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This weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Blue Öyster Cult February 6, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Funny that Blue Öyster Cult were mentioned last weekend in comments. This Christmas I had a little bit of money over from a job I did during the year – so, I thought, I’ll do something I’ve never done before and get a box set of albums, those being the ones released by US rock band Blue Öyster Cult in the 1970s and 1980s. Now I actually had a two-disc greatest hits CD of theirs but had always found it maddeningly inconsistent to listen to to the point that I’d never managed to get all the way through. There were some great songs cheek by jowl with some really clunky numbers. Something about the album put me off listening closely enough to fillet it down to a playlist. But a general interest in them remained – in part because I’d heard they had had some similarity thematically to Hawkwind, and that author Michael Moorcock who had worked with the latter had also worked with them too. 

So, since the box set arrived just after Stephen’s Day I’ve been listening fairly assiduously to their albums (I do this so you don’t have to). It’s been an odd experience, in some respects a bit too much like work, though also quite enjoyable. And while I’m not sure I’d repeat the exercise any time soon (for example over the past three years I’ve been slowly acquiring Yes and Zeppelin’s remastered discographies for gifts and one album at a time is a lot more palatable – particularly given I am very familiar with Zeppelin’s catalogue and not at all with most of that of Yes).

But Blue Öyster Cult. Hmmm… a strange band. To put it mildly. They do demand a lot of a listener. There’s a jarring clunkiness to a lot of their output. Clumsy riffs, curious juxtapositions, a certain tendency to an American (as in US American) sense of the baroque or sinister that can come across as a little leaden. At times they sound like KISS,  but weirdly less sophisticated, which is saying something. And yet, there’s also some extremely well written and thoughtful tracks which are sophisticated and listenable. On the same album. Often on the same side of the album – as we used to call them. Here and there one will find proto-punk. There garage or photo-metal. In other places pop and so on. It’s a puzzle. 

Though no more than the question as to why Patti Smith (who was in a long term relationship with Allen Lanier, the keyboardist) was co-writing songs and vocals? Or the generally terrible 1970s outfits that can be seen in some videos from that period. And what about that AOR period, though in fairness that’s better than their earlier more mainstream period from Agents of Fortune on which saw them lose the bite of their first three albums and move to something that might be pop, but wasn’t. Actually one can divide up their career (I could make a BÖC song title related pun there, but I won’t) into three or four phases. An initial one where they had a roughness and hard rock aspect that was very listenable. To some extent they were a construct. Sandy Pearlman, then a newly minted music journalist and critic recruited musicians to play songs based around lyrics he had met. He would go on to manage, co-write and in many respects shape their output. If this sounds very Year of Zonk, very Robert Anton Wilson and the Illuminatus Trilogy, well, yes, so it is, though I always loved his lash-up with the Golden Horde. Whether that is a good thing is another matter entirely. Entertainingly he went on to produce the Clash’s second album and managed the likes of Black Sabbath, Romeo Void, the Dictators and various others. But one can argue that BÖC is where it had all started. 

And in truth, the first album is brilliant – in a proto-metal sort of a way. And there’s a lot more than proto-metal. Folk (Then Came the Last Days of May), psychedelia and an eclectic mix of sounds. Where it falters is oddly, given they were once positioned as the US answer to Black Sabbath, is on tracks like Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll with a non-more Sabb riff but a jokey lyrical content. Thing is the secret to Sabbath was their utter seriousness and sincerity in their adherence to what they sung about – sure, it was all Grand Guignol stuff about nuclear war and alienation and so on but they meant it. Whereas BÖC don’t. There’s a tongue lodged securely in their cheek and that undercuts the songs. I find the group’s sensibility a puzzle. I read about ‘biker’ aspects and I guess maybe there’s something of that in there. The occult too, and a sort of Velvet Underground S&M darkness, are meant to be influences, but somehow the tone is off for me. And while I like the songs, it sort of points to problems further down the line. But that’s a minor quibble. The first three albums are broadly excellent. This I like (Tyranny And Mutations excellent O.D’d On Life Itself, a song which Endless Boogie appear to have based whole albums on).

Then, there’s that aforementioned three or four albums where they went more mainstream – their biggest hit, Don’t Fear the Reaper was on Agents of Fortune. They opened up the musical palette but not necessarily to great effect. Agents was followed by a sequence of two or three more albums of a similar sort of sound – characterised by an eclecticism that doesn’t work for me. 

Then there was a period where they seemed to reconsider and for about three or four albums they moved from a harder edged output (as on 1980s Cultosaurus Erectus which is pretty great) more akin to their early career (I’m still resisting making that pun) through to those more explicitly AOR songs. Actually, and here I feel all my punk and post-punk inclinations kind of giving up in disbelief, I actually find the period from 1980 to 1985 where they dabbled and more than dabbled in AOR actually remarkably palatable. I’m not sure why but musically and in terms of their overall sound albums like The Revolution By Night and Club Ninja (an album with one of the worst album covers of all time) to be better than they have any right to be. Notably Patti Smith is still collaborating into that phase (see Shooting Shark below). After that their record company clearly lost interest though they’ve been very intermittently releasing albums subsequently.

One could applaud their willingness to share song-writing amongst (all?) the band members. One can also applaud their ability to turn out pretty great songs. None of their albums is lacking that – though some of the albums are a bit of a slog. But one thing that I find fascinating is that if one maps their albums to a broader chronology they don’t seem to particularly follow any developments taking place elsewhere. I find it hard to hear much influence of punk or new wave on their songs post 1976, indeed arguably the first three albums are much more proto-punk and hard rock than that which was to come after (Did I mention the live covers of Kick Out the Jams – full marks for the selection of same, some marks deducted for changing the key spoken lines to “Kick Out the Jams Brothers and Sisters!”.). Then again when they’re good they’re very good indeed. That two CD compilation I had wasn’t sufficiently representative of them as a band, at least to my ears. Whether all the individual albums are necessary to listen to is a different matter again. I actually went out and bought their most recent album which is actually very strong, somewhat of a return to their harder rocking sound, though there’s a couple of songs that have a curiously They Might Be Giants vibe. 

So, not what I expected at all, but in its oddly contrarian fashion more enjoyable than if it had indeed simply been the US equivalent of Hawkwind.

There’s far too many tracks by them to do any justice to their output but here’s a range from across the years.

Take Me Away (1983)

Then Came the Last Days of May

O.D’d on Life Itself 1973

Subhuman 1974

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Godzilla (1977)

Black Blade, 1980

Veteran of the Psychic Wars

Shooting Shark 1983

Perfect Water 1985

That Was Me – 2020.

Comments»

1. sonofstan - February 6, 2021

Surprised you’re so down on Agents of Fortune – along with Reaper, which is just undeniable, there’s ETI and that riff.
I love Spectres too…

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WorldbyStorm - February 6, 2021

Apologies I wasn’t clear enough above, I do like Reaper, great song, and ETI and This Ain’t the Summer of Love and Vera Gemini, but… as an album it frustrates me as a listen, being insufficiently cohesive. Spectres is to my mind a better album, at least the first side. Mirrors is not great in my book.

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2. 6to5against - February 6, 2021

I’m marvelling at the logic whereby you found the greatest hits to be inconsistent and decided that therefore you should but the entire back catalogue!
In a similar way, I kept on buying Miles Davis albums a few years ago because I didn’t really like them. Always selling myself the lie that the next one would be different.

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WorldbyStorm - February 6, 2021

Yeah, I know, I know, and weirdly I had a similar dynamic with Miles Davis too – later MD anyhow. I should say the box set was very inexpensive compared to its original price when it was released a decade or so ago so it wasn’t breaking the bank or anything. But there was sufficient good stuff on the box set to justify going to the source.

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3. sonofstan - February 6, 2021

There’s an interesting if slightly mad article by Jon Stratton which looks at the way in which quite a few US proto-punk/ punk/ glam bands and artists, from Jewish backgrounds – as were Pearlman and Melzer who produced and wrote a lot of the early BOC stuff – were fascinated by fascism.

Lester Bangs […] notes that: Pearlman once said that the epiphanous turning point in [BOC’s] career came when they were banging out the Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’ and, as he put it: ‘It hit me that “Under My Thumb” and the whole twentieth century were about dominance and submission’. (Bangs 1975) In spite of the album’s blandness by (post-)punk standards, it was enough to get BOC’s concerts picketed by the Jewish Defence League and to have record stores in Germany refuse to stock it. On the BOC website Albert Bouchard tells of ‘a gig in Portland, Oregon, [where] this blond, blue-eyed guy came up in full SS [.. .] uniform, saluting us. He freaked us out

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WorldbyStorm - February 6, 2021

That’s brilliant, thanks a million SoS. Really telling. It’s understandable in a way.

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