This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
Before Motörhead, before Mötley Crüe, there was Blue Öyster Cult — the original deployers of the umlaut.
If these ’70s pseudo-metal gods contributed nothing else to rock, those two dots — now rock shorthand for heaviness — would be enough to assure them immortality. But BÖC weren’t just typographic trendsetters. They were also five of the swiftest guys ever to don leather pants and studded belts. Self-aware ironists in an age of smug imbecility, BÖC utilized metal trappings — motorcycles, Marshall stacks, mirror balls — to forge blackly humourous guitar-rock that was equal parts power, parody and performance art. Behind singer Eric Bloom’s mirrored aviator shades, he was winking. You just couldn’t see it.
But now you can catch it on instant replay. In a rare case of music-biz synchronicity, two labels have dropped five early works by the band: Sony has reissued the first four BÖC discs in remastered, expanded editions, while Internet boutique label Rhino Handmade has unearthed a lost album by their earlier incarnation, Stalk-Forrest Group. Play ’em front-to-back and you have the soundtrack to BÖC: Behind the Umlaut.
Like a metalhead searching for hidden Satanic messages, I, however, will go through them backwards. Thus we start with the album everyone knows: 1976’s Agents of Fortune, starring the band’s cowbell-driven hit ode to posthumous romance, (Don’t Fear) the Reaper. If you only want one BÖC album, this is the most obvious. Along with guitarist Buck Dharma’s sublime Reaper, it has FM radio staples This Ain’t the Summer of Love, True Confessions and E.T.I. This version also has demos for Reaper and three others, including the later hit Fire of Unknown Origin. Nothing to complain about. Except maybe that it’s a tad too commercial.
Like many bands, BÖC only broke big after they watered down their sound for the masses. For 100-proof Cult, you’ve gotta go further back to get the good stuff. Like 1974’s Secret Treaties. With Career of Evil, Dominance and Submission and Flaming Telepaths, it’s a darker disc than Agents, loaded with cartoonish goth overtones midway between Alice Cooper and Rocky Horror. Bonus tracks include three superbly solid studio outtakes and a deconstructionist revamp of Born to Be Wild. Awesome.
But nothing tops 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation — for my money the band’s choicest cuts. From the full-tilt boogie of The Red & the Black (which indie-punk bassist Mike Watt loves so much he’s played it as his encore tune for years) through the go-go metal of Hot Rails to Hell to the chugging propulsion of 7 Screaming Diz-Busters (did these guys have great song titles or what?), T&M is a crackling slab of gonzo rock and Luciferean absurdity. Essential — made even more essential here by a half-hour of outtakes, including a 14-minute live version of Diz-Busters!
Their self-titled debut from ’72 isn’t quite as awesome — but it’s not far behind. More reflective of the band’s jammy, psychedelic beginnings, it still has solid faves like biker ode Transmaniacon MC, the timeless Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll and I’m On the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep, which is basically a groovier version of The Red & The Black. The extras feature four studio demos, including a cover of ’50s rocker Betty Lou’s Got a New Pair of Shoes.
Finally, überfans might want to spring for the limited-edition St. Cecilia, recorded in 1970 while they were called Stalk-Forrest Group. But be warned: metal it ain’t. Instead, these 18 cuts find the boys tripping out in a field of folky, psychedelic jam-rock, complete with acid-spiked organ lines, long-winded twin-guitar noodlefests and paisley-clad vocals. There’s even a hippie-rock version of I’m On the Lamb. But even if it ain’t what you expect — these songs are more Grateful Dead than Black Sabbath — it’s still an intriguing peek into the band’s formative era.
All the discs (especially the Stalk-Forrest album) come with top-notch liner notes, photos and perhaps the best bonus of all: Lyric sheets, something BÖC seldom put in its albums. Finally, you can learn all the words to Mistress of the Salmon Salt — and all the others that fall between the umlauts.