Hmm - I looked up my heavy metal group of preference on h2g2 and discovered that however I typed it in - Blue Oyster Cult, Blue Öyster Cult, "Blue+Öyster+Cult" or "Blue Öyster Cult" - I kept getting sent to entries referencing somebody called Ian Astbury and this other, lesser, band having the temerity to call itself 'The Cult'.
Growled mutterings of: "No, I don't mean THEM, you stupid bloody search engine" didn't seem to do anything to rectify this simple and basic error.
I'm forced to the conclusion that there is NO guide entry celebrating the sublime work of Sandy Perlman, Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser, Eric Bloom, Allen Lanier and the Bouchard brothers. Nor are there references to their collaborations with the likes of Michael Moorcock1 and Patti Smith2.
So maybe it's time somebody wrote one ...
This is necessarily a 'draft' guide entry sketching out a few basic concepts and staking a claim, establishing my credentials to attempt the job (although I'm not jealous and anyone's comments or further input on B.Ö.C. is/will be welcome!)
How I became a new Cultist
You just have to respect a band who can do songs with titles like 'Joan Crawford Has Risen From the Grave'
My first taste of the wonderful world of the B.Ö.C. was their 1976 LP, Agents of Fortune. I came late to this, buying it sometime around 1983-4 for the sublime and magnificent 'Don't Fear The Reaper'.
I think it had been re-released and the track had had some minimal radio airplay - for some reason I'd missed this first time around, but an older me was totally blown away by 'Reaper' and wanted not just the single, but to take a chance on finding out more about the group making that awesome sound. So I bought the LP to listen to 'Reaper' in its context and ... wow ... I was sucked in. All the way from 'This Ain't the Summer of Love' to 'Debbie Denise'.
This was heavy rock with a distinctly Gothic edge. These guys were not messing around, there was a real and distinct seamy underbelly and menace to their lyrics, about unspecified but surely unwholesome deeds commited in sleazy rooms that have the curtains closed even on a midsummer afternoon ('Tenderloin'). A guy is murdered after a chase into a subway station ('Morning Final').
Creatures from Forteana, out of the rambling researches of Charles Hoy Fort, and dark imaginings from the land of Goth, hover at the edges of vision (Vampires, extra-terrestrial aliens and Death himself).
But despite the subject matter, Agents of Fortune opened vistas - the overall effect of the LP is life-enhancing and positive, rather than the 'slit your wrists now' undertone of a lot of Goth music.
It dawned on me that I was listening to intelligent heavy rock, if that isn't an oxymoron.
And I wanted to hear more of this band. Oh God, I wanted to hear more of this band!
There are hints of involvement with strange occultisms3, a supporting cast of monsters4, UFO's5, Hell's Angels6, natural and supernatural disasters7, and strange Lovecraftian places of the band's own devising (or of their own kenning?). A typical strange Lovecraftian place is the Four Winds Bar, appearing as the setting for 'Astronomy', the last track on Secret Treaties, where an ill-assorted group await some unspecified sinister fate under strange stars8.
American Hawkwind? The Moorcock Connection
You see me now, a veteran
Of a thousand pyschic wars
Finding out that at various times they'd been described as 'American Black Sabbath' (because of the preoccupation with death, alternative religion and what may or may not happen next) made me feel like I'd found a musical home.
Digging deeper and hearing them alternatively described as 'American Hawkwind' also confirmed I was on the right track (especially since, via occasional collaborator Michael Moorcock, there is a definite and direct link to Hawkwind)9. Moorcock's spaced-out science fiction and fantasy novels and the philosophical concept of The Eternal Champion certainly inspired Hawkwind - think of their 'Chronicles of the Black Sword'.
Moorcock, of course, is an occasional rock guitarist who has played with Hawkwind and who is a member of the 'Hawkwind Family'.
I was about to find out how Moorcock exerted a similar effect on B.Ö.C.
My personal voyage of discovery led me to what is way the best of the band's three live albums: Extra-terrestrial Live. I was chilling out to a track called 'Veteran of the Psychic War', with its military drum beat and reflecting that the style and lyric content was oddly reminiscent of Hawkwind. It covered the same sort of ground: narrated by a futuristic sci-fi warrior who has fought one battle too many and is wondering how much longer he can last, with his head exploding with a futuristic form of PTSD.
I picked up the sleeve and looked at the songwriter credits, wondering if there was an association - and there it was, in black and white. (Well, dark blue over light blue, anyway). Lyrics by Michael Moorcock.
And it wasn't the only one: further down the track listing was one called 'Black Blade', where the lyrics could only be about Elric of Melnibone ... again, lyrics were attributed to one M. Moorcock.
I later discovered Moorcock's other contribution to the B.Ö.C. oeuvre: a track called 'The Great Sun Jester', one of the redeeming highlights of the otherwise lacklustre Mirrors LP. Again, straight out of a Moorcock novel, I believe called Fireclown.
Adventures with a Punk Poetess
Jesus died for somebody's sins - but not mine!
And then there's Patti Smith ...
I saw the cover of her Easter album and I have to say I fell in love with the wiry, sultry, dark-haired lady on the cover, in the semi-see-through vest, who was displaying a positively European attitude towards the shaving of armpits. There was something about her ... (OK, so the cover of Wave showed a wasted, sickly-looking, drug addict - I couldn't believe they were the same woman).
Alas for my libido, it was apparent that at least one member of B.Ö.C. had got there before me ... the tracklist for Horses shows that there are two songwriting collaborations attributed to 'P.Smith - A.Lanier'.
I wondered if this was B.Ö.C.'s Allen Lanier, and it was; referring back to Agents of Fortune, it was interesting to note that 'Revenge of Vera Gemini' was equally co-attributed to Smith and Lanier. Come to think of it, while Patti Smith has co-written tracks for six B.Ö.C. albums, this is the only one she actually sings on; Patti is also on the inside cover of Agents of Fortune, as the sixth band member in the gambling casino, the only one who looks as if she is not likely to be troubled by five o'clock shadow. (At least not on her chin).
Patti's contributions to the B.Ö.C. oeuvre are:
- 'Baby Ice Dog', on the LP Tyranny and Mutation
- 'Career of Evil', on Secret Treaties
- 'Revenge of Vera Gemini', on Agents of Fortune
- 'Fire of Unknown Origin' and 'Don't Look Back', on Fire Of Unknown Origin
In her own right, Patti Smith's musical career (as opposed to her early career as a punk poet in the John Cooper Clarke mould) can safely be said to have two phases.
First, there was her 'Angry Young Punk Poetess' phase in the Seventies which spanned four angst and rage-fuelled albums:
Distinguished by a version of Van Morrison's 'Gloria', which takes Van's uncompromisingly heterosexual barnstomper in a decidedly Sapphic direction. As she was in a conventionally hetero relationship with Allen Lanier at the time, I wonder if this was meant as a subversive bit of mischief, designed to subvert the rampant testosterone of the original, as well as to pose radio stations a dilemma over broadcasting a flagrantly lesbian love song. The album's other highlight is 'La Mer(de)', a stream of consciousness outpouring covering sex, rape, death, heroin and 1950s dance styles. It shouldn't work, but it does, and it stays in the mind for a long time.
Patti's most 'accessible' album and a good starting point for anyone wanting to get into her style. This spawned her only hit single, 'Because the Night', and is notable for her take on the 23rd Psalm, and the haunting 'Ghost Dance'.
There is a stirring example of her 'punk poetry' on this album which should not be played in front of parents, grandparents, parish priests, etc, as the language and content are interestingly extreme. It occurs - loudly - immediately after the deceptively quiet and oddly melodic 'Ghost Dance'.
Critically considered to be her best album. U2 later covered the track 'Dancin' Barefoot'. Look out for 'Frederick' and 'Broken Flag'.
Only for advanced students. A friend describes this as: "a feminist statement. If you're male, you won't get it. This is by a woman for women."
The best track is 'Pissing In A River', which is about love, devotion, and the sense of futility (and rage) coming out of realising the love and devotion is directed at somebody who doesn't deserve it.
After a gap of nearly twenty years, Patti returned, in a mellower, 'Earth Mother' persona, with Dream of Life, an altogether mellower, gentler, set of ballads. Quite sweet and listenable, but the early fire and rage have largely gone.
She has since done a sixth LP said to be in a similar vein to Dream of Life, but I haven't yet heard this one.
A case against
Honesty also dictates that an entry of this nature should touch upon the Very Worst of the band's output too. So here it is ...
That wholly unnecessary umlaut over the 'Ö' is one good reason why the band has been mentioned as a real-life model for Spinal Tap. There have been excesses; no self-respecting heavy band should be without an ill-judged excess or two on its collective CV.
Now there are several necessary conditions a band should fulfil before they can be considered as part of that gestalt entity which is Spinal Täp.
They should have perpetrated at least one lyrical offence against normal good taste and decency and this should be blatant enough that even their fans notice. Use of Nazi ideology or iconography scores most points; ignorance of the Nazi ideology, combined with use of its uniforms/icons because "they just look cool, man!" scores most points of all.
There should be at least one on-stage faux-pas, say a maladroit stage prop; or part of the act which is meant to be macho, or spectacular, or just OTT, but which spectacularly fails on all counts and which instead provokes mirth and sniggering.
There should be at least one stunningly banal lyric, ideally a full 'concept LP', which takes a banal idea and attempts to elevate it to Secrets of the Universe status. The gap between expectation and reality creates the ineffable and elusive Spinal Tap moment.
The 'Lick My Love Pump' moment: there comes a time in every heavy rock band's career where it gets a collective urge to show the world it can do the gentle, sweet, acoustic, melodic, ballady stuff. This becomes Spinal Tap territory when it is woefully and badly or incongruously handled.
The Blue Öyster Cult's LMLP moment came with 1978's ill-judged crossover into, of all possible genres, Country and Western.
Whatever made them record Mirrors?
Another couple of steps in the direction of C&W, and they would have surely been booed off the stage at Nashville. Perhaps on the eternal tour, they stopped off at Bob's Country Bunker and received the Blues Brothers' treatment? The least said, the better!
Conditions 1 and 3 are met by the track 'ME-262' on the Secret Treaties album. On one level this is just all-out gonzoid heavy rock, you can listen to it and appreciate the pure rock energy of the track.
But the lyrics celebrate the world's first functioning jet fighter with a repeated chorus in homage of its engine:
ME 262 is a turbo jet - Junkers Jumo 0-0-4!
There also seems to be a bit of un-called for fascination with the regime that created the ME-262 ...
Goering's on the phone from Freiburg
Says Willy, you done quite a job!
Hitler's on the phone from Berlin
Says "I'm gonna make you a star!"
... and a middle eight where the guitar stings alternate with the sound of marching jackboots ...
So far so vorsprung durch technik, but have I mentioned the lines about "See these English planes go burn!" and "But these Englishmen live, and I might die! (Junkers Jumo 0-0-4!)"?
It's probably only me, but several great-uncles flew over Germany with the RAF, so listening to these lines makes me feel decidedly queasy.
I suppose an American band couldn't go on stage and sing a line like "watch these Yankee planes go burn..." so they had to do it differently for domestic consumption. Even so, definite bad taste, guys10.
Another good reason why this track ushers B.Ö.C. into the Spinal Tap Hall of Fame is their live version of it (ie, condition 2 above). They simply just don't know where to stop, and if the live LP On Your Feet! Or On Your Knees! is anything to go by, 'ME-262' goes on. And on. And on. And enters the realm of pure self-parody.
Apparently there is a moment in every live gig where all five members of the band, even the drummer, don electric guitars and get up front to share the riffs. As a former editor of the NME said, none of the group is much over 5'7" in height, so when they all don Strat guitars, "it makes them look like the Five Dwarves of Heavy Metal: Sleepy, Grumpy, Tiny, Dozy and Allen Lanier"11.
(I've never seen them live: I do regret this.)
- Blue Öyster Cult (1972)
- Tyranny and Mutation (1973)
- Secret Treaties (1974)
- On your feet! Or on your knees! (double live LP, 1975)
- Agents of Fortune (1976)
- Spectres (1977)
- Some Enchanted Evening (live) (1978)
- Mirrors (1979)
- Cultösaurus Erectus (1980)
- Fire Of Unknown origin (1981)
- Extraterrestrial Live (double live LP, 1982)
- Revolution By Night (1984)
- Club Ninja (1985)
- Imaginos (1988)
- 1988 - 1998: 'On Tour Forever' - no LPs
- Heaven Forbid (1998)
So who have B.Ö.C. influenced, anyway?
Somewhere above I noted a crossover between the band and spaced-out fantasy writer Michael Moorcock.
This cut both ways: in Moorcock's 'Hawkmoon' series, the hero, Hawkmoon of Köln (note that umlaut again), voyages to what in his world is the equivalent of the USA to look for the Runestaff and save Europe from the evil which is Granbretan.
Here, he encounters characters called Bouchard, Lanier, Perlman, etc, who provide key assistance to help him in his quest ...
And there is the genius of comic fantasy fiction at whose feet I bow, Terry Pratchett.
Pratchett's personification of Death, who TALKS LIKE THIS, develops suspiciously Blue Öyster Cult tendencies across the books. Take, for instance, Soul Music, where Death acquires the Discworld's equivalent of a motorcycle and strikes a pose not unakin to the cover of Some Enchanted Evening. (In an earlier short story, where Death makes an appearance on Planet Earth, an idle-minded bystander is heard to remark: "Ere, I seen you before! You was on that album cover by Blue Öyster Cult, wasn't you?")
And, leading us rather neatly to where I came in, there is the motto of the Death family:
NON TIMETIS MESSOR12.