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.]
Ashamed to say I don’t know BOC very well at all. Some of what I have heard does sound like standard Seventies soft rock, but would like to check out more. Is there a particular album to start with?
It’s very hard to answer that question, Gavin. There’s a BOC FAQ out there somewhere that gives a long answer to the same question, and ends up recommending every single album as a reasonable entry point. I think it has to reach a little to achieve that, but there’s something in it. That’s because they’re not a band who made a lot of very similar albums from which you can just pick the one that’s best — they made wildly varying albums.
That said, I think you might enjoy Agents of Fortune: it’s their first step out of the black-and-white period, so it’s a bit less full-on with the conspiracy stuff while retaining plenty of that flavour, and the songs vary between pop, punk and legitimate heavy metal.
Actually, if it’s not too late, I changed my mind. A better à la carte selection would be provided by their second live album, Some Enchanted Evening. Unlike most live albums, it’s not a double, so it’s readily digestible. Its seven tracks include fine versions of four of the band’s out-and-out classics (Reaper, ETI, Godzilla and my favourite Astronomy) plus an easy-to-enjoy opener and two covers of classic songs that I like much, much more than the originals.
here is the FAQ entry I mentioned.
Interestingly – or not, depending on your perspective – two of the three BÖC albums I own are ‘Agents Of Fortune’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. The third is ‘Cultösaurus Erectus’, which I believe is generally regarded as one of their lesser releases. For some slightly indefinable reason, though, I love it: the track ‘Lips In The Hills’ works for me every time! Anyway, I’d agree that ‘AOF’ and ‘SEE’ offer good ‘points of entry’ if you’re interested in delving further, or exist simply as enjoyable releases in their own right. (FYI, Michael, ‘Secret Treaties’ has just been reissued on vinyl…)
I very nearly posted a second change-of-mind telling Gavin to get Secret Treaties instead :-) It’s a really hard choice. Extra Terrestrial Live ought to be the best entry point (a double live including all their best-known material and a good sampling across the eras) but it has the muddiest, tinniest, flattest sound of any album I know. Such a disappointment.
For what it’s worth, my impression has always been that Cultosaurus Erectus is among the most highly regarded of their albums, and there’s certainly a lot to like about it, including the crazy jazz interludes of Monsters and the calm relentlessness of Divine Wind. It arguably falls apart a bit on side 2, though.
Still, none of these is my favourite BÖC album. That will be revealed on another occasion!
It’s definitely all about the umlaut.
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No it’s all about the cowbell. I’ve been a huge fan of BOC for years and will always point to Secret Treaties as the ultimate starting point. Not one single filler on this album.
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The whole ‘Sandy Pearlman invented the term “heavy metal” as applied to a musical genre’ thing is a myth, unfortunately…
Interesting. Do tell.
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