Blue Öyster Cult's first album is like a dusty ruby you find clutched in the skeletal hand of a dead pirate in some forgotten Barbary Coast cave. Clean it off and it's a ruby. But so much more besides.
So this is what BÖC were: back in the formative years of metal, when the first molten riffs to have been spewed from the earth were cooling and the clichés written in them were setting in stone - when Spinal Tap were still singing about flowers, for Jimi's sake - these five guys from Long Island (not forgetting their three outside lyricists) had already begun to poke fun at the genre's excesses, even as they helped invent them.
Viz. two key songs from their debut album.
"Before The Kiss, A Redcap." Early metal was pretty much equal parts marauding biker gangs and wannabe warlocks. Here Stony Brook's finest conjure up the meanest, scariest biker bar a college boy was ever scared to set foot in. Musically it's convincing enough: a groove as tightly in-the-pocket as any Zippo nudging up against a tin-foiled cucumber, with what sounds like three raunchy guitars all gabbling away. Biker music (think Steppenwolf), like bikers themselves (think Hunter Thompson's Hells Angels book), was always less scary than it seemed like it should be (until they turn on you and stomp your face in).
Then we get the lyrics. Dig this first verse:
"So grab your rose and ringside seat / We're back home at Conry's Baar / The blond girl with her tattoo / Reds and wine, cokes of course / Oh my Susie, my Susie / Why did we ever start / It's morning now, you'd never know / The gin, the gin / Glows in the dark."
We're into it now. Who's Susie? More to the point, why is it always Susie? Susie, the epitome of innocence and innocence lost? Susie, the All-American Girl? But even more to the point: the gin glows in the dark. All reviewerly affectation aside, this is great writing: dancing along just past the edge of sense, but with a mighty power of suggestion. All ill-defined menace.
They shuffle along like this for a while, and it all builds toward an orgaazzzmik instrumental break, but when it comes: slip, trip, it's not a head-banger but an even nimbler little boogie. They get quiet. It's like Snoopy dancing on Linus's piano or something.
And we get this kind of verse:
"One Threat and mundane here at last / Expect to cross once more / Lecherous, invisible/ Beware the limping cat / Whose black teeth grip between loose jaws / Still ripe and fully bloomed / A rose and not from anywhere / That you would know or I would care."
Of course it all ends in some tricky drum turnarounds and guitar fills, and then we skid into the main boogie again. Where the gin still glows in the dark.
This is funny, folks. This is the biker bar of the Id, the biker bar of scared parental imaginations, so exaggerated that you can't help but laugh. But...but on another level, it's pretty arresting imagery, and that boogie is pretty deft. It works as send-up of biker metal, but it also works as the apotheosis of biker metal. It's a joke. But it could still slap you around.
"Workshop Of The Telescopes." Haunted castle music: the conviction that if the druids had music, surely they must have played it through Marshall amps. But as with the biker boogie, even while they know it's an absurd assumption, they play it skilfully enough and lovingly enough to convince you of it. You believe as much as the Cult wants you to believe.
How could you not believe in a song that starts off with a verse like this? "By Silverfish Imperatrix whose incorrupted eye / Sees through the charms of doctors and their wives / By Salamander Drake and the power that was Undine / Rise to claim Saturn, ring and sky / By those who see with their eyes closed / You'll know me by my black telescope."
BÖC's best lyrics, half of them at any rate, and all the ones I've quoted here, are by early Crawdaddy writer Sandy Pearlman, and are part of a sheaf of notes and lines Pearlman had put together toward a song cycle called Imaginos, a kind of occult alternate history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Eventually the greater part of the story would be set to music, but really it's best viewed in the glimpses and fragments you get in the first couple-three albums. No concept, just the suggestion of one. Again, it's the tantalizing promise of meaning that's so fun: not the meaning itself. And yes, I like horror movies that keep the baddie off screen as long as possible: Alien over Aliens.
So that verse may actually mean something if you unpack all the references (somebody on-line has connected it to Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth, or was it a New York rock club), but if you do that you risk coming up with the 18-inch Stonehenge. But just savor "Silverfish Imperatrix whose incorrupted eye" for its own sake, as a deliciously cryptic and musical phrase, or the authentic spookiness of those last two lines. There's your 18-foot Stonehenge, right there.
And it glows in the dark.