[15 February 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you’re south of the age of 40, chances are that you probably think of Blue Öyster Cult as a joke band, or as a punchline to a joke. The reason for this is that most people are painfully aware of the classic and by now infamous 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell, which fictionalized the recording of the band’s biggest hit, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”. You know this as the “More Cowbell” bit, in which Walken plays a fictional record producer, modeled after long-time producer and band manager Sandy Pearlman, who tries to coax Ferrell’s character to play his cowbell louder on the song. The ensuing popularity of this skit is such that, when I worked at a digital design agency in Toronto, Canada, in 2008, I knew a guy who actually had a “More Cowbell” app on his new iPhone. (The app would play a cowbell sound if you shook the phone, punctuated occasionally with Walken’s lines from the piece.)
But there’s more to the band’s joke status than just an SNL parody. When I told a colleague at my current workplace, who is a year or so younger than me (I’m 37), that I got the new, monster Blue Öyster Cult boxed set called The Columbia Albums Collection to encapsulate for this Web publication, he immediately started humming the “El Bimbo” theme from the Police Academy movies. The reason? The name of the stereotypical gay biker bar depicted in those films when that music plays is called the Blue Oyster. I don’t know if the makers of Police Academy were making a comment on the Blue Öyster band with their naming of the bar (and I could find nothing while doing a cursory search of Google to make any sort of connection), but all I know is that I had to start singing a few lines from “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” back at my colleague before he understood. “Oh. That Blue Öyster,” he said. Telling, there’s a line in the Blue Öyster Cult song “Flaming Telepaths” that goes “And the joke’s on you.” I guess you could say that the joke ultimately wound up being on the band, at their expense, in the world of popular culture.
So, sure, young people really don’t get or know the real Blue Öyster Cult it seems. Which is a bit of a shame, as the band delivered a number of solid, consistent albums that rank up there in the metal and hard rock/classic rock pantheon. And, yes, as this new boxed set proves – as it contains all 14 studio and live albums recorded during the ‘70s and ‘80s for Columbia Records, plus a rarities disc, a radio broadcast disc, a concert DVD and a coupon that allows you to download even more live material – the band certainly had some dross in their catalogue, especially when they tried to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”. Still, to those of a certain age who remember the band when they were in their prime, this is a welcome set for a group that actually straddled different audiences back in the day. But you only know that if you’re probably more than 40 years old.
First of all, the band is known as the de facto, go-to American biker band – covering such hog anthems such as “Born to be Wild” will only help you to bolster your claim to that fan base. In fact, when HBO series Six Feet Under used “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” to soundtrack an episode (and what a perfect song choice for a show that dealt with death, wakes and morticians), it actually featured character Nate riding off on a motorcycle while the song played. But the band was also known as a sort of “thinking man’s band”, too, and was certainly popular with college kids of the time (yesterday’s hipsters). The main draw for this not only has to do with the group’s fascination with the macabre and occult, but because Blue Öyster Cult was a band that actually turned to authors and poets to help write the lyrics to their songs. BÖC wound up collaborating with noted pensmiths such as rock critic Richard Meltzer; British fantasy author Michael Moorcock; and even Stephen King would wind up reading a spoken word introduction that was to be used on the Imaginos album, but was discarded from the finished product. (That intro is included with this boxed set.) It should be noted that King, in particular, was a huge Blue Öyster Cult fan and has claimed that his apocalyptic novel The Stand was influenced by their songs – and certainly his novel with Peter Straub, The Talisman, features the odd BÖC reference or two. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that noted punk poet Patti Smith was also helping out with lyrics well before she became a musical performer in her own right. (Smith actually dated the band’s keyboardist, Allen Lanier, for a period, and was even considered for the lead vocalist role in the group at one point.) So there’s all sort of literary aspirations that the band clearly had, which generally puts them a cut or two above their peers of the time.
But for all of their aspiration, the band was also very carefully managed and, dare I say, manufactured. Behind the scenes, co-producer Pearlman would nudge the band in a certain direction: reports conflict, but he is said to have gave the band their name and added the umlaut on the capital O because it made the group look more metal and “Wagnerian”. Much of his poetry and concepts would be used throughout the group’s “Career of Evil” (to borrow from one of their song titles). In fact, the band’s swansong for Columbia, 1988’s Imaginos, actually used lyrics and themes dreamt up by Pearlman that were well more than 20 years old by that time. And, certainly, as the band became more and more successful and famous, particularly after “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” went to No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart in 1976, you get the sense that the record label began to ratchet up the pressure for the band to repeat that success, to varying degrees of achievement itself. Notwithstanding this, you could argue that the band members had a bit of a degree of autonomy: everyone in the original group contributed songs to their entire discography in some way. So Blue Öyster Cult did function as a democracy to an extent.
This means that The Columbia Albums Collection, which is being released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut self-titled 1972 album, is an educational and instructive look at one group’s peaks and valleys throughout the bulk of their recording career. However, longtime Blue Öyster Cult fans may be somewhat put off by it – not only for its sheer length (really, you’ll have to call in sick to work for a month if you really want to dig into this set), but for the fact that some of this material has already been commercially available for some time. All of the band’s studio albums from 1972’s Blue Öyster Cult to the 1977’s Spectres (in addition to the band’s 1978 live album, Some Enchanted Evening) have been reissued and remastered with bonus tracks in the past individually, and those discs are included here. Thus, in obtaining The Columbia Albums Collection to get a cleaned-up and pristine sounding 2012 version of the band’s nadir, 1985’s Club Ninja (because if you’re a completist, you’ll probably really, really want it – but why?), you’ll probably have to sift through albums that you may have already purchased individually on compact disc. That does dilute the importance of the box set for fans who already own the material. And, to be straight with you, if you’re a new fan, you probably shouldn’t be looking here to get your fix – though it’s certainly a convenient way to get all of the major label albums produced by the group. You should zoom in to the band’s first three studio albums first, then wade into 1976’s Agents of Fortune, 1977’s Spectres (if only to get their hit “Godzilla”) and, especially, 1981’s return to form Fire of Unknown Origin. If you like what you hear there, and can appreciate the band nudging into glossier territory as time wore on, then you might be tempted to check out other albums in the canon. If you dare. (“Mwahhh ha ha, ha ha!,” said in my best Vincent Price voice.)
The spotlight should really shine with this set on their three best albums, which come first in the band’s discography: 1972’s Blue Öyster Cult, 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and, the band’s high point, 1974’s Secret Treaties. Helmed by producers Pearlman and Murray Krugman, and buoyed by the awesome axe work of “stun guitarist” Eric Bloom and especially Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, these three albums form something of a heavy blues triptych with dark themes about sadomasochism and drug abuse. Blue Öyster Cult features one of the best ballads in the band’s catalogue: the bluesy “Then Came the Last Days of May”, a song penned by Roeser, who would go on to prove his mettle by becoming the band’s primary hit-maker in the coming years. “Before the Kiss, A Redcap” is an agreeable piece of scatty biker boogie, and the odd “She’s As Beautiful as a Foot” sees the band at their most overtly psychedelic; you can turn the lava lamp on for this song and burn some incense.
But as good as the debut was, Tyranny and Mutation was even better, even though “The Red & The Black” borrows lyrics and melody from the previous “I’m on the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep”, so yes the group wasn’t certainly above recycling their material – did they think anyone would notice? However, “The Red & the Black” endured as a live favourite, and even got covered from a seemingly rather unlikely source: ‘80s alternative rock pioneers the Minutemen would go on to perform a version of the tune. (And even Mike Watt’s band that followed the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, would record a version of the song, too.) The album is full of memorable cuts, such as “Hot Rails to Hell” and “7 Screaming Diz-Busters” – pretty much all of Side One is a classic. But wait! Things got even better from there with Secret Treaties. It’s much more of a performance piece, with the songs on both sides bleeding into each other, and features one of the band’s most sublime moments in “Subhuman”. “Flaming Telepaths” has one of most harrowing lines about drug addiction in any rock song: “Well, I’ve opened up my veins too many times / And the poison’s in my heart and in my mind / Poison’s in my bloodstream / Poison’s in my pride.” It’s the one true Blue Öyster Cult album that is nearly flawless, and can be taken as a piece of art as a whole. At this point, the band was firing on all cylinders.
However, the band must have been craving for greater commercial success as Agents of Fortune from 1976 would, of course, create a sea change in the band’s fortunes thanks to the Roeser-penned song “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”. It’s a tune that you cannot tire of, how many times you hear it. With psychedelic and jangly guitars notoriously lifted from the early Byrds’ backcatalogue, this mediation on life and the afterlife is clearly one of the band’s more thoughtful songs, and certainly is arguably their catchiest. And, yes, it features cowbell to startling effect. But just focusing on that one track would belie the fact that the album clearly had other gems as well, despite the fact that having the additional presence of another producer in the chair in the form of David Lucas (who had worked as an associate producer and engineer on the band’s debut) took away some of the band’s earlier harder-edged bite. “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” is another of the band’s greatest moments, with its memorable refrain and presaging the public fascination of aliens by at least a year (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). And, of course, 1976 was the celebratory bicentennial year in America. How did the band choose to celebrate it? By releasing the sarcastic kiss-off of “This Ain’t the Summer of Love”. However, the wheels on the bus were slowly starting to fall off. Side Two boats some of the least memorable songs in the band’s career, and the inclusion of “True Confessions” was a bit of a head-scratcher – the song sounds like it belongs on a Jackson Browne record. Still, Agents of Fortune was the band’s first platinum record, and would go on to figure on many critics’ year end lists (if not greatest metal albums of all time lists).
By comparison, 1977’s Spectres tries (too hard) to up the ante and produce another round of hit singles. However, the inclusion of subpar rockers such as “R. U. Ready 2 Rock” (which Prince must have looked to inspiration for when he started naming his songs that way), the aptly-titled “Goin’ Through the Motions” (later covered by Bonnie Tyler) and a few feh ballads (“I Love the Night” being one) makes this a bit of a letdown after Agents of Fortune. While the album showcases the band’s infatuation with movie monsters (“Godzilla” and “Nosferatu” bookend the record), only “Godzilla” has any real bite and is, in my opinion, the only really memorable thing to be found on the LP. (I would have killed to be a fly on the wall in the room once the band realized that Roeser had delivered its second hit at the expense of the other band members.) However, things quickly took an even bigger dive from there.
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.