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.

1 comment:

Bob Derringer said...

Been listening to BOC since 1974 and I still listen to them more than any other band, although Radiohead is my overplayed band today.