Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Blue Öyster Cult Rabbithole: one fan's journey through Imaginos and beyond

Blue Öyster Cult by bev davies, taken at the Pacific Coliseum, August 22nd, 1982; not to be reused without permission

I never liked the Blue Öyster Cult's 1988 album, Imaginos, back in the day.

I had been, since I was a teenager, a fan of the Blue Öyster Cult, and saw them in 1982 at the Pacific Coliseum at a gig that I would later learn was attended by both bev davies and Cal Thompson from the Little Guitar Army, who has described it as a seminal moment in his rock fandom. I think it was an important gig for a few people, and it was one of my very first gigs I went to unaccompanied; I would have been age 14.

Their first three studio albums – from their 1972 self-titled debut through to Secret Treaties – were familiar to me at that point, I think, and remain to this day one of my favourite three-album runs in the history of hard rock.

It’s an even more impressive streak of brilliance if you include their prior incarnations, the Stalk-Forrest Group or Soft White Underbelly. The former, the immediate precursor to the BÖC, has been the subject of official reissues in recent years, while demos from the Soft White Underbelly – an acid-rock band with two different singers, pre-Eric Bloom, and a different bassist – have surfaced and circulated online, begging for a remastering and official release. (As a side-note: in the process of getting Bev to dig up that 1982 photo of Allen Lanier and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, I discovered she actually had seen the Soft White Underbelly, billed with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Country Joe and the Fish, on February 2nd, 1968, about a month before I was born... Alas, she did not take photos of that gig!).

There are moments of brilliance through the rest of their 1970’s catalogue, too, including, obviously “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” But their 1980’s output –after their excellent 1980 album Cultosaurus Erectus - took some work to come to terms with.

There was plenty of able popcraft on 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin – maybe their most successful attempt to present a “commercial” rock record, with their last hit single (“Burnin’ for You”), and one creepy science fiction dirge (“Veteranof the Psychic Wars,” with lyrics by Michael Moorcock).

But there were also songs, even there, that I struggled with. For one thing, the title track sounds like it’s designed for the disco. And while I personally enjoyed the divisive “Joan Crawford” – especially live, where, as I recall, keyboardist Allen Lanier tricked it up with a lengthy Gothic organ solo – it’s a pretty trivial confection, coming from a band who had written a song as magnificently rockin’ as “ME 262”.

It got harder, too, to stay with the band through the 1980’s. The Revolution By Night was even more uneven, despite a strong lead single, “Take Me Away” – which is a little heavy on the Aldo Nova influence, but how can you not like a rock anthem about wishing extraterrestrials would abduct you?

1985’s Club Ninja was more challenging still. I quite like “White Flags,” the opening cut, but for the most part, the album sounds like an untried 80’s hard rock band, making something quite generic; some of the songs aren’t even written by the band! It sounds better now than it did at the time, but I still remember my horror and disappointment when I popped the cassette into my Walkman. Albert Bouchard and Allen Lanier had both jumped ship by that point, and I didn’t blame them.

With Club Ninja, it seemed to me like the Blue Öyster Cult I had known and loved was gone, never to return. (I read now that the internal turmoil in the band was so severe that they actually broke up, briefly, in 1986).

I remember that I was positively thrilled, in 1988, when I learned that they were releasing an album designed to hearken back to their roots – a concept album based around the writings of Sandy Pearlman, and revisiting classic songs like “Subhuman” – re-recorded as “Blue Öyster Cult” and “Astronomy” (with a Stephen King introduction for the singleversion!) It seemed like the band knew they had lost direction with Club Ninja, and were righting the course. I rushed out to buy Imaginos as soon as I could – initially, again, on cassette.

And I just didn’t get it. It doesn’t sound very much like the Blue Öyster Cult, for one thing... which makes sense when you read about it; it was actually a side-project from Pearlman and drummer Albert Bouchard, who initially sang the lead vocals. His demo version of it is online, and may actually make more sense than the eventual BÖC release, since a) you won't be weirded out by it not sounding like a band that it isn't; and b) the songs are in the correct sequence, so you can better follow the narrative. 

You can read about the whole troubled production of the album on its unusually informative and interesting Wikipedia page.

Best of all on that page, you get a glimpse into the conspiracy theories behind the album, based in unpublished writings by Pearlman, The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, which serve as a sort of decoder ring for much of the underlying mythology of the BÖC, including their name (personally I always thought their name was a punning injunction to “be occult,” though other theories are out there).

That mythology stretches back even as far as Soft White Underbelly songs; delving into it, you discover that things you had previously figured it wasn’t worth trying to make sense of, in Blue Öyster Cult lyrics, actually do have a coherent (if weird) explanation.

Pearlman, apparently – the band’s manager and a key lyricist during their early years - had toyed with the idea that much of 20th century history, including the two world wars, were the result of the manipulations of secret, occult societies, versed in alchemy, and led by a group of seven “invisibles” – possibly of extraterrestrial origin, and the basis of the song, “Les Invisibles.” If you get over the cavernous, generic-hard-rock sound, that's actually a really interesting bit of songwriting. I'm finding myself glad (in the absence of a new album) to have material by the band to revisit, and I must say, I find going back to Imaginos ultimately more rewarding and enjoyable than some of their canonical albums, like Spectres. (I have long since reclaimed and fallen in love with Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror, of course).

It 1988, it was,however, just too much work for me to try to make sense of it all – to say nothing of the presence of Baron von Frankenstein - just so I could appreciate an album that, at the time, I didn’t much like the sound of. It wasn't that I disliked it - it seemed ambitious and interesting; I was just into other things at the moment and not prepared to make the investment; if it had sounded like Tyranny and Mutation, maybe, but...

And it’s not like the band made it easy to get at the underlying narrative, either. As I suggest above, the storyline of the album - not the demos, but the official 1988 band release - is presented non-sequentially, so unless you read the extensive liner notes, you don’t really have much hope of making sense of things.

If you’re also struggling to do just that, there is plenty of helpful material to chew on online about Imaginos, including articles (discovered and pointed out to me by Adrian Mack) on the VISUP blog that attempt to do justice to The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos and the more esoteric ideas of Sandy Pearlman.

This is the must-read, the real rabbithole, the font of "things to think about" that will get any fan excited to go back to Imaginos. Part one of the series – “The Soft Doctrines of Memphis Sam” - is online here; part two here the third here; the fourth here; and the fifth and final chapter here. It's a bit of work, but Blue Öyster Cult fans who, like me, have not come to terms, previously, with Imaginos, or who know nothing of these “soft doctrines,” will find themselves plunged into a very deep rabbithole that will shed light on all sorts of things BÖC-related (no doubt also including some out-there conspiracy theories and sheer speculation; I mean, what story that links alchemy and occultism with extraterrestrials and Nazis is not going to have those elements?)

Sadly, back in the 80’s, I’m not the only one who didn’t “get it.” Imaginos was a commercial failure, and led to the Blue Öyster Cult being dropped by Columbia.

That’s a very sad thing, because the BÖC has made two excellent, rich albums since, 1998’s Heaven Forbid (check out, say, “Real World” ) and 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror (the high point of which is probably the Lovecraftian epic “The Old Gods Return,” with lyrics from science fiction writer John Shirley). Both are out of print, and without Columbia’s muscle behind them, went unheard by all but diehard fans - a real shame, since Eric Bloom has indicated that the commercial failure of those two albums led the band to sort of decide there was no point in recording anything new.

However, the story goes - almost 20 years since their last studio LP - that the Blue Öyster Cult has a new album coming out (perhaps in 2020?), along with several slated reissues. They certainly have a local show upcoming (at Ambleside on August 18th). If you’re diligent, you might just be able to read the whole story of Imaginos by that time. None of that album appears on the band’s recent setlists, but if you delve into the backstory, you’ll have a whole new appreciation of one of the most interesting hard rock bands of all time. See their official site for more.

Live clips I've watched on Youtube suggest the band is in fantastic form these days; check out "The Last Days of May," live in 2011, if you haven't already seen it.

I am so excited to see this band live again - 37 years and four days since the last time I saw them! It's kind of hard to believe... 


Unknown said...

Be nice if you pointed out criminal lack of inclusion to game. Also real fans mention Albert Bluchard solo rekkids.

Allan MacInnis said...

I don't know Albert Bouchard's solo output! (But I may soon amend that).

The whole hall of fame thing - I was part of the FB group for including the BOC, but to be honest, the hall of fame seems like a pretty meaningless institution. But what's criminal is that whoever compiled this list of bands NOT in the hall of fame didn't put the BOC on it! (I mean, they mention the fucking Doobie Brothers, but no BOC!).