Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Blue Öyster Cult

Celebrating Buck Dharma on his 74th birthday.Ed.

Good news! You don’t have to fear the Reaper! Blue Öyster Cult were only joking!

For years morons like yours truly were so wrapped up in Blue Öyster Cult’s ethos (evil as career choice) that we never caught on to the (manifestly obvious in hindsight) fact that the band was pulling our collective leg!

That’s right. Here we hayseeds thought they were, like, a bunch of Satan-worshipping Aleister Crowleys dabbling in Nazism and S&M when in reality they were just a coupla nice Jewish boys from Long Island sniggering down their collective sleeve at the hard-rock-loving suckers retarded enough to take them seriously. As occasional lyrics contributor and full-time rock critic Richard Meltzer said of the boys’ music, “This is really hard rock comedy.”

I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m some kind of terminal moron; I caught on to the joke a long, long time ago, and would have never fallen for it in the first place if I hadn’t been spending all my time smoking pot with pig farmers. Pig farmers and bikers make up the bulk of the Blue Öyster Cult fan base, and by that I don’t mean to imply pig farmers and bikers are stupid. Most of them are in on the joke too, and love it, because not only were Blue Öyster Cult funny back in 1972, they were one hotshit boogie band writing great songs that sounded even better after you drank a bottle of Wild Turkey and popped a few Placidyl.

Blue Öyster Cult’s eponymous 1972 debut may have less laughs than some of their later LPs, but it’s heavy on screaming diz-busters, inspiring anthems, a lil taste of the rock ’n’ roll apocalypse, and one very cool psychedelic threnody to a foot. In short it’s one helluva rock record, and well deserved the plaudits it received from just about every critical luminary (Christgau, Bangs, etc.) of the time.

Sure, the production job is shoddy; the songs come at you from a great distance, like the band is playing on the other side of a hill. Lester Bangs commented negatively on the album’s “definite lack of laser flash and technicolor presence,” and I do wish BOC’s eponymous debut jumped out at ya instead of just lying there muffled under a buncha heavy blankets like it has the flu or something.

This is best demonstrated by listening to “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep,” a reworked version of which would appear under the name “The Red and the Black” on their very next album. The latter version isn’t just faster, it’s right up front and in your face. “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” sounds bloodless and definitely comes at you in black and white, which may have been the point. I suspect they thought a lack of vivid colors would lend them an aura of mystery, and they’re not altogether wrong.

The band kicks off the LP in pure overdrive with “Transmaniacon MC,” which comes on like a great lost Steppenwolf track and covers the same infamous ground (Altamont) as the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.” But Transmaniacon MC” is the better boogie, what with Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser playing mean on guitar and Erik Bloom singing, “And surely we did offer up/Behind that stage at dawn/Beers and barracuda, reds and monocaine, yeah/Pure nectar of antipathy…” Monocaine? So far as I know it ain’t even a real drug, unless you count the mythical drug in the 1933 film The Invisible Man. Not only do the boys have a sense of humor; they’re up on their cinema trivia as well.

The great “Then Came the Last Days of May” actually benefits from the hazy production because it’s a slow and atmospheric number on which B. Dharma gets to show off his formidable ax talents. A precursor to Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes” in subject matter (dope deal gone terribly awry), “Then Came the Last Days of May” boasts the same body count (3) and ends on a chilling note with the killer announcing he’s heading west–and inviting you along. “Stairway to the Stars” is a Grade A slice of boogie and a funny slice of rock star braggadocio, what with E. Bloom boasting, “You can drive my motorcar/It’s ensured to 30 thou/Kill them all if you wish.” The guitar riff that propels it is otherworldly cool, and the instrumental break (all handclaps and jabbing guitar) is to die for.

“Before the Kiss, a Redcap” opens on a chugging Velvet Underground note and concerns a couple of lovers at Coney’s Bar popping Dalmane (a kind of benzo) before they commence smooching. It’s another great boogie number and comes complete with guitars that go chug-a-lug until Dharma and Bloom (on “stun guitar”) see fit to duel it out at the end. As for “Screams,” Lester Bangs singled it out for praise; it’s heavy and slow (but kicks into overdrive at moments) with some eerie piano tinkling in the background and if it had been up to me I’d have called it “The Sound of Quaaludes.” But since when does Blue Öyster Cult take my advice on anything?

“She’s as Beautiful as a Foot” is an aberrant slice of psychedelic blues and pure hoot. Lyricist Richard Meltzer goes hilariously surreal on this one, tossing off lines like, “Didn’t believe it when he bit into her face/Didn’t believe it when he bit into her face/It tasted just like a fallen arch” and “Don’t put your tongue on the bloody tooth mark place/Her face changing now, a guernsey cow.” It’s as wonderful a send-up of psychedelia as any, and Bloom’s straight-faced rendition of said lyrics–along with the note perfect mood the band establishes–makes it all the better. L. Bangs wrote: “Camp it ain’t.” L. Bangs was wrong.

“Cities on Flame with Rock’n’Roll” is pure apocalyptic melodrama–a “Godzilla”-sized anthem to the end of the world as precipitated by “3,000 guitars” that will melt your ears and then your eyes. The riff that fuels the song is gargantuan, large enough to destroy Tokyo any day, and Dharma solos the hell out of his guitar, and if the concept is ridiculous well, that’s just the boys sniggering down their sleeves again, straight through the bluster and the very boogified “interlude” near the end.

“Workshop of the Telescopes” is a tale of astronomical alchemy; the lyrics are pure hoodoo and the melody they’re wrapped in doesn’t do much for me either. But then I’ve always been lousy when it comes to the sciences. As for album closer, “Redeemed,” it’s as out of place on this EL P as a hobbit at an Orc Convention–a tasty slice of country rock it is, but with definite echoes of the less metallic songs on Who’s Next. The boys might as well be yodeling out their back door in the country somewhere, with the sun shining and nary an affection of degeneracy and evil in sight. In short it’s nice, even if the lyrics are pure mystical jive.

Blue Öyster Cult was a cult in the truest sense of the word; if you were a diehard fan you spent hours pondering their very cryptical symbol (the Cross of Questioning!), parsing their lyrics, and arguing the technical merits of Nazi Germany’s jet fighter the ME-262 (BOC wrote a great song about said “miracle weapon”). In short there was just something about the Cult that attracted fanatics; joke or no joke, they were enshrouded in an aura of mystery that was irresistible to teenage heads such as myself. They may have just been a band of Long Island boys, but they sounded like they possessed the ancient scroll containing all of the mystical keys to the universe. And you’ve got to love a band that aspires to that level of bullshit.


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