1978 was a strange place. I’ve already alluded to the fact that I was listening to absolutely everything available, but it still took me by surprise to discover that this album, a regular on my plastic turntable, was from the same year in which I was listening to John Peel late at night and regularly joining in with earnest discussions about the exact definition of ‘new wave’ and ‘punk’. As we’ll see over the coming weeks, I was completely immersed in hairy rock music for a while, but that didn’t really start until 1980.
There are a couple of albums coming up which I bought during my heavy metal phase, but which were released before 1980, but I’m certain this wasn’t one of them. For some reason, however, I became entranced by the curious, hard to classify, music of Blue Öyster Cult right among the pop songs and experimental nonsense of 1978.
I think that the album which – thanks to a terrible old joke – I still occasionally refer to as ‘Sam and Janet Evening’ follows directly from my love of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The music is more or less in that idiom, but comes with its own mythology and mystery, and is – importantly – American.
I’d like to think that I was fully informed on all kinds of music from both sides of the Atlantic, but looking at the list of what’s gone before, I’m not sure that was true. American music was different and slightly intimidating – bands sang about things we knew nothing about, and as far as I could tell, the whole punk revolution seemed to have passed them by. Of course that wasn’t true (I’ve just been talking about Blondie, for example), and was in any case a wild generalisation, but I was mainly being guided by what was appearing in the pages of Sounds, and that was mostly British bands – and there were a lot of them, to be fair.
So Blue Öyster Cult were exotic and strange; we’d heard Don’t Fear the Reaper, of course, and – being sensitive teenagers – had pored over the lyrics, extracting all kinds of meaning from them. That doesn’t explain, of course, why I suddenly fell in love with this album in particular, and continue to have a fondness for the band. It’s not even their best live album, in my opinion; we’ll get to that.
The other strange thing about this is that it’s a single live album, which goes against everything I hold dear, and is basically indefensible – how can forty minutes of music sum up a whole live show, and to compound things, it even features two cover versions. All told, this album contains only five BÖC original songs, and is in a genre I probably imagined I had left behind. So what’s going on?
I’ll almost certainly come back to this point, but I’m pretty sure that my guiding principle when choosing music to listen to during this wild period was ‘how different is it from the last thing I listened to?’ This certainly doesn’t sound much like the pop-punk of the last two albums on the list, and in its choice of cover songs is looking back to the late sixties, so it certainly covers that base. I think it also represented a genuine attempt on my part to educate myself about things – I remember listening to Iron Butterfly around this time, and trying to understand how all of this could fit together with the stuff I already knew – this album led me to the MC5, and I heard the Stooges and the Velvet Underground for the first time about the same time; there was a world of music I still knew nothing about, and I thought I was fairly well educated in such things.
None of that, of course, logically leads to this album; perhaps nothing does beyond a glowing review in Sounds and a desire to have an album no-one else did. What I do know is that it cemented my love for great live albums (apparently there are heretics out there who don’t enjoy live albums), and for a strange band which seemed to be playing by slightly different rules to everyone else.
Honestly, listening to it now, it doesn’t start all that promisingly. Maybe over-hyped introductions asking if we are ‘ready to rock and roll’ weren’t quite clichés yet (and maybe this album helped them become clichés), but RU Ready 2 Rock starts as a fairly generic ‘first song of the show’ introduction. It brightens up pretty quickly, featuring all the moving parts in the band showing off what they do, some tight harmony singing, but it’s no better than average overall, and while I may have enjoyed the whole audience interaction at the time, I am rolling my eyes pretty damn hard listening to it now.
Fortunately, it settles down quickly. ETI is much more like it – this is what I expected from the weird band – incomprehensible lyrics, possibly containing answers to all the big questions, married to catchy melodies and absolutely no pandering to the audience beyond offering up crowd-pleasing solos and a wild acceleration towards the end which provokes the imagined sight of thousands of heads nodding along, faster and faster until some fall off altogether. It is Blue Öyster Cult, after all.
The rest of side one is taken up by Astronomy, which is one of those songs I find hard to be objective about. From the moment I first heard it, there was something about this song which spoke to the part of me which loves long songs which refuse to explain themselves, wandering off into strange, murky corners where there is a ‘light that never warms’. There are a lot of dynamics going on in this song, and hearing it played live like this is positively thrilling; the tempo shifts between sections, but everyone is on the same broad path. This is an underground band who just happen to play in the classic rock idiom; while some bands appeared to be openly trying to subvert your children, there were others like BÖC who were doing it all more subtly right under your noses.
Flip it over, and here’s the cover of Kick out the Jams, complete with sanitised introduction – of course, at the time, I knew nothing of the MC5 live album, the controversy sparked by the original introduction, and the fact that the record company at the time had wanted to replace the offending word (look it up, kids) with ‘brothers and sisters’, and therefore entirely missed the point that this was a sly dig at the sanitisation of music. As far as I knew, it was just a terrific rock song, which sounded exactly like a Blue Öyster Cult song. I wonder what might have happened if I’d been able to go and listen to the original live version of this. Would I have found this version a little too safe? I’ll never know.
Godzilla movies were often the talk of the playground growing up – I’m not sure where people were seeing them in the days before even VHS, but even if you hadn’t managed to catch a late night showing of one, it was possible to have a decent grasp of what it was all about, so at least Godzilla made some kind of sense, especially the bits in Japanese. I honestly don’t think this song – which is now one of the staples of classic rock radio made much impression on me at the time – I was impatiently waiting for the next one…
I had, of course, heard Don’t Fear the Reaper before, and was keen to hear a live version, which didn’t disappoint. I know I didn’t hear the album it came from until some time later, this was the first time I’d been exposed to the full weird wig-out of the middle section instrumental, and it’s that part which sold me on the whole Blue Öyster Cult thing. Even when I was denying the existence of all those hairy albums I used to own, I’d hang on to this one (and a couple of others; see below), because there was something other about this band; something which raised them above the rank and file of ‘metal’ or whatever category people were putting all this racket into.
Finishing off with an Animals song recorded in Newcastle must have seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to the band at the time, but I still think it sits a little oddly; there are any number of terrific BÖC songs which could have gone here instead, but that’s reckoning without the fact that this is actually the second live album by the band, so another live version of something like 7 Screaming Diz-busters would have felt like a bit of a rip-off. Having said that, a single album with two cover versions doesn’t fall far short of that mark either. The whole thing smacks of a record company insisting on getting a live album featuring the two big singles out there as a money-making exercise, yet I loved it then, and while I don’t perhaps love it quite as much now, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it just now.
I couldn’t quite fit this into my remembered world of subversive singles, torn jeans and safety pins before re-listening to it, but it does kind of make sense now. This was a mix of pretty much everything I’d been listening to up to 1978 – it was dark and mysterious, but featured wild drumming, bass playing and – especially – guitar freak-outs. It wasn’t remotely like the spiky-haired sneering which seemed to be the way things worked now, but it also wasn’t bland corporate rock – as I’m sure was their intention all along, Blue Öyster Cult didn’t fit into any category, and that suited me fine.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
There are any number of BÖC studios out there – they released one in 2020, for goodness’ sake – but only a couple I’d recommend without hesitation – Fire of Unknown Origin is terrifically camp, and lots of fun, while Agents of Fortune was perhaps the only unequivocally successful album before that, although the early ‘monochrome’ albums all have something to recommend them.
Compilations to consider?
You know, I’d never considered that question before now. Inevitably, there are several, but never having heard any of them, I don’t know if I can recommend any of them. I’m going to suggest that you don’t seek one of those out, and instead skip ahead to the next section.
This is not a stupid question as it looks. There are three ‘classic era’ BÖC live albums, of which this is possibly the least good. I love On Your Feet or On Your Knees, but didn’t hear it until much later, but both it and this one pale – in my humble estimation – beside Extraterrestrial Live from 1982, which can also serve as a decent compilation and introduction to the band. I’m aware of its shortcomings – the drumming, in particular, is not quite up to scratch as a result of having fired the original drummer halfway through the tour which provided the recordings – but I can overlook all of those because it’s essentially a version of the show I saw the only time I ever saw them live, and it came out while I was more or less obsessed with them. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you’ve never heard any BÖC, I’d start there.
Anything else? I’m going to skip over whatever else may be out there to point you to current guitarist, singer and all-round renaissance man Richie Castellano, whose Band Geek project is just the most fun you can have on YouTube. Go have a ridiculously large amount of fun watching him and his friends playing 25 or 6 to 4 on kazoos; I promise you it’s worth it…