Fall, '76: Blue Öyster Cult is sitting pretty in the Top 20 with "(Don't Fear) the Reaper." The brainy Long Island quintet once pitched somewhat inaccurately to consumers as "the American Black Sabbath" has already consolidated a formidable live reputation and is now enjoying the fruits of nearly a decade of dues-paying. "Reaper," from the just-released fifth album Agents of Fortune, will ultimately land BOC a permanent spot in classic-rock FM heaven.
How'd BOC get there? The group's beginnings are expertly unraveled in the copious liner notes to the Stalk-Forrest Group's St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings, issued by Rhino's Internet-only, mail-order imprint, Handmade. Under the original name Soft White Underbelly, the nascent BOC, fresh from the underground gig circuit at and around New York's Stony Brook University, snagged a deal with Elektra Records in '68. Two years and a name change to Stalk-Forrest Group later, the band had been dropped by the label, with only a promo radio 45 -- "What Is Quicksand?" b/w "Arthur Comics" -- and an unreleased album to show for its efforts, leaving Eric Bloom (vocals/guitar), Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser (guitar/vocals), Allen Lanier (keyboards/guitar/vocals), Albert Bouchard (drums) and Joe Bouchard (bass) in a frustrating limbo.
The resurrection of St. Cecilia offers two looks at that album, its first nine tunes comprising the mooted "official" version assembled during the spring of 1970, with the remainder culled from Elektra-rejected material recorded six months prior. Hindsight being 20/20, it's still hard to see why S-FG got the ax. "I'm on the Lamb but I Ain't No Sheep," "Donovan's Monkey" and "Arthur Comics," with their taut neo-boogie riffs and unique melodic schemata, signpost classic BOC-to-come (in fact, "Lamb" will rear its head again -- twice, redone for Blue Öyster Cult, then overhauled and renamed "The Red & the Black" on the band's sophomore effort). "A Fact About Sneakers" and the title track, too, both have complex, neo-psychedelic, suite-like arrangements not unlike some of BOC's more elegant space ballads; listen closely and you'll detect snatches of guitar themes that resurface in later songs. Pop-culture obsessives take note of the group's lyrics: They were written by legendary rock critic Richard Meltzer (a Stony Brook buddy of the band) and manager/producer/svengali Sandy Pearlman, ranging from the poetic and fantasy-strewn (Pearlman's) to the so-dumb-they're-perfect-for-rock (Meltzer's "Sneakers" reads in part, "With a shoe-shine girl/In a shoe- shining kit/Get a shoe shined, hey hey man/While you're watching some tit").
Following the Elektra debacle, Pearlman got Stalk-Forrest an audition with Columbia's Clive Davis, who soon tendered a contract to the band now rechristened Blue Öyster Cult. And despite common wisdom that says the group was steered in an ostensibly "heavy metal" (a term Pearlman claims he coined) direction, the band's first three albums can now be viewed as more of a logical stylistic progression from the S-FG days, although the group's leather/chrome/biker appearance did suggest -- BOC's trademark surreal musical/lyrical imagery aside -- a clear-cut alliance with the harder rocking elements of '70s audiences.
Recently remastered by Columbia/Legacy, that early brace of BOC albums (1972's Blue Öyster Cult, '73's Tyranny and Mutation, '74's Secret Treaties) forms a concise triad that still holds up even after nearly three decades. While the bonehead-rawk moment does interrupt the flow somewhat -- the debut's over-the-top "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll" and Tyranny and Mutation's boogiecentric "Hot Rails to Hell," for example -- the subtle/supple psychedelic flourishes, unusual vocal harmonies and inventive arrangements prove the band ahead of its time. Highlights range from the debut's moody, melodic ballad "Then Came the Last Days of May," the effects-strewn "Workshop of the Telescopes" and the creepy piano and death-waltz minor chords of Meltzer's "She's As Beautiful As a Foot"; to the T. Rex-turns-protopunk "O.D.'d on Life Itself" and the subversively catchy "Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl)" from Tyranny; to the Patti Smith-penned freak anthem "Career of Evil" and the epic, seamlessly segued "Harvester of Eyes"/"Flaming Telepaths"/"Astronomy" sci-fi trilogy from Secret Treaties. The band was fearless in the studio, and with four talented songwriters, both the gritty-throated Bloom and the silkier Roeser swapping lead-vocal chores at will, and a melodic hard-rock style that employed diverse keyboard and guitar textures without succumbing to the era's wank-off/virtuoso Prog excess, BOC was also one of the best American bands of the '70s.
Back to "Reaper": Unmistakable from the very millisecond that opening riff commences, it is, as BOC reissue liner notes man Lenny Kaye points out, "an atmosphere of sound . . . all unwind, each symphonic section inevitable. It has no choice but to be a hit." The song drop-kicked the Agents of Fortune album onto the charts, too. The overall sound of the LP is slicker than its predecessors -- front-loaded with synthesizers, horn charts courtesy of the Brecker Brothers -- but its charisma remains undeniable. Smith, Lanier's girlfriend, earns a new pair of songwriting credits, along with one as co-vocalist on the thumpingly psychedelic "The Revenge of Vera Gemini," while "E.T.I." (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" is another finely wound interplanetary anthem. And the crunching "This Ain't the Summer of Love" would yield a second, enduring radio hit for the band.
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Soon enough other successes would be mounted, including the monolithic "Godzilla" and the MTV hit "Burning for You." But that's another story. Consumer-wise, as per protocol, Legacy has added several worthy bonus tracks to each reissue. Those on the debut are perhaps the most interesting as they come from some of the same pre-BOC sessions that make up the second segment of Rhino's St. Cecilia reissue (there's no overlap). Tyranny and Treaties spotlight various session outtakes (such as a studio version of longtime concert fave "Buck's Boogie"), non-LP singles tracks (a smoking cover of "Born to Be Wild"), and unreleased live material. Agents includes several demos, including Roeser's original four-track home recording of "Reaper," and a Lanier demo co-written with poet-rocker Jim Carroll, "Dance the Night Away" (Carroll later recorded his own version).
In the meantime, there's an album of all-new material out on the CMC International label. There have been numerous rhythm section changes over the years (the Bouchard brothers are long gone -- currently Danny Miranda and Bobby Rondinelli have the bass and drums gig) as well as intermittent lean times (1994's Cult Classic found BOC rerecording tunes from its '70s heyday). But even if Curse of the Hidden Mirror can't hold a candle to the first four studio albums, it is a solid effort.
Curse kicks off with the AC/DC-styled riff-monster "Dance on Stilts," and a few tracks later the first single, "Pocket," cues up, a thumping, melodic rocker that, pardon the cliché, is "classic BOC-esque." A couple of numbers do have an irredeemably syrupy '80s-mainstream feel, and the era of provocative/fantastical song-titling seems to be long buried in the face of clichés like "Eye of the Hurricane" and "I Just Like to Be Bad." That said, not only is the edgy, six-minute "Stone of Love" one of the best songs here, it bears an unexpected (and undated) Meltzer-Roeser songwriting credit. Another promising sign: Manic cyberpunk author (and former punk singer) John Shirley's name is listed in eight of the 11 song credits, stepping into the old Pearlman-Meltzer lyrics role. And given that the album title itself was nicked from an ancient Stalk-Forrest Group song, "Curse of the Hidden Mirrors," these bringing-things-full-circle touches have a nice feel if you're a fan from back in the day.
Word has it that BOC will be touring extensively to promote Curse, so as the saying goes, expect once again to see cities on flame with . . . aw, you know.