Blue Oyster Cult
Career of Evil
by Pete Crigler
In the '70's, if you were a rock fan you had a few choices. But if Kiss seemed too scary, Judas Priest were too heavy, Led Zeppelin were too bluesy and Deep Purple too bland, then you always had Blue Oyster Cult. They were one of the most distinct and different bands of the era. Great musicianship, intriguing lyrics and a phenomenal stage presence all helped to make them one of the defining bands of the era. Their downfall was just as swift as their rise but they're still out there plugging away on the oldies circuit with bands like April Wine, Foreigner and the bloated carcass of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But things weren't always that way.
The band got started in the mid-sixties as some psychedelic bullshit. They came together in New York with a lineup that eventually centered on drummer Albert Bouchard, guitarist Donald Roeser, known to the world as Buck Dharma, guitarist/singer Eric Bloom, keyboardist/guitarist Allen Lanier, and eventually bassist Joe Bouchard. But that wouldn't come until later; after a brief stint with singer Les Brownstein and another bassist, the band hooked up with producer/songwriter/manager/Svengali Sandy Pearlman who decided to help find the group a major label deal. But at the time they weren't the BOC we all know and love, after going through some really shitty names (Soft White Underbelly, anyone?), they settled on The Stalk-Forrest Group and snagged a deal with Elektra Records.
After recording for what seemed like a lifetime, Elektra dubbed the record of material they had come up with as not good enough and it was promptly shelved. It was eventually released in 2001 as St. Cecillia: The Elektra Recordings. Defeated by this turn of events, the band's bassist split, to be replaced by Joe Bouchard. The band beefed up their songwriting and also went a bit heavier in their musical approach. Through persistence, they ended up going with Columbia Records and together with Pearlman, entered the studio and began recording their first record as the newly dubbed Blue Oyster Cult.
Sandy Pearlman had always been an interesting guy and had taken a shine to the occult and mysticism and all sorts of weirdo stuff and tried to push that on the band. It seemed that the Bouchard brothers were the main guys taken by Sandy's spell and that would result in some truly fascinating songs over the years but on the first record, the band wanted to get their name out there. 1972's self-titled debut disc didn't make much of a splash but it really got the ear of critics, who were blown away by what they heard. Tracks like "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to the Stars" were unlike anything heard on FM radio at the time. Then there's something like "She's as Beautiful as a Foot," a quirky track that needs to be heard to be believed. The first record shows them getting their feet wet, showing off what they were capable of without giving you all of it at one time. The songs are a bit rough but the edge is already there, something that would soon set the Cult apart from all the other FM rock bands. This record was an early experiment, sort of weeding out what worked in the band's early repertoire and what didn't. Among those in the rock establishment that really became interested were critic of note Richard Meltzer and future punk priestess Patti Smith, both of whom would end up contributing lyrics over the years. Patti was even Allen Lanier's longtime girlfriend at the time.
When it came time for the sophomore record, Tyranny and Mutation, the band's sound began to gel. The dynamic guitars of Buck and Bloom, the pounding and outstanding rhythm section of the Bouchard brothers and Allen holding everything together with keyboards and sharp harmonies- the band couldn't be beat. They had re-recorded a crucial song from the first disc, retitling it "The Red & the Black," and they suddenly had one of their signature tracks. Tyranny is a more all-around rockin' effort, particularly on "Red & Black" and "Hot Rails to Hell." The band were really on fire, both in studio and live and this effort shows them at their early best. The record did its job of moving the band to the next level so by the time the next record, Secret Treaties, was released it helped to make them more recognizable than ever. The record was their most streamlined effort to date, showing how determined they were to get themselves some airplay and it achieved that to a certain extent. "Career of Evil" is one of their best tracks with its great riff and excellent lyrics (written by Patti Smith) and "Astronomy" is one of the best classic rock songs of the era, because it was so different and stood out from the rest of the rock songs on the radio in 1974 and is still in rotation today.
Unfortunately, record sales weren't up to snuff and after their first live disc, the band settled down to make Agents of Fortune. With this album, their legend would be made. For with this disc, the guys managed to make one of the greatest songs about death EVER, "Don't Fear the Reaper." Now I'm a God-fearing man, but I will take a powerful song about suicide and the grim reaper any day of the week. The song is just amazing and has held up all these years later. Thanks to the Will Ferrell "Cowbell" sketch from Saturday Night Live in 2001, the song really will live forever. It's become one of the immortal classics of '70's rock. It also became the band's biggest hit and pushed Agents of Fortune to platinum status. The album also contained one of my all-time personal favorites "This Ain't the Summer of Love," which gives a big middle finger to the hippie generation. It also has one of their coolest tracks, "The Revenge of Vera Gemini," which features dueling vocals from Joe Bouchard and Patti Smith. Ultimately, AOF was their mainstream breakthrough and as stated above, "Reaper" is still a fuckin' jam to this day. At this point, the band were on top of the world but they would have to struggle to stay there.
After releasing their definitive live album, Some Enchanted Evening, the band continued their breakneck pace of recording. With the release of Spectres, the band unleashed one of my all-time favorite Cult tracks, "I Love the Night," which is almost poetic in its lyrics and the mood the song sets is just incredible. By this point, the band were stretching a bit; Spectres shows the band coming off the monster success they had just had. "Godzilla," always a live showcase, is now as synonymous with the creature as the films themselves, but this record was a bit of a slip. It just wasn't altogether up to snuff with their previous records.
Following the record in decent succession with Mirrors and Cultosaurus Erectus, the band found their popularity slipping and cresting. The sales weren't there and they weren't having any more major hit singles. Allen Lanier's "In Thee" was the closest thing the band had as a hit and that song peaked at #74. The band had already parted with Sandy Pearlman near the end of the seventies and had paired up with producer Martin Birch for Erectus and they decided to carry on with him for the follow-up, 1981's Fire of Unknown Origin. This time the band tried something different; they wrote stuff that was tailor-made for radio and the infantile MTV. It worked too; the band ended up having their other major hit, "Burnin' for You," sung and written by Buck Dharma, fresh off his only solo album. This was actually my first introduction to the Cult when I was a child and I loved the song then as much as I do now. Though the video is a bit cheesy, it told the world the band could survive in a new musical atmosphere. Over the next couple of years artists like Atlanta Rhythm Section, Christopher Cross, Quarterflash and countless others fell by the wayside because they couldn't keep up with MTV and the shifting tides but the Cult kept on going.
After releasing one more live album in '82, drummer Albert Bouchard left the band after years of simmering tension. Replacing him with one Rick Downey, the band continued recording, releasing The Revolution by Night in 1983, having its last Top 100 hit with "Shooting Shark," co-written by Patti Smith. The record sold decently but it was clear that their time was coming to an end. Over the next couple of years, even Allen Lanier temporarily departed. By the time their next album, 1986's Club Ninja, which saw them reunited with Pearlman, the writing was on the wall. Though "Dancing in the Ruins" was a rock hit and garnered some airplay on MTV, the sales just weren't there. Then Joe Bouchard left and was replaced by a revolving door of bassists. And then, something really interesting happened.
Albert Bouchard and Sandy Pearlman had had this long-running idea running through their heads and they had written a bunch of songs that was going to be Albert's solo album. From Wikipedia (because I couldn't make heads or tails of this damn record): "Imaginos weaves scripts and poems by Pearlman, dating from the second half of the 1960's, into a concept album and rock opera about an alien conspiracy that is brought to fruition during the late 19th and early 20th century through the actions of Imaginos, an agent of evil." Yeah, whatever. The brass at Columbia Records were not impressed with Albert's singing and they asked if whether the songs could be used as the next BOC album. The idea was hatched to bring the original band back together, work on the material and see what transpired. Unfortunately, Bloom, Buck and Lanier were not so keen on working with the Bouchards again so the album ended up being recorded all over the place. It ended up being a BOC album in name only as I believe Bloom and Buck were the only current members of the band fully present on the recording. The album's history is so scattered there's a whole Wikipedia entry just on the recording and genesis of the album that is a must-read if you want to understand the mindfuck that is Imaginos (which includes appearances by Robby Krieger of the Doors and guitar hot shots Aldo Nova and Joe Satriani).
Imaginos was eventually released in 1988. Ironically, the only single was a re-recording of "Astronomy," a song that was already a classic. Needless to say, the record buying public was confused and didn't know what the hell was going on. The record completely tanked and finally became digitally available in 2016, almost 30 years after it was released. After losing their nearly twenty-year deal with Columbia/CBS, the band retreated to the oldies/biker circuit. They essentially disappeared from the studio, aside from the soundtrack to an early '90's horror flick called Bad Channels. The lineup shifted almost constantly, but revolved around Buck, Bloom and Lanier.
Finally towards the end of the '90's, BOC returned to the studio on the CMC label, releasing Heaven Forbid in 1998. I remember hearing a lot about the album on classic rock radio but it completely stiffed and the band went back to touring. Their last studio album was 2001's Curse of the Hidden Mirror and nothing more has been heard of the Cult recording new material since. Allen Lanier ended up leaving the band in the mid-'00's due to health issues but the band kept rolling. He ended up succumbing to COPD about two or three years ago and the band hasn't really been the same since. Sandy Pearlman succumbed in 2016 due to issues related to a stroke the previous year.
It's been over 40 years since BOC made their debut and their legacy is felt now more than ever. So many artists have covered different songs with different results: Gumball covered "She's as Beautiful as a Foot," Metallica famously covered "Astronomy," the indie rock British band Caesars did a great cover of "Don't Fear the Reaper" for some old Six Feet Under soundtrack. L7 ended up doing "This Ain't the Summer of Love" for the first I Know What You Did Last Summer and even Lisa Marie Presley got into the game, covering "Burnin' for You" as a B-side circa 2004. Not to mention countless other covers of great Cult tracks. Even though the Cult ended up unravelling pretty quickly, their musical legacy is something that will always stay with us. And let's face facts- they will always be cooler than Foghat.
Also see our article on the BOC/Son of Sam connection
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|