Desert island albums #3: Blue Öyster Cult — Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)

In this very occasional series, I am writing about the ten albums that I would take with me to a desert island. The idea is based on the long running BBC Radio series Desert Island Discs, of course; but I am giving myself entire albums rather than individual tracks, and I am having ten of them instead of the regulation eight. Hey, it’s my series, I can do what I want. [Previously: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, and Rainbow’s Rising.]

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Several of the ten albums are recognised classics. (Yes, I’ve chosen them all already, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I’ll change my mind on one or more of them before this series is completed.) I guess that’s because they’re classic for a reason. I’ve already written about Hejira by Joni Michell, who is generally regarded as the 20th Century’s greatest singer-songwriter. I’m probably not giving too much away if I say that I’m going to go on to write about one of the best-selling albums of all time, and about an album by the most acclaimed band ever.

In a sense I’m happy about that. It’s a sort of validation of my choices. To feel that the world agrees with me about some of my selections is to feel that, hey, I’m right.

But because this is a personal selection, I have to pick the albums that, deep in my soul, I love – even if the rest of the world doesn’t see it. That means that I won’t be writing about Carole King’s Tapestry or the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? (even though I love both of those albums, and they didn’t fall far short of making the cut). Instead, I’m going to write about the Blue Öyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin (1981) – an album that doesn’t appear on any of the collaboratively sourced 500 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die lists. In a sense, I can understand why it doesn’t. It’s very much an album of its time, the early 1980s, when synthesizers were de rigeur. The production is weak – even the most recently remastered versions are inexplicably tinny, making a very poor comparison to contemporary releases by, say, Michael Jackson. But I can’t not love Fire – because it’s endlessly inventive yet tonally consistent, pervasively sinister yet a great singalong album. And also, I suppose, because I first loved it at the age of 14, when I was fertile ground.

By the time they released Fire of Unknown Origin, Blue Öyster Cult had already been a going concern for well over a decade. They started out in the late 1960s, under the mentorship of poet and producer Sandy Pearlman, as a psychedelic boogie band. Under various different band names, they released two albums – one of them apparently lost, the other now available as St. Cecilia, credited to the Stalk-Forrest Group. That was to be only the first of several distinct phases in their history.

Things really changed when Pearlman heard Black Sabbath and decided that this heavy metal style was the coming thing. He changed the band’s name, critic Richard Meltzer gave them the distinctive umlaut over the “O” of “Oyster” – the first appearance of the heavy-metal umlaut – and they steered their music in a heavier direction. In effect, the newly constituted Blue Öyster Cult were a parody of Black Sabbath, a comedy tribute, the Spın̈al Tap of their time. But, as a Kerrang! retrospective observed in 1981, people didn’t buy the joke, they bought the xerox.

At least, that’s the standard version of the origin story. Listening now to the self-titled 1971 album that was their proper debut, it’s hard to find any thread of commonality with Black Sabbath. Where the British band were all leaden riffs, repetition, and simplification, their American supposed counterparts instead produced clever, intricate songs with sophisticated harmonic structures, tricky time-changes, and perfectly constructed set-piece endings. Plenty of psychedelic leanings remained from the band’s earlier work, and with the sole arguable exception of “Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll”, there is really nothing on the album that sounds even remotely like heavy metal as we now understand the term – or indeed that sounds remotely like Black Sabbath.

Instead, that first album is a truly unique dark blend of rock, balladry, boogie and acid-trip-gone-wrong psychedelia. Its lyrics are by turns paranoid, bombastic, and just plain impenetrable – sometimes all three at once. Even the song titles – “Then Came the Last Days of May”, “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot”, “Workshop of the Telescopes”, “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” – are evocative, threatening and sometimes baffling. It’s an album that I love deeply, and I could easily have chosen it ahead of Fire as my desert island album.

Their debut, together with their next two albums – 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and 1974’s Secret Treaties – constitute the band’s “Black and White” period, named after the nearly-monochrome album covers. That period was nicely wrapped up with the epic 1975 double live album On Your Feet or On Your Knees, and followed by a reinvention. 1976’s Agents of Fortune, while very much continuing the conspiracy/paranoia themes of the earlier recordings, was a much more accessible sound – and to my mind, a much more uneven album than its predecessors. The high points include the only song most people know them by, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” — a gorgeous song fully deserving its reputation. But several of the tracks, especially on the second side, feel like throwaways. 1977’s Spectres tried to replicate Agents of Fortune‘s commercial success with a similar formula, but although it yielded a minor hit in the gloriously stupid stomp-along “Godzilla”, it didn’t sell as well as its predecessor. Another live album followed in 1978 (Some Enchanted Evening, generally considered as their best), followed by the absolute nadir of the Cult’s ill-advised quest for commerciality: Mirrors (1979), which the band apparently refer to as Errors. Produced by Tom Werner, better known for his work with Cheap Trick, it’s virtually impossible to believe that this light, throwaway sideshow was created by the same band that had made that deeply fascinating eponymous debut only eight years earlier.

Realising that they’d taken a wrong turn, Blue Öyster Cult shifted into another phase. They recruited heavy metal legend Martin Birch to produce their next album, seeking to rediscover their heart and guts with the aid of the man who had produced classic albums by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Rainbow and others. This union resulted in Cultosaurus Erectus (1980), another album of surprises. Sometimes heavy, sometimes brooding, often driven by narrative, and with distinctly jazzy interludes, Cultosaurus is widely regarded by fans as among their best albums. It was not particularly successful in terms of sales, but re-established their reputation as an ambitious, experimental band, drawing back fans who had lost interest during the descent into Mirrors.

All of which — finally — brings us to 1981, and the Cult’s eighth studio album. They were firing on all cylinders as they approached Fire, again with Birch at the helm. The result was an album of just nine tracks, none of them especially long, but every single one a classic of its kind. As with all BÖC’s best work, what makes it work is what’s implied rather than stated. For several of the songs, it’s difficult to say exactly what they’re about; but there is a common theme running through the album, tying them together, of a gnawing, nameless dread – a sense that something awful is threatening, or perhaps running, the world. Yet, paradoxically, several of the songs are downright joyful as songs – hence the comment earlier about it being a great singalong album. (My three sons and I routinely do sing along with it in the car, or sing a-capella versions when we don’t have the CD to hand. Poor Fiona just sits huddled in the passenger seat waiting for it to end. What can we do? She’s a classical musician. She’s just not made for this kind of music.)

I don’t usually go through these desert-island albums track-by-track. But I’m going to do it his time, because the nature of the album only really emerges as the sequence develops.

Fire of Unknown Origin opens with its title track: four big chords, then we’re into a surprisingly hummable guitar-and-synth riff underpinned by a burbling bass part. Then the vocal entry: a fresh yet disturbing metaphor that is absolutely representative of the album. “Death comes sweeping through the hallway / In a lady’s dress // Death comes driving down the highway / In its Sunday best”. Straight away, we’re off kilter. The three-note riff that follows each couplet repeats six times after “lady’s dress” but eight times after “Sunday best”. This kind of subtle variation crops up repeatedly across the album, and prevents the listener from ever becoming too comfortable. “Fire of unknown origin took my baby away” howls the chorus, twice, but what is the fire? Well, that we never discover. Again, typically, we’re left to figure out for ourselves what this alludes to. Then there’s the guitar solo: short, sweet, to the point, and played in thirds by two guitars together. Cold, alien synths decorate the fade-out and the end of the song: a new element, appearing for only a few second, and once more knocking our expectations out of their grooves.

The second song, “Burning For You”, is better known. (Along with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Godzilla”, it makes up the so-called “Big Three” Blue Öyster Cult songs – the ones that can never be omitted from any live performance.) It was a moderate hit as a single, but its immediate approachability conceals an idiosyncratic quality. While the chorus uses the same Am-G-F-G progression as “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the verse is harmonically more adventurous, its guitar part played in an almost reggae style on the off-beats, with a subtle reverse echo — you hear the echo before the sound itself. Even more unexpected is the drum part in the second part of the instrumental introduction, rolling into the downbeat, skipping the next beat completely, and scampering in short off-beat figures. Lyrically, “Burning For You” is a kind of a love song, but as so often with this band the words are allusive, and full of disconnected images that build up an impression rather than making a statement.

The next two songs seem to make up a suite: “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” is a monumental, shambling heavy ballad with a distinctively tortured guitar solo, and portrays the veteran’s broken-down psychological state in the first person. “Sole Survivor” tells what might be the story of that same veteran, haunted by guilt and loneliness, and unable to accept the offer of rescue when it finally comes. As with “Burning for You” (and much of his other work), Buck Dharma’s guitar solo is restrained, thoughtful, absolutely in keeping with the song that it serves. Dharma (real name: Donald Roeser) is certainly capable of guitar pyrotechnics when the mood takes him, as the various live versions of “Astronomy” amply demonstrate. But if I had to pick one phrase to describe his style it would be “well-judged” – not a quality that one usually associates with hard-rock guitarists.

Closing side 1 of the record is the unapologetic heavy metal howl of “Black and Silver”, founded on gigantic guitar riffs and always on the very brink of dissolving into feedback. The lyric is more then usually inarticulate, essentially a stream of disconnected sci-fi phrases. There’s a reason for this: in a hurry to produce a lyric, Pearlman simply lifted the chapter titles from Adrian Berry’s rather *ahem* speculative non-fiction book The Iron Sun: Crossing The Universe Through Black Holes. (I know this sounds like an urban legend: it’s not, as I proved to myself by buying a second-hand copy of the book.)

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I do miss sides. An album like Fire of Unknown Origin isn’t just nine consecutive songs, its a side of five songs and another of four. I feel like I ought to make a new MP3, “05a. Change Sides.mp3”, consisting a little static, some silence, and then sound of the needle descending for side 2.

Anyway, side 2 begins with what feels like an epic – though in fact it’s less than five minutes long. “Vengeance (The Pact)” is the most narrative-driven song on the album, efficiently sketching a military skirmish, the pact to defend or avenge, and how that pact works out. The song comes in several sections, pretty seamlessly joined, and if anything it feels like the work of early Genesis had they had a harder edge. The song in fact describes a sequence from the film Heavy Metal, and was intended to be used in that film. In the event, the producers felt that the song covered the story segment so comprehensively that there was no need for both it and the on-screen action. Instead, they used “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” in the film.

“Vengeance”, though, is particularly powerful for me. For reasons that I can’t explain, my brain has inextricably tied the sound of this song to a game that I wrote on my VIC-20 – just as it’s tied the whole of Pink Floyd’s Meddle album (and particularly the song “A Pillow of Winds”) to Infocom’s seminal text adventure Zork II (and particularly the cobwebby passage southwest of the Carousel Room). I suppose this is an intermittent and limited form of synaesthesia. The upshot is that “Vengeance” brings back to me a whole phase of my life: applying the BASIC skills I’d learned on a PET 2001 and a Video Genie to my new VIC-20, waking up every morning at 6:30 so I could fit in a couple of hours’ programming before school, and sending my games off to magazines and publishers. (Your Computer magazine published the specific game that “Vengeance” most strongly reminds me of, in their type-in-programs section. I think they paid me £15. I have a scan of the published version, retitled from my own anaemic name Quest to the even worse Goldgrabber. I must post it some time.)

This is classic evocative-power-of-music stuff, I suppose. Nick Hornby writes about how Solomon Burke’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind” reminds him of his first kiss; I write about how Blue Öyster Cult’s “Vengeance (The Pact)” reminds me of programming a VIC-20 in my parents’ front room at 6:30 on school mornings. What a strange thing the human race is: joined by the very experiences that divide us.

Onward to “After Dark”, the second song on side two: this album’s contribution to BÖC’s favourite theme, falling in love with vampires. This one is infectious, with a very singable bassline, distinctive synth pulses, and a snarled vocal. As with so many songs on this album, it keeps you on your toes – this time, by reversing the order of the lines in consecutive choruses. It’s little touches like this that keep the album fresh to my ears, even after thirty-something years of listening to it. Also: “After Dark” has just about the best ending of any hard rock song I know, ramping up into hysteria, on the edge of losing control, but finishing powerfully and cleanly.

“Joan Crawford” begins with a classical piano intro before breaking into brutal guitar chords and then some of the most bizarre lyrics of any BÖC song. Joan Crawford, apparently, has risen from the grave – accompanied by herds of shimmering angels, a chorus of Catholic schoolgirls, and junkies with eyes the colour of frozen meat. Once more, the psychedelia has gone sour. The song breaks down into a sound collage over chugging guitars – I am reminded powerfully of the similar section in the Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning”, and suspect a conscious homage – before finishing on ever more intense repeats of the chorus, building to …

Well, to a sudden transition into the final song, “Don’t Turn Your Back” – this one a compelling, downbeat yet relaxed groove that makes a stark contrast with what has preceded it on side two. The Cult have used this trick before: at the end of Secret Treaties, the frenzied ending of “Flaming Telepaths” segues abruptly into the peaceful opening of the album closer, “Astronomy”. It worked well back in 1974; it works even better at the end of Fire, pulling the rug away from under the listener yet again. “Things are not always what they seem”, they sing later in this final song, and that is a fine summary of the album. For that matter, things are not always as they sound. Unlike the three other songs on side two, “Don’t Turn Your Back” resolutely resists reaching a climax, but continues smoothly, even soothingly, into a low-key ending that does not resolve to the tonic. It leaves the whole album feeling like a promise: it has reached an end, but not a conclusion. There is more to come.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t more to come, not really. Fire of Unknown Origin was the last album recorded by the classic BÖC line-up. On the subsequent tour, drummer and musical inspiration Albert Bouchard was fired for one transgression too many (sources are strangely opaque on what it was he actually did), and things were, in retrospect, never the same. Another double-live album followed in 1982, Extra Terrestrial Live, but it lacks conviction to my ears – and the production is awful even by BÖC standards, a muddy mess that somehow contrives to lack bass, middle and treble. The next studio album, 1983’s The Revolution By Night, has a strong side one, but it all falls apart on side two. And 1986’s Club Ninja really only has one memorable song – Buck Dharma’s “Perfect Water” standing out like a sore thumb from the mediocrity that surrounds it on an album really no better than Mirrors. After that, BÖC history gets complicated, and it’s probably best to draw a veil over it for now … until I have time to write properly about 1988’s Imaginos some day.

Blue Öyster Cult have always been a difficult band to tie down. Their work has covered so many styles, with such highs and such lows, that you can’t really sum them up beyond noting that there is always the slightly conspiratorial note in their music, the implication of great and terrible things happening off-stage. Because their work has varied so much, it’s impossible to pick one of their albums and say “This is the best one”, in the way that (say) you can clearly point to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as his best work, or Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales. For this reason, the BÖC FAQ created by John Swartz hedges outrageously in answering the question “What is the “best” BOC album?”, essentially listing everything they’ve recorded as worthy of consideration.

But to my mind, Fire of Unknown Origin is their high-point: the album where they most successfully married their sense of the uncanny with sheer songcraft, superb arrangements and finely judged performances. As with so many of my favourite albums, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and Fire always conjures something in my psyche. Although it’s primarily a sci-fi-themed album, the best word for it may be “magical’.

9 responses to “Desert island albums #3: Blue Öyster Cult — Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)

  1. Richard G. Whitbread

    ‘She’s a classical musician. She’s just not made for this kind of music.’

    Honestly, Michael, one does not have to preclude the other. Otherwise, a great review. Looking forward to the rest of the series (although I can’t help feeling I’m destined to be denied – yet again – an inclusion on the UFO front.)

  2. In the way these things work, I have recentl finished reading the latest Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) The Cormoran Strike Novel “Career of Evil”, which includes Blue Öyster Cult lyrics. Many, many Blue Öyster Cult lyrics… I go through many decades of never thinking about them, and then suddenly they are everywhere. The only point of interest I would add is that Career of Evil (off Secret Treaties) was written by Patti Smith, who, with as my trivia knowledge related to music reminds me, wrote a number of BÖC songs, and once was the girlfriend of the keyboard player. Great choice Mike, and I see I will have to do something similar, but I am not sure my choices will be as eclectic as yours!

  3. And can you use your Vic20 to allow editing of my typos…

  4. Deep Purple – Machine Head should be #1

  5. Well, Joe, I will say that Machine Head didn’t make the top-10 cut, but it is in the “runners up” group of fifteen other albums that I seriously considered.

  6. Mike, erudite take on the BOC progression. I’m flattered by your inclusion of “Fire” in your best list, as well as the depth of your interest in the band. As I was when I discovered J.K. Rowling wrote “Career Of Evil.”

    I followed a link to your site, my buddy has a google search on all things Blue Oyster Cult. I salute you and yours. Happy to have discovered your blog.

  7. Wow — I am amazed and delighted to have the real Buck Dharma read and comment on my blog! Put it together with a positive tweet from bassist Albert Bouchard, and 40% of Blue Oyster Cult have read and commented on my post!

  8. Pingback: Desert island albums #4: The Beatles — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 14 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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