Looking at the deep history of a most maligned Blue Öyster Cult LP for its 30th anniversary
Eff all this Beatle vs. Stones crap. Does anyone under fifty even ask that goddamn question anymore?
Any discriminatin’ cat (and if you are reading this fine and detailed journal, you, my friend, are more discriminating than a Frenchman in a Brothel) know that this is the real issue that shakes minds and causes hackles to rise and gooses to bump, oh, and makes that curly hair on the base of your back that you’ve been meaning to do something about stand at attention:
Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos vs. KISS’S Music From “The Elder”?
Now, that is something to chew over, babies. Which legendary New York City hard rock powerhouse made the best and/or worst utterly incomprehensible concept album that they later more or less redacted from their history?
Have I gotten your attention? Perhaps I have, and maybe it was a bit of a bait and switch, because we are not actually going to talk about The Elder today; we will leave that for another time (and boy, do I look forward to that time, since The Elder is to KISS what The Razor’s Edge was to Bill Murray). But since it is the 30th anniversary of Imaginos, today we are going to confine our discussion to that remarkable record.
First, a few words about the rather complex and serpentine plot for Imaginos, so elaborate it was designed to be told over six LPs:
Our story begins 50,000 fortnights ago in the distant Galaxy of Warlocks Keep. After the fall of Comet Castle, Samson Cyberblood is the new king of the star system. He seeks to consolidate his hold on the hyperspeed Throne.
Wait…THAT is the plot of SPACE SHIRE 7, the fantasy novel Brian Griffin in Family Guy concocts while on an extended Ritalin bender (season 14, episode 1, Pilling Them Softly). And you know what? Hands down, it makes far, far more sense then the plot to Imaginos.
Actually, I’m not going to begin to recount the plot to Imaginos. Unless you are one of those people who are really tuned in to all that Lovecraft/Dick stuff, the Imaginos story sounds like two people talking in Latin about 3-D Chess and Doctor Who at the same time while riding bicycles in the wind. Not only that, but what was intended as three double albums – heck, Imaginos was supposed to be the theme that ran throughout Blue Öyster Cult’s entire career! – ended up as one extremely jumbled single LP. However, the concept, if not the plot, is very important for this reason:
Imaginos virtually created Blue Öyster Cult. They literally emerged from Imaginos, and they were built to realize Imaginos.
In the mid and late 1960s before there ever was a Blue Öyster Cult producer, poet, and visionary Sandy Pearlman concocted an extremely exotic and elaborate science fiction world, which he detailed in a story arc called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. Around the same time, Pearlman started managing a local (Stony Brook) rock band called (alternately) Soft White Underbelly and/or The Stalk Forrest Group. On their only LP (recorded in 1970 but not released until 2001), the Stalk Forrest Group come across as a slightly more sinister version of the early Grateful Dead, and/or a slightly more laid back Grand Funk Railroad who think a lot about really deep stuff and the stars an’ shit when they’re smoking hash.
By 1971, the SWU/SFG had renamed themselves Blue Öyster Cult, and this is where it gets interesting: See, they took the name from a plot point in the Imaginos story arc. This whole Imaginos concept not only predated Blue Öyster Cult, it literally became Blue Öyster Cult.
Now, Pearlman, who was a very hipster rock critic type, helped guide the band away from their more cloying influences (at times the Stalk Forrest Group stuff sounded like Poco covering the Doors covering Aoxomoxoa), and by the time the group emerged with Blue Öyster Cult in 1972, the transformation was remarkable. Under Pearlman’s guidance, the band had fused elements of the MC5, Sabbath, Mountain, and (peculiarly but significantly) The Move into the extant Doors and Dead elements. The result – which really bloomed on the group’s next two albums, 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and BÖC’s masterpiece, 1974’s Secret Treaties – was virtually unique: a band that was half nerd and half biker, half boogie and half space rock, and an absolutely unique moment of American metal, literally the missing link between Pink Floyd and the MC5.
As Blue Öyster Cult moved through their career, the mysterious and massive specter of Imaginos was never far off. All of their early albums feature songs and concepts taken from the Imaginos cycle, and the album titles themselves – Tyranny and Mutation, Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune – hint broadly at aspects of the Imaginos concept. In so many ways, the band lived their lives in a shadow of an unmade album. Imaginos was like an absent parent who drops in every now and then to throw their weight around.
And that’s the way it stayed, until the early-1980s.
In 1981, Albert Bouchard left Blue Öyster Cult. It’s important to note that Bouchard wasn’t “just” a drummer; he was also a frequent co-composer and an occasional but significant vocalist (in fact, he co-wrote and sang lead one of the band’s very greatest songs, “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll”). Shortly after departing the band, Bouchard and Sandy Pearlman, BÖC’s vastly talented longtime producer (who by this time was no longer involved with the band that he had, in essence, created), began working on bringing Imaginos to life as an Albert Bouchard solo album. Throughout the early 1980s, they toiled away, hoping to finally realize the vision that had been at the very root of Blue Öyster Cult’s existence.
But a funny – wait, make that miserably unfunny – thing happened on the way to the release of the Bouchard/Pearlman Imaginos.
First off, Bouchard (and BÖC’s) label rejected the record. Secondly, Blue Öyster Cult were having a horrible 1980s. Two terrible, soggy, compromised, mewling, desperate albums – 1983’s The Revölution by Night and 1985’s Club Ninja — had chased trends instead of set them; the band had essentially sold all of their weirdness for the fools’ gold of commercial acceptance, and they hadn’t even achieved that. Imagine all of the mortifying shame of Cheap Trick during their Richie Zito/Lap of Luxury/Busted era, only without any of the radio or sales success.
Blue Öyster Cult needed something, because nothing had worked, and they were not exactly functioning as a band very well.
So around 1986, someone got the idea to turn Imaginos into a Blue Öyster Cult album (though, peculiarly, this did not involve Albert Bouchard re-joining Blue Öyster Cult).
Now, I believe Imaginos, in it’s original Bouchard/Pearlman ideation, was supposed to be the smart and nasty object that reclaimed the identity of classic Blue Öyster Cult for two of the band’s founders and prime movers, Albert Bouchard and Sandy Pearlman; it was going to be their way of saying, “Dammit, this is what it was all about: Incomprehensible science fiction that also happens to double as poetically effective inscrutable and ominous sounding lyrics, and some tough and strange music.”
But once it stopped being a Bouchard/Pearlman object d’art and got turned into a vehicle for a Blue Öyster Cult “comeback,” the thing kinda spun off the rails.
Under Pearlman’s supervision, Blue Öyster Cult vocalists Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser were added to the extant masters, plus a whole pile of other things; it sounds like they took suggestions from everyone at the label, everyone who wrote for Guitar, and probably Downtown Julie Brown, too. Oh, not only that, they cut about half an hour off of Bouchard and Pearlman’s original sequence, and just to make sure that the thing held absolutely none of the spirit of the original and/or archival Imaginos, they scrambled the album sequence, thereby insuring that any sense of a plot or coherence would completely vanish.
Right now, let us introduce Dr. Daniel Levitin. Dan is an acclaimed author (This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession; The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature; The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, and more), neuroscientist, and academic (Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience, McGill University). But before Levitin did all that fancy stuff, he was a successful record producer, recording engineer, and musician; in fact, he was the co-producer (with Sandy Pearlman) of Imaginos, a bookkeeping error left his name off of the credits (though this has since ben rectified). If Dan can decode mysterious processes of the human brain, possibly he can help us unpack Imaginos.
Dan – what do you think of when you think of Imaginos?
“Hah! I think of 48 tracks of guitars, the Herculean task of sifting through all the stuff that we recorded, and editing it,” Levitin says. “And I think of the heartbreak of the bad mixing job. And I think of Sandy’s vast imagination, and BÖC’s artistic openness and willingness to follow him there. Sandy was focused more on the story and continuity across tracks than I was. My role was to help get the best musical performances, and to bring my Steely Dan sensibility to the engineering and sonic side. I think the spaciousness of the roughs I heard greatly helped the narrative to make sense, in just the way it did for Dark Side and The Wall.”
Ah. It’s a little odd that I haven’t mentioned The Wall earlier, since it’s like that BÖC’s label – a sister label of the label that issued Pink Floyd’s over-bearing, whining, vaguely listenable monstrosity – thought that if the dots connected, they’d have another The Wall on their hands.
“The intention was to make our version of The Wall,“ Levitin confirms. “A grand musical opus, which was intended to be the kind of sonic masterpiece that Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall were. In the rough mixes, it was large in scope and in its soundscape — every instrument was clearly defined and the fidelity was incredible.”
But what went wrong?
“Now Sandy was never good with money — no one knows where all his money went, but he was always running out, and in the 35 years I knew him he was always complaining about being broke. He lived off of CBS for several years through the making of that album — he’d send Don DeVito (the A&R guy overseeing Imaginos) some rough mixes, ask Don for more money, saying that a project of this scope required it, and then use the money to pay himself as a producer and pay for the studio time in a studio he was leasing. When we were finished with the record, Sandy and I came up with a short list of people we wanted to have mix the album. Again, we wanted the most hi-fi, expansive sounding album we could get. We threw around some names. I suggested Chris Thomas, Bob Clearmountain, and Roger Nichols.
“The next I heard from Sandy,” Levitin continues, “he told me that Don had not agreed to any of our suggestions. By this time, I think the total costs for the album had gotten close to a million dollars. Don told me that he was worried that such an elaborate and expansive mix could easily run up another $100,000 – $200,000 in costs, and he wanted to just put the record out. So, as a cost-saving move, he put someone in place who would mix it outside of Sandy’s studio, and who would be accountable only to Don. I don’t blame him at all. Don was very artist focused, which is why he A&R’d Dylan for all those years, but he was also a company man — the album couldn’t ever make any money if it wasn’t released, and he just needed to get it mixed. I don’t think he ever shared the vision of it as a sonic masterpiece, and so the mixer he chose gave it an entirely different sound (this mixer was Steve Brown, who around that time was doing reasonable work with the Cult, ABC and Wham!). It doesn’t sound bad at all to me, technically, it just sounds small, compressed, and dense. I feel it lost all of its power.”
At the end of the day, what does Imaginos sound like? Well, it sounds like Def Leppard trying to make a Marillion album, unless it’s Marillion making a Def Leppard album, which is to say it sounds like Europe, but only if Europe had the Uncle Floyd show on in the studio while recording; or maybe it’s like Whitesnake making an album of Steely Dan covers while reading a list of random science fiction chapter names, or maybe it’s more like Steely Dan covering Whitesnake, which is to say it sounds like Shania Twain making a record under her “rock chick” persona (btw, in no way do I wish to imply that Dr. Daniel Levitin endorses any of these specific opinions or metaphors).
More likely, Imaginos just sounds like Blue Öyster Cult, already greatly desiccated by the bad decisions they had made in the late 1970s and 1980s, stumbling around in the dark and with mittens on their hands trying to find what was behind Door Number Two. It’s as if they had lost all sense of self, and Sandy Pearlman, who knew the band’s core genius and originality and wiry, shocking strangeness better than anyone, was trying to help them find it again; but by then the label was only interested in squeezing some MTV fodder out of a band who should never been asked to provide any.
The result is not charmless, not entirely ineffective, but it is without a doubt one of those records you make yourself like, not one of those records you actually are drawn to emotionally or aesthetically. Heck, one of the album’s most listenable songs, “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria,” sounds like Creatures of the Night-era KISS imitating Dio-era Sabbath; it literally couldn’t sound less like BÖC if it tried, and it’s not even sung by a member of the band (but by a hard rock session singer named Joe Cerisano). Why is this on a Blue Öyster Cult album? And it’s almost the best track on the album.
There are so many reasons that we want Imaginos to work, want it to be SMiLE, want it to BÖC’s great return to spiraling, riffing, space-evil…but it just ain’t there. The nicest thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t hurt to listen to it, like the previous two BOC albums did, and you can kind of drift off to a fairly reasonable almost-happy place during the modernized reboot of “Astronomy.”
Now, the whole thing failed miserably, which is about as surprising as finding a Frenchman in a Brothel. After only reaching 122 on the Billboard album charts, Columbia/Sony, the band’s longtime label, dropped the group. In some ways, Blue Öyster Cult never quite recovered, and in the thirty years since, BÖC have only recorded two more studio albums, both dismal, depressing asterisks on a stunning, if often confounding, career.
Now, it’s worth noting here that Albert Bouchard’s Imaginos demos– available on YouTube, and elsewhere – are everything the final BÖC Imaginos is not. The Bouchard Imaginos is a tough but inventive, nut-cracking record that sounds like an angry rock band out to prove something; even though much of the basic tracking and guest performances are the same as on the final cut, it has none of the bombast and flab of the BÖC version; it just sounds like interesting songs + loud amps + a lot of cigarettes + a small room. It is a fucking rock and roll record, and one that is trying to do and say something different. On top of that, since it’s a half hour longer and properly sequenced, it actually makes a tiny little bit of sense.
Now, the utterly bizarre thing here is that one of the songs on the Bouchard Imaginos that was left off of the BÖC version was the very piece that could have saved it.
The Bouchard demos feature an absolutely wonderful and affecting ballad called “The Girl Who Made Love Blind.” It’s a simple, soppy, sing-songy, almost child-like number that is not a hundred yards away from “Pale Blue Eyes” on one hand and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on the other hand. I have little hesitation in saying it is precisely what Imaginos could have used; it could have actually been the hit that the label was looking for. And no, I have no idea why “The Girl Who Made Love Blind” was left off the final record (and neither does Dan Levitin, though he confirmed that the song was never considered for the BÖC Imaginos sequence; the possibility exists that Bouchard was holding it back for himself).
As the thread unspools, it all seems terribly, terribly sad. In so very many ways, Imaginos was the raison d’etre for Blue Öyster Cult; Imaginos was to BÖC what surfing was to the Beach Boys or what the monarchy was to the Sex Pistols. And that inspiration led to the amazing, virile, over-read and over-sped Blue Öyster Cult, who read bad ‘70s biker porn and Burroughs and Voltaire while listening to the Grateful Dead and the MC5 and the Velvet Underground. And that it all came to this – not even a whimper, but a dribble from a senile, sedated beaten down dog — is just, well, despair-worthy. It’s sadder than a Frenchman in a Brothel, I tell you.
We know that Imaginos is a fairly crappy monument to the memory of Blue Öyster Cult. But considering it was a life-obsession of the great Sandy Pearlman (who, sadly, passed in 2016), does it serve as a good monument to him?
Dr. Daniel Levitin: “I think it’s a terrible monument to him, in that its promise was so much greater than was realized. I think that the failure to achieve his vision was depressing to him and although he kept working, I think the scar and exasperation stuck with him.”