Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blue Oyster Cult Brainwashed Me

For a teenager with a creepy interest in the ephemera of the Second World War and in particular the German side of the conflict, the cover of Secret Treaties, the 1974 album by Blue Öyster Cult, the third in a series of quite wonderful tongue in cheek hard rock albums, was indeed fascinating and mysterious.

The cover featured a black and white drawing of the five band members standing in front of a Messerschmitt 262, the first working combat ready jet aircraft, introduced by the Luftwaffe in the dying months of the war in order to achieve a technological advantage intended to neutralise the superiority in numbers enjoyed by the Allied air forces. Unfortunately for the Germans it was really very little much too late. On the back cover of the album there was a different view of the ME 262 alone in a field, with wolves skulking around it. Instead of the swastika or the German cross commonly sported by its aircraft, the ME 262 sported the upside down cross/question mark that was the Cult's pagan style trademark.

The song titles were as fascinating: Career of Evil, Subhuman, Dominance and Submission, Cagey Cretins and the like. There was even a title track of sorts, in ME 262.

I knew all this because I spent a lot of time in Sigma Record bar studying record sleeves of records I never bought and Secret Treaties was one album I loved to look at. The name of the band was equally mysterious: Blue Öyster Cult! What did it mean? Where were they from?

I was too shy to ask anybody behind the counter if they knew anything about this band or even to listen to any of the tracks. My thing was to skulk behind the racks filled to the brim with album sleeves, hoping no one would notice me or ask what I was doing there week after week, flipping through the record sleeves but never buying anything, and making secret lists of the records I would buy if I had the money.

Some years later I started reading about BOC in the New Musical Express who was then on a punk crusade and did not care much for long haired, boring old fart American rockers even if they were supposedly intellectual and Sandy Pearlman, who would airbrush the production of Give 'Em Enough Rope for The Clash in a useless attempt to make the Brit punks palatable for the American market, produced them. A memorable heading to an article about BOC who was then touring the UK< mocked the short stature of a couple of their members but the writer also grudgingly admitted that he found their show surprisingly enjoyable. These guys knew how to rock and were not about bullshit rock star attitudes and took their heavy metal with a serious pinch of salt.

A fun fact about the band was that Allen Lanier, the keyboard player, dated Patti Smith, a heavy icon of the punks and the media who supported them, and she wrote the lyrics for a couple of BOC tunes.

Another fun fact or two is that the band was previously known as the Stalk Forest Group and Soft White Underbelly and once recorded a tune called A Fact About Sneakers.

It took Blue Öyster Cult four studio albums (plus a live effort), many years of hard work and the MOR FM radio blessed Don't Fear the Reaper before they became a household name with at least one certifiable classic, Classic Rock track to their credit, though they had plenty of really good tunes. It took me a while longer to become fully acquainted with the early sounds of the band.

Sigma Record bar in Andringa Street was for many years the one and only record shop in Stellenbosch. By the late Seventies their competition was Adrian & Don's Record Bar in the then fairly new Trust Bank Centre. When Adrian & Don went down, the Ragtime Records people, who owned a big and successful record store in the Golden Acre in the centre of Cape Town, decided to open up a franchise in the Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch and for a while going there was almost as exciting as visiting the parent branch in Cape Town but sadly the Stellenbosch shop lasted for no longer than a year before it too closed and had a massive closing down sale. I bought quite a few desirable records at this sale, including Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and the first three Blue Öyster Cult albums: Blue Öyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties. In a stroke I had caught up with the past of one of the great American rock institutions of the Seventies and beyond, the rarity in rock: a metal band beloved by critics. Of course this was many years after the release of the albums and by this time BOC was on the slick MOR metal of Mirrors but I did not care. The early BOC was the best cult for me.

I also have to mention that I had never thought I would ever in my lifetime come across those first two albums. To my mind they were kind of obscure in the world out there, and much more so in South Africa which was pretty far removed from the rest of the world back in the early Eighties. Coming across such objects of desire in Stellenbosch of all places was some kind of sign; not that I had known that I would desire Blue Öyster Cult before I saw the records in Ragtime Records.

My experience of heavy metal was mostly the British variety, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and the only American heavy rockers I remembered from early Seventies radio was Grand Funk Railroad, and then later I got into Kiss, at least in respect of their debut album, and most pleasurably, Aerosmith. The British bands tended to favour keyboards and were a bit pretentious – Purple, Heep – or used guitars like battering rams and shouted a lot – Sabbath – or were a tad precious like Led Zep after Stairway to Heaven. Grand Funk Railroad had been a radio favourite with We're An American Band, The Locomotion, Some Kind of Wonderful and others and seemed almost like a pop band, and when I bought their first two albums, I was almost shocked at the raw, stripped down primitivism of the music and the banal puerility of the music. They made Black Sabbath sound like intellectuals. Aerosmith was a whole lot better and in the days of the cliché of the buzz saw punk guitar they sounded spot on like pre-punks with loud, raucous and energized tunes that hit the spot for me.

In the context of these bands Blue Öyster Cult were a little bit different. The band featured keyboards, it had crunchy and melodic guitars, it had bad ass boogies and ballads, and it had long hair, flares and aviator shades. But somehow all of these elements seemed parodic, as if BOC was playing a big joke on all of us and, like Cheap Trick, who rose to prominence only a few years after BOC hit their commercial stride, they wanted to achieve fame and fortune and nookie by playing hard rock and throwing rock star shapes that were ever so slightly skewed, just not quite serious yet also not completely comic.

Blue Öyster Cult were influenced by science fiction and wrote intelligent short story like lyrics with their various collaborators like Michael Moorcock, and could also rock out as heavy as the hardest of the heavy. The favourite party trick was a four guitar line up at the end of their shows – how awesome is that?

The music on the first three albums is a mixture of very melodic guitar tunes and heavier riffs, all with intelligent, literate and often funny lyrics, way beyond the standard banal, sexist and stupid crap so often offered by your base metal bands. In fact, in lots of ways Blue Öyster Cult was simply a heavy pop band with sci fi leanings and did not much sound like the type of heavy metal goombahs that were most popular with the spotty teenage peer group of my high school years. Then Came The Last Days Of May from the debut album was set up like a short story, a pulp fiction style crime thriller. OD'D On Life Itself from Tyranny and Mutation was your basic guitar heaven crowd pleasing rock monster track that would have had the audience on its feet, fists punching the air from the off. In those first three albums BOC did not do standard love ballads but their penchant for writing for memorable tunes was a tonic to my ears and when they rocked out, the roof shook.

Alongside of early Aerosmith early Blue Öyster Cult was my top favourite heavy American band from the Seventies. Aerosmith represented dumb, dirty, gritty rock'n'roll with fuzzed out guitars and big attitude and unadulterated fun. Blue Öyster Cult represented rock music for the alienated teenager stuck in his bedroom, but feeling quietly superior because he found a heavy band that appealed to his intellect and his ass. I could play air guitar to Blue Öyster Cult and also chuckle at the amusing things they sang about. I got the joke and I shook my rump.

J Geils Band Wanna Suck On Your Gums

In 1974 one of the stranger and more interesting songs on the Radio 5 playlist was a soul style rock tune called I Must Of Got Lost by the weirdly named J Geils Band. Not ever seeing the song title in print and not being au fait with America slang, I thought the song must be called I Must Have Got Lost, as that was the proper English, and for all I knew the artists were the Jay Giles Band. I liked the song. It had a sing-a-long chorus and a great lyric about how easy it is to lose your love: you never see it coming but you always see it going.

I Must Of Got Lost ranks up there for me as one of the great Seventies tunes. The Seventies tunes that aren't bubblegum, boogie, glam, disco or Abba. Unfortunately the J Geils Band never made it back onto the Radio 5 playlist until the release of Freeze Frame in the early Eighties, kind of their commercial peak, but not the best of the band by a long chalk. In between there was a long, dry spell when J Geils simply did not feature on the South African airwaves.

Round about 1979 I was at Stellenbosch record bar (I think it might have been Sigma Records) one day when there was a whole bunch of albums in the "sale" bin and one of them was the "Live" Full House album by the very selfsame J Geils Band.

It was a live recording released in 1972, it featured a version of John Lee Hooker's Serves You Right To Suffer (at the time I was listening to a Greatest Hits album of his and was very interested in anything else featur4ing his composer credit) and band members featured on the photographs on the back cover looked weird and mean at the same time, especially the wonderfully named Magic Dick whose hair was a band member all of its own.

I believe I listened to the first couple of tracks at the counter top turntable, as one was still able to do in those days, and was immediately blown away, and bought the album right there and then for something like R1,99, which turned out to be one of the great record bargains of my life.

Suffice to say, "Live" Full House immediately became one of my top albums of all time, a frequent guest on my tape deck (once I'd taped the album to preserve the integrity of the vinyl) and a dead cert for inclusion on my desert island disc LP's along with Dr Feelgood's Malpractice, as two examples, from different sided of the Atlantic no less, of how white boys can play the R & B card with energy, commitment and a sense of humour.

The Geils boys came from Boston, and the album was recorded in Detroit, at the time the hard rock capital of the USA, but they sure did rock the house with the Boston Monkey vibe, Peter Wolf's jive and the incredible talent of Magic Dick who was the blues harp maestro of the band. The other guys were not shabby either. This was high energy the way it ought to be.

First I Look At The Purse opens the album, and if one ignores the chauvinistic lyric – the man cares not for his woman's looks if she has a lot of bank – it is one of the great set openers of all time, soon followed by an equally intense and frantic Homework. The old one-two knockout punch. I could just see the crowd instantly up on their feet at the first notes.

As a quick aside I must mention that in 2004 I bought Nick Hornby's book 31 Songs, because he discussed influential tunes in his life, but mostly because First I Look At The Purse was one of those songs and I figured that a book featuring this song, and the album, as a personal top favourite could not be too shabby a read. Some of Hornby's choices seem a tad strange given my own preferences and predilections, but I guess that is what a personal selection is all about. Perhaps my own choices are not as radical or interesting as I might fondly believe.

"Take out your false teeth, mama, I wanna suck on your gums" must be one of the funniest and weirdest things ever said on a rock'n'roll by a White boy, even if that jiving White boy is Peter Wolf, who was probably born black but just did not know it and so he settled for being a Jewish motormouth with a ghetto slang all his own. This opening line precedes Pack Fair And Square, a fast little boogie showcasing Magic Dick and his blues harp deluxe.

Then Magic Dick really gets it on with Whammer Jammer, and instrumental where he blows his face out and the band rollicks behind him in fine style. The tune is short but makes its mark. Many years later Whammer Jammer became a featured blues harp wailing number for Cape Town blues musician Rob Nagel in bands like All Night Radio and The Flaming Firestones. Just for this reason alone I really rated Nagel; if he could be into such a relatively obscure album, he must be the real deal.

The first side of the album ends with Hard Drivin' Man, a road song of sorts where Wolf really goads the happy and noisy crowd into a frenzy with his reference to various dance routines culminating in the so-called Detroit Demolition, which he probably made up on the spot. For the first time the eponymous J Geils makes a very audible appearance on guitar, and Seth Justman pounds the ivories as if he were channelling Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

After the power and energy of the opening side of the album, the band slows down a tad to get into the South side of Chicago groove of Serve You Right To Suffer, one of the few really great covers of John Lee Hooker songs. Peter Wolf turns what is actually something a hateful lyric into an almost comedy routine. At almost 10 minutes it is also by far the longest tune of the set, almost the equivalent of the bloated, lengthy jams boogie bands tend to slip into to make up time on their sets, but in this case there is no tedious or extraneous histrionics and the song almost seems to short. Seth Justman goes crazy on the Hammond B3 and J Geils gives every other living White bluesman a run for their money with a rip-roaring solo of extreme blues power.

J Geils Band close the show with another one-two knockout combo of the stomping R & B tunes, Cruisin' for A Love and Looking For A Love, that must have brought the crowd back to their feet, punching the air and generally getting down something fierce. Wolf and the boys took the crowd by the scruff of the neck, made them sweat, wrung them dry and wiped the floor with them. "Live" Full House is one of those albums, and the brevity of the set also has something to do with it, that I used to turn over and listen to again from side one as soon as Looking For A Love ended. It was very much like the brief yet intense rush of crack cocaine long before I had even heard of crack.

Definitely one of my desert island discs!

My next J Geils purchase happened to be Nightmares (and other tales from the vinyl jungle) the 1974 album from which I Must Of Got Lost was taken, and this album too was bought at a record sale at Sigma Records. The low price was the unique selling proposition because it seemed to me that from the track listing on the back that the blues part of the band had gone for a bit of a loop, and I remembered the wise words of some rock critic or other, referring to a later J Geils album, perhaps Monkey Island, that things tend to go wrong in funky R & B bands when the keyboard player takes over the songwriting function. I think the explanation was that keyboard players want to write and record sloppy ballads, showcasing their sensitive keyboard-playing ability and mawkish sentiments that seem to go hand in hand with the ballad fixation. Keyboard players tend to be musically educated and like to show off those chops, whereas the guitar player is more likely to play according to feel and groove.

Anyhow, Nightmares was a different kettle of fish to "Live" Full House and at first listen I was shocked by the difference and very glad I'd paid so little for it. I only like I Must Of Got Lost and the Magic Dick feature Stoop Down #39 which was about the only blues derivative on the album. J Geils had gone all sophisticated mid-Seventies soul infused funk and I was not sure I liked it all that much. The title track was not even much of a tune but more of a skit about, well, nightmares. Nightmares is not a bad album by any means, and it was a bit of a grower for me but it has never had the same visceral excitement as that live set.

In about 1982 J Geils Band popped up as pop-R & B hitmakers with Centerfold and I was happy for them that success was happening at last, or maybe it was a second round of success. Over the years I'd regularly read reviews of current releases, mostly in the NME who had an ideological thing about most American music made by White guys, and a particular dislike for White men who presumed to venture into what was considered to be a Black genre, and on the whole the NME writers panned J Geils Band. For this reason, and after my experience with Nightmares I made no effort to buy any more of their album. It must mean that I was shallow enough to be guided by the not necessarily infallible tastes of a bunch of prejudiced Brits, but I had limited resources and concentrated on records I believed would be worthwhile owning, although I must confess that price was always a serious consideration when it came to making the decision to buy something. If it were cheap, I did not mind taking a risk. J Geils Band simply did not seem like a risk worth taking. I preferred sticking to the unblemished perfection of "Live" Full House.

As an aside I should mention that it took me almost 17 years or so before I bought a CD version of "Live" Full House. In 2005 I was flipping through the electronic catalogue of Amazon when I looked up J Geils Band and saw that they had a terrific deal where you could buy the Houseparty J Geils Anthology double CD and get "Live" Full House thrown in at a special low, low price. I did the deal and waited for delivery. As it happened the albums were delivered to my office during my first ever overseas holiday.)

When I returned home I had the unadulterated pleasure of getting down and dirty to the Geils boys rocking the house in Detroit, and finding out more about their career as set out in the two CD's of the anthology. Some of the tracks were from "Live" Full House, and some from the first couple of albums, but most of them came from the middle part of their career and showcased a soulful R & B band growing ever slicker as time passed. Those early tracks were still the best, though.

I had in any event kind of caught up with the development of the J Geils Band by way of expanding my vinyl collection in the late 90s. There were a couple of music shops in Cape Town that still sold vinyl as well as CD's and they were Outlaw Records and Vibes Vinyl, both of which were favourite haunts of mine where I spent a lot of money over the years.

Vibes, in particular, had the best selection of records and it was from them that I bought The Morning After (the second album), Ladies Invited,
Love Stinks and a third live album. These albums represented the more sophisticated, progressive aspects of J Geils, with lots of good tunes had good playing and they brought joy in not the total adulation I had for "Live" Full House. By the time I bought the records, I had long since ceased to buy vinyl and my interest in J Geils Band was historical more than anything else, and the records were cheap. As had been my practice so many years before, I taped the albums and then put them away and listened only to my tapes. This selection of records represents the kind of collection where one could easily just lift a few tracks off each album and then make a decent double album. Not one of the records made compelling listening on their own and I was glad I had not paid full price for them and to this day I have not felt the need to replicate them in digital format. The Anthology double CD took care of that anyway.

The only J Geils album I would still like to own is the post Nightmares double live set Blow Your Face Out, Baby! that is a record of the band at the peak of their first taste of commercial success, playing stadiums and going large. It may be, as some critics claimed, bloated and self-indulgent but I believe it could well the same powerhouse set of high energy rock and blues and R & B represented by "Live" Full House.

The thing of life is that one can never regain the visceral excitement new discoveries bring, and you can never feel about records the same way you felt about them as teenager, whether you relisten to old favourites or hear new music, but new, previously unheard music is always interesting on first listen and if you are lucky you may well have a hint of that old feeling of orgasmic pleasure that a genuinely great record brought you once. J Geils was one of those bands, one of those unexpectedly delightful discoveries, and for this reason they will always rank in my estimation as being on par with Dr Feelgood and Cream.

How can you resist a record where the lead singer introduces the blues harp player with "On the lickin' stick: Mister Magic Dick!" ?