Cities on Flame…

… With Rock and Roll!

This song is about as old as I am.  This band is still on tour, playing everything from stadiums to honkytonks.  It’s what they do.

This band is part of the reason the term “Heavy Metal” was coined.  This performance of this song captures about half of the band’s dynamic range, from screeching monster-movie feedback guitars and a stagger-stomping earth-shaking rhythm, to melodic counterpoint and a boogie-woogie toe-tapping dance starter that eventually gets the whole boot swinging.

The band’s character is on display as well, with a mock pomposity and a genuine humility as they play at being oh so terribly dark.  Witness the quiet professionalism of the band members chugging out their individual parts in a well-rehearsed, brilliantly combined whole, and folks like the guitarist hamming up a momentary pause; lording it momentarily over an anxious audience, cracking his knuckles, polishing his fingernails — and then he flubs the riff.

The band emerged in 1967, to do monster-truck donuts on the lawn of the Summer of Love.

The band has several roots, among them a trunk full of spiral notebooks filled with crypto-pocalyptic poetry — what if everything evil was the result of an alien conspiracy?  Or a demonic conspiracy with aliens conspiring to help us?  Psychic aliens, war in the stars, dark forces, battles in the heart?  Cortez and the Nazis, Ancient Mayan relics and the real force behind the “rapture of the deep”.  All of this with a goofy grin (I mean menacing scowl) from whomever is at the microphone.  There is a song in which Godzilla stomps Tokyo flat (again), and another in which a pensive vampire reflects upon the solitude and comfort of “night life”.  Lyrics have been written or co-written by each of the core band members (and even managers), and by an impressive coterie of talent, including Patti Smith, Eric von Lustbader, Michael Moorcock, and Richard Meltzer.

This band is the flip side of joke/real Spinal Tap.  Whereas Spinal Tap (the band) is a comedy outfit which produces devastating satire of rock and roll bands through great music, Blue Oyster Cult is a great band which produces humor through winks and smiles oozing through every crack in a wall of feedback and twin guitars (up to ten on some songs).  In addition to the sly humor is the pettiness of mere existence, lawsuits and accidents plaguing a bunch of good-time guys putting out faux-eldritch rock and roll.  The band was one of the first to use lasers in concert, and the first and last to sweep the audience with them (in an unrestrained fashion).  Part of the legacy of “darkness” was the admonition among fans, “Don’t look at the light!” greenlasersweep Lawsuits were narrowly avoided, although continual re-inspections by OSHA saw the band give up lasers as too much of a hassle.  It didn’t hurt the band’s image to have the rumor floating around that they were burning the eyeballs out of devoted rock & rollers.

Coming full circle, the much-celebrated grown-up animated film Heavy Metal (1981) featured a single, Veteran of the Psychic Wars, from Blue Oyster Cult.  Perversely, the song was one not written for the film, nestled among several written explicitly for the film on the album “Fire of Unknown Origin”.  Not used: Vengeance (The Pact), which quite literally narrates a scene from the movie play by play.  It’s a heck of a song.  Veteran was independently inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock, which also figured into the film.  The movie (in my opinion no great shakes) retains a devoted core of fans, and earning power.  Yet the release to video (or any home media) was delayed for fifteen years by a legal wrangling over the rights to use songs outside of the original movie theater environment.

There was an album, Imaginos, born of Producer Sandy Pearlman’s afore-mentioned trunk of poetry, and which began actual development as a solo project of founding drummer Albert Bouchard.  The work gestated for twenty years, was recorded over a period of eight years, moving in fits and starts as the band fell apart and re-formed, and musicians from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and guitar legend Joe Satriani to folks like Tommy Zvonchek and Joey Cerisano.  The parentage of the material was disputed, as the recordings were shelved and re-recorded, mixed together, sessions were added, parts excised, doubled, masters mixed, and the whole thing wound up costing everybody involved much more than they could bear.  Lawsuits abounded.

The culmination of the band’s twenty-five years dabbling in mythos and mystery wound up an unloved commercial failure which cost the band their recording contract, severed relationships and partnerships, and a spate of nasty reviews from around the world.  Within one year of release, all of the material from this album had been dropped from live shows, the album was available in three-for-a-dollar bundles of “miscellaneous” cassettes in literal bargain bins (I got mine at a TG&Y in Albuquerque), and the band would not record a live album for ten years after.  Finally, the band was forced through yet another lawsuit to repay not only the original cost incurred by Albert Bouchard in recording (1982-1984) the many parts intended for the never-released solo work, but separately the cost of re-recording and mixing (1987-1988) the numerous later developments.  The only person who seems not to have been wounded in the affair was Joe Satriani, who “financed the recording of his second album, Surfing with the Alien, through his work on Imaginos“.  To this day, no definitive record exists of just who did and did not play on the album.

Spinal Tap are amateurs at the silly story of Rock and Roll.

From the auto-pocalyptic album Imaginos; The Siege of Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria.  That’s guest Cerisano singing the impossible parts.

The following years saw the band stay on tour, which they have pretty much done since before I was born.  Consequently, much of the music has become a more refined, melodic, chorus and verse sort of metal that even a collection of very old men can play.  The music remains engaging and intelligent where desired, and rocks like a canoe carrying five people all damned day long.  They returned to producing studio albums at a prodigous rate, and are still pumping along.  Yet these very old men are going the way of all things.

Allen Lanier, founding keyboardist, passed away in 2013.  He did not die of a drug overdose, or in a fast car wreck, nor a shoot-out with a record producer, but of a breathing disorder, C.O.P.D.  He was aged sixty-seven.  Founding Producer Sandy Pearlman died in 2016 of pneumonia, quietly, at his home  He was seventy-two.  Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser fell down some stairs a couple of years ago, and the band cancelled and postponed some shows.

A friend of mine went to school with one of Roeser’s daughters.  He said that Roeser watched the kids around his kids like a hawk, and had the very coolest way of not tolerating any funny business.

Here’s a fairly recent (for a forty-nine year old band) recording of a beautiful song.

In Thee:

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6 Responses to Cities on Flame…

  1. BrentB67BrentB67 says:

    Interesting article.

    I clicked on it based on the title and thought it was an analysis of the simultaneous urban fires this weekend and a potential link to terrorism, IS, fires in Israel, etc.

  2. DevereauxDevereaux says:

    Good to know I’m a “very old man” in your estimation. BOC came out my junior year – in college. The following year I finished and went into the Marine Corps.

    Don’t know how I’ll die, but it clearly is far closer than it was back then, except I had no idea how I would fare in the jungle. But I made it out, and to this day I still drive fast cars, shoot, and once in a while beat on a Rogers set, although I was never good and have gotten worse with age – no hand power. I still have hopes of maybe getting at least passable with a guitar, but don’t spend near enough time with it to do that. Time – the one thing there is never enough of.

    Nicely done piece. Good subject. I, for one, appreciate it.

  3. AdministratorAdministrator says:

    Heh. In context, Dev. I’m hale and hearty, but a man my age in MMA is old.

  4. DevereauxDevereaux says:

    It’s why God made Sam Colt. ;-))

  5. NandaNanda says:

    I gather this is part of my continuing cultural education…Thank you, sirs! :-)

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