And the Joke’s On You…

It’s 1967. Some students attending Stony Brook University on Long Island have just formed a band. Kind of. ‘Soft White Underbelly’ was more of a collective than a band, really; their ‘manager’, a former Student President at Stony Brook U., was a poet, and had arranged for a bunch of dudes to write music for a series of poems he had written. Turns out this guy was also an underground rock critic at Crawdaddy! magazine, and had also invited a buddy of his from Crawdaddy! to contribute lyrics for this Underbelly thing.

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The players gelled and became a pretty decent band. Despite hailing from the East Coast, Soft White Underbelly had a distinctly West Coast sound; very San Francisco, man. Their lyrics were… interesting. Cryptic, arty, and as literate as they were tripped-out. In ’68, their manager, through connections made at Crawdaddy!, got the band a deal with Elektra records. An album was recorded. And shelved when the lead singer quit.

Underbelly’s tour manager was originally local sound engineer who rented out his P.A. system through a local music store. While working with Underbelly, he lived in the house with the rest of the collective, and when the band’s singer walked, the group’s tour manager became their new lead vocalist. The new line-up of the band scored a show at the Fillmore East, but the set was so badly received that the manager panicked and decided to change the band’s name. ‘Oaxaca’ was born.

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Underground music journo connections paid off again, and the band, under the new-new moniker of ‘The Stalk-Forrest Group’, scored a development deal with Elektra, and recorded an album’s worth of material. Again. And, again, an album never materialized; only 300 copies of a promo-only single, “What is Quicksand?” / “Arthur Comics”, was accidentally released to radio. What the hell did a band have to do to catch a break?

Turns out a break was right around the corner. New York recording engineer and jingle writer David Lucas (‘Reach out and touch Someone’, ‘Catch That Pepsi Spirit’… those are his) saw the group perform in the city and offered to record a demo. The demo made its way to CBS Records, where an exec told the band’s manager, ‘What we’re really looking for is our own Black Sabbath. If you guys can do that, I can get you a deal.’ Sabbath did not have the support of Top 40 Radio or the mainstream music press; in fact, the critics HATED them, but were somehow selling millions of albums. CBS wanted one of those, thank you very much.

Stalk-Forrest’s management called a meeting. A monumental decision loomed. Could they pull this off? Did they even want to try? Could five college educated intellectuals from New York, with the aid of their rock critic/poet/lyricist/manager, transform themselves into the ‘American Black Sabbath’? Two chances had come and gone already; how many more chances would they get? The bass player balked and quit; the drummer’s brother quickly replaced him. The Underbelly-Stalk-Oaxaca collective finally answered CBS with a Yes. But first, another name change was in order.

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Blue Oyster Cult would never sound anything like Black Sabbath. It simply wasn’t in their DNA. The band did, however, ‘darken’ their mysterious lyrics and heavy-up their sound as much as they could. Still sounding more like the Jefferson Airplane than Black Sabbath by the time of their debut album in 1972, the band did what it could to ape the Sab’s ominous musical oeuvre. Drummer Al Bouchard even stole the riff from Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard’ and wrote ‘Cities on Flame (With Rock and Roll)’ around it, creating a pretty convincing slab of heavy metal in the process… but it’s really the only song on the record that sounded like the work of a proper heavy metal band. Overall, the debut contained little of the excess and heavy-handedness that critics loved to hate about early 70’s heavy metal, and therefore was quite well-reviewed. BOC were walking a fine line, trying to have it both ways… but it was working. The transformation had begun.

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The ‘look’ of the band changed drastically, too, morphing from West Coast hippie jam band to East Coast biker badass; their album covers featured stark, labyrinthine structures and foreboding, otherworldly landscapes. Advertising campaigns were purposefully slanted towards the dark side (one of the ads for the ’72 debut featured the blurb “Parents and priests warned us of the dangers…”, another read “A panorama of violence and suffering on Columbia Records and Tapes”). They even added an umlaut to their logo for that extra hint of menace (sorry, Motorhead fans, BOC did it first). The infamous hooked cross logo was a play on the alchemical symbol for lead, which, in the parlance of chemistry and the elements, is a ‘heavy metal’.

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By their fourth album, 1974’s live ‘On Your Feet or On Your Knees’, BOC had firmly established themselves as ‘the thinking man’s heavy metal band’ and ‘Heavy Metal for people who hate heavy metal.’ ‘On Your Feet’ hit #22 in the US and went gold the year it was released. BOC continued to play both sides of the fence on 1976’s ‘Agents of Fortune’, which would break the band wide open with the huge worldwide hit single ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ and sudden multi-Platinum success. Now assisted by lyrics from several writers from outside the band, like Patti Smith, sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock, Jim Carroll, rock critic Richard Meltzer, manager Sandy Pearlman’s overriding Imaginos ‘concept’ (essentially, the occult origins of World War II) had blossomed and fed into the band’s overall mystique, an intricately constructed façade that was both credible and marketable. The ruse had worked. The Blue Oyster Cult had found a sublime balance between mystery and irony; between menace and wit. And lasers. And nothing screamed ‘METAL!’ more metal than that part of their live show where every member of the band, all five guys, played guitar at the same time in the infamous ‘Five Guitars’ piece?

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Personally, while I was a little let down while reading about circumstances of the band’s early history and decision to ‘go metal’ in Martin Popoff’s excellent book ‘Blue Oyster Cult: Secrets Revealed!’ (Metal Blade, 2004) and also in the liner notes for Rhino’s 2001 release of  ‘St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings’. But I also felt like Blue Oyster Cult finally made sense. Something had always nagged at me about BOC; a metal band that didn’t play metal, didn’t embrace the usual heavy metal tropes and trademarks, didn’t employ the same chops, songwriting styles, or lyrical subject matter… What made them so different? Why were they so interesting; so strangely appealing? Suddenly I knew.

Members of the band and organization have said in print that they never took the heavy metal aspect of the band seriously, and most fans and even casual listeners will hopefully find a good bit of tongue-in-cheek humor and a healthy dose of irony in the band’s catalogue. Their music can be enjoyed on multiple levels; for the dark humor, the exceptional and varied songwriting, or for the complex ‘concept’ of the band. All angles are equally valid, and work together extremely well. I credit Blue Oyster cult for playing the same game Cheap Trick played so well: operating brilliantly within a genre while simultaneously poking fun at it from the inside. It’s a brilliant trick if you can pull it off; satirizing heavy metal music by writing truly exceptional heavy metal music. When was the last time anyone used words like ‘fascinating’ or even ‘interesting’ when talking about a heavy metal band?

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I suppose the ultimate irony is that Pearlman (briefly) managed both BOC and Black Sabbath, and that in 1980, both bands embarked on a co-headlining romp marketed as the ‘Black and Blue’ tour. The tour’s stop at New York’s Nassau Coliseum was filmed, and the resultant tour film, cleverly entitled ‘Black and Blue’, was released to theatres in 1981. As concert movies go, it was pretty awful; dimly lit and poorly recorded, it’s never been released on DVD, as someone connected with one band or the other thinks it would do more damage than good. But the tour/film speaks to the incredible feat that Blue Oyster Cult had somehow pulled off: a band initially signed to mirror and exploit the success of Black Sabbath, was, just 7 years later, battling it out with the Sabs toe-to-toe on stages and in movie theatres for all over the globe. Also, it’s made plain for all to see in the film that one band took the evil imagery and doom and gloom music far more seriously than the other… and if you can’t tell which one is which, then “the joke’s on you…”

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