Happy 50th, Blue Öyster Cult!

What if the MC5 and the Grateful Dead had been one band?  

Happy 50 to the mighty Öyster! (Images: Legacy Recordings)

It was a peculiar Eden, but it was still an Eden. 

This Eden was off balance and thirsty, like when you drank far too much gin and had to go to an 8:30 class. This Eden was silver and full of shadows and the ecstasy of genius seen, like that screening of Metropolis you saw in your dorm basement. This Eden was the on-your-toes buzz of walking around on the Upper West Side in the early 1970s when it was SRO land, watching the junkies and the drunk ancients stagger down Broadway as you talked of the Second World War and Bergman at the Thalia. This Eden was the arrogant thrill of feeling superior to drunks on the LIRR coming home from hockey games. This Eden was hearing music in your head that was ugly and crowded in the angles but full of space and beauty in the stretches. 

It was a peculiar Eden, and it lasted only three years. This Eden was the first few years of Blue Öyster Cult, who released their debut album almost exactly 50 years ago. 

There are a few things you must know about Blue Öyster Cult, and this is the most important one:  Their first three albums are inventive and magnificent (Blue Öyster Cult [1972], Tyranny and Mutation [1973], and Secret Treaties [1974]). For a long time, I thought that Secret Treaties was the best of this trio, but I have come to realize that Blue Öyster Cult, the album that has now turned half a century old, is the real treasure. It’s a little less arrogant than it’s two slightly younger brothers yet a bit more confident in its’ artistry, since popular acclaim had not turned BÖC’s spiral and sinews into full scale fist-in-the-air boogie. It’s more of a chess game than a gang war, more of a rope burn than a factory fire. Blue Öyster Cult is an original treatise on starlight and broken streetlights. It postulates a post-blues hard spacerock that sounded like refugees from Detroit selling stolen auto parts in the scrap yards that used to surround Shea Stadium. 

On one level, Blue Öyster Cult’s wonderful, strange, and engaging first album seems to platform off of this concept: What if the MC5 and the Grateful Dead were one band and they headlined Altamont? And what if this bizarre amalgam – let’s call the MC Escher – set about to write the soundtrack to Two-Lane Blacktop, but got distracted listening to Deep Purple, the Stooges, Captain Beefhart, Atom Heart Mother, Yardbirds, Amon Duul II, and early Steve Miller while searching for girls who liked books, planetariums, the Velvet Underground, Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, and BDSM? The result is Blue Öyster Cult, this utterly unique treasure that can also be fairly accurately defined as the one BÖC album that Phish was born to cover. 

Blue Öyster Cult 1972 Rolling Stone ad (Image: Pinterest)

There is also something fiercely, proactively modern about Blue Öyster Cult. I hear significant fore-echoes of the Soft Boys and Television, both of whom I suspect were acolytes of these twisted and sweet arpeggios and long, sighing spaces suddenly scarred by a hail storm of rusty, discarded mattress springs. 

The production of Blue Öyster Cult is also extraordinary. It has the warm, almost muted aspects of an early ’70s Floyd production, but this is applied to a wiry, slinky, serpentine hard rock/psych band. A slightly deeper listen reveals something fascinating: Producers Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman have mic’d and mixed the drums in a fairly extraordinary way, resulting in a tight – but not crisp, bright, or trebly — sound that omits the crash and ride cymbals and hi-hat almost entirely (this is also facilitated by Albert Bouchard’s solid and efficient playing). Virtually no other major hard rock record of the era – in fact, for the entire period between 1968 and 2008 – omits the cymbals in such a significant way. This trick of the ear is more important than it may sound: it gives the vocals and the guitar sounds room to breathe, and the guitar lines – from the most subtle to the most penetrating – are able to expand, almost literally, to the stars. A significant aspect of the spatial/astral wonder of Blue Öyster Cult’s debut is the way these songs just spiral into the night sky; this likely would not have been possible if there were whooshing, hissing and sibilant cymbals smashing all around. 

Second thing you need to know: For all intents and purposes, after their third album (Secret Treaties) the mighty Blue Öyster Cult, this amazing, distinct, sinewy dart-thrower born of Haight and hate and desert and Bowery, this Dark Floyd, was, for all intents and purposes, dead. True, they had one outstanding studio album left in them: The delightful, transitional Agents of Fortune (1976), where they took the frightening/ecstatic razor wire dry-lands upon which they had built their reputation and added, quite successfully, a healthy dose of the kind of smart/silly FM antics that appealed to both Muni and Nightbird. But the die had been cast, and after Agents, instead of finding a way to continue integrating their modus operandi of sparks, hash-oil and old episodes of World At War within a more commercial format, the band chased radio as fast and desperately as they could. It’s one of the saddest choices in the history of rock’n’roll: Seduced by the satanic mills and seamed nylons of stardom’s garish, John Davidson-colored sun, Blue Öyster Cult fell for the false promises of radio and never found their way back to Greaser’s Paradise (which looks a lot like Eden, but there’s a lot of 1970s biker porn lying around). Rarely does a band creatively fall so far so fast. Studio album number five, 1977’s Spectres, is about one-third worthwhile (true, it’s a solid one-third), but that’s virtually the end of the story: scanning BÖC’s next five studio albums, we struggle to find three or four songs that summon some of the shadows of their gnashing, dusty and pissy Eden. 

The third thing you need to know is what should have happened: 

After album three, Secret Treaties, the band should have released Imaginos, which could have been their Dark Side of the Moon and/or Quadrophenia. Look, I am not going to go into the desperately long, virtually titanic saga of Imaginos, but it is, essentially, the concept album Blue Öyster Cult were built around. It literally predates the band (who took their name from one of its’ songs), and pieces written for Imaginos seed the first three BÖC albums. In its’ ideal form (sadly, something that doesn’t quite exist), Imaginos personifies the very best of all these early albums. Imagine walking into the planetarium on Central Park West but when you step out you’re in Joshua Tree…and somehow you trip over a Needle Park junkie, and then Tom Baker looks at you and asks you if you want some acid and a handjob from a scary space girl…all in a place that connects the swooshing, harmonic opium hums of Ash Ra Tempel with the echoing, Rays Pizza-an’-lude fueled booming riffs of the 1970s sticky-floored rock palaces.

Blue Öyster Cult Blue Öyster Cult, Columbia Records 1972

THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT Imaginos SOUNDS LIKE (or should have, if it had ever really been made correctly), and it could have been freaking perfect and huge if it had been released as BÖC’s fourth album. Now, an important note: There are three readily available versions of Imaginos. I suggest ignoring the one released under the Blue Öyster Cult name in 1988. The best version of Imaginos is Albert Bouchard’s Imaginos demos, which you can easily access on YouTube. Also, the version Bouchard released two years ago as a solo album – Re-Imaginos – is very good indeed, though not quite as good as his original demos (both Bouchard versions are notably superior to the ’88 BÖC version).

In any event – and my god, you can’t even begin to discuss Imaginos without falling down into an enormous rabbit hole – Imaginos should have been the masterpiece BÖC released either before or after Agents of Fortune. Then, I suspect, the whole goddamn story would have been different. (Note: I wrote about Imaginos at some length here  — but we note this was written before the recording and release of Albert Bouchard’s wonderful Re-Imaginos.)

Listen. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is an utterly wonderful song and recording: It is star-bound, carries a quiver full of a skater’s barbed and icy arrows, and it has a deeply original kind of dark/lightness light/darkness that, in so many ways, sums up everything good about the first era of Blue Öyster Cult. But when the song became a punch line, when it became so inarguably bigger than the band itself, it left BÖC’s extraordinary, adamantine-via-coalmine achievements in the dust. Blue Öyster Cult are so much more than that one song. Between 1972 and 1974, they made three albums that literally every rock fan should own. 

Happy 50th birthday, Blue Öyster Cult.  

 

AUDIO: Blue Öyster Cult Blue Öyster Cult (full album)

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

3 thoughts on “Happy 50th, Blue Öyster Cult!

  • February 19, 2022 at 11:13 am
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    Thank you for the great article On The Amazing Blue Oyster Cult the most underrated band in Rock History
    Their Black and White era is definitely genius but so are Fire of Unknown Origin and Cultusaurus Erectus
    And fans should check out their latest album The Symbol Remains
    It is truly a gem in their amazing catalog

    Reply
  • February 19, 2022 at 2:26 pm
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    Nice job on the article, BOC has been my fav band since I was in high school in the late 70’s, I have seen them many times and continue to do so every chance I get. There are songs I love from every album and era, On Tour Forever!

    Reply
  • February 19, 2022 at 7:16 pm
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    Nice review of BOC’s first three albums. I am old enough to remember seeing Blue Oyster Cult in 1972 at the Paramount in Portland, OR – and I saw the band in all its glory. It’s a great memory!

    Reply

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