Sunday, 31 October 2004

Halloween and Blue Oyster Cult

Today is Halloween, my second favourite holiday after the Yuletide. As a child I loved Halloween because it meant trick or treating, which also meant tons of candy. As both a child and an adult I loved Halloween because it was also an excuse to be someone else, if only for an evening. Over the years, as both a child and an adult, I have been Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger, a skeleton, a Vulcan from Star Trek, a vampire, a punk vampire (complete with razor blade necklace--I wore a gorget with that one to prevent severing my own jugular), and many other personas quite unlike myself in real life.

My earliest memory of Halloween stems from when I was about four or five years old. I remember that my parents took my brother and I to a local Halloween party, complete with apple dunking and other Halloween games. My parents dressed my brother and I as farmers, complete with bib overalls (at this point we didn't get to choose what we wanted to be...). I remember when we came home that Jason and the Argonauts was on KRCG. It is then not only my earliest memory of Halloween, but my earliest memory of a Harryhausen movie as well!

As an adult I have celebrated Halloween by handing out treats to the kids, watching horror movies, and listening to Halloween type music. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of Halloween type music out there. Alice Cooper is standard Halloween fare, as is the original Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne's solo work. Of course, when it comes to Halloween, there is no better band to listen to than Blue Öyster Cult. While best known for "Don't Fear the Reaper," nearly their entire discography consists of songs with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

BÖC had it origins in a group known as the Soft White Underbelly in the late Sixties. The Soft White Underbelly were fairly successful. Among others they opened for Muddy Waters and the Grateful Dead. They even managed to land a record contract with Elektra. Unfortunately, the group was already experiencing problems by that point, often finding themselves at creative odds with original lead vocalist Les Braunstein. Les Braunstein abruptly quit the band and Eric Bloom was hired as the new lead vocalist. Unfortunately, this did not please Elektra, who regarded Braunstein as the star of the band! Fortunately, they permitted the Soft White Underbelly to record another album.

With Eric Bloom as their new lead voalist, the band moved away from psychedelia to heavier, more rock oriented music. They decided that, since the name Soft White Underbelly had a history behind it that wasn't always pleasant, they needed a new name. Initally calling themselves the Stalk-Forrest Group, eventually Sandy Pearlman redubbed the band Blue Öyster Cult. The band didn't particulary care for the name at first, but it stuck. It was in January 1972 that Blue Öyster Cult released their first album on Columbia, complete with the classic "Cities in Flame" and the Kronos Logo (the hook and cross symbol that appears on most of BÖC's album covers and merchandise). At this point in their career BÖC's music tended to be dark and ominous. Both "Cities in Flame" and "I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep (later retitled "The Red and the Black")" were definitely heavy metal not too far removed from Black Sabbath. Even at this time, however, BÖC had their trademark sense of humour--"I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep" portrayed in somewhat tongue in cheek fashion an outlaw fleeing from the Canadian Mounted...

Blue Öyster Cult followed their debut album with Secret Treaties in 1974. Popular with fans and critically acclaimed, Secret Treaties continues to be a fan favourite. Among other songs, it featured the classics "Dominance and Submission" and "Astronomy." Despite the critical acclaim, however, BÖC continued to be a cult band, with little in the way of major success. All of that would change with the release of their fourth album, Agents of Fortune in 1976. It was at this point that many people, including myself, discovered the band. The band that had been a cult favourite actually produced a top 40 single, no doubt one of the strangest top 40 singles of all time. "Don't Fear the Reaper" went to #12 on the Billboard charts. A contemplation of death (I have always thought it was about a dead lover returning to take his lady love to the other side myself...), the song was still very accessible. In addition to being a smash hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper" turned Agents of Fortune into BÖC's first gold record.

It was also with Agents of Fortune that BÖC became the band we know today. In effect, the group had become a sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans' dream. "Don't Fear the Reaper:" would obviously appeal to horror fans and, later, Goths, while E.T.I., with lyrics about Men in Black, would obviuosly appeal to the Sci-Fi types. From this point forward Blue Öyster would write songs that were either about fantastic subjects or at least touched upon them. Indeed, Spectres featured the classic "Godzilla (possibly their biggest hit besides "Don't Fear the Reaper") and "Nosferatu (based on the classic silent vampire movie)." The song "Joan Crawford," from Fire of Unknown Origin, portrayed the terrifying prospect of that dead actress returning from the grave. From Club Ninja (the album cover of which depticted a space station) was "Dancing in the Ruins," which sounds for all the world to me like a celebration of the apocalypse.... The band even co-wrote songs with fantasy writer Michael Moorcock. "Black Blade," from Cultosaurus Erectus , centred upon the sword Stombringer from Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series. Moorcock also co-wrote "The Great Sun Jester" from Mirrors.

As the Eighties progressed and Blue Öyster Cult released fewer albums. They declined in popularity, despite their obvious influence on both heavy metal and the Goth movement. Despite this, the band has continued with a large legion of fans and their performances still draws crowds to this day. While many bands from their eras are playing county fairs, Blue Öyster Cult still performs in clubs. Indeed, BÖC continues to be one of my favourite bands to this day. Not only are they an excellent haavy metal band with roots in traditonal rock 'n' roll, but they are one of the few bands that have produced a signfiicant number of songs with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror theme. Their music then reflects the sort of books, movies, and TV shows that I love. I rather suspect that they will be popular with people like me for years and years to come.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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