50 Years Ago: Blue Öyster Cult Breaks Out

Five decades of mysticism, lasers, and, most of all, rock.

Blue Oyster Cult performing

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They’re a band that stands at the intersection of multiple subgenres of rock. You could call them progressive, metal, progressive metal, psychedelic, and more, and still not be wrong. They’ve sold millions of records around the world, helped drive the early success of MTV, scared the hell out of parents, and were the subject of one of the most-quoted sketches in the history of Saturday Night Live. Though they began playing under multiple names and iterations beginning in 1967, their 1972 debut album would carry the name that they’ve been known by for the past five decades. They are, of course, Blue Öyster Cult.

Buck Dharma performing on stage
Buck Dharma in 2019 (Shutterstock)

The pre-history of Blue Öyster Cult began in 1967 at Long Island’s Stony Brook University. Writer Sandy Pearlman heard a band playing and discovered that one of the members was a fellow student, singer and guitarist Donald Roeser. Excited by the prospects of working with the group, Pearlman expressed a desire to manage the band and work with them in a creative capacity. The original line-up was called Soft White Underbelly. Over the next few years, the group would go through different line-ups and a series of names, including Oaxaca, Santos Sisters, and the Stalk-Forrest Group. The band finally chose a lasting name culled from Pearlman’s poetry. In the manager’s writing, a clandestine group of aliens had helped shape human history; they were, of course, the Blue Öyster Cult. Pearlman also posited one further name idea, suggesting that everyone in the band assume aliases or stage names. Roeser was the only one who loved the concept, and since 1971, he’s been professionally known as Buck Dharma.

“Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” (Uploaded to YouTube by Blue Öyster Cult)

The original roster of the band included Dharma, drummer Albert Bouchard, keyboardist Allen Lanier, and vocalist/”stun” (rhythm) guitarist Eric Bloom. By 1970, Bouchard’s brother Joe became the bass player, and that team would remain unchanged for the next decade. The group released their self-titled debut album on January 16, 1972. The band toured in support of acts like Alice Cooper and The Byrds in the early days, and managed to push their first album into Billboard’s Top 200. The record got solid reviews from influential critics Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, and Robert Christgau of The Village Voice. Christgau went so far as to call it “the tightest and most musical hard rock record since – dare I say it? – Who’s Next.” The band was fortunate enough to have writers like Pearlman, Dharma, and Bloom all producing material, while associates like critic and booker Richard Meltzer also contributed to the writing. A solid foundation of smart and fantastical subject matter would earn the group plaudits like “the thinking man’s metal band.” Blue Öyster Cult would continue to lean into mystical and sometimes frightening images, seeking to engage the audience on an intellectual level while also, well, rocking out.

The band’s sales continued to move upward with their next two albums, 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and 1974’s Secret Treaties. Both albums featured songs co-written by Patti Smith, the musician, poet, and high priestess of the New York punk rock scene. Blue Öyster Cult continued to build a fanbase by touring and rock radio airplay. The 1972-1974 period has been nicknamed “the black and white years” because the first three album covers all featured black and white art. In 1975, the band took a step that a number of ’70s bands, like REO Speedwagon and KISS, took to “level up;” they released a live album, dubbed On Your Feet or on Your Knees. The live disc went gold, setting the stage for the next phase of their career.

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (Uploaded to YouTube by Blue Öyster Cult)

In 1976, Blue Öyster Cult released Agents of Fortune. A side effect of the band’s growing success was that the individual members had the money to invest in home-recording equipment. Every member of the band contributed both songs that they had begun to develop at home, and every member sang lead on at least one track. However, one song stood out from the others: Dharma’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” An explosive hit, the tune went to #12 on the Hot 100 and became one of the most recognizable songs in rock. It captured the mystic and creepy vibe that the band frequently aimed for, was shot through with guitar pyrotechnics, featured a show-stopping bridge, and yes, had more cowbell. Easily the band’s best-known work, it remains a pop culture reference almost fifty years later. Stephen King’s 1978 bestseller The Stand was inspired in part by the song, and lyrics from it are included in the opening of the novel; the tune was also featured in both the 1994 and 2020 television adaptations of the book. Agents of Fortune went platinum, and the band ramped up their stage show, adding their trademark lasers on subsequent tours.

“Burnin’ for You” (Uploaded to YouTube by Blue Öyster Cult)

The next several years saw the band operate at a high level of success. Songs like 1977’s “Godzilla” became rock radio staples. Thegroup continued to collaborate with people like highly influential fantasy author Michael Moorcock. Their second live album, 1978’s Some Enchanted Evening, sold two million copies. And 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin made it all the way to #24 on the Billboard album chart. That record produced “Burnin’ for You,” which went Top 40 and yielded a video that was extremely popular on the nascent cable channel MTV. “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” which the band co-wrote with Moorcock, landed on the soundtrack of the animated cult classic film Heavy Metal. Unfortunately, during the Fire tour, Albert Bouchard left the band, bringing that successful line-up to a close.

During the 1980s, the fortunes of the band dipped. Member turnover became more frequent, with Dharma and Bloom remaining the only constants. They briefly split in 1986 before reforming in 1987. Since that time, the they have toured constantly and released five records. During the 2000s, the group prioritized touring over recording. Guitarist/keyboardist Richie Castellano and drummer Jules Radino have been with the band since 2004; bassist Danny Miranda, who served stints going back to the ’90s, has been the bassist since 2017. After a nineteen-year break between albums, Blue Öyster Cult offered up The Symbol Remains in 2020. The new record was greeted with strong reviews, with AllMusic calling it “thoroughly inspired” while Louder hailed it as a “very solid return to past glories.”

“More Cowbell” (Uploaded to YouTube by Saturday Night Live)

Of course, one of the most noteworthy appearances of Blue Öyster Cult in the 2000s wasn’t an actual appearance of the band at all. In April of 2000, Saturday Night Live aired the classic “More Cowbell” sketch. A comedic look at the recording of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the sketch featured Will Ferrell as a fictional, overzealous cowbell player and guest Christopher Walken as the enabling producer. The phrase “more cowbell” entered the popular lexicon, and the piece is widely regarded as one of SNL’s greatest sketches by critics and fans. Dharma has displayed a good sense of humor about the sketch in various interviews, although he does lament that the bit’s pervasive popularity robbed some of the song’s creepy vibe.

Whether you’ve known Blue Öyster Cult from the beginning or learned about them from SNL, their appearance on the original Halloween soundtrack, or any manner of introductions, there’s little doubt about their continued popularity and staying power. With a sound that veers from mystical to heavy to pop, frequently within the same song, the band has survived with interesting writing, surprising collaborations, and sterling musicianship. In a music business where bands can vanish overnight, the continued endurance and artistic relevance of Blue Öyster Cult is an indisputable feat.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. > The group released their self-titled debut album on January 16, 1972

    This date is undoubtedly what prompted the timing of this piece, but 16 Jan 1972 was a SUNDAY… I know it says that on wiki, but LPs were NOT released on Sundays… 🙂 Pre-1989, Monday was the standard release day for new LPs in the U.S. After 1989, this got switched to “Tuesdays at midnight”. In 2015, of course, it changed to Fridays at midnight (“Global Release Day” a.k.a. “New Music Fridays”)…

    Therefore, I originally pencilled in a possible release date of Mon 17 Jan 1972 (at midnight, therefore the earliest it was available for purchase would be on Tuesday morning at 12.01 a.m.).

    However, that is only supposition – for example, on Sunday 6 Feb 1972, Lillian Roxon mentioned the following in an article: “Finally, a contract WAS signed with Columbia, and this week the much awaited album came out.” If we take “this week” literally, then winding back to the previous monday, we get a date of Mon 31 Jan 1972.

    That, therefore, is my current best guess for an actual release date, but the fact is, nobody really knows, or, if they do, they haven’t posted it online that I can see…

  2. Blue Oyster Cult has proven to be one of the most enduring rock bands for decades now, through ups and downs and ups again. In many ways they’re an American combination of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple (two of my favorites) yet with a sound and style all their own.

    I’ve seen the other two in concert (including ‘Which One’s Pink–excellent) at the Saban Theater, but never ‘Cult’ and would love to. In this decade though, everything is up in the air and seems most likely to stay that way.

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