Blue Oyster Cult
01. Transmaniacon MC 3:20
02. I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep 3:09
03. Then Came The Last Days Of May 3:29
04. Stairway To The Stars 3:42
05. Before The Kiss, A Redcap 4:57
06. Screams 3:09
07. She's As Beautiful As A Foot 2:56
08. Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll 4:04
09. Workshop Of The Telescopes 3:50
10. Redeemed 4:01
11. Soft White Underbelly-Donovan's Monkey (Demo) 3:49
12. Soft White Underbelly-What Is Quicksand (Demo) 3:40
13. Soft White Underbelly-A Fact About Sneakers (Demo) 2:51
14. Soft White Underbelly-Betty Lou's Got A New Pair Of Shoes (Demo) 2:33
Bass, Vocals – Joe Bouchard
Drums, Vocals – Albert Bouchard
Lead Guitar, Vocals – Donald (Buck Dharma) Roeser*
Lead Vocals, Guitar [Stun Guitar], Keyboards – Eric Bloom
Rhythm Guitar, Keyboards – Allen Lanier
Heavy metal does not really need to be stereotyped. While there is no escaping the fact that distorted heavy riffage will inescapably be associated with «the forces of evil» in one way or another, there is really a lot of different opportunities, and dungeons, dragons, Mordor, Satan, wars, gore, guts, nuclear apocalypse, and the Four Horsemen are only a subsection of these. By the early 1970s, though, Led Zeppelin sort of epitomized the magical-mystical-medieval aspect of the heavy metal business, Black Sabbath prioritized intimate relationships with The Horned One, and that, kinda sorta, was it.
Two bands, emerging more or less at the same time, showed, however, that heavy metal (or heavy rock, at least — without getting bogged down in terminology) could be made to sound quirky, ironic, and tongue-in-cheek. The lesser one of the two was Budgie, and the bigger one was Blue Öyster Cult. In fact, that umlaut over the O pretty much says it all: a humorous quasi-«Germanization» of the band name, suggesting some sort of terrifying Teutonic brutality, but at the same time so self-consciously silly that not even the dumbest fan of this band would probably be tempted to check the proper spelling of the word «oyster». Come to think of it, it is even hard for me to imagine how this band could have had any dumb fans in the first place — certainly not in their earliest and finest period.
What can one say, really, about a band that was managed and directed not by one, but by two art critics and intellectuals? Sandy Pearlman «manufactured» the band way back in 1967, when they were still called «Soft White Underbelly», in order for them to write music to his lyrics, and later on, Richard Meltzer, his fellow student and author of The Aesthetics Of Rock, also joined in the fun. Blue Öyster Cult were their «experimental Monkees», in a way, although all of the band members participated in the songwriting process from the very beginning (on the debut album, five of the songs are co-credited to Pearlman, two to Meltzer, and three were written without any inteference from the literary gurus).
Interestingly enough, the band's earliest opera sucked plenty: several of their recordings from 1969, when they were engaging in some sort of comical bluegrass-rock, are appended as bonus tracks to some of this album's CD editions, and they are uniformly boring and instantaneously forgettable, regardless of the lyrics. It all changed overnight, with the release of Black Sabbath's first album — suddenly, the band had a point: they were to become the «intellectual equivalent» of the Sabs, playing comparably heavy, but less predictable music, set to first-grade rock lyrics that would clearly expose Geezer Butler for the lazy schoolboy that he was.
Under different circumstances, the album may have been an epic failure — the band could have turned out to be too smart for its own good, and from a commercial angle, they certainly were: Blue Öyster Cult only barely scraped the charts, probably allowing the band to make about as much money as would be enough to cover Ozzy's 24-hour coke supply. Hip New York critics loved them, though, with Lester Bangs himself issuing a glowing review in Rolling Stone, and they had their point: Blue Öyster Cult were weird and unpredictable, but they also rocked. At their best, these songs can be wild snarling beasts, or they can be sizzling pots of voodoo gumbo, or they can be loaded with heavy soul — these guys, hired by Pearlman and pointed in the right direction by Meltzer, turned out to be classy, evocative musicians.
The music is not really as heavy as Sabbath or Zeppelin: there is only a small bunch of monster riffs on the album, and it is just as strongly influenced by basic boogie-rock or moody pop-rock in the style of The Doors as it is by the metal masters. Lead vocals, alternately shared by four out of five band members, are efficient, but nothing to write home about. Technically, that is: when it comes to delivering the basic storyline, Eric Bloom is an effective actor, as are most of his colleagues, who all like getting into character, be it the sad, moralistic storyteller in ?Then Came The Last Days Of May', nobly and epicly narrated by Buck Dharma, or the arrogant hellraiser in ?Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll', wailed and growled out by drummer Albert Bouchard. Melodies, arrangement tricks, vocal flourishes — most of the time they compensate for the (relative!) lack of brute power.
This is not exactly «thinking man's heavy metal», because, fairly speaking, many of the lyrics are absurd or parodical, with Pearlman and Meltzer having more fun assembling and blowing up rock clichés rather than genuinely engaging the thinking man's thinking mechanisms; and the music is quite openly derivative, sometimes almost mockingly deconstructive (as when they suddenly launch into the melody of ?Memphis, Tennessee' in the middle of ?Before The Kiss, A Redcap'), and certainly not «progressive» in any possible sense of the word (and how could it be, with the music produced under the supervision of the author of The Aesthetics Of Rock?). None of which prevents the songs from being cool, classy, and kick-ass quality.
Being a sucker for a good heavy metal riff, I will not deny that ?Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll', one of the tunes not having to do anything with the Pearlman/Meltzer agenda, has always been my instantaneous favorite on the album. The riff in question is derived from Black Sabbath's ?The Wizard', but packs more suspense and condensed evil: this is really one of the best songs in existence that drives the idea of rock'n'roll exuberation through a filter of hellflames, Sodom and Gomorrah — the transition from the relatively merry chords of "let the girl, let the girl rock and roll" to the macabre "cities on flame now, with rock and roll" resolution is totally thrilling.
Other than that, I could not name any particularly outstanding highlights, but this is a good thing, because the album is amazingly consistent, and each song presents its own intrigue. ?Transmaniacon MC' announces the band's entrance as a scary eruption of the forces of evil, with references to Altamont, terror, pain, steel, "a plot of knives", and a nasty lead guitar part that bursts out in sneering laughter after each chorus — the band's own take on ?Sympathy For The Devil', if you wish. ?I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep' further raises the stakes on tension and paranoia, its fast and nervous tempo matching the lyrics about a pursued fugitive (and the additionally sped-up, super-paranoid coda is pure genius). ?Stairway To The Stairs' uses brutal, bludgeoning chords and mutilated vocals that are reminiscent of ZZ Top's Texan rock (except ZZ Top themselves had not yet quite mastered that style by 1972), and Meltzer's lyrics that poke fun at the newly emerged rock star image are right on the money.
The subtle-and-subdued vibe also agrees with these guys: ?Last Days Of May' almost makes you want to shed tears for the poor drug dealer suckers betrayed and murdered by their own colleague in crime — roots-rock of the Eagles variety (Desperado was not yet released, though) turned on its head: Buck Dharma's show all the way, as he writes the song, sings it in a mournful, soulful manner with spiritual echo all around, and euphonizes the poor dead guys with the most ecstatic leads on the album. ?She's As Beautiful As A Foot' is consciously absurdist ("didn't believe it when he bit into her face / it tasted just like a fallen arch"?), musically structured like a parody on the classic Doors sound, with Krieger-esque melodic leads, but endowed with a mystery aura of its own. And most chilling of all — the way ?Screams' opens with that ghoulish phased vocal track ("screams in the night, sirens delight...") right out of Hell's own lush antechamber.
Special kudos for ending the album with ?Redeemed', a song contributed to the band by outside friend Harry Farcas, utterly nonsensical and Bonzo Dog Band-ish in nature (apparently, ?Sir Rastus Bear' was the name of Harry's pet dog, but that doesn't help matters much), but it has the word "redeemed" in the title and in the chorus, so you get to think it is some sort of grand gospel folk anthem to logically wind things up, and it does sound uplifting and optimistic next to everything else on the album — another pop cliché, carefully extracted, bottled, processed, and mutated for public enjoyment.
In short, even if this is not Blue Öyster Cult's highest point (but it might be), this is definitely their atmospheric masterpiece — an album so tightly stuffed with mystery, intrigue, suspense, irony, and implicit intelligence that in many ways, topping it would be impossible, certainly not if they wanted to achieve commercial success. Not only that, but it is also a certain landmark in the story of «rock music taking an introspective look at itself», chiefly due to the Pearlman/Meltzer contributions, but then neither Pearlman nor Meltzer wrote or performed the actual music, so we have to assume the band members were totally in on the masterplan. «Black Sabbath meets Frank Zappa» — wouldn't be a totally legit comparison, of course, since there's a lot more other influences here, and only a few of the Sabbath or Zappa features would be implied, but it could work for starters, especially if you need a tempting stimulus to get the record. Thumbs up from all possible perspectives: a record that is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally enjoyable.