When Blue Oyster Cult last saw fit to release a studio album, the newly elected US president George W Bush was busy arranging furniture in the White House, Holland had become the first nation to green-light same-sex marriages, and New York was still several months away from the 9/11 terror attacks. Yes, it was that long ago.
In stark contrast to the halcyon days of the 1970s and early 80s, when the Big Apple-resident band enjoyed a run of best-selling albums and even a global smash hit single, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, the new millennium saw them appear to run out of steam.
Classic Rock awarded that last album, 2001’s Curse Of The Hidden Mirror, a mere two stars out of five, and when lukewarm sales prompted their record label to quietly drop them, BOC’s days as a recording act seemed numbered.
Since then they have hardly seemed anxious to release new music. As recently as mid-2016, when Classic Rock enquired about the possibility, guitarist/frontman Eric Bloom replied: “I’ve no answer to that question, except that I’m open-minded.” When pressed on whether he would like to make a record, he shrugged: “Again, there’s no answer. Roger Daltrey says he won’t record again because he doesn’t want the results stolen. I feel the same.”
Thankfully, Daltrey had a change of heart, resulting in last year’s better-than-expected Who album Who. And now, against the odds, Blue Öyster Cult have also released one.
Three-and-a-half years down the line, Bloom and his guitarist-singer counterpart Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser both attribute their group’s revitalisation as a creative force to signing a contract with the Italian label Frontiers Records that began with a slew of reissues and archival live releases.
“Without a label we really hadn’t wanted to proceed,” Bloom insists. “Getting a record contract and having the financial wherewithal was what it took to get this done.”
“We had to overcome a fair bit of inertia to bring the project to fruition,” Buck Dharma admits, “but once the cobwebs had gone we became really excited about what we were doing. To a degree we had been happy to rest on our laurels and play our catalogue on stage for quite a few years. It had become apparent that with our last two albums that we weren’t selling a lot of records any more, but that didn’t bother us because we were doing very well as a live act.
“One thing that did change was that we’d had a really good line-up for a number of years, and we knew it was time to make one final record,” Dharma continues, before correcting himself. “This may be our last record or it may not, time will tell.”
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of Bloom and Dharma’s separately conducted interviews, both are anxious to hear Classic Rock’s opinion of The Symbol Remains. Awarded eight out of 10, it knocks its predecessor into the proverbial cocked hat. From the chuckle-inducing lyric ‘Is the glass half-empty, or is the skull half-full?’ (Box In My Head) to unexpected reunions with old bandmates and cryptic references to the past, it’s full of the little musical quirks and attention to detail that made their back catalogue so consistently fascinating. Suffice to say there won’t be many better classic rock albums released in 2020.
“Eric and I are very content with our legacy, but if we were going to do this then we couldn’t simply have phoned it in,” Dharma emphasises. “And what I like about the record is that it is so diverse.
In fact, three of the album’s 14 songs written by Dharma had previously found their way on to YouTube in demo form, with the guitarist playing all of the instruments. The rest are all contemporary compositions.
Although the band had begun piecing the album together a little over a year ago, during what we now recognise as more ordinary times, they were forced to complete it amid various quarantine-enforced conditions.
“We’d never worked in such a way before, but this is the 2020 version of how records are made,” Bloom observes sagely. “The backing tracks were already completed, but Buck and I recorded our parts via video-conferencing at our respective houses, directing them to the computer at Richie Castellano’s home.”
“What made it worse was that Eric was at his winter home in Florida and I was here at my own place in Maryland,” Dharma says. “But somehow, out there on Staten Island, Richie pulled it all together.”
Having started out as the band’s sound man, Castellano has played keyboards and guitar for BOC since 2004. The Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal (Guns N’ Roses)-mentored musician was a co-producer of the new record and a vital element in it being made, and Bloom has no hesitation in singling him out for generous praise.
“Richie was the album’s pivot man,” he states. “He became one of our three featured vocalists and also contributed several songs. We’re happy that the touring band [completed by bassist Danny Miranda, who played on Curse Of The Hidden Mirror, and comparative newcomer Jules Radino on drums] appears on a record at last. This is something new for BÖC fans.”
The band also opted to film a series of promo videos in as close to isolation as possible, using a deserted high school on Long Island equipped with its own mini-TV station.
“We all met there at eight-thirty a.m., everyone was wearing masks, and each guy did his part alone in front of the green screen,” Bloom explains. “We had the place for a day, and all together we did videos for four of the album’s songs.”
Long-time followers were delighted that the first of these, That Was Me, features a cameo from co-founding drummer Albert Bouchard, who belts the living daylights out of a cowbell (what else?) in its chorus. Bouchard was famously fired by the band before their Monsters Of Rock festival appearance at Castle Donington in 1981, and crew member Rick Downey took his place for what was a decidedly below-par display.
Although Bouchard was a key contributor to BOC’s ambitious 1988 album Imaginos, as a co-writer and co-producer alongside then-manager and lyricist Sandy Pearlman, he never officially rejoined.
“As you probably know, we did go to the UK with Albert [as a special guest] a couple of years ago,” Bloom explains, “and he was kind enough to be a part of that video and also to sing background vocals and play some percussion on the album. Albert freely admits that back in the day when he was let go, he was somewhat off the wall and there has been no bad blood between him and the band for a number of years.”
Could there be a set of circumstances in which Bouchard might someday reunite with the line-up?
“That’s not for me to say,” Bloom replies cautiously. “Given how far along things are [with the present line-up], and at our ages… I really can’t comment.”
The video for That Was Me also includes a wonderful homage to This Is Spinal Tap, with a roadside billboard advertising a fictional concert with Puppet Show as the headliner and BOC as support.
“It’s a little inside joke,” Bloom says with a chuckle. “We love that movie.”
That Was Me is one of five songs with lyrics by John Shirley. A regular contributor to the band from 1998’s Heaven Forbid onwards, the Texan sci-fi author was introduced to BOC by Pearlman 20 years ago.
“As well as writing novels and short stories, John is a musician with his own band, and he has become an important part of our creative process,” Bloom acknowledges. “In the past we have gone to John to help us fill in blanks, but he also emails over batches of lyrics that I keep in a folder. Many of those ideas have inspired me to write music. It’s a flexible process. And John is an offbeat guy. That’s why Pearlman put us together with him.”
Dharma reveals that prior to Pearlman’s death in 2016 he had considered approaching Sandy – a co-producer and key element of the band’s biggest-selling records from the 70s – about becoming involved again with Blue Oyster Cult.
“We were going to ask Sandy to contribute lyrics to The Symbol Remains, but of course he had his stroke and passed away,” he states sadly. “But we honoured him by using one of his lyrics as the title for the record.”
“I have a book of lyrics, and I went through every Pearlman song ever written [for BOC], scribbling down words and phrases,” adds Bloom.
The words ‘the symbol remains’ had first appeared in Shadow Of California, a song co-written by Pearlman, Bouchard and Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith that appeared on BOC’s 1983 album The Revolution By Night. In the past the group’s records have had many such hidden signposts for the listener to excavate and savour.
“We like to put in things that the hard-core fans can latch onto and make them feel special,” Bloom says with a smile.
While many rock musicians of advancing years become detached from their fan base, Bloom admits he likes to keep abreast of the conspiracy theories and interpretations of BOC’s music offered by their supporters.
“Sometimes the fans are right and others they’re wrong – but I rarely correct that,” he says, laughing. When asked the reason why, he chortles dismissively.
“Aaah, years ago somebody out there wrote: ‘I love that song Harvester Of Eyes [from 1974’s Secret Treaties] where it says: ‘You get laid in the hay.’ That’s not the lyric at all, but it’s better than what we wrote.”
Just like BOC’s fans, Bloom and Dharma are understandably disappointed that their tour of Europe as guests of Deep Purple has been delayed by a year, until October 2021.
“Hopefully the germ will have died by then, and we can all remove our masks and get back together again,” says Dharma.
If so, expect the band to repeat their original intention of bolting on selected headline dates.
“That’s the plan – to maximise our time,” Dharma explains.
With the band having started out as Soft White Underbelly and had other names, including StalkForrest Group, before they took on their current moniker, Blue Oyster Cult’s history is fairly convoluted, although it’s universally acknowledged that they began life in 1971.
“Well, I joined in 1969, but that’s probably a true statement,” Bloom says.
In which case, 2021 will mark the group’s fiftieth anniversary. By anybody’s standards, that’s a pretty amazing feat.
“I suppose we’ll mark it somehow, it depends on how much energy we have left,” Dharma deadpans. Bloom isn’t quite so sure.
“Oh, I don’t know that there will be anything special,” he states.
No box sets, documentaries, coffee-table books?
“I’m more worried about what will be happening next week,” he shrugs.
And so we leave the pair, excited but slightly nervous as to how the world will respond to an album that many BOC fans never expected to be made.
“For me, the most important thing of all was for us not to put out crap,” Bloom states firmly. “Don and I were sure we wouldn’t do that. When you’re a band like us you can’t just fool people – you know, scribble down a bunch of lame stuff and put it out – or you’ll end up with egg on your face.
“We have a bit of a reputation,” he concludes with pride. “Okay, maybe some records weren’t as good as others. But even our bad records – if there were any – are better than those by some other bands.”