Everybody – even those who don’t know Blue Öyster Cult from Southern Death Cult - knows the 1976 hit (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. It featured in that ‘more cowbell’ sketch on Saturday Night Live in 2000, and has been front-loaded onto dad rock compilation albums ever since.
But the NY art metal band’s vault is loaded with treasure that aren’t (Don’t Fear) The Reaper or the second and third best B.Ö.C. songs ever: Godzilla and Metallica’s favourite Astronomy. Prepare, then, to enter a clandestine world of S&M-loving siblings, invading extra-terrestrials and naked motorcycle gangs, with 10 of their underrated best…
Hot Rails To Hell
When bank clerk Mark Perry published the first issue of his punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue in 1976 he put two names on the cover: The Ramones and B.Ö.C. Hot Rails To Hell (from ‘73’s Tyranny And Mutation) explains why. It’s 60s garage rock rebooted with a mutant surf pop guitar riff. Like Iggy And The Stooges, if Iggy Pop looked like a member of Blue Öyster Cult, ie, a weed-smoking newly qualified 70s college lecturer in a leather waistcoat, and wrote songs about out-of-control subway trains instead of wanting to be your dog.
Dominance And Submission
Melody Maker critics voted the Cult’s third LP, Secret Treaties, the best rock album of 1974. Among its devotees were future members of The Clash who would later hire its producer Sandy Pearlman. Its highlight, Dominance And Submission, is prime proto-punk: a snotty riff over which frontman Eric Bloom sings about hearing The Beatles on a car radio while a brother and sister are embroiled in some unspecified, but clearly questionable act in the back seat. You didn’t get such perversion from Nazareth or Uriah Heep.
ETI (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) – Live Version
Always the poor relation to B.Ö.C.’s double live LP On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, 1978’s Some Enchanted Evening does, however, contain a bludgeoning version of this Agents Of Fortune standout, ETI. ‘Awful truth, Balthazar’ intones Eric Bloom on the only song ever to namecheck one of the Bible’s three wise men. Incidentally, the solo at the end was one of the great ‘Wilson tennis-racket-in-front-of-the bedroom mirror’ moments in early Thatcher’s Britain – until Judas Priest released Living After Midnight.
The Revenge Of Vera Gemini
Like Rush’s Neil Peart, B.Ö.C.’s original drummer Albert Bouchard was a proper smart-alec. Co-written by Bouchard with keyboard player Allen Lanier’s girlfriend Patti Smith, this spooked sounding Agents… deep cut has Smith reciting its eerie opening lines. An abstruse song about ‘fishes’, ‘snakes’ and ‘a false, nervous squid’ it actually conjures up an image of a man digging his own grave in the middle of the desert – at gunpoint.
The Golden Age Of Leather
B.Ö.C.’s forté has always been killer riffs spliced with 60s pop harmonies. The Golden Age Of Leather from 1977’s Spectres has both (just listen to those Pet Sounds-style vocals at 3:36 min), but also explores three of their pet obsessions: sex, bike gangs and, er, leather. The Cult’s MC indulge in some ritualistic act which involves removing their leather clothing and raising their ‘can of beer on high’. Imagine a Hells Angel’s wedding band playing the Beach Boys’ greatest hits.
The Marshall Plan
1980 was a tricky year for Blue Öyster Cult: too old to fight Iron Maiden, too nerdy to steal Van Halen’s groupies, and, dear oh dear, those moustaches… As a bid for the booming teenage metal boy market, they wisely stuck a dinosaur on the cover of their new album, and called it Cultosaurus Erectus. Penises and monsters. What could go wrong? The Marshall Plan was a great fan-becomes-rock-star story song. But unlike Foreigner’s Jukebox Hero, which told the same story, B.Ö.C. poked fun at themselves with knowing lyrics and clever use of the riff from Smoke On The Water.
Squirreled away on side two of Cultosaurus Erectus, Hungry Boys — composed by Albert Bouchard and his bass-playing brother Joe — is absurdly catchy power pop; think B.Ö.C. moonlighting as The Cars. Yet behind its chipper chorus, hammering piano and vogeuish syn drum is a bleak, barely ambiguous lyric about shooting heroin; a drug that had inveigled its way into the group by this time.
Burnin’ For You
This US Top 40 hit from 1981 came closest to matching (Don’t Fear) The Reaper for overall vibe and sales. Like … Reaper it was sung by guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser. And like Roeser’s other great songs (see: Shooting Shark, below) the romantic yearning and chiming guitar is undercut by great melancholy. Only Blue Öyster Cult could sing the line ‘time to play B-sides’ and make it sound like both a veiled threat and an act of foreplay. What a riff, though…
Most 70s rock bands released records in 1983 that sounded like they’d made by robots on cocaine. B.Ö.C.’s Revolution By Night was no exception. The album’s modest hit was written by Buck Dharma and Patti Smith, and is a love-gone-wrong song (‘So I gave away the pictures/ and your golden ring…’) in which romantic woe is played out over a mesmeric synth drums and some proper honking Hill Street Blues theme song-meets-80s porn movie saxophone.
Nobody needs any Blue Öyster Cult album made after 1981. But this was a rare gem on ‘98’s forgettable Heaven Forbid. Harvest Moon, a song about a haunted farmhouse that somehow mentions ‘sheep’, ‘goats’ and ‘grandma’ without sounding anything less than wholly believable, also sounds like the bastard offspring of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and Burnin’ For You. But everything, not least that lovely jangling guitar hook, is delivered with such panache it could be 1976 all over again. More cowbell, please…