If you were lucky enough to be in Swanzey, New Hampshire at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds back on July 18, 2020, then you got to see two things classic rock fans anywhere else would kill for: a live show, and one by the mighty Blue Öyster Cult. Even if you did have to sit in or near your car in an open field, 25 feet from the stage, and far apart from your neighbors.
For singer/guitarist/keyboardist Eric Bloom, the gig wasn’t as odd as you might think, even if he had to engage with the audience a bit differently. “I think that deserves some high beams!” he said after one tune. And “Let’s hear some cars honking!” after another. The whole concert was filmed and is available on YouTube.
“It was a good show, and I was a little silly. But it was great just to play again, and it was handled with COVID safety. And the audience was…cars. In a field!” the 75-year-old Bloom laughs. “People brought their lawn chairs or stood by and it went off without a hitch. We had fun, and we hadn’t even seen each other since March.”
The setlist included many BÖC classics, but nothing from the group’s great brand new record, The Symbol Remains (Frontiers Music). And while 2020 saw a slew of reissue and live records from the group, this is their first studio release in nearly 20 years.
“Our fans have been asking for new music for a long time. But it takes about a year from when you start writing to when it’s done, and that’s a long time to take off from touring. That’s how we make our living,” Bloom says. “But this offer from Frontiers was good, and the current lineup is playing so well, it was time to get it on tape.”
What set BÖC apart from other heavy rock acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s and whose songs also had science fiction/mythology/sword-and-sorcery/apocalyptic themes was a good dose of wry humor with a bit of social commentary. After all, they wrote a song about golden age Hollywood actress/wooden hanger enthusiast Joan Crawford rising out of her grave to wreak terror upon the land.
That approach is also evident in The Symbol Remains with tracks about internet conspiracy nuts (“Edge of the World”), slavish devotion to smart phones and Alexa (“The Machine”), the weird world of crimes and oddballs in the Sunshine State (“Florida Man”), and a barroom brawl that didn’t quite live up to expectations (“Fight”).
Others address naughty behavior (“That Was Me”), the key to one man’s brain (“Box in My Head”), vampire love (“Tainted Blood”), epic battles (“Stand and Fight”), and…the mental toll of taking a New Jersey commuter train (“Train Tune [Lennie’s Song]”).
For leadoff track and first single “That Was Me,” Bloom and guitarist/singer/keyboardist Richie Castellano handled the music while cyberpunk author John Shirley (who has collaborated with the band before) wrote the words. But when Bloom rifled through some papers at home and brought them to Castellano’s house as a new discovery, the pair found out it wasn’t so new.
“Richie said to me ‘I think we did this song already.’ I didn’t remember it at all. He said it was because I was an old man,” Bloom says. “So he looked at in on his computer and there it was – we had recorded it a few years ago! It wasn’t finished, but it was there!”
For Bloom, lyrical inspiration can come at any time – seemingly on transportation. He started both “Stand and Fight” and “Tainted Blood” while on an airplane with guitarist/vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. “He gave me a mental nudge. I have a sort of camera bag that I take on planes with a book or a candy bar or odds and ends I might need. And I just took out a pen and paper and started putting down words,” he recalls. For the latter song, Bloom then finished it with Castellano…during a car trip!
To the average audience, Blue Öyster Cult is primarily known for a trio of classic rock radio warhorses: “Godzilla,” “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and “Burnin’ For You” – but there’s a lot more powerful and varied music in their discography.
On The Symbol Remains, as usual, Bloom and Roeser share lead vocals and songwriting credits (and Roeser has co-collaborators). But the real revelation is the heavy stepping-up of Castellano, who wrote or co-wrote half of the record’s 14 tracks and sings lead on three. Of those he wrote alone is the record’s most epic track, “The Alchemist,” a tale of Dark Ages royalty and retribution based on a story of cult horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s also the upcoming fourth music video from the record.
“Richie really is the secret sauce on this record, and he was the pivot of getting it made in the studio. Most of it was recorded during lockdown, and his home studio was the master area” Bloom says. To accomplish this took a really futuristic and tech-savvy method. After the five recorded basic tracks while together in the same studio last year (pre-COVID), the rest was done piecemeal.
In Bloom’s case, that means he recorded lead vocals in a booth and on a computer in his home in New York. The live session was relayed to Castellano in his own house to engineer. The session audio files would then be uploaded from Bloom to Castellano’s computer, and he would also receive sound files from Roeser. Then all were then sent to Florida to be mixed, sent back to the band for changes, and by mid-spring the record was completed
The initial group came together in 1967 on the campus of Stony Brook University on Long Island as the Soft White Underbelly. Lineups and names shifted over the next few years (including stints as Oaxaca, the Stalk-Forrest Group, and Santos Sisters) before coalescing as Blue Öyster Cult in 1971, the name inspired by a poem written by then-manager Sandy Pearlman. The current lineup includes original Cult members Bloom and Roeser, longtime members Castellano and Jules Radino (drums), and the recently-returned Danny Miranda (bass).
Among the guys who lived or hung out at the original communal house at Stony Brook were Sandy Pearlman and Richard Metzler – who would be involved in both creative and business matters with the group for decades (Pearlman passed away in 2016). Another friend was budding (and Bloom says, “eccentric”) graphic designer Bill Gawlick.
It was he who came up with the final band symbol featured on the first record cover (and most of the others, taking up most of the cover for The Symbol Remains): a hook-and-cross logo is taken from Greek mythology. It’s the symbol of Kronos (Cronus) the father of Zeus and King of the Titans. Favorably for the band, is also the alchemical symbol for lead…a “heavy metal.” “The punchline is that Gawlick has disappeared. Nobody knows where he is,” Bloom adds.
For diehard fans of Blue Öyster Cult though, there are two gaping holes in the band’s story. One is that despite their nearly 50-year existence, discography, and huge commercial (if not critical) success, they aren’t in and haven’t even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“That’s not up to us,” Bloom says quickly). The other is that there’s been no substantive band biography or autobiography.
Bloom says he’s not about to put his and the band’s story down on paper – there’s too much he’d want to say that would cause legal or relationship troubles. “Last night, I was fishing around the internet and found this esoteric Blue Öyster Cult history that was very interesting. It was almost like someone’s Ph.D doctoral study!” he says. And that’s not all he looks up.
“The internet is full of this weird shit! I see these new videos of teens and twentysomethings reacting to hearing music for the first time like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. And there was one with a black guy, about 30, and it was ‘Listening to ‘Dominance and Submission’ by Blue Öyster Cult for the First Time,’” Bloom recalls. “He couldn’t even pronounce our name. And he’s just got his headphones on and he’s just popping and rocking out and going ‘Yeah!.’ That really put a smile on my face.”
For more on Blue Öyster Cult and The Symbol Remains, visit BlueOysterCult.com
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com