Shucking the Blue Öyster Cult

Ladies, Fish, and Gentlemen..

Until recently, when someone mentioned the band BöC around me, the first things that came to mind were cowbell, Godzilla, and umlauts- in that order. I never really got into this band, they seemed like the type of group that guys in cannabis-stinking leather jackets liked. Despite that, I decided to do a deep-dive on this band, since a few people suggested that I follow my “Ozzy/Crowley” video with a video on “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. Being me, I didn’t just want to mail it in, and committed to listening to the entire BöC catalog and reading the top (only) rock biography I could find on them; Martin Popoff’s Agents of Fortune as well as everything I could uncover on the internet. I’m currently working my way through their many studio albums and some live stuff.

My first impression- man, this is a mixed bag. The first three albums (the “Black and White Trilogy”, named for the monochrome cover art) are not going to grab you on the first listen. They’re dark and muddy, sonically. They seem all of a piece, like one big album, with Secret Treaties and the eponymous first album being my preferences over Tyranny and Mutation– in that order. Their goal of being America’s answer to Black Sabbath is satisfactorily achieved, in my humble opinion.

Romeo Blue1

The next studio album, Agents of Fortune, is a bit of a departure- to say the least! This is a much more sophisticated radio-ready album, complete with hooks and better production than the “B&W” trilogy; aside from Secret Treaties closer “Astronomy” which set the tone for future BöC albums. The main even here is “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (although “E.T.I.- Extraterrestrial Intelligence” has become my favorite of the record, and Patti Smith-penned “Vera Gemini” is solid too. “True Confessions” sounds like a Kinks outtake, in a good way).

Since this rock epic will be the crux of the video, I think it’s time to start breaking down the occult connections to BöC’. The first thing we should get out of the way is the band’s ties to Saturn/Cronus; the most obvious inspiration for the Grim Reaper because of his connections to the sickle, the harvest, and time (through his association with the separate entity, Chronos). While the personification of death is a more complicated and less Eurocentric story, for the sake of this post let’s stop there. Both BöC and Cronus, father of the gods, have sickle and cross/crozier in their imagery, the sickle being used by Cronus to castrate his father, the titan Uranus. The alchemical symbol for lead is the same as the symbol of Saturn, the planet, and lead is a rather “heavy metal”.. get it? The symbol and first two album covers are the work of enigmatic artist/draughtsman Bill Gawlik, who apparently fell off the face of reality by the time of Secret Treaties.

The occult connections don’t stop there. The album cover of Agents of Fortune features a magician (tarot card “I”, the second of the major arcana) holding four tarot cards loosely based Aleister Crowley’s “Thoth” deck (my preferred deck when I used to read tarot, full disclosure). I just can’t seem to get away from that guy.

Image: Columbia Records, fair use for educational purposes

The cards seem to be Death (XIII), duh, The Empress (III), The Emperor (IV), and The Sun (XIX) 2. The Magician points to the Saturnian symbol with his right index finger, and fans the cards with his left in a fashion that suggests they’re firm against the gray stone-like wall. A castle window with a blank sky is behind him.

Returning to the previous album for a moment, the cover (and back cover) feature a German ME 262 plane, with a member of the band in a cape and holding the leashes of four German Shepherd dogs. This is more than just reminiscent of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a mysterious group that started in the UK in the 1960’s and spread to the US and beyond. That’s a whole post in itself, so I will just cut to the relevant bit.

Image: Columbia Records, fair use for educational purposes

Trust the Process

The PCFJ were known for dressing in black capes and having German Shepherds around for protection or intimidation. Allegedly (I have no proof of this) they would sacrifice dogs, and the back cover of the album shows the dogs apparently dead and left in a way that could suggest a ritual slaughter. According to Albert Bouchard, the art was done by Columbia’s art team, but the front cover was Sandy Pearlman’s idea and the back was Murray Krugman’s ((Martin Popoff, Agents of Fortune, 2016, p 42)). These two, along with rock critic Richard Meltzer and drummer Albert Bouchard, were the brains behind BöC- Pearlman being the chief of them.

Aside from his work with The Clash, Pearlman is best known for creating BöC out of a band originally from upstate New York called “Soft White Underbelly”. “We would never have surfaced as even a ‘Bob Seger-type’ of band, or even at all, if it wasn’t for Sandy,” says Buck Dharma, aka Donald Roeser ((Popoff, p 5)). Pearlman gave the band its name, from his poem The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, a concept that would provide the direction for the band’s lyrics throughout their catalog. Honestly I am thinking that the “Imaginos narrative” deserves its own post, but the gist of the concept is that there are seven mysterious beings that were worshipped by natives of Mexico and Haiti, later known as “Les Invisibles”, who possibly come from Sirius (gathered from the lyrics of “Astronomy”). The “Dog Days” of summer are when they have their most influence on humanity. They play with human history, lifting the Spanish with gold, then toppling them with John Dee’s black mirror (of Mexican origin) and the British Empire, etc. Les Invisibles have more than a resemblance to “The Secret Chiefs“, “The Great White Brotherhood“, and other Theosophical concepts like the “The Nine” that influenced the creation of Star Trek and the “New Age”.

Are you still with me? OK, so there is a boy named Imaginos, born in the ultra-terrestrial hotspot known as New Hampshire under such perfect astro-geographic conditions that Les Invisibles take note. They give him super-human abilities such as being able to change his appearance and see the future in visions. He goes to Mexico, becomes shipwrecked and washed ashore in the Yucatan, where Les Invisibles decree that he either serve them or die as a human. He is resurrected by the Blue öyster Cult, and is renamed Desdinova, lives as a female much of the time, yadda yadda yadda. One interesting connection is that the Process Church had an adventure in the Yucatan, in a place called Ixtal, in 1966- but left due to pressure from locals and parents of members’ hiring of anti-cult agents. Oh, and did I mention that the symbol of the PCFJ looks suspiciously like a swastika to me? I’m not posting it here, but BöC were accused of being crypto-Nazis over the years. For the record I think they were not actually Nazis- not for the least of the reasons that frontman Eric Bloom, Pearlman, Krugman, and Meltzer were all Jewish. Sandy Pearlman is on record saying that keyboardist Allen Lanier was anti-Semetic, but it didn’t really bother him or Meltzer ((Popoff p 39-40)). Take that for what it is worth..

The boys are not looking very fascist in this shoot. Michael Putland, Getty Imagesnon-commercial use for educational purposes

OK, so we have so far..

  • Ties to Saturn (the logo, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”)
  • Alchemical lyrics and symbolism (“Workshops” and “Astronomy” especially)
  • Tales of ultra/extraterrestrials (the “Imaginos cycle” storyline- multiple tracks/albums)
  • Process Church symbolism (cape and Alsatians on Secret Treaties)
  • Crypto-Nazi accusations (“ME 262”, “Dominance and Submission”, etc)
  • Theosophy and secret societies (all over the catalog)

Spooky stuff, no?

Plus, YIKES!! Columbia Records, fair use, educational

She Had Become Like They Are

By the time Agents of Fortune was being written, the band members had decided to take more control over their image and sound. They were tired of being portrayed in marketing with things that were already becoming metal cliches (even if their associates had created some of the cliches, for instance the “heavy metal font”) like leather, S&M, and crypto-fascism ((Popoff p 61)). The band members wanted a high-fidelity sound and modern studio technology, despite worries from producer Krugman that they didn’t have the chops to sound like the top rock bands of the era with that recording precision ((Popoff p 57)). They were ready to prove him wrong with their biggest hit by far.

It’s widely known that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was formed through Parthenogenesis straight out of the head of Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. The demo version shows how close to the release version he already was.

The story is that Buck Dharma had a bit of a heart scare, and it gave him a feeling of mortality. He realized that life is fleeting, but had a notion of love living on, and used Romeo and Juliet as a metaphor, but claims it’s not a song about or encouraging suicide.

“The Reaper” is specifically about two concepts:

1) A powerful enough romantic love can transcend physical death and endure in the hereafter;

2) Death is inevitable whenever it happens to us, and we should know that and face it without fear, having some confidence in the universality of the human spirit, but having no proof until we actually die.

Buck Dharma, (Popoff p 67)

Of course, the song was “meant to be spooky“. It’s an eerie song, used in films from “Halloween” to “Gone Girl” and even the credits of a Simpsons episode. While some of its edge was softened by a certain comedy sketch you might have noticed that I am tip-toeing around, it’s a timeless gothic tale of love beyond the grave. This hit for BöC would become, as it is for so many bands, their greatest triumph and trap. As you will see in my evolving playlist, their sound would continue to (d)evolve into clear hit-chasing, Spectres sounding to me a heck of a lot like ELO for instance. I mostly listen while at the gym, and while the Black Sabbath pastiche “Godzilla” is mainstay of rock radio that I never cared for, and the rest just left me wanting Jeff Lynne’s band instead.4 Cultosaurus Erectus, awesome cover aside, was co-written with fantasy author Micheal Moorcock (who is better known for writing songs for the band Hawkwind). It’s all over the place. I like some of it. Fire of Unknown Origin is a return to form, and I rather like the A-side. “Burning for You” is just good arena rock, nothing profound. I want to jump to Imaginos, which wasn’t really BöC album but Albert and Sandy trying to bring the original vision for the group into being- the other guys came and played on it to satisfy the record company’s demand that it be a BöC album. “Les Invisibles” is a relentless and hypnotic groove, and there are some old songs, like “Astronomy” revisited. Man, this post is getting long, and the later albums suffered at the loss of Bouchard and aren’t really relevant to this discussion.

So, in conclusion.

There is a lot of the spooky, eerie, and sinister to the catalog, sound, and image of BöC. While I may have set out to get to the bottom of this one particular song, it’s really the rest of their opus that has me digging deeper. I do believe that these dark influences come slightly from the record company scheming of Murray Krugman (who was looking for an “American Black Sabbath” ((Popoff)), greatly from Al Bouchard, but mostly from the occult interests of Sandy Pearlman. Sure, individual band members might have been into horror and science fiction, but Blue Oyster Cult the band was a fabrication from the mind of Sandy Pearlman. At the end of the day, they probably weren’t fascists, occultists or even cultists. Or were they? Honestly I am not totally sure. My money is on it all being a big LARP, like most of heavy metal6, for most of the musicians in the band. Also, “Dominance and Submission” is by far a more disturbing song than “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, everyone is barking up the wrong tree, but that’s a post for another time.

Leave favorite BöC songs I left off of the playlist in the comments, if you have any..

Only the freshest of öysters!

1 If you get this reference, we need to be friends

2 According to Popoff ((61)) this was based on an “actual Tarot reading on the band, these in particular representing the King, Queen, Sun, and Death.” We are left to wonder which of the kings and queens of the deck (there are four of each, for the non-occultist readers) were pulled, as there are tremendous differences in meanings. Perhaps the artists- John Berg, Lynn Curlee, et al- were also not sure and substituted The Empress and The Emperor- or maybe the band mistook those cards for a Queen and a King in the reading

3 Sirius is so packed with meaning to ancient Egypt, mystery religions, cults and even the “Space Brothers” phenomenon of the mid-20th Century that it’s beyond the scope of this post

4 Check out Christoper Knowles‘ work on for more on “The Nine” and its influence on modern culture

5 How much does Eric Bloom look like Jeff Lynne?!

6 Recluse at the VISUP blog might disagree, and goes a lot deeper down the rabbit hole, so I don’t have to I suppose. I encourage you to check out this post and this one specifically for links to BöC’s beginnings on Long Island and the occult revival that was happening there, and “Dominance and Submission

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