Blue Öyster Cult - Biography
By Oliver Hall
If Aerosmith is the archetypal American hard rock band, Blue Öyster Cult is the true gnostic American hard rock band. Promoted for a time as “the American Black Sabbath,” BÖC is a tight, heavy combo with an ironic, Lovecraftian cosmic point of view. Though BÖC’s 1976 single “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is among the most famous rock songs of all time, most of the band’s material remains relatively unknown except to the legions of underdog rockers the band has inspired.
Crawdaddy! writers Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer assembled a band called Soft White Underbelly in upstate New York in 1967. Meltzer was the band’s first singer but was replaced early on by Les Braunstein. Underbelly included Donald Roeser (a.k.a. Buck Dharma), a guitarist with uncommon fluidity and attack, as well as keyboardist Allen Lanier and drummer Albert Bouchard. Soft White Underbelly recorded an album for Elektra in 1968, but it has never been released. When Braunstein left the group in 1969, singer and guitarist Eric Bloom replaced him. Soft White Underbelly very briefly backed singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, but soon renamed and regrouped. In 1970, first calling themselves Oaxaca and then the Stalk-Forrest Group, the band recorded two more albums for Elektra that the label declined to release. Most of these recordings remained unreleased until 2003, when Rhino Handmade issued the Stalk-Forrest Group’s St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings (2003 Rhino Handmade) in a limited edition of 5,000.
Once Albert’s brother Joseph Bouchard replaced original bassist Andrew Winters, the lineup that made Blue Öyster Cult’s classic records had been formed. Blue Öyster Cult took its name from Imaginos, a mythic narrative cycle of poems by Pearlman that would inspire a later concept album. The band signed with Columbia in 1971 and released its first album, Blue Öyster Cult (1972 Columbia), the following January. The album is a skillful synthesis of the hard rock of biker bars and hazy narcotic folk-rock psychedelia. Cover artist Bill Gawlik incorporated the hook of Kronos into the mind-bending cover illustration, and that symbol has remained the band’s logo ever since. Pearlman’s lyrics on “Transmaniacon MC,” “Before the Kiss, a Redcap,” and “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” amplify the social rituals and revolutionary fantasies of hard rock fans, stopping just short of satire. Meltzer contributes lyrics to two songs. BÖC toured with Alice Cooper to promote the album, whose “Cities on Flame” became an early FM radio (that is to say, “underground”) hit.
Tyranny and Mutation (1973 Columbia), BÖC’s second album, is a masterpiece of early heavy metal. The album’s cover art features more alien planet landscapes and occult ruins drawn by Gawlik. Side one of the vinyl, “The Black,” sports a red label with black type, and side two, “The Red,” has a black label with red type. The album opens with “The Red and the Black,” a thunderous streamlining of “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” from the first album. The new version features a stronger beat and bassline, heavy fluid solos from Dharma, and an angrier reading of Pearlman’s strange lyric about running from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on dogsled. The Joycean word-music and indeterminacy of a line such as “Hornswoop me bungo pony on dogsled on ice” is a rare prize in rock and roll. Joe Bouchard’s terrific metal anthem “Hot Rails to Hell” was released as a single, but it was not the hit it should have been. The first lyrics of Patti Smith’s to appear on record are probably those she wrote for the song “Baby Ice Dog.” Smith dated keyboardist Lanier for a time.
BÖC spent all of 1973 and 1974 on the road in the United States. Much of 1974 was spent touring with KISS and recording their third album, Secret Treaties (1974 Columbia). “Career of Evil,” the first song on the album, also features lyrics by Patti Smith. As on the first two albums, the cover illustration of Secret Treaties is principally in black and white (fans sometimes refer to BÖC’s first three albums as “the black and white ones”), though a representational sketch of the band with an airplane has replaced Gawlik’s geometric vistas. On Your Feet or on Your Knees (1975 Columbia), released in 1975, was a double album of live recordings and the band’s first record with a full-color sleeve. 1976’s Agents of Fortune (1976 Columbia) included BÖC’s most famous song, the irresistibly lovely “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The song secured its place on US rock radio with its sweet vocals by Dharma, chiming arpeggios, and guitar and organ drones. One of the most memorable Saturday Night Live sketches in recent years imagined a plausible explanation for the prominence of Bloom’s cowbell in the song’s mix, with Christopher Walken as Pearlman in the studio insisting on “more cowbell” as the band records. Patti Smith contributes lyrics to two songs on Agents and sings one of them, “The Revenge of Vera Gemini.”
1976’s Spectres (1977 Columbia) unleashed the monster riff “Godzilla,” another US rock radio staple. The following year’s platinum-selling live album Some Enchanted Evening (1978 – Columbia) included BÖC versions of the MC5’s “Kick out the Jams” and The Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place.” Evening was the last Blue Öyster Cult album produced by Pearlman and Murray Krugman, the team that had always produced the band. Pearlman produced The Clash’s second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978 CBS), and subsequently managed Black Sabbath during their years with Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillian. British science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock contributes lyrics to “The Great Sun Jester” on 1979’s Mirrors (1979 Columbia) and “Black Blade” on 1980’s Cultösaurus Erectus (1980 Columbia).
Pearlman arranged a double-headliner “Black and Blue” tour in 1980 that put Black Sabbath and BÖC on the same bill. The creepy illustration on the cover of Fire of Unknown Origin (1981 Columbia), released the following year, depicts the Blue Öyster Cult as imagined in Pearlman’s writings. They lyrics for “Fire of Unknown Origin” are again penned Patti Smith and the words to the immortal pop-rock hit “Burnin’ for You” are by Meltzer, who had been fronting the nihilistic punk band Vom not long before. Moorcock contributes to “Veteran of the Psychic Wars.”
The band fired Albert Bouchard in the middle of a tour in 1981 and replaced him with Rick Downey. Doors guitarist Robby Krieger joins the band for a cover of “Roadhouse Blues” on 1982’s Extraterrestrial Live (1982 Columbia), which features Downey drumming on some songs and Albert Bouchard on others. The Revölution by Night (1983 Columbia), released the following year, includes the Patti Smith penned “Shooting Shark.” Downey quit the band after the release of Revölution. Albert Bouchard returned to drum for BÖC for a single 1985 tour, after which both he and Lanier left the band. BÖC recorded Club Ninja (1986 Columbia) with hired guns Tommy Zvoncheck on keyboard and Jimmy Wilcox on drums. Joseph Bouchard left the band after the supporting tour in 1986.
Albert Bouchard had been writing music for Pearlman’s Imaginos poems since the band’s inception and he recorded his version of the album shortly after he was fired from BÖC. “I had already recorded and mixed most of the Imaginos album, as a solo project, when I ran out of money to finish it,” Bouchard says in an interview on the Imaginos fan site. “I had been trying out some different singers on it because the record company didn't like my vocals.” Presumably at the request of Columbia, the members of the current lineup of BÖC overdubbed parts and vocals on Bouchard’s recordings and issued the result as a Blue Öyster Cult album, Imaginos (1988 Columbia), in 1988.
The band continued to tour through the 1990s but issued few new recordings. On Cult Classic (1994 Fragile), released in 1994, BÖC revisited old favorites, “rerecorded note for note using state-of-the-art digital technology,” according to Rolling Stone’s unfavorable review. 1998’s Heaven Forbid (1998 Sanctuary) was the band’s first album of new material in ten years. The Curse of the Hidden Mirror (2001 Sanctuary) followed in 2001. A summer gig the following year in Chicago was recorded for the CD and DVD A Long Day’s Night (2002 Sanctuary).
Blue Öyster Cult’s most important heirs and disciples in American rock to date are San Pedro, California’s Minutemen, the 80’s jazz funk greats who made up and lived by their own heretical definition of hardcore punk. Minutemen bassist Mike Watt is quoted about his creative debts to BÖC in the liner notes to the double CD retrospective Workshop of the Telescopes (1995 Legacy/Columbia), which includes three of the four tracks on the rare promotional EP Live Bootleg (1972 Columbia). The fourth track, a live “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” is included as a bonus track on the Legacy reissue of Tyranny and Mutation (2001 Legacy).
For reasons best known to the board of that peculiar institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has not yet inducted Blue Öyster Cult. All five original members survive, as does Pearlman (one of the founders of e-music.com), though a reunion of the original band seems unlikely due to mutual feelings of hostility. The band continues to tour with original members Bloom and Dharma. Lanier left in 2007 and BÖC’s current keyboardist is Richie Castellano, who had previously been their soundman and then their bassist. Castellano also plays guitar in BÖC. The rhythm section consists of drummer Jules Radino and bassist Rudy Sarzo.