AAmerican hard rock/heavy metal is and has always been a rather sad beast. The best we could really ever muster was Aerosmith, whose recycled Yardbirds clichés and posturing of Steven Tyler passed for quality. Mötley Crüe anyone? Kiss? We here in the States have been fed a rather thin gruel when it comes to guitar-based headbanging music. Certainly nothing to equal what came out of the UK on a regular basis, from Zeppelin to Thin Lizzy to Mott the Hoople for god’s sake. Hell, the first few Queen records rock harder than the combined output of Skid Row and Van Halen, even with the presence of Freddie Mercury!
However, for every rule there is an exception, a yin for each musical yang. For that we counter with the former Soft White Underbelly, better known as Blue Öyster Cult. Going on 30 years now, Eric Bloom, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, Patti Smith’s buddy Allen Lanier with Joe and Albert Bouchard have been cranking out the American version (or inspiration?) of England’s Spinal Tap. Excessive almost beyond the limits of the term, pretentious, chock-full of comic sci-fi imagery (hell, they made an album with fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, if you wanna go back that far), BOC was, for about four albums, the best example of in your face rock and roll that we had.
From the self-titled debut in 1972 to 1976’s Agents of Fortune, which featured Smith on “The Revenge of Vera Gemini”, to the landmark, genre-defining masterpiece “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (noted as a major inspiration for Stephen King’s The Stand among other things), the band created four solid works of rock that, while incredibly dated today, still contain moments of that certain something that you can’t find anywhere else. Mike Watt couldn’t—he covered “The Red & the Black” from 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation with both the Minutemen (Post-Mersh, Vol.3) and on the now sadly out-of-print Firehose record, Live Totem Pole. At around three minutes or so, it was (other than “Reaper”) as good as anything that Blue Öyster Cult would ever create. As the leadoff cut on the record, it hits you like a gut punch thrown before the bell in a Zaire prizefight. After leaving you gasping for breath, next up is “O.D.‘d on Life Itself”, which starts with a letter-perfect cop of the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” before it becomes your grade-A generic boogiefest. From there it’s rather downhill. Just look at the song titles: “Hot Rails to Hell”, “7 Screaming Diz Busters” or “Baby Ice Dog”. It gets worse, trust me. The reissue includes four bonus cuts, including a fiery live version of “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”. Songs that quote their genre are rarely good; think Lou Reed’s horrid live version of “Rock & Roll” for a quick example. But “Cities”, with its massive three-guitar-overkill intro and opening lines of “My heart is black / And my lips are cold / Cities on flame with rock and roll”, is so incredibly “too much” that it succeeds purely on its own excesses, the roads of which, as William Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in 1790, lead to the palace of wisdom.
It’s hard to say if Blue Öyster Cult got any wiser—a quick listen to such later hits such as “Godzilla” or “Burnin’ for You” would lead one to believe not—but, with one album in 1976, the mega-hit Agents of Fortune, they did indeed create a classic. By focusing more on hooky songwriting—such as the opening “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” or “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)”, a song which somehow relates the origins of the band’s sound to an alien encounter (I think?)—while maintaining a healthy interest in the darker aspects of pop culture, such as “Tattoo Vampire” or “Tenderloin”, their sound broadened while staying mostly true to the crunch that had gotten them this far. The record sold millions, and rightfully so. They sound slicker than a greased goose and, while even the band realized “that we didn’t think of ourselves as a pop band at all” and they stumbled on numbers such as the near-Springsteen “True Confessions”, when they hit on all cylinders, they could flatten you.
Nowhere is this more apparent, in their entire career, than on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. This is as grand and emotional as American rock and roll ever got—forget the Doors, or any other sixties and seventies “legends”. “Reaper” entrances and engulfs, and the imagery gave birth (as noted before) to countless later bands as well as The Stand. The song is chilling, rabid and scary. “The curtains blew and then he appeared” is as frightful as anything Nick Cave or Iggy ever sang, and when the patented “Cult” wall of guitars kicks in after the break, all hell breaks loose. Hell that has not been seen since. They were never better. Included on the reissue is a demo of the song produced by guitarist Buck Dharma Roeser, and it’s interesting to see the song grow. An early version of “Fire of Unknown Origin” is here as well, along with a few unreleased tracks recorded during the Agents sessions.
Sadly enough Blue Öyster Cult today is a carnival act, with only three original members playing trapped-in-wax versions of their big hits at county fairs, music festivals and bike rallies, with the obligatory stops at the random House of Blues location. To their diehard fans, who maintain a rather healthy online presence (and who will most likely tear this review to shreds), the band has never died, never wavered. Even after the endless bad albums, receding hairlines and repackaging of “greatest hits”, they hang tough with their boys, believing that someway, somehow the beast from New York will rise again and take its rightful place at the top of rock’s pantheon. And that, really, is what defines a fan. May the lord protect them and keep them safe. And the Blue Öyster Cult too.