For most Blue Oyster Cult fans, there’s not much debate about the material considered “essential” from the Columbia Records catalogue. After all, many anthologies have been issued over the years and the track lists have been substantially similar more often than not. However, if a compilation package doesn’t include some favorites, then we fans can moan over what wasn’t included. Then again, we can remember that if we have all these songs already, perhaps we should be picking up The Essential Blue Oyster Cult to give to those who haven’t yet been baptized or only know the band from the hit singles they hear repeatedly over the airwaves.
The first signal the folks who organized this new two-disc assembly know their stuff is the fact that disc one is drawn from the first three BOC Columbia studio releases, along with some choice live cuts. Four songs were culled from the Murray Krugman & Sandy Pearlman-produced debut album, 1972’s Blue Oyster Cult, which introduced the world to Eric Bloom (lead vocals, stun guitar, keyboards), Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser (vocals, lead guitar, keyboards), Joe Bouchard (bass, vocals, guitar), Allen Lanier (keyboards, guitar), and the under-appreciated Albert Bouchard (drums, vocals).
Now, I know there are those who see comparisons between Black Sabbath and the Cult, but I think there is a wide divide between their various accomplishments. Witness “Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll,” “Before The Kiss, A Redcap,” “Stairway To The Stars,” and “Transmaniacon MC.” Here’s a band brimming with lyrical imagination and innovative metal urban guitar.
Likewise, 1973’s Tyranny & Mutation, represented here by “The Red And The Black,” “O.D.’d On Life Itself,” and “7 Screaming Diz-Busters,” showcased a band unlike any other of its time. If you need comparisons, I think of Spirit as sort of a West Coast sister group, at least in terms of the instrumental interplay between keyboards and guitars.
“Career Of Evil” leads off the selections from 1974’s Secret Treaties, followed by “Flaming Telepaths” and “Astronomy.” Then comes a selection of live cuts, one rarity being a 1972 version of the instrumental, “Buck’s Boogie,” which first appeared in the 1973 compilation Guitars That Destroyed The World that included samples from BOC, Carlos Santana, Leslie West, Johnny Winter, and Spirit, among others.
The rest of disc one consists of performances from the 1975 double-album set, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. Here’s where the debate, for me, begins. Here, listeners get a live “Hot Rails To Hell”; fans (such as this reviewer) would have preferred the studio version with the wonderful multi-tracked guitars. Admittedly however, the live “Harvester Of Eyes” and “ME 262” are ideal slices of what BOC could do on stage. “Born To Be Wild”? Well ok, but if you want to feature a live cover by the band, why not “Kick Out the Jams” from Some Enchanted Evening as well?
It’s worth noting disc one of this set covered 1972 to 1975; disc two includes material from 1976 to 1985, a full decade of selections. In the main, that’s because the band had gone past its innovative period and began an era of changing collaborators, producers, kept shifting directions, and moved away from “Cult” status to full-blown arena attraction.
That began, of course, with the success of Agents Of Fortune (1976) and the indispensable songs, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love.” Then fans get “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” in its live version as heard on Some Enchanted Evening, but not the Patti Smith co-composition, “The Revenge of Vera Gemi”? Ah, this was a serious oversight.
Then, from 1977’s Spectres, we get a sampling of how the band sounded at this point in their metamorphosis when it started to touch all the musical bases. On one side, we get the hard rock of “Godzilla,” and on the other, the gentle ballad, “I Love The Night.” Somewhere in between is the aptly titled “Goin’ Through The Motions” with songwriting credit shared with Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter.
Some of these offerings seem to be included because they represent albums that would otherwise be totally forgotten. From Mirrors (1979), for example, is “In Thee,” a song that doesn’t sound like anything else in the BOC canon. Likewise, there are selections from 1980’s Cultosaurus Erectus which are more typical of a progressive rock band than the Blue Oyster Cult of old. “Black Blade,” with lyrics by sci-fi and fantasy author Michael Moorcock, and the live “The Marshall Plan” were hot in the U.K., but not so much in the States.
But some albums really did have true BOC moments. In 1981, Fire Of Unknown Origin gave us “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars,” the piano-driven nugget, “Joan Crawford,” and the FM anthem, “Burnin’ For You.” In the same year, Extraterrestrial Live included the nine-minute jam, “Roadhouse Blues” featuring original Doors guitarist, Robby Krieger.
Sadly, for my money, by 1983, Blue Oyster Cult existed in name only. That year’s The Revolution By Night, with new drummer Rick Downey, used a sax solo for “Shooting Shark,” another co-composition with Patti Smith. This track also featured Randy Jackson on bass. Elsewhere, “Take Me Away” is far more Starship than BOC.
This isn’t to say latter day tracks like “Dancin’ In The Ruins” from Club Ninja (1985) aren’t listenable and sometimes infectious rock, but their appeal is far removed from what the group was doing a decade before.
Apparently, Sony didn’t think anything from the last Columbia release, Imaginos (1987), was worthy of inclusion. While BOC would continually tour after their Columbia contract was dropped, it didn’t record a full album again until Sanctuary picked them up in 1998—but that’s a story for another day.
So there are likely Blue Oyster Cult devotees who’ll rise to their feet for what’s on disc one, those who’ll fall on their knees for the poppier disc two, and no doubt a healthy crowd who’ll be delighted to have both. Even better, The Essential Blue Oyster Cult is both a perfect introduction to the band for those not yet experienced, and a great sampler for those who only know “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Godzilla,” and “Burnin’ For You.” This isn’t just essential Blue Oyster Cult, it’s essential ‘70s rock.