Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Agents of Fortune

When it comes to 1970s faux evil rock bands that didn’t have a bone of true evil in their bodies, Blue Öyster Cult comes in right behind Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath.

BÖC flirted shamelessly, tongues planted firmly in cheek, with the iconography of the dark side (they sang about S&M, made references to Martin Bormann and put Nazi jet fighters on their album covers, and let’s not forget the Patti Smith-penned “Career of Evil”) and people bought it until, like the previously mentioned bands, the boys from Long Island took it right over the top, and it became obvious that it was all a big joke and they were about as evil as Debbie Gibson. But if it was all a shuck—and it was: even the rock critic Richard Meltzer, who wrote some of the band’s songs including “Burnin’ for You,” noted, “This is really hard rock comedy”—it led to some pretty great music, culminating Agents of Fortune, which was so wildly successful Robert Christgau dubbed BÖC “the Fleetwood Mac of heavy metal.”

Formed in 1967 as The Soft White Underbelly, the band subsequently changed its name to Oaxaca, then the Stalk-Forrest Group, then and the Santos Sisters before finally settling on Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. They were the first band to employ an umlaut in its name and came up with the most instantly recognizable band logo this side of Black Flag, and were guided step by step by manager Sandy Pearlman, who got them signed, wrote a lot of the band’s lyrics, helped produce their LPs, gave them their name, etc. As for the band’s members, at the time of Agents of Fortune they included Eric Bloom on lead vocals and “stun guitar,” Albert Bouchard on drums and backing vocals, Joe Bouchard on bass and backing vocals, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, and Allen Lanier on keyboards, rhythm guitar, and backing vocals.

1976’s Agents of Fortune may or may not be their best album—my vote would go to the band’s harder rocking eponymous 1972 debut, which includes the great “Then Came the Last Days of May” and the wonderfully weird “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.” Or 1974’s Secret Treaties, which includes the great “Career of Evil,” the prog-metal classic “Astronomy,” and the wonderful “Flaming Telepaths,” on which the boys basically give the game away by singing, “The joke’s on you.” But I like 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation too, and of their pre-Angels of Fortune LPs I’m only indifferent to 1975’s double live On Your Feet or On Your Knees, which was the band’s highest charting LP but not much to write home about.

Blue Öyster Cult opens Agents of Fortune with the wonderfully cynical “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” a death notice (7 or so years too late, granted, but better than never) of the Age of Aquarius. Eric Bloom sings, Buck Dharma plays some stunning guitar, and the chorus says it all: “This ain’t the Garden of Eden/They ain’t no angels above/And things ain’t’ like they used to be/And this ain’t the summer of love.” It took long enough, but somebody finally got around to putting a stake through the heart of the Woodstock generation. Meanwhile, “True Confessions” is a pop song by Blue Öyster Cult standards, with its perky melody and Lanier’s piano at front and center, to say nothing of the saxophones blaring in the background. Meanwhile Lanier sings about a failed relationship (“We’re never sorry/We’re never sad/We’re modern lovers/What fun we had”) and if this one reminds me of anybody, it’s vintage Ian Hunter.

Everybody knows “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” which supposedly led to a spate of fatal lovers’ leaps although I’m certain that’s purest hoo-hah. What matters are Roeser’s instantly recognizable opening guitar riff—and the great solo he tosses off near the 3-minute mark—as well as his hushed vocals (come to think of it, the whole song is hushed) about death and how it’s no more to be scared of than a visit to your friendly dentist. And then there’s the infamous cowbell, and the cool backing vocals, and the great ending where Death appears at the distraught girl’s bedroom window (like one of the “Lost Boys”!) and urges her to take his hand and take the big leap. Even better is “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence),” which features another great guitar riff, Eric Bloom’s grainy vocals (I love the way he says, “Wait, there’s more”) and the wonderfully melodic chorus (“All praise/He’s found the awful truth, Balthazar/He’s found the saucer news,”) which never fails to blow me away, just as Buck Dharma’s guitar solo is one of my all-time favorites.

As for “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” it features a pair of spoken opening lines and some sultry backing vocals by Patti Smith, who was in a relationship with Allen Lanier at the time. Albert Bouchard handles lead vocals—which makes for four different lead singers in the band’s first five songs—and he opens the song in a hushed tone, before upping the volume. Lanier’s backing keyboards are effective, and Roeser’s guitar solo is short and sweet. This may not be my favorite Cult song, and I don’t have the foggiest notion what Bouchard’s singing about, which I attribute to the fact that Smith wrote (or co-wrote, I’m not certain which) the lyrics. As for Albert Bouchard’s “Sinful Love” I wasn’t crazy about it for the longest time, in part because I just couldn’t get on board with the lines “I love you like sin/But I won’t be your pigeon.” But it grew on me thanks to Lanier’s great piano and Roeser’s fantastic guitar playing, to say nothing of Albert Bouchard’s ability to sing that pigeon line with a straight face.

“Tattoo Vampire” opens with a guitar that sounds like a saw chopping wood, before Eric Bloom comes in with more urgency than usual on vocals while the band keeps things moving. I’m not certain if it’s a guitar or a keyboard that produces the occasional outer space noise, but I do know that the instrumental interlude is as cool as it is otherworldly. As for “Morning Final” I’ve always suspected it was a parable by these former college boys about the dangers of sleeping through (too many bong hits the night before—AND a tank of nitrous!) a morning final examination, but the lyrics don’t bear me out. Still, “Morning Final” boasts a great melody, a proggish instrumental intro, a jazzy keyboard riff, some more excellent Roeser guitar wank, and a fast-paced but anything but heavy metal vibe. Not bad. Not bad at all.

“Tenderloin” is another tune that nobody would ever call “heavy metal,” and has that airbrushed seventies feel that I always congratulated the Cult for avoiding. Eric Bloom’s vocals are a bit too frilly for my likes, and Lanier’s baroque keyboard work isn’t much to my liking either. The same goes for his keyboard solo, and the brief Grateful Dead-like (I’m not kidding) instrumental interlude, and really when it comes down to it the only thing I like about this piece of prog-metal-lite is that it ends. The LP closes with “Debbie Denise,” which is big on the strings, moves at a stately pace, and is a sorta power ballad before there were power ballads. Albert Bouchard handles the vocals and confesses that he ignored poor Debbie because, “I was out rollin’/With my band” and admits “I didn’t care/Cuz she was just there.” It’s a sappy piece of schlock but it works, campy as it is, thanks to its catchy melody, Bouchard’s vocals, and the cool sound Bloom achieves on his guitar.

Agents of Fortune was the high-water mark of Blue Öyster Cult’s career; follow-up Spectres included the campy “Godzilla” and the even more campy “Golden Age of Leather,” as well as the damningly accurate “Goin’ Through the Motions.” To say nothing of a handful of other songs that failed to recapture BÖC’s early prog-metal majesty or build on the commercial momentum afforded them by the success of Agents of Fortune. They’re still around; I saw them once in their glory days and twice afterwards, and while they’re fun, they generally throw too many more recent mediocrities in their sets, and whatever patina of evil once surrounded them never fails to dissipate the moment they break into the dumb “R.U. Ready 2 Rock,” the atrocious “Shooting Shark,” or the hilarious (and it’s supposed to be, which is a point in their favor) acapella Berlin beerhall intro to “Golden Age of Leather.”

That said they had a good long run, gave us some great songs, and actually managed to convince many, many people that five nice boys from Long Island were at the forefront of an evil cult that made them privy to secret lore on matters extraterrestrial, alchemical, and sexual. Not bad, not bad at all. While people caught on to Alice Cooper, and fast, I knew people in the late seventies who still took Blue Öyster Cult’s shtick seriously. And that just might be a record when it comes to what amounts to parody rock. Take a bow, boys. Your career of evil may have been a joke, but I love jokes, especially when they come complete with great guitar solos.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • bighousefilms

    Excellent summary, nailing all the highlights of their five album winning streak.

    • Michael Little

      Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated! Long live BOC!

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