Disclaimer: This is my first artist spotlight (it’s also the first thread I’ve ever posted). I don’t often read the other artist spotlights, because my musical tastes (mostly 70s guitar rock – shocking, I know) don’t align well with the average AV Clubber/Avocadoan, so I don’t really know if this is what folks are looking for in an artist spotlight. If it is, great. If not, downvote me or upvote me with prejudice or something. Just please don’t hit me, regardless of how much I deserve it.
What would eventually become Blue Öyster Cult began as Soft White Underbelly in 1967 at Stony Brook College in Long Island, NY. Under the tutelage of rock critic, manager and lyricist Sandy Pearlman, the band first recorded an album’s worth of material for Elektra, which was shelved after the departure of original lead singer Les Braunstein. Rumor has it that rock critic and longtime BÖC lyricist Richard Meltzer wrote the lyrics to She’s As Beautiful As A Foot, which later appeared on BÖC’s debut album, because he hated Braunstein and wanted him to look stupid.
After more touring and more unreleased recordings with Elektra, the band finally solidified the lineup of Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, Eric Bloom, Allen Lanier and Joe & Albert Bouchard and settled on Pearlman’s suggestion of Blue Öyster Cult for the band’s name in 1971. BÖC was the first rock band to use an umlaut in their name.
In 1972, the band released their eponymous debut on Columbia Records. It contains the stone classic Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll (whose riff was inspired by Black Sabbath’s The Wizard) as well as the aforementioned She’s As Beautiful As A Foot, true tale of a drug deal gone awry Then Came The Last Days Of May and the brilliant Before The Kiss, A Redcap.
The album cover, drawn by artist Bill Gawlick, featured the now-iconic hook and cross logo, which would be featured on every BÖC album cover.
1973’s follow up to their debut, Tyranny and Mutation, was mostly recorded on the road during the first of many exhaustive tours. Deliberately heavier than the first album, Tyranny and Mutation features Baby Ice Dog, with lyrics by Patti Smith in the first of many collaborations. It’s also got personal favorite and best vampire song of all time in Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl).
1974 saw the release of the critically acclaimed and fan favorite Secret Treaties” The opening track, Career of Evil, features more lyrics by Patti Smith. The albums also contains the most songs of any BÖC album to still be played in concert regularly, with Dominance and Submission, ME 262, Harvester of Eyes and Astronomy all still staples of BÖC’s live shows. The lyrics to Astronomy come from a Sandy Pearlman poem called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, which would later inspire the band’s 1988 album Imaginos (including a re-recorded and markedly different version of “Astronomy”)
A relentless touring schedule helped lead to the first of 4 live albums (the best one and the one with the best title of any live album ever) On Your Feet Or On Your Knees The album reached number 22 on the Billboard charts, which would be their highest charting album. That fact on their Wikipedia page seems practically impossible given that the band was nowhere near the peak of fame that would come once the “big 3” came out, but sure enough, it’s true.
Around this time, each of the band members acquired a TEAC 4 track tape recorder. This led to a different songwriting style, which would become apparent on 1976’s Agents of Fortune. This album was a game-changer for the band, with the hit single and classic rock staple (Don’t Fear) The Reaper catapulting the band from eclectic opening act (for everyone from The Faces to Aerosmith to The Mahavishnu Orchestra) to headlining stadiums. Agents of Fortune also contains the wonderful, Patti Smith penned Revenge of Vera Gemini and Greatest Song Of All Time E.T.I. (Extra-terrestrial Intelligence).
For the Agents of Fortune tour, the band added a laser light show, marking the first time a rock band had done so. They later had to abandon the lasers due to the expense of hauling around and operating the oft-failing equipment.
1977’s follow up, Spectres contained another hit for the band, Godzilla. While not as strong as Agents of Fortune, Spectres still had some great songs, including the vampire themed I Love The Night and the biker anthem The Golden Age Of Leather.
Though the album went gold faster than any other BÖC album, critical reception was lukewarm, with one critic noting that the track Going Through The Motions was a little on the nose with respect to the songwriting.
Next up was their biggest selling album to date, the single live album Some Enchanted Evening. Ah the ’70s, when you could coast along making every third album live and still sell millions (I’m looking at you, Rolling Stones). This album is probably only notable for containing the arrangement of E.T.I and The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place that my shitty garage cover band used to do.
For 1979’s Mirrors the band opted to use Tom Werman, who’d produced hit albums for Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent. The result was something of a disappointment for fans and critics alike, with the production that was too slick compared to their usual sound.(A point that was echoed by Cheap Trick after Werman produced their In Color album, but the Werman-produced Cheap Trick albums made them stars, so they kept making albums with him. I don’t blame them.) BÖC even calls the album a debacle on their web site. Mirrors does have some standout tracks, though, including the title track, The Vigil (co-written by Buck Dharma’s wife) and a staple of my solo acoustic shows In Thee (which name drops Jim Carroll, another future collaborator and then heroin buddy of Allen Lanier).
The 1980s would begin on several very high notes for BÖC. The decade would not end nearly as well for the band. 1980 brought Cultosaurus Erectus, which went gold, and a co-headlining tour with Black Sabbath (who were at the time also being managed by Sandy Pearlman). The album’s lead track, Black Blade was co-written by fantasy author Michael Moorcock and is about the sword in Moorcock’s Elric mythology.
1981’s Fire Of Unknown Origin would give BÖC their second top 40 hit, Burning For You, which completed what fans and the band now refer to as “The Big 3” (along with Godzilla and, of course, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper). The album also contained the title track, with lyrics by Patti Smith and several compositions originally commissioned for the soundtrack to the film Heavy Metal. Ironically, the songs based on the film’s vignettes were ultimately not chosen by the filmmakers, who instead opted to include Veteran of the Psychic Wars, which was another collaboration with Michael Moorcock.
1982: Another year, another live album, Extraterrestrial Live. Only a couple of noteworthy things here. There’s Doors guitarist Robbie Kreiger guesting on a cover of Roadhouse Blues and there’s Rick Downey on drums on most tracks, due to the firing of original drummer Albert Bouchard for substance abuse-related erratic behavior. It does have a great version of Hot Rails To Hell, though.
1983: Another year, another collaboration with Patti Smith. Revolution By Night not only contains the Patti Smith poem based Shooting Shark, but also collaborations with Ian Hunter on Let Go, Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith on Shadow of California and Aldo Nova on Take Me Away (a bit of which would be later borrowed by Extreme on Get the Funk Out).
The following few years would prove tumultuous for the band, with a very brief reunion with drummer Albert Bouchard followed by the departure of keyboardist Allen Lanier. This instability would lead to a dearth of original material for the follow up to Revolution By Night which had had disappointing sales. 1985’s Club Ninja is generally considered the worst BÖC studio album, and with good reason. Nearly half the tracks were not written with any input from BÖC members or their usual collaborators. The band even calls the record an “earsore” on their web site. The one standout is Perfect Water, co-written by Jim Carroll.
During this period, the band sometimes toured under the name Soft White Underbelly, as they were no longer popular enough to play stadiums, but they were still too well known to play in the small clubs that they preferred playing in.
Shortly after the release of Club Ninja, Joe Bouchard also left the band, leaving only singer Eric Bloom and guitarist Buck Dharma as original members. During this time, the fans referred to the band as Two Öyster Cult. Following a brief hiatus where the band was semi-broken up, they got an offer to play a few shows in Greece. This brought Allen Lanier back into the fold, prompting fans to label this lineup 3OC.
Following Albert Bouchard’s departure from BÖC in 1981, he had begun working with Sandy Pearlman on an album based on Pearlman’s “The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos”, however, Columbia Records rejected the finished album, citing Albert’s vocals and a lack of commercial prospects. Pearlman then arranged for the vocals and some instrumental parts to be re-recorded by other members of the band and convinced Columbia to release it as a Blue Öyster Cult album. 1988’s Imaginos promptly tanked and Columbia Records ended it’s near 20 year relationship with the band. It would be 10 years before the band would release another album of original material.
During this period, the 3OC version of the band, with various musicians on bass and drums continued touring relentlessly. They even sold t-shirts with their unofficial motto “On Tour Forever” emblazoned on them. Their concert schedule these days is often more grueling than when they played to packed stadiums. They played 47 shows in 1982, compared with 119 in 1992, 73 in 2002 and 59 in 2012. They’re scheduled to play 74 shows this year.
In 1994, following a re-recording of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper for use in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, the band decided to go into the studio and re-record many of the songs that they were playing live at the time. While (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and Godzilla are more or less note-for-note copies of the originals, there are blistering versions of the instrumental Buck’s Boogie and greatest song of all time E.T.I..
In 1998, Blue Öyster Cult released their first album of original material in 10 years – Heaven Forbid. 8 of the 11 songs on the album are collaborations with sci-fi and horror writer John Shirley, including the anti-domestic abuse See You In Black. The standout track, however, is the Buck Dharma penned Harvest Moon, an atmospheric tale of years of mysterious deaths that’s easily one of BÖC’s best.
In 2001, BÖC released Curse of the Hidden Mirror. Franky, while there’s a couple of decent tracks, the best thing about this album is the cover.
Due to poor health, Allen Lanier retired from touring with the band in 2006. He passed away on August 14, 2013 of complications from C.O.P.D.
Throughout the years, the members of Blue Öyster Cult have shown a love of playing before live audiences that is nothing short of amazing. They currently play most Friday and Saturday nights, with the occasional Thursday, and fly home to be with their families on Long Island during the week. They don’t do tour buses unless they are outside of the United States. It’s very clearly a love of the music that drives them to do this. In a recent interview, Buck Dharma said, “We never do a bad show. We may not always play a great show, but we’ve been doing this for over 40 years. We got this down.”