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Cagey Cretins 

Tyranny, mutation and Blue Öyster Cult

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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Sandy Speiser, © Sony Music Archives

The Hit, the Umlaut: For many, they constitute the legacy of Blue Öyster Cult. The hit in question was “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” a chunk of death-enamored ear candy that dominated the AM and FM dials in the autumn of 1976. The Umlaut was the Diacritical Mark of the Beast, the ironic non-Teutonic symbol of Marshall-stacked, pro-Satanic heaviness, which the Cult dropped atop their Öyster long before it was a twinkling in the minds of Motörhead, Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe and, yes, even Spinal Tap.

But there’s more to the band than one classic-rock evergreen and a spasm of typographical cleverness, as a current spurt of BÖC-related releases attests. The Stalk-Forrest Group’s St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings, issued
by Rhino’s Internet-only collectors’ imprint Rhino Handmade, considers the band’s torturous germination. Its flowering from archperverse faux metallurgists to surprise chartbusters is graphed in Columbia/Legacy’s snazzy reissues of the band’s first four albums, all of which are augmented with solid bonus tracks. A sad yet not entirely dishonorable coda to these early glories is supplied by BÖC’s new album, out on CMC International.

As dinosaurs go, BÖC have weathered several ice ages. Guitarist Donald Roeser and drummer Albert Bouchard met at a Potsdam, N.Y., college in 1965, and played together in a succession of bands. After Bouchard moved to Chicago, Roeser enrolled at Long Island’s State University at Stony Brook. There he began working with a group of musicians that included his high school buddy Andy Winters (who ultimately played bass in the first Öyster incarnation) and Georgia native Allen Lanier (who would double on guitar and keyboards). These musicians soon hooked up with Stony Brook philosophy students Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, both of whom had also written for Crawdaddy!, the first rock magazine.

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A lineup coalesced in 1967 when Al Bouchard returned and vocalist Les Braunstein was brought into the fold. De facto manager Pearlman supplied the group with a name, Soft White Underbelly, and Meltzer became principal lyricist. Largely on the basis of Braunstein’s Jim
Morrison–like looks, the band won a contract with Elektra Records. After a clash of wills, Braunstein quit the band and was replaced by its equipment and road manager, Eric Bloom. The ex-vocalist for an upstate band called the Lost and Found, Bloom had been brought onboard mainly because he owned a PA system and a van.

In a protracted series of developments detailed in Bryan Thomas’ exhaustive notes to St. Cecilia, the Underbelly was re-christened twice (as Oaxaca and finally as the Stalk-Forrest Group), and the band made two passes at recording an album for Elektra. The fruits of those sessions — 16 unreleased tracks, plus both sides of a promo-only single — are compiled on the Rhino Handmade package.

Fans of Blue Öyster Cult’s Luciferian ironwork may be horrified to discover that the nascent Stalk-Forrest Group closely resembled the Grateful Dead. The chugging rhythms of “What Is Quicksand?” and the jam-based “A Fact About Sneakers” and “St. Cecilia” come straight out of the San Francisco unit’s playbook. Roeser’s early style reflects a slavish devotion to Jerry Garcia’s dithering attack, while Lanier’s keyboard playing is equal parts
Manzarek and Pigpen. Elements of The Who and of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s raga-shuffle “East West” filter into the mix, but the sound is essentially the Long Island equivalent of the Bay Area boogie.

Lyrically, the SFG was something else again. While the Northwest Mountie melodrama “I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep” was the handiwork of Pearlman, Bloom and Bouchard, the robust inanity of most of the group’s songs dripped from Meltzer’s pen. The writer dragged his pop-kultur obsessions — comic books (see “Arthur Comics”),pro wrestling (dig the reference to Killer
Kowal.ski in “Donovan’s Monkey”) and rock & roll (cf. the Spooky Tooth name-drop in “A Fact About Sneakers”) — to the band’s table. Nothing that came later was quite as deliberately moronic (except maybe Meltzer’s “Cagey Cretin”), but the stage was set for some exceptionally arch writing.

Elektra dumped the SFG in 1970 without releasing an album, and the band fired Winters and drafted Al Bouchard’s brother Joe on bass. Groping for a new sound, the musicians opted to go, in Meltzer’s words, “pseudo-metal.” In 1971, Pearlman and his friend Murray
Krugman, who worked in the Columbia Records marketing department, scored a successful audition with label head Clive Davis. Drawing a name from a poetic cycle he was writing, Pearlman re-monikered the band Blue Oyster Cult. (Meltzer takes credit for adding the umlaut, while the group’s official Web site gives Lanier the honors.) The band members jettisoned their awful SFG-era nicknames, save Roeser, who has retained the oddly appropriate “Buck Dharma” to this day.

BÖC’s intent is telegraphed by the leadoff track on the band’s eponymous 1972 Columbia debut, in the overt references to the Hell’s Angels’ murderous role in the Rolling Stones’ calamitous 1969 concert at Altamont heard in “Transmaniacon MC.” If the Stalk-Forrest Group was about tie-dyed trippiness, this incarnation was about bad vibes. The violence of the songs — the dope-burn murders of “Then Came the Last Days of May,” the roadhouse mayhem of “Before the Kiss, a Redcap,” the apocalyptic thunder of “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll” — and nonmusical elements such as artist Bill Gawlik’s swastikalike “Saturn” logo-symbol were calculated to promote bad dreams. If you listened carefully, though, you could imagine the band winking at the ghoulishness of it all.

Empowered by strong rock-press coverage (no doubt secured by Meltzer and Pearlman), BÖC responded with increasingly potent albums. Tyranny and Mutation (1973) sported the definitive version of “I’m on the Lamb,” fiercely rearranged and retitled “The Red & the Black”; Joe Bouchard’s power ride on the Satanic subway, “Hot Rails to Hell”; and the dopey, convulsive “Teen Archer.” Secret Treaties (1974) topped its predecessor with a badass Al Bouchard–Patti Smith anthem, “Career of Evil”; “ME 262,” a Nazi-turbojet-vs.-Allied-bomber dogfight fantasy by Bloom-Roeser-Pearlman; and the great/stupid Meltzerian sci-fi nightmare “Harvester of Eyes,” with its splendid double-tracked Buck Dharma solo.

Roeser took BÖC over the top commercially with his “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” a masterfully conceived paean to love beyond the grave. Riding a flamenco-injected riff and a ringing Dharma interlude, it soared to No. 12 on the Hot 100. Agents of Fortune, the 1976 album containing the hit, became the group’s first platinum album; it was also its first major artistic breakdown. Apart from the sardonic “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” (co-authored by yet another rock critic, L.A.’s Don Waller), the material was weak, reaching a nadir with “Debbie Denise,” a mawkish tune, rewritten from a sexually ambiguous Patti Smith poem, about a rocker’s faithful ol’ lady. Oh, brother.

In the 25 years since “Reaper,” BÖC have followed a familiar trajectory, from laser-toting arena-rockers to slug-it-out rock-club journeymen. Lanier deserted the band and returned, while the Bouchard brothers departed permanently, to be replaced by less swinging stand-ins. Columbia dropped the band in 1988; after a decade in the wilderness, the group signed with CMC International, a perennial home for wayward rock vets on an earthbound course.

In propaganda for the new record, Bloom refers to Curse of the Hidden Mirror as “a real ‘classic rock’–sounding record,” and therein lies a clue to its failings. The dully non-ironic lyrics of science-fiction novelist John Shirley are no substitute for the drollery of Pearlman or Al Bouchard (though Meltzer’s lyric hand comes into play on one possibly back-dated number, the suitably dippy “Stone of Love”). The stolid rhythm section makes one long for the Bouchards all the more. And Bloom’s leering rasp has been severely diminished by time.

But Roeser sounds as sweetly unforced as he did on “Reaper,” and his keening guitar chimes like a celestial bell on nearly every track. His best moments come on a “Won’t Get Fooled Again” rip-off called “Pocket.” There, between typically fleet solo excursions, the mighty Dharma asks, “Are you in the pocket of the moment, at this particular second?”

Obviously, unhappily for Blue Öyster Cult, the answer is a dismaying “No.”

THE STALK-FORREST GROUP | St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings (Rhino Handmade)

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT | Blue Öyster Cult; Tyranny and Mutation; Secret Treaties; Agents of Fortune | (all Columbia/Legacy)

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT | Curse of the Hidden Mirror | (CMC International)

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