By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
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By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
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By Kai Flanders
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.
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.