not War” and “Beat ‘Em Up” is still a crappy piece of cod rock by any hard rock band’s standards). Even the presence of Pearlman back for production duties can’t really salvage it. However, the group would rebound from the grave with newfound vigor once more with 1988’s concept album Imaginos. The record is among the heaviest things in the band’s catalogue, and Rush’s Clockwork Angels from 2012 certainly, to these ears, sounds a lot like it. (Geddy Lee has reportedly said that the album sounds very ‘80s-like, and I’d like to think they were floating around a copy of Imaginos to construct Clockwork Angels’s core sound.) The history of the record was tumultuous at best, and is quite well summarized by a Wikipedia article that is actually very in depth. But the album failed to sell, thanks to some lousy promotion, and that’s it, that’s all, for Blue Öyster Cult as a Columbia Records (by now owned by Sony) recording artist.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. Blue Öyster Cult would go on to release a couple more albums independently, do a bit of soundtrack work (Bad Channels), and still tours – albeit usually with just Bloom and Roeser as the sole remaining original members. Speaking of tours, you might have thought I forgot about the band’s live output, which was pretty prolific in album form as they released three of them throughout the course of their career (of evil) on Columbia: 1975’s On Your Feet or on Your Knees, 1978’s Some Enchanted Evening, and 1982’s Extraterrestrial Live. Of these three, I appreciate On Your Feet or on Your Knees the most, as it captures the band’s rawness best and is comprised of songs from generally their most beloved early records – there’s some real meat and muscle on these songs, especially on such lengthy work outs as “7 Screaming Diz-Busters” and “ME 262”. Some Enchanted Evening seems to be more of a cash-in to capitalize on the success of “Godzilla” and “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”, if not the fact that live albums had become popular in the wake of Peter Frampton’s massive selling Frampton Comes Alive! And it feels more of a stop-gap measure to give the group a bit of a breather between Spectres and Mirrors. The live album also feels a bit padded out, even at originally a single disc (though this box set features an extended version of bonus material), with the inclusion of two covers in its seven tracks: the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” and the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”.
Similarly, the only reason that Extraterrestrial Live seems to exist is to, again, exploit the success the band had with a hit single in the form of “Burnin’ for You”, and the group certainly sounds a bit sluggish and tired here at times with the rough edges that made them so appealing sanded away – replacement drummer Rick Downey, who appears on most of the tracks, is no match for Albert Bouchard (particular on this version of “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”). The live disc over-relies a little too much on the theatrical side with Bloom providing a bit of an unnecessary extended spoken word intro to “Godzilla”, if not for the fact that the song includes an overbearing drum solo. And, yes, the set largely just regurgitates material from the previous two live records. It’s clear that the band was acting like over-the-top superstars by this point, though maybe the pose came off a bit better if you actually saw the band live in the flesh and in person during this period.
And then there’s the original-to-this-set Radios Appear: The Best of the Broadcasts, which will be of interest to collectors for it features live versions of songs from radio shows that didn’t appear on a proper album, such as “Wings of Mercury” (written by Karl Precoda of the Dream Syndicate, another band that Pearlman would produce) and “Arthur Comics”. Not to mention the fact that there’s a nearly 11-minute workout of “7 Screaming Diz-Busters” that the audience really gets behind. The sound quality is seemingly very bass heavy, which probably is a result of the FM-radio quality of these songs, but this disc is well recorded and, despite the inclusion of material from the band’s mid-‘80s ebb, it may be of appeal to fans who want yet another live document. However, the live DVD Some OTHER Enchanted Evening, recorded at a Landover, Maryland, concert in 1978, is lackluster: there’s a disclaimer at the start of the film that it was never intended for commercial release, and the sound is indeed muddy with the band very poorly lit. It’s bootleg quality, just shot with multiple cameras. The bonus live digital downloads that come with the album cover the period between 1980 and 1986 (did we really need a set from the Club Ninja era?), and is pretty much binge and purge for fans: these shows largely cover material that can be found on the other live albums released through the band’s run, so they should be of interest solely to the band’s die-hard fan base who must have absolutely everything.
As for the albums themselves, the remasters certainly sound really, really good – much better than on the used copy of a delusory greatest hits album I once had on CD called Career of Evil: The Metal Years, which alternated between being very hissy and flat depending on the era being covered. And getting this box might be worth it if you’re looking for a treasure trove of unreleased tracks. While they’ve been reissued before, the bonus cuts that grace Blue Öyster Cult, the album, are revelatory: culled from songs laid down in the late ‘60s when the band was then named Soft White Underbelly, this set reveals that the band actually had much more of a sense of low-brow humour at the start of their career of, well, you know (“A Fact About Sneakers” comes to mind). And the bonus material for Spectres reveals that that album could have gone (for the better) in a completely different, more bluesy rock direction. But while The Columbia Albums Collection is both filled with gems and true filler on the proper albums, and shows a band trying to come to grips with its popularity, it is worth owning (more so if you didn’t bother to pick up the first batch of CDs when they were originally issued) simply for the group of unreleased material. And the hefty price tag might be worth it if you really want to own pretty much the whole lot of what the band did. I can’t imagine there being much more in the vaults than what’s included here, which shows how exhaustive this set is.
And though Blue Öyster Cult was best in the early to mid-‘70s when they truly sounded evil and revolutionary, there’s a smattering of tracks from the later years that are worth having. I consider Blue Öyster Cult to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, I’ve collected many of the band’s records on vinyl and truly enjoy their take on the darker themes of human nature when I’m in a particularly rockist mood. Despite the fact that the group certainly put out their share of albums and songs of dubious quality, there’s one thing that the box set proves: at their peak, BÖC were a power to be truly reckoned with. Still, maybe Christopher Walken had it right when he was poking fun at the band: what this box set illustrates and what the world could use, from time to time, is a just little touch more cowbell in the form of “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” in one’s steady diet of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s truly a great song among many great songs the band produced, and, please don’t laugh, because, ultimately, that really isn’t meant to be humourous in the slightest. Blue Öyster Cult could be, and still remains, a pretty good classic hard rock band. And that’s no joke. Really.
- Multiple songs MySpace