In Full Bloom: Four Decades of Blue Oyster Cultdom

Doug Sonders photo

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact Blue Oyster Cult band has had on what used to be Australian underground music - at least at the guitar-orientated, rockist end of its spectrum. Mysterious, energetic and hard-edged but, unmistakenly melodic, they were the ultimate cult band in the mid-1970s.

Guitarists like Deniz Tek, Chris Masuak and a post-pubescent Brad Shepherd were converts to the BOC style. There were countless more. Radio Birdman took their first album’s title from one of their lyrics, and inspiration for their look from Blue Oyster Cult’s symbol.

Melding obscure, surrealistic lyrics via collaborations with sci-fi writers and the likes of rock critic Richard Meltzer, BOC were the thinking man (or woman’s) rock band. They broke into the American mainstream with “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, which was taken into the beer barns of Australia by Radio Birdman spin-offs the Hitmen. Teenage kids quote the “more cowbell” line from the Saturday Night Live sketch based on the song without understanding its origin.

BOC’s profile fell away in the late ‘80s as they shed members and wound down their recording output, but they remained a potent touring outfit.

With the advent of the second Hoodoo Gurus-curated Dig It Up! Invitational series, they ended up on an Australian bill. PATRICK EMERY spoke to singer-guitarist ERIC BLOOM on the eve of their Australian run.

 

How did you end up working with Soft White Underbelly, as the band was originally known, as its acoustic engineer?

That was about 44 years ago. How much time do we have? To make a long story short, I was in upstate New York playing in a band all through college. I left there to move back to New York City where I grew up, to take up a job that was offered to me as a booking agent in a very large booking agency – because I was a college local booker and a player, and a big man on campus for anything involved in sound (I had a sound system). After I moved back to New York, the job fell through, and I took a job in a music store.

Members of Soft White Underbelly came in to buy some amps. And I met them, had some small talk, and a couple of days later they asked me to do the sound for them. We hit it off, and their manager asked me if I would care to move into their band house and continue to doing sound. Also, I had a truck, which I’m sure was part of the equation.

What was the catalyst for the transformation of Soft White Underbelly to Blue Oyster Cult, and was there a particular stylistic change between the two groups?

Oh, absolutely – but it’s also a very long answer, because it’s years. Soft White Underbelly started off as an experimental jam kind of band, like an early psychedelic Grateful Dead sort of band. The lead singer before me used to get up on stage and make up stories while the band was jamming. It was all very improvised.

They got a record deal, and as they were making their record, their lead singer was having some – I can’t say mental issues – wasn’t knuckling down. I wasn’t there, so I was no part of that. But the guys told him that he was out, so they turned to me, and asked me if I would like to sing. So that was about three months after meeting them in that music store. By April 1969 I was the lead singer of Soft White Underbelly, and the band had a hit and miss with a couple of record labels, the name changed a few times, we kept rehearsing every day, and then we did an audition for Clive Davis, who was an infamous person in American recording, and he liked the band and signed us to be the first hard rock band on Columbia Records.

There’s a strong literary element that comes out in Blue Oyster Cult music. Did you want the band’s lyrics to be able to stand independently as stories?

I can’t say that was part of the original aesthetic. Our first manager was Sandy Pearlman, and he was a writer. His best friend from college was Richard Meltzer, who was a writer. Everyone around us was a writer – at different times, everyone lived in our house. They were writing, there were lyrics lying around, there was portfolios full of words, and anyone who felt like it could help themselves to manila envelopes full of lyrics, and in the earliest days, that’s how the lyrics got written.

When the band started in the late 60s, there was a preponderance of hopeful lyrics about the future, yet Blue Oyster Cult seemed to explore a darker side of nature (eg. Dominance and Submission). Where was that coming from?

Well, Richard wrote that song. I can’t explain the lyric to him – you’d have to get in touch with him! A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, it was the way the lyric was weaved in the kind of music it was. But you’ve got to remember that we came out of the 60s, watching monster movies, reading comic books, and there was a late-night TV show with a ghoulish guy hosting monster movies. We all grew up with that stuff – that was a front for us.

Over the years you’ve had a number of contributing lyricists, including Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer and Jim Carroll. Was that something that just happened organically, or did you always like the idea of having outside influences in the band?

We reached to some people to contribute. Alan Lanier, our original keyboard and guitarist was Patti’s boyfriend, which was before she had a record deal. Patti was a personality, and she used to do poetry readings, and then she put a band together with just her and Lenny Kaye. I used to go an see her perform where she would just recite, and Lenny would play guitar, and that was the earliest incarnation of her doing gigs. She didn’t even have a record deal.

Jim Carroll was more of a friend of Lanier than anyone else, and some lyrics were traded back and forth with him. I wrote some songs where I asked Michael Moorcock, who was a writer, to send me some words. There was a guy by Eric Van Lustbader, who wrote a book called The Ninja, which I loved, so I reached out to him to write some Ninja lyrics for a song I wrote called Shadow Warrior. So we were all book readers, and we all enjoyed collaborating with people who could write better than ourselves.

Is it true that at one stage Blue Oyster Cult was going to be Patti’s backing band?

There was talk of that, but then we got our own record deal, and the rest is history.

You toured with Black Sabbath in the mid 1970s and 1980s. Do you remember any particular wild times with that band?

You mean like biting the head off a bat? We weren’t there for that stuff. We played several shows with them in the 1970s, but it wasn’t a tour – we travelled separately and turned up to play. The during the time of the Ronnie Dio era of Black Sabbath, we did a whole tour together after the Heaven and Hell album. I knew Ronnie for many years, because he was from upstate New York, and he was a life-long friend. But the guys were not overly friendly.

Do you think Blue Oyster Cult provides a link between heavy metal and psychedelia?

Well, I wouldn’t be the right one to ask. I see where you’re coming from with that, because when we were first starting it was improvisational, and then it got a little bit more formalised and it got a bit more rock’n’roll and less psychedelic. Then it was laid upon us to get heavy. But in the big picture I don’t see Blue Oyster Cult wearing that heavy mantle too well, given that our biggest hit, Don’t Fear the Reaper was certainly not metal, I don’t think Burning For You is metal, Godzilla maybe – I just never thought of us in that light. I just thought of us as a hard rock band.

By the 1980s there was only you and Donald Roeser (aka Buck Dharma) left from the early years. Did you feel that the band was running out of creative steam at that time?

By the mid ‘80s I think you’re right. We were on a bit of a treadmill in the early days. We would write the songs, record the songs, tour the songs, and while we were on tour, try and write more songs in the hotel room. And we never got off that treadmill.

We had to produce a new album every year, and then go back on tour because we had to pay ourselves. We were on the road 220 days a year. We toured with Alice Cooper, we toured with Rod Stewart, we toured all over the place with everybody, writing as went, and taking a month off to go into the studio and make a record, and then go straight back out.

For the first five years, I’d say that was all we did. And then as the band got more successful, gravity sets in, and very few bands get to stay at the same level forever. By ‘84 or ‘85 things started to slow down a bit for us.

Have you always felt the band to be a creature that thrives in a live environment, rather than as a studio beast?

I’d say certainly we have a little more success live than the studio, though we’re pretty comfortable in the studio as well – we’ve sold 14 million albums. But we’re a live rock ’n’ roll boogie band that doesn’t like to quit. And we like being out there – the only downside to touring is the travel. But the day of the gig, everything’s good.

You’ve recently been playing the theme from Game of Thrones at the beginning of your shows. Why have you chosen that?

That was my idea. Because it’s right up my alley!

Have you reached out to George Martin to write lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult?

Anything’s possible – I’ve reached out to Stephen King! He wasn’t interested, but he used Don’t Fear the Reaper in The Stand, and he quoted the song in the forward to The Stand, so we are connected. I asked him if we could collaborate on an album, where he’d write the lyrics and we’d write the music, but he didn’t bite.

How long do you see the band continuing?

No answer for that one. If you asked me when I was 30, or 40, or 50, or 60, I wouldn’t have known. But as long as we keep playing and people keep coming, then we’ll keep playing.

Sydney
The HiFi
Saturday 20 April 2013
Tickets: $60.00 + bf

Online from: thehifi.com.au
Online from: feelpresents.oztix.com.au
Phone: 1300 THE HIFI
In person: Moshtix & Oztix outlets

Sydney
The Enmore Theatre & Surrounds
Sunday 21 April 2013
Featuring Hoodoo Gurus, Flamin' Groovies, Blue Oyster Cult, Buzzcocks, Peter Case Band, The Stems & More to be Announced!

Tickets from $117.70 inc fees on sale Feb 8
Online: Ticketek (GA & Reserved) & Oztix (GA only)
Phone: (02) 9550 3666 or 132 849
In Person: Enmore Theatre Box Office, Ticketek & Oztix outlets

Melbourne
The Prince Bandroom
Wednesday 24 April 2013
Tickets: $60.00 + bf

Online: princebandroom.com.au
Online: feelpresents.oztix.com.au
Phone: 1300 GET TIX
In Person: Moshtix & Oztix outlets

Melbourne
The Palace Theatre & Surrounds
Thursday 25 April 2013
Featuring Hoodoo Gurus, Flamin' Groovies, Blue Oyster Cult, Buzzcocks, Peter Case Band, The Stems & More to be Announced!

Tickets $125.00 + bf
Online: Ticketek & Oztix
Phone: 132 849 or 1300 762 545
In Person: Ticketek & Oztix Outlets

First published April 20, 2013

 

Tags: buck, dharma, eric, bloom, blue oyster cult, dig it up

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