Blue Oyster Cult

The Smirking Man's Heavy Metal

Strongest album: Agents of Fortune
Must to avoid: Club Ninja

These guys are both underrated and overrated. Let me get more time-specific: in the '70s, they were overrated; nowadays they are almost always written off as just another '70s metal band. It's not really fair to lump Blue Oyster Cult with Judas Preist and Kiss; in the early days, at least, they were better than that - which didn't stop them from turning into just another lame metal band in their latter days. In the '70s, they had hip credentials supplied by rock critic Richard Meltzer and producer Sandy Pearlman, who viewed the band they masterminded as a vehicle for their "brilliant poetry" that both reveled in and mocked heavy metal's cliches. Blue Oyster Cult lathered stoner Satanism and Harley leather imagery all over their LPs, but their tongues were firmly in their cheeks. It was a joke that the band played so straight-faced one had to read rock mags to get it; the difference between their "ironic" proto-goth and Black Sabbath's was often far too subtle for all but the most nuanced listeners to discern. It helped, of course, that Blue Oyster Cult sprang from Long Island; in the history of rock, there has never been a New York State band that has not been overrated (the same is true to a lesser degree of San Francisco, London, and Boston bands - media centers for the rock critical elite all). Speaking of which, in this band's disfavor is the fact that they basically launched the career of Patti Smith - which also helped them in the critics' band sweepstakes. Their fall from favor with the critics after their '70s heyday is all too easy to understand: suddenly, Blue Oyster Cult began to suck. I mean really, really suck.

However, their early records are worth a listen. The most interesting facet of the band is that they were a heavy metal band whose primary influences were the Byrds and the Zombies. The second reason to listen to Blue Oyster Cult is Buck Dharma: his searing yet fluid style certainly earns the Cult's boast "stun guitar" and keeps the music interesting even when the songwriting isn't all there. No one else in the band was a particularly interesting musician, and they possessed one of the blandest singers to grace metal (which is kind of a plus considering that "bland" means that at least Eric Bloom isn't screeching castrato). At their best Blue Oyster Cult delivered seriously sinister, gothic metal that you don't feel embarassed to listen to or entirely leave your brain at the door for. Of course, it would have helped if they had enough songwriting talent to come up more consistent albums. See for yourself.

Blue Oyster Cult (1972) ***1/2

For a long time I figured this the ultimate BOC album - it boasts a hard rock density they'd never recapture again, with each riff drilling itself straight into your cranium like a trepanner's tool. For my money, they never got any better than on their first time out. However, I've revised that belief lately after comparing this to Agents of Fortune. BOC have a real problem coming up with enough good songs to carry an entire album - the peaks are pretty scrumptious peaks, but there are only two great songs on side one. "Transmaniacon MC," begins the LP on a stunningly loud note, and might be the best song here - a genuinely evil exploitation of Altamont. Genuinely evil can well describe "Then Came the Last Days of May," also - a pretty, bone-chilling ballad that feels as dry and lovely as an Arizona sunset: four drug runners take a trip to the border and only one of them makes it out alive - by killing the other three. None of the songs on side two are as good as those two, but it's more consistently listenable, and "Screams" seguing into "She's As Beautiful As a Foot" is recommended to Anne Rice. The concept revolves around vampirism, rock as a B-movie, the seductive power of flirting with evil, and they'd rewrite "I'm On the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep" with its absurd "I'm not your husky" chorus as "The Red and the Black" on the next LP. The key idea here, though, is rock as the sinister exploitation of volume and technology, reminding me quite a bit of Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street. Only DeLillo wrote that novel a year later. Was he a BOC fan? Probably not, but it's a nice theory anyway.

Tyranny and Mutation (1973) ***1/2

Less dense and they've cut down on the volume, but at least it's faster. This one's noticably weaker than the debut, but not enough to affect my grade. The material's actually more consistent, only the best tunes don't peak as high as "Transmaniacon M.C." And hey, they're more clever - it's a lot easier to spot the joke this time round, what with titles like "O.D.'d On Life Itself" which doesn't really live up to a title that great but is still a decent song. I have no idea how they kept a straight face performing these tunes; all I can say is that heavy metal stoners must have been really stupid to not understand that these guys weren't exactly all that serious with their "evil" image. The first album was genuinely sinister; the second seems like a parody of the first LP. Only the first LP was already a parody, wasn't it? Anyway, the key cut, "The Red and the Black" is an ode to Canadian Mounties. "Mistress of the Salmon Salt" compares a quick-lime (or is that quick-time? A pun, no doubt?) girl to a fish. "Hot Rails To Hell" has the best riff on the album and seems to be about riding the subway, but according to Richard Meltzer (I'm getting this info from Bonze Saunders of the Angry Samoans) the song's about a friend of theirs who made his living playing cards until one night he involuntarily shed this mortal coil due to it. Pretty obscure, but then most of BOC's lyrics tend toward that direction - my guesses are as good as yours. "Baby Ice Dog" was written by Patti Smith and seems to make fun of "I Wanna Be Your Dog". "Wings Wetted Down" is about bats. I have no idea what "7 Screaming Diz-Busters" is about, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were an ode to vacuum cleaners.

Secret Treaties (1974) ***1/2

I swear, rock critics must be randomly assigning grades to albums with a dartboard -- if you believed what you read, this one's a mess of hard rock cliches, which only proves that a lot of critics don't even bother to listen to the records they're paid to review, since this isn't any weaker -- or stronger -- than the previous two LPs. Actually, it's a tad more consistent than the others, you ask me, even ifthe best cuts on the first & second LP are better than the best cuts here (while the weak cuts on the first & second LP are weaker than the weakest cuts here). On the cover it seems they've hijacked some Nazi warplane piloted by a -- get this! -- skeleton!, and "ME 262," presumably the name of the airplane model on the cover, has lines about killing Englishmen. What's up with all these nice Jewish boys pretending to be Nazis? Musically, if the first LP was the loudest, and the second LP the fastest & jazziest, the third LP is a tad softer & more mainstream as BOC make the transition to the full-out pop of Agents of Fortune a couple of years later. Still it's more early BOC (metal) than mid-to-late BOC (wimpy sellouts), since the best tune, "Dominance and Submission," rides it hot-rails-to-hell riffage all the way to Times Square '64 with Little Eva blasting from the radio. The opening "Career of Evil," remains one of the band's catchiest and nastiest anthems, living up to its title with lyrics celebrating stealing your wife - "maybe tonight, maybe tonight," for which crimes and misdemeanors Eric Bloom will definitely not apologize. "Subhuman," and "Flaming Telepaths," are sticky goth-melodic ditties about the-devil-knows-what, whilst the imagery in "Cagey Cretins," and "Harvester of Eyes," treads similar ground but comes off as just kind of...silly (geez, just look at those goofy-ass titles). And it all ends with the lovely astrological ballad, "Astronomy," which I find quite deathly pretty even though I've never played Dungeons & Dragons in my life.

On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975)

A live album.

Agents of Fortune (1976) ****

Their only consistent album and career peak, it marks a change in BOC's sound towards more pop-oriented material. I miss the dense, sinister, scientific metal slabs of yore, but that's made up for by better melodies and more hookcraft. It would be misleading to characterize this as a heavy metal album; as far as I'm aware, BOC stopped playing heavy metal after their first few albums. This, then, is nothing more or less than good mainstream hard rock with some nice pop moments. It contains BOC's lasting contribution to Western society, "Don't Fear the Reaper," one the greatest singles of all time: I know this cheesy pun has been used by zillions of rock crits before, but the guitar sounds like a Byrd of prey. Roger McGuinn meets Steven King, in other words. "This Ain't the Summer of Love" slams the door shut on the '60s; Patti Smith contributes a couple more tunes (but don't let that bother you); "Tattoo Vampire" rocks fast and mean; and there's a pretty tune about finishing a school semester. If you're curious as to whether you ought to even bother with this band at all, then start investigating here. From what I've heard it was all downhill from this peak, though.

Spectres (1977)
Some Enchanted Evening (1978)

Yet another double live set. Contains of cover of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams".

Mirrors (1979)
Cultasaurus Erectus (1980)
Fire of Unknown Origin (1981) **1/2

BOC have always been a band obsessed with technology, which in the '70s meant worshipping at the altar of ear-splitting guitar amplification. Now that the '80s are upon us, worshipping technology equals worshipping dinky keyboards, which results in a predictable loss of tone. Precisely one great tune rises from the overproduction, "Burnin' For You" that, not so coincidentally, relies the heaviest on Buck Dharma's guitar. And it quotes "Time of the Season," appropos for the updated Zombies feel of the track. "After Dark" imitates the Cars imitating Roxy Music, and is a worthwhile number, but the rest I don't find very engaging. Great melodies, I'll admit, but great melodies have to be backed up by good music to work, and this oversynthed corporate rock backdrop undermines the tunefulness handily. Okay, I've had enough - "Joan Crawford has risen from the grave!" is way too campy even by BOC's standards.

Extraterrestrial Live (1982) *1/2

Yet another live album. Just how many are necessary?!?, you may be asking, and you're right: this piece of product is totally redundant. The live versions are nowhere near as good as the studio versions, and to further compound the offense, this was originally released as a double album with only three to four songs per side (on vinyl). On stage, Eric Bloom panders to an audience of numbed-out metalheads ("Rock! Rock! Rock! and Roll!") and leads the band into the realms of Spinal Tap stupidity. The obligatory cover and "new" cut you can't find anywhere else is a 9-minute "Roadhouse Blues" that's as lame and drug-damaged as the rest. Maybe their other live albums are worth checking into, as this captures the band near the end of the line, but hearing this release has caused me to ponder one important question: why the hell am I wasting my time reviewing this band anyway? I spent fifty cents on this and I don't exactly plan on purchasing any further BOC albums unless they're in a similar price range.

Revolution By Night (1983)
Club Ninja (1986) *1/2

If this is typical of the type of crap they released during the '80s, then their late period albums aren't worth reviewing, period. After three painful listens, I now have to come up with something interesting to say about this tape. There seems to be a concept here - some story about the aftermath of WWIII, as far as I can tell, lots of heavy war imagery abounds. It all adds up to a meaningless pilot for the Sci-Fi channel that I can't imagine anyone caring about. Yes, it's overproduced and heavy on the keyboards, and it contains none of the elements that made prime BOC worth a listen - no stun guitar, no sticky goth melodies (ok, well a few, but like I'm paying attention), no rib-sticky sinister hooks. Oh, wait, I have found something interesting about this LP: the liners credit one Howard Stern as a back up vocalist. Is this Stern the Cockroach King or just a guy from New York with the same name?

Reader Comments

Rob Michaelson,

Dude, I have been a fan for a long, long time. Club Ninja kicks ass!! If you don't like a blue oyster cult album you must not be a real fan.


I have their original album and I think it's their best. "Dancing in the Ruins" is an incredible song. At least the songs make sense, and are decipherable, unlike "Workshop of the Telescopes." I still can't figure out why radio dislikes them.

Imaginos (1988)

The band broke up after this one.

Workshop of the Telescopes (1995) ***1/2

This 2-disc set covering B.O.C.'s peaks and valleys 1972-1986 should, properly handled, be killer, but there are too many crucial cuts swapped for mediocre material to make this as good as it could be. Which goes to prove that even on a compilation, B.O.C. can't come up with a halfway-consistent album. The first disc covers the first three studio albums and first live album, their strongest and most blistering era; the second disc kicks off great with their breakthrough pop crossover "Don't Fear the Reaper," and traces their slide into Stygian AOR hell, but not without rescuing the few memorable moments of post-Agents of Fortune from the intolerable albums they were caged on ("Burnin' For You," "Godzilla," "In Thee," "Marshall Plan," "Take Me Away"). The first disc contains a few interesting rarities such as Dharma's instrumental showcase "Buck's Boogie" and a cool "Born To Be Wild" cover (both the previously unavailable-on-CD studio versions, not the widely available On Your Feet live takes). However, I must protest the lack of such essential Cult tracks as "She's As Beautiful As a Foot," "Hot Rails to Hell," "Od'd On Life Itself," "Vampire Tattoo," and of course the most bone-chilling BOC ballad, "Then Came the Last Days of May," in favor of - what? "Stairway to the Stars"? C'mon, they could have done a better selection of early BOC. As for the second disc, I'd be happy if I never had to hear such lame garbage as "The Golden Age of Leather," perhaps the worst song they ever wrote, again. Still, these two discs have more great songs in one place than any other BOC release, so if you don't want to investigate any further (and given their inconsistency, I don't blame you) this is what you should get.

Heaven Forbid (1998)

Uh-oh. They're ba-ack...

Reader Comments

Stephen McBrayer,

BOC: The Light That Never Warms...

Post Your Comments

Home I'll Never Be