Career Evil: The Birth Of Blue Öyster Cult
The most mysterious, mystical and downright weird band of the early 70s, Blue Öyster Cult crawled out of the New York underground clad in S&M gear and armed with songs about kinky sex and crazed motorcycle gangs. This is the story of the birth of metal’s greatest pranksters.
Words: Max Bell
First published, Classic Rock 168, March 2012
New York Academy Of Music. October 1974. A blonde woman walks on stage and begins howling like a wolf: “On your feet or on your knees!” The audience rise as if they are spectators in a Roman amphitheatre waiting for the Christians and the lions. They want blood.”Here they are,” continues the howling women. “From New York City. The Amazing Blue Öyster Cult.”
Flags bearing the B÷C logo unfurl. It looks and sounds like the greatest introduction to the greatest rock band of all time. The Transmaniacon MC. On tour forever.
The Cult are on home turf. They are just about to crack America properly. Their third album Secret Treaties, released six months earlier, marked the climax of their ‘black and white album’ period, and this gig – one of more than 120 played in 1974 – is a technicolour assault on the new material.
Secret Treaties is advertised with the slogan: ‘Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed’, and at the climax of ME 262 they unleash their piece de resistance – all five members playing ear-melting guitars at the same time. It’s both absurd and more exciting than anything they’ve delivered to date.
Judging by the reaction to blonde MC, Miss Caroll Dodd, Blue Öyster Cult have succeeded in making heavy metal sound sexy.
It hadn’t always been this easy to summon the mark of the beast. Rewind four years, to September 4th, 1970, where The Stalk-Forrest Group – the name the band traded under between their origins as Soft White Underbelly and Blue Öyster Cult – are booked at a nudist event in Camp Swan Lake, an upmarket resort situated in the Catskills, New York State.
Even though gas is cheap as thrills in America, the group’s finances mean any gig will do and so guitarist/vocalist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, keyboard player/guitarist vocalist Allen Lanier, drummer Albert Bouchard and his bassist brother Joe leave their base in Great Neck, Long Island, in a beat up Chevy van with the band’s other singer and guitarist Eric Bloom leading the way on his motorcycle. They arrive to find the nudists enjoying a swingers’ weekend.
“There was shagging going on,” recalls Bloom now. “I gave one of the ladies a ride on my bike and she offered to give me some hand-relief.”
“We saw New York hipsters dropping acid and swapping wives,” adds Roeser.
But then they were used to weird gigs. One of their early bookings was a bar mitzvah. Another time, they backed Jackson Browne and a Turkish belly dancer from Brooklyn.
This particular show took place on a tennis court, with Stalk-Forrest playing inside an orange plastic bubble. The set mixed such originals as Roeser’s drug-murder tale Then Came The Last Days Of May, Bloom’s schmaltzy Four Door Blues and Lanier’s nasty What A Lovely Tale with covers of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, The Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones and even Free’s All Right Now.
In the crowd was David Lucas, a jingle writer from New York. Lucas liked what he heard and approached the Stalk-Forrest Group’s manager Sandy Pearlman to offer the group time in his warehouse studio on 46th Street in Manhattan. They took up his offer, and recorded a demo. “It was,” says Pearlman, “a cosmic coincidence.”
The maverick Pearlman was the group’s unofficial sixth member. He was a fully-fledged eccentric: a teetotal music journalist, he had never drank a Coca-Cola and hated American cars so much he drove a Saab. He disguised his bad eyesight behind dark glasses and a mop of dirty brown hair. He didn’t so much converse as deliver his spiel with machine-gun emphasis.
He’d been working with the band since 1967, and their inception as Soft White Underbelly around the campus of Long Island’s Stony Brook University. By the time of the gig at the nudist camp, they’d had two albums’ worth of material rejected by Elektra – the first after original singer Les Braunstein walked out; the second after bassist Andrew Winters quit to work in a bakery. A lone single, featuring What Is Quicksand and Arthur Comics, emerged from their association with the label.
As the Stalk-Forrest Group – named after a plate of mushrooms and broccoli enjoyed by Pearlman in a Chinese restaurant – they were an odd proposition. They played breakneck psychedelia with weird lyrics provided by Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, another music journo who hung around the band’s shared house. These two philosophy majors had worked on the influential American rock fanzine Crawdaddy, where Pearlman claims he coined the term ‘Heavy Metal’ in a review of The Byrds’ Artificial Energy.
“They were amazing musicians but they were incompetent as a live act,” says Pearlman. “We needed to get them an image.” Meltzer remembers a fateful band meeting, “when they decided to go metal or rather pseudo-metal – the metal they played at first was pure comedy. They weren’t serious about it.”
The band got harder as they started playing biker bars, where motorcycle gangs adopted them like dogs. “They took us to their clubhouses and gave us escorts whether we wanted them or not,” says Allen Lanier. They found that playing Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild or the Stones’ That’s Not Easy amid such original acid-metal tunes as Curse Of The Hidden Mirrors and the transcendental Ragamuffin Dumplin’ would pacify the rowdy bikers. The fact that Eric Bloom rode a bike only helped.
By the summer of 1971, the Stalk-Forrest Group had morphed into the Blue Öyster Cult, named after a variety of Blue Point oysters favoured by Pearlman. The band weren’t in love with the new name, but once Lanier and Meltzer suggested adding an umlaut to Öyster, it seemed to fit.
Having hawked the Lucas demos to all and sundry Pearlman met Murray Krugman, a marketing man at Columbia. Krugman him that his new label boss Clive Davis – arch-rival of Elektra’s Jac Holzman, who had rejected the band’s sessions twice – wanted to sign a hard rock group. “I told Sandy, ‘Get us a deal or we break up’,” says Donald Roeser.
An audition was arranged that July. The band found themselves in a conference room at Columbia’s offices on 6th Avenue. “We were loud,” says Roeser. “The audition was intimidating because Clive brought in Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby and this other huge guy who turns out to be Harry Nilsson. During our five-song set Nilsson walked out so we thought we’d blown it. But he just went for a cigarette, and in fact he told Clive to sign us.”
In October the Cult returned to Lucas’s Warehouse Studio and recorded their self-titled debut album in two weeks. “It was new material, reworked from our psychedelic past,” says Joe Bouchard. “We were told by Murray Krugman to ‘make it heavier’. Zeppelin was hot at the time and he wanted us to ride that wave. The building was a spice warehouse. Going up in the elevator all you could smell was exotic spice.”
The debut album was unlike anything else on offer in 1972. Starting with the menacing biker blues Transmaniacon MC – about a mythical motorcycle gang making their way to Altamont (‘We’re pain/We’re steel/A plot of knives/We’re Transmaniacon MC’) the Cult made sure the listener knew that rock’n’roll was the devil’s music. Triple guitars and layers of cryptic lyrics kept the group at arm’s length from the listener but made you want to enter their ghastly space.
The equally mysterious I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep about a malevolent force of renegade Canadian Mounties who always get their man in the end oozed real threat. Elsewhere, Workshop Of The Telescopes had a perverse sci-fi quality. According to Bloom. “That was off-the-wall. It’s not like the lyrics ‘By silverfish imperetrix, whose incorrupted eye sees through the charms of doctors, and their wives’ roll off the tongue. These songs were created in one room by a bunch of weirdoes and it all seemed right back then.”
Stranger still was Meltzer’s She’s As Beautiful As A Foot. “His songs were out of this world,” says Albert Bouchard. “A woman whose face tastes like a fallen arch when you bite it?” Pearlman’s Before The Kiss, A Redcap was another enigma. “That was about the habit bikers had of passing on pills to girlfriends via a French kiss,” explains Lanier.
“We made a conscious decision to be ominous and dark,” says Albert Bouchard. “For example, Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll was still called Siren Sing-along and was a lot lighter until Sandy came up with the line ‘Let the girl, let that girl rock and roll…’ The mood changed. We discovered adventure.”
David Lucas is credited as producer on the first album, but Pearlman disputes how much he brought to proceedings. “He added some handclaps and he had a great engineer called Bill Robertson. His role is vastly overstated.”
“I put them on the map,” counters Lucas. “The scruffy hippies. They were mystical, they floated – not necessarily heavy metal at all. I made them melodic and insisted on harmonies. Sandy got in the way. Richard Meltzer was around and he was fabulously talented. Sandy was a pain in the ass. I let him mix and he made them more brittle, more punk. He was incredibly talented but he manipulated them. Albert was the most important member; he was the soul of the group. They never really had one singer but I liked their voices – they had a weird sound.”
With the album scheduled for early 1972, artwork was needed. The band turned to Bill Gawlik, a friend from Stony Brook University who had made a name for himself with an intricate masters thesis in Architecture called ‘City Of The Future’. Gawlik came up with the silver BÖC logo, a variation on the ancient symbol for Kronos, the planet Saturn and the metal lead. The main design was a nightmarish infinity of sci-fi house and railway line leading to the stars. Hand drawn with ink pen and mathematical instruments, and rendered in black and white, the cover suited the Cult’s scientific music and frozen emotion.
“When he did the album cover we felt like the Cult for the first time,” says Roeser. “Sandy didn’t want to promote our personalities so no band picture was allowed. There was virtue in being mysterious and Gawlik nailed that.”
The name, logo and album were in place, but BÖC still lacked a ‘look’. Which is why Pearlman and Eric Bloom ended up in The Leather Man, a gay clothing store on Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street.
“Not a neighbourhood I was familiar with,” says Bloom. “I chose a set of black leather jeans and a black leather Levi’s-style jacket, similar to the outfit Elvis wore on his comeback special. I found a motorcycle chain belt.”
To complete the provocative look, the Bloom picked up a studded belt with chrome handcuffs on the front, a wet-look nylon shirt, a studded black leather wristlet and a leather ring with a single stud in it. He got a pair of boots made by the Anania Bros, who provided the fledgling Kiss with their platform footwear, and a dog chain which he would remove from his belt loops to whip the cymbals. The final piece of his outfit was some plastic jewellery, made by an artist acquaintance named Robert Mapplethorpe.
Mapplethorpe had entered BÖC’s orbit via his friendship with Patti Smith, a budding young poet-singer then dating Allen Lanier. Smith was already carving her name as the High Priestess of the alternative New York scene with her poetry readings and her tentative stabs at rock’n’roll. Richard Meltzer introduced her to the group in late 1970. “She was working at a bookstore,” says Meltzer. Sometimes the Cult rehearsed in her loft on 23rd Street, three blocks from Max’s Kansas City. She’s credited with telling the Cult to get into S&M leather.
The rest of them followed Bloom’s lead, with Albert Bouchard opting for similar garb to the singer – except he also picked up a pair of hot pants. Lanier was togged out like a Victorian undertaker in clothes chosen for him by Smith, plus his own addition of a crumpled top hat. The only hold-out was Donald Roeser – Pearlman suggested he wear a white suit as a counter-point to the black leather.
The live show was equally flamboyant. By now, their set featured a hammy drum solo and a crossed guitars routine during Born To Be Wild, which sent electric flashes into the air.
“Were we serious?” ponders Albert. “Were we kidding? Sure. Sometimes. But was the whole thing a joke? No. It was not.”
In case anyone missed the point, Pearlman cooked up an advert for the record: ‘Get Behind The Blue Öyster Cult. Before they get behind you.’ He persuaded Meltzer to write reams of laudatory copy, which Pearlman dictated, standing at Meltzer’s shoulder, checking every word.
“Sandy was great at that shit,” says Allen Lanier. “He turned us into BÖC Inc. And who cared? It was a great idea. He was way ahead of that game.”
To let themselves off the leash BÖC undertook an extensive East Tour tour to promote their debut. One show, at the infamous Nugget’s Pizza Parlor in Rochester, New York was broadcast on WCMF-FM. A four-track live recording from Nugget’s – The Red And The Black/Buck’s Boogie/Workshop of the Telescopes and Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll – was released to radio stations as the Blue Öyster Cult Bootleg EP. All the better to make the dogs salivate for Chapter Two in the band’s quest for world domination.
The band began recording their second album at Columbia Studios in New York in late 1972. To prepare himself to create the artwork, Bill Gawlik took vast amounts of amphetamines while driving a NYC taxi by day and then listening to the first record by night non-stop for hours. “He was late delivering,” says Pearlman. “I go to see him and he says, ‘You know what you must do? Turn up the air-conditioning so it’s freezing cold in the studio and don’t let anyone leave until it’s finished. By the way, I have a name for this album and it’s called Tyranny And Mutation.’ I agreed wholeheartedly.”
Released in February 1973, Tyranny And Mutation delivered the manic noise suggested by its predecessor. “We wanted to be disgusting, not trans-repulsive,” is Pearlman’s opinion. “This is really hard rock comedy,” said Meltzer at the time. There was an incendiary remake of the debut’s I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep, now called The Red And The Black (which tied with in with the LP’s Black and Red sides). There was also a song with lyrics by Patti Smith, Baby Ice Dog.
“For a while we considered Patti as singer in the Cult, but Eric said, ‘I’m not going to be in a band with a girl’,” says Albert Bouchard. “But her songs were welcomed. Her forte was lots of kinky jealousy sex. Baby Ice Dog was particularly obnoxious. We wanted to make a record that was as scary as anything ever done. Something truly malevolent. We succeeded. I couldn’t play it to my stepdaughter. Whenever I did she cried.”
If Tyranny And Mutation – or TYRANNY AND MVTATION according to the Romanesque title on the striking sleeve – sounded arcane, its songs were still rooted in a perverse reality. O.D.’d On Life Itself was inspired by seeing the Allman Brothers Band at Saratoga Springs. “We were sat next to the medical tent where there was a steady stream of smacked-out kids OD’ing which inspired Sandy to write it,” says Albert Bouchard. “Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl) was kinda about a check-our girl who used to slip us free food in the early days. Sandy combined that with a poem about the Garden District in New York. It was a regular flower market but he made it sinister. That is an evil song.”
Too evil for mass consumption, in fact. Despite glowing reviews Tyranny didn’t sell well and the singles chart wasn’t ready to accept 7 Screaming Diz-Busters, an in-joke reference to an ejaculating penis. The American copy had an inner sleeve depicting Bloom and Dharma doing their cross guitar routine and some Pearlman prose about a ‘Flaming Telepath’, who would eventually land on their next album in the guise of a demented folk song of the same name.
“I played Columbia the test pressing,” says Pearlman. “In walks this guy Bruce Springsteen who didn’t have a career yet. He was dumbfounded: ‘I can’t believe anyone can play that fast!’ We ripped up the playbook. Thrash metal derives directly from Tyranny And Mutation. It’s off the edge of the planet. It’s better than Slayer.”
The album might not have made them stars, but 1973 saw the Cult shift up from clubs to sports hall ‘sheds’. Labelmates Aerosmith supported them, as did Kiss. There were feuds with both bands. Relationships between BÖC and Steven Tyler and co. soured as their respective road crews would sabotage the others’ FX tapes or pull the power at inopportune moments. At one show, Tyler was silenced in mid-scarf swoop. “Which fuckin’ cunt pulled the plug?”
he ranted. “I got a fuckin’ good idea.”
“We got on fine with Aerosmith until they overtook us,” says Albert Bouchard. “They wouldn’t let us use our dry ice so our roadies destroyed their backstage bathroom with a hand axe.”
Their spat with Kiss was funnier. When BÖC accused their fellow New Yorkers of being Alice Cooper rip-offs, Kiss dubbed them The Blue Öyster Munchkins (they had a point – none of the band were statuesque).
By the end of 1973, the era of communal BÖC houses was over. Though not before they’d written the songs for their third album, Secret Treaties, at their place in Eaton’s Neck, Long Island.
“We used Columbia’s Studio again, a real famous huge studio used for recording orchestras and jazz like Miles Davis,” says Joe Bouchard. “There were lots of concert pianos, tubular bells and other orchestra instruments.”
The album was a bent masterpiece. Patti Smith’s Career Of Evil set the standard high with Bloom intoning her sexual-satanic verses – ‘I’d like to do it to your daughter on a dirt road’ – as if butter wouldn’t melt. Albert Bouchard wrote the music with relish. “It was pretty easy because I recycled Transmaniacon M.C. from the first album. It’s a funny song: ‘Finally I’ve got a career and yeah, it’s a career of evil but hey, at least I’ve got a job!’”
There was no let-up. Pearlman’s Dominance And Submission was a true account of being abducted in a car and driven to Times Square, with a subtext involving the British Invasion of American radio airwaves by The Beatles on New Year’s Eve 1963. ME 262 told the story of a WW2 dogfight from a German perspective with the hero, taking phone calls from Goering and Hitler while dismantling the RAF. According to Meltzer, Pearlman researched it “in the seediest Third Reich S&M gay bars in Manhattan.”
Bloom contributed Subhuman. “That was in an original folder of lyrics. It was a Sandy poem originally called Blue Öyster Cult. I jammed it on an upright piano, like I did ME 262. Harvester Of Eyes and Flaming Telepaths were also living room songs, ensemble pieces.”
Harvester Of Eyes featured one of Meltzer’s most outlandish lunatics in the shape of the eponymous character, who steals the peepers from the dead. His Cagey Cretins was similarly deranged, a reworking of the Stack-Forrest Group tunes Bark In The Sun and Mystic Stump.
The album culminated in the mystical one-two of Flaming Telepaths and Astronomy – the former twisted psych-folk-rock built around a one-chord piano riff, the latter an extra-terrestrial occult ballad that blazed like a thousand stars and was the crowning glory of both the album and their career so far.
“Astronomy was written from scratch to fit Sandy’s lyric,” says Albert Bouchard. “The melody came to me as I was walking on the beach near our house we rented on Eaton’s Neck. Joe cut it as a ballad for Tyranny. It was way too slow, so I wrote a bridge that connected the fast part to the speeded-up section. I was going through a divorce, which explains the change in mood, and Allen nailed it like he did everything on Treaties by playing to the max on the studio’s grand piano. I was supposed to sing Astronomy but I fucked my voice doing Dominance And Submission – going for that John Lennon intensity on Twist And Shout – I couldn’t even speak.”
Secret Treaties was point where the Cult brought together everything that set them apart. “Tyranny actually sounds better, but where that was rushed and written in hotel rooms, Treaties is extremely developed,” says Albert. ìThere’s something going on every second. The journey from Career Of Evil to Astronomy is huge.”
To up the ante Sandy Pearlman commissioned artist Ron Lesser to paint Secret Treaties’ cover, depicting the group and a pack of Alsatians beside a German ME-262 bomber parked in a Paraguayan airfield. Inside was some Pearlman rubric about the origins of a mystical, mythical World War: “These treaties founded a secret science from the stars. Astronomy. The career of evil.”
The album was released in February 1974, and the band were finally ready to deliver on their threat. But their detractors claimed they were nothing more than Pearlman’s puppets. “The asshole critic Lester Bangs thinks we are,” said Lanier at the time. “He’s got this notion that the world’s in chains and Sandy’s in charge of the chain department. It’s a lotta shit.”
They were attracting unwanted attention from other places too. The Jewish Defence League questioned the Cult’s ethics, while Circus magazine accused them of flirting with anti-Semitism.
“We were starting to get flak for our logo,” says Bloom. “It wasn’t a Nazi rally, but it was open to misinterpretation, because we were all imagery and no faces.”
“I thought they’d get the fact that some of our organisation were Jewish,” laughs Roeser. “Still, any publicity is good publicity.”
Indeed it was. As 1974 ended the Blue Öyster Cult returned to the Academy of Music in New York for their New Year’s Eve show. “We kicked ass,” says Bloom. “No one was pulling our strings anymore.” At the end of Flaming Telepaths the climactic line ‘Is it any wonder that my joke’s an iron, and the joke’s on you’ echoes on repeat around the hall sparking a full scale riot. Near the back of the hall Sandy Pearlman could be seen in his place at the mixing desk. He was laughing uncontrollably.
“It was great to witness,” he says. “The BÖC had total control of their audience. The performances were awesome.”
On your feet or on your knees, indeed. (Max Bell)
First published, Classic Rock 168, March 2012. To subscribe to Classic Rock, click here.