It’s hard to know where to start with Blue Öyster Cult, a band very unlike any other in this series. Although they started out (under the name Stalk-Forrest Group) as a psychedelic boogie band and never really sounded at all metal as we now understand the term, they had perhaps more influence on the development of heavy metal than any other single group.
That influence has three main aspects.
First, BÖC were perhaps the first group whose music was described as “heavy metal”. The genre certainly existed before them (and arguably never really included them) but the name was first applied, by their manager Sandy Pearlman, to their music. Listening to that music it seems strange that songs so texturally and lyrically ambiguous should be described as metal — in fact you can make a case that they and their followers ought to have retained the use of the term, and that the bands we usually think of as metal should have just been referred to as heavy rock. Nevertheless, that seems to be the history.
Second, that umlaut over the “O” of “Oyster” is the first in a band name. Sources differ on whether it was the idea of keyboard player Alan Lanier or critic and occasional lyricist Richard Meltzer — the latter claims it was intended to evoke the epic music and storylines of Wagner. Either way, it’s been widely imitated since then, by bands as different as Motörhead, Queensrÿche and of course Spın̈al Tap.
But the music, Mike, what about the music?
Well, that’s the thing. It’s often said that Blue Öyster Cult were started as an American response to the British big three, especially Black Sabbath. But really they never sounded anything like any of their supposed inspirations, and especially not like Sabbath. They’re best known for the (rightly) ubiquitous jangly-guitar ballad (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and the similarly radio-friendly lesser hit Burnin’ For You, but those songs were taken from their fourth and eighth studio albums, and don’t at all represent the sound that first established their reputation. For that, you have to go back to their first three albums, the “black and white trilogy”: Blue Öyster Cult (1972), Tyranny and Mutation (1973) and Secret Treaties (1974).
And that sound was inventive, murky, unresolved, psychedelic, mysterious, thoughtful and — maybe most of all — lyrically impenetrable. The opening song on their first album begins with the line “With Satan’s hog no pig at all”. Even so relatively straightforward a song as the same album’s story about escaping the Canadian Mounted Police across the US border has the bizarre title I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep and features lines like “Hornswoop me bungo pony, dogsled on ice”. Workshop of the Telescopes (above) is equally difficult to make sense of, but full of historical and alchemical allusions that sell an atmosphere even while they don’t tell a story.
Frankly it’s impossible to tell what Blue Öyster Cult are talking about half the time. But that turns out to be part of the appeal: because although I can’t see exactly what they’re saying, it’s clear that they’re saying something. The songs drag you in because you find yourself wanting to see what’s behind the curtain.
And this, I think, is BÖC’s third and most important contribution to the genre of heavy metal. Even while the actual sound of their first album is muted and subdued, the lyrical approach set a template for exploring supernatural, historical and otherwise obscure topics. It’s more than just throwing in the occasional reference to alchemy or clairvoyance — at least in the Cult’s case, though their imitators have of course not often achieved the same sophistication. There’s a strong sense with BÖC that all or at least most of their songs form a single epic, a metastory reaching towards comprehension of some vast and ancient conspiracy whose roots we can never fully know. And that’s what makes them so powerful.
[It turned out 16 years after their debut album that in fact that there was such an underlying narrative that motivated or at least informed many of their songs. That story is called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, and is very slightly explained by the 1988 album Imaginos and its liner notes (which bear little relation to its actual songs). That back-story about as strange as you’d expect, and retains plenty of mystery even when you know — sort of — what it’s all about.]