The Strange Case of Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear The CowBell

“Aren’t those the cowbell guys who wrote that ‘Grim Reefer’ song with Christopher Walken ?”

A young hipster acquaintance of mine was looking over my shoulder as I was preparing this  posting.  After what was becoming an uncomfortable period of silence, he exclaimed, “What the hell are these”, pointing to a list of Blue Oyster Cult song titles I had compiled which included “Flaming Telepaths”, “7 Screaming Dizbusters”, “Before the Kiss, A Redcap”, “Harvester of Eyes”, and “Transmaniacon MC”.  As he prided himself on unflappability it was clear that he was embarrassed by his emotional slip as hipsters usually are when caught  breaking character. But I understood his reaction as I too, (albeit 40 years ago), was intrigued with those very same song titles. Back then I spent a long time scanning the liner notes and album covers of “Tyranny and Mutation”, and “Secret Treaties” thinking there might be some clues as to who this “Cult” was and why they liked “Blue Oysters” so much to make them part of their name.  It turns out I was reading way too much into it. They were probably bigger geeks than was I – a belief somewhat validated when I read that guitarist Buck Dharma was in school for Chemical Engineering before answering the Siren’s call.

So ladies fish and gentlemen / Here’s my angled dream / See me in the blue sky bag / And meet me by the sea” – Subhuman

A hipster friend of mine claimed to have liked this album but will probably deny it now

A young hipster friend of mine once claimed to have liked this album but will probably now deny it

When I told my socially aware friend that these were Blue Oyster Cult, (from now on abbreviated as BOC), songs he look very puzzled. “Oh yea, those are the ‘cowbell’ guys who wrote that Grim Reefer [sic] song with Christoper Walken on Saturday Night Live”. Not knowing if it was worth the effort to even partially correct him I uttered, “Err well yes”. It turns out that it didn’t matter as he quickly shuttled off back to his table after snapping a pic of my screen.  Maybe half  an hour had passed when he came back over, (probably after having Bit-Torrented down their entire catalogue), and said, “It is conceivable that some merit resides herein”, pointing at the downloaded cover art to “On Your Feet or On Your Knees”. His finger landed on the umlaut over the O and I thought he was going to ask about it but I’m guessing he realized that some googling would handle that.  For a hipster his comment was tantamount to gushing school girl behavior but he could get away with it since, after all, I’m just an “old Boomer guy” and it seems that no one else had heard him so his hipster cred was still intact. Without looking up I threw in the tidbit of, “Of course you know that Patti Smith wrote the occasional lyric for the band and was also a one time girlfriend of the keyboard player. And of course Jim Carroll wrote a song for them later on”. He gulped though caught himself before displaying emotion for yet a second time. See, information like this is gold in hipster circles. He gathered his MacBook, Ipad, and Iphone and scampered off home to regain some dignity, do some googling, and rehearse scenarios on how best to nonchalantly drop in BOC factoids at his next band meeting.

“Oh no – Blue Oyster Cult again ?”

The pattern in the 70s was that if you saw Blue Oyster Cult perform even once  then you saw them many times such was their commitment to touring. So even if they weren’t the headliner they would frequently show up sometimes without you even knowing until you got to the show.  Tours were cheap then with a ticket price of around five to six bucks that usually included three bands. However, sometimes only the headliner’s name was on the ticket. So it wasn’t unusual to wind up seeing bands like BOC unintentionally. A friend of mine once exclaimed, “Oh no – BOC again !!”.  So I got to know the band over time and was always impressed with their ability to deliver the goods live. In the scheme of things their reputation hasn’t fared as well as I thought it should have and after discussing it with others I’ve come to understand this isn’t an uncommon opinion. Most people are neutral and might have some vague recollection of seeing them but I feel that they deserve more respect. Having considered it for a few decades, largely in an ongoing series of incremental thought sessions each of which was at most a few minutes long, I’ve boiled it down to a couple of reasons – generic presence and interesting but sometimes inscrutable lyrics.

Relative to the generic presence – To an extent this was true as the band never appeared on any of their record covers except maybe Secret Treaties where they were drawn in. While none of the band were physically repugnant (unlike say Bachman Turner Overdrive or Black Oak Arkansas) neither were there any standout members from an aesthetic view-point. That is, none of them were particularly handsome or compelling to look at in the rock star sense. They had three leader singers with Eric Bloom being the most frequent, followed by Buck Dharma, and then drummer Albert Bouchard. Bloom sported leather and shades and projected a quasi Jim Morrison vibe but never seemed to be dangerous or prone to anything but typical stage behavior and patter, “Oh yea babies – write the president and tell him you don’t wanna go to jail for smokin’ up some weed”. While he wasn’t boring he certainly wasn’t a rock god. He possessed a solid (sometimes great) voice with the occasional glimpse of brilliance. Check out “Subhuman” or a live version of “Astronomy” for evidence of such.

“You’re boned like a saint
With the consciousness of a snake” – The Revenge of Vera Gemini

Buck Dharma's Latino phase

Buck Dharma’s West Side Story Shark Phase

Next up was Buck Dharma (nee Donald Roeser) with an angelic, floaty type voice which provided an interesting counter to Bloom’s more rounded voice. Diminutive and baby-faced he rocked a porn stache before those types of moustaches were so named. Prior to “Don’t Fear The Reaper” Dharma’s primary vocal and guitar showcase was the dreamy “Then Came The Last Days of May”, a hollowly sung  cautionary tale for those contemplating a career in the dope smuggling business. He was an accomplished lead player and had interesting musical ideas without every wandering into self-indulgent solo territory. In performance  he stayed put and presented no real “edge” or persona other than that of a hardworking competent musician committed to playing the numbers the way the fans knew them. Early on in their career I halfway expected for there to be some kind of a Mick and Keith dynamic going on between Bloom and Roeser but that never happened. No one in the band was a junky,  (at least in any way I could detect), nor was there any hint of ostentatious sexual novelty as a means to get attention ( a la Mr. Bowie), In fact there was really no attempt on their part to portray any type of image unless it was so powerfully subtle that everyone missed it. BOC’s most flamboyant stage moment usually took place during “ME-262”, (a Pearlman penned song about the Nazi produced Messerschmitt Me 262 aircraft), wherein all  five members arrived on stage playing guitar. Other than that there wasn’t much to focus on except the music. However, I think after playing a few shows with KISS they wanted to change this.

“Stop those goddamn lasers from getting into my eyes”

Knowledge like this will get you laid

Knowledge like this will make you popular with the ladies

BOC made the questionable move of buying a set of lasers, that, while very impressive for the time, were difficult to maintain and required frequent calibration. Eric Bloom used a laser ring/bracelet during “Astronomy” which you can see on YouTube although the video only hints at how cool it looked in person. This page has some great photos of the BOC laser show from a 1977 show in Atlanta (I was there !). Even cooler is that the page appears to have been created by someone who might have had something to do with BOC’s laser show in the first place.  Anyway there was a rumor that the laser show was eventually targeted by the US Government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) who was attempting to respond to allegations that unsafe operating procedures were leading to retina damage in concert goers. See there was this disco ball type contraption hanging over the sound board and during “Astronomy” Eric Bloom would aim his laser ring/bracelet at it and the laser would refract off the ball into shards of light that would distribute into the audience.  They would supplement it with more lasers from the stage and laser light being an example of “coherent” illumination meant that the arena was awash in these light beams – overall a very cool effect. I heard it said that OSHA had issued a cease and desist order although I could never verify the veracity of this claim. I did once hear a fellow concert goer exclaim, “Stop it ! Stop those goddamn lasers from getting into my eyes” though I had to point out that BOC had yet to take the stage. Being the 70s and all I simply assumed he had ingested some substance(s) to help take the edge off and maybe he was seeing something that wasn’t there. (Chemical over-preparation for concerts then was a frequent problem). Anyway, I saw (no pun intended) at least two BOC shows with the full on laser treatment and never had a problem.  Nonetheless, this was one of those cases where they probably should have rented instead of bought as it evidently cut into the bottom line financially. It probably would have been cheaper to learn to spit fire or to light up a throwaway guitar after having doused it in gasoline but both those tricks were already taken.

Shades and Staches gets the bitches

Shades, Staches, and Leather – Essential 70s Man Fashion

In terms of musicianship there was never a question. They were never bad, usually quite good, and occasionally fantastic. They only time I saw them have an off night was when there was a rain delay, which messed with the momentum of the show.  And, unlike Aerosmith, I never got the sense that they were trying to get off the stage as soon as possible. I read Paul Stanley’s recent book and he really enjoyed pointing out that KISS once opened for BOC though not even a year later they flipped the script and had BOC opening for them.  It wasn’t surprising as KISS had “that show” back then which made it very hard for other bands to compete on a visual level though in terms of musicianship there was never any contest and if Paul Stanley thinks otherwise that would be a mistake. Sure, I saw KISS blow away lots of bands then but after catching their act a couple of times a sense of equilibrium returned and I stopped giving so much weight to a band’s visual stage show. I had made similar mistakes previously with Alice Cooper and David Bowie shows although, unlike KISS, they had support bands with excellent musicians so it was understandable how I could be swayed by those tours.

“Everyone is a f***ing critic”

Chris Walken was never in BOC but he had the leather for it.

Chris Walken was never in BOC but he had the leather for it.

Anyway, what you might not know is that BOC was a critic’s band. More accurately a critics’ (plural) band. No I don’t mean that they were loved by the critics. I mean they had critics as co-writers and producers. Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer (both of CrawDaddy fame) were there early on and provided a significant degree of influence and guidance as well as lyrics. Pearlman authored a series of poems under the title Imaginos and sought out a collection of musicians who could conceivably give voice to his work (although it would take decades for that project to be realized). That group was BOC though at first they had another name, “The Soft White Underbelly”. According to band lore Pearlman hand picked both names himself although I don’t know if this was true. And there were other contributing writers including Patti Smith, Jim Carrol, and Michael Moorcock. However, don’t assume that BOC songs were written by non band members. Most in fact were written by the guys themselves so they were pretty prolific on their own. Some of the lyrics could be incomprehensible and early on I thought they were doing that Burroughs cut up technique like Bowie did with Diamond Dogs but they weren’t. There was a certain fluidity in BOC lyrics which occurs only accidentally when using the cutup technique so I concluded that there was some degree of organic lyrical intention, (even if it was obscure). And, as their career developed, the ideas became somewhat easier to comprehend (at least superficially). Buck’s voice was always crystal clear so on songs he sang there was never a question about the words.  Still, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was about embracing death which I found to be odd since they were still relatively young and all. But tunes like “Harvester of Eyes”, “Subhuman”, “ETI”, well I couldn’t put those together at all but it didn’t matter so much because the backing tracks were pretty powerful and the vocal delivery was solid. The words seemed comfortable right next to each other and there was no rushing, for example, to end a phrase by the end of a bar. This is all to say that while it appeared that they put a lot of work into the lyrics that’s not what I focused on – I’ve never been one to let the words get in the way of a good song. The BOC hits, such as they were, were all sung and penned by Buck Dharma. These include “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, “Burning for You”, and “Godzilla” the latter of which featured a tasty guitar riff and a great bridge with tape effects and Japanese public service announcements by Eric Bloom. (Gojira ga Ginza no hō ni mukatteimasu! Daishikyū, hinan shite kudasai! – at least according to Wikipedia).  The earliest hit, “Cities on Flame” was sung by drummer Albert Bouchard and written by Bouchard, Roeser, and Pearlman.

Anyway, the last meaningful contact I had with the band as a fan was hearing  “Shooting Shark” (which featured a then unknown Randy Jackson on bass) and “Take Me Away”, (co written with long forgotten Aldo Nova). But by the time “Club Ninja” rolled around I stopped listening. Not because I didn’t like the music it’s just that life got busy, priorities changed, and I moved on.

“Sick of hauling your love around
Want to run my train alone” – Shooting Shark

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me to attend a Summer music festival with him and having no competing interests at the time I agreed. We got there just as the festival was opening and  I had no idea who we were there to see. It was one of those 40 bands over a 3-day period kind of thing so there were like 4 stages you could go to. Completely by accident we turned up at one of the stages just as BOC was plowing into “ETI” as an opener. They didn’t play as many songs as I wanted to over their 60 minute set because they stretched out certain songs (“Buck’s Boogie”), and they gave the bass player a solo spot which was really boring and I then realized that the Bouchard brothers had left (or were fired) and their slots had been taken by some utility musicians. Allen Lanier had returned on keyboards although,  (like back in the 70s), he was fairly subdued in his presence. Still, it was cool to see the band work solidly through the tunes I had seen them handle a couple of decades previously. Their closer was “Dominance and Submission”and they did a fantastic job on that one.

They still tour these days and from looking at their web page it looks like Rudy Sarzo had a stint in the band as did Kasim Sulton of Utopia so they have been moving forward at a time when many 70s bands have packed it on or have lost key members. Note that while I still consider the Bouchard brothers, (hmmm, wonder who sings “Cities on Flame” these days ?), to have been an important part of the original BOC experience their departure (or dismissal) wasn’t as big a loss as would have been Bloom or Roeser. Anyway if you have only just heard of BOC or have some idea that the only thing they did was that “cowbell song” then you should, like my hipster friend mentioned at the beginning of the article,  probably dig a little deeper into the catalogue. In terms of where to start there is a compilation on Itunes that does a really good job of featuring the early stuff with more recent works – recent being 80s or 90s. I downloaded this release onto my phone and have been listening to “Veteran of a 1,000 Psychic Wars” – “All the scars are on the inside
I’m not sure that there’s anything left of me”. As I remember Buck used to take an extended solo on this tune and it wound up being his marquee solo spot. In terms of “70’s bands that you might want to see” I would suggest putting them at the top of your list. No, you won’t get the lasers or the 70s stage patter but it should still be pretty good. – Steve Pittard © 2015


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