More Cowbell: Looking Back at Blue Öyster Cult’s 'Career of Evil'
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.
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.