TYRANNY AND MUTATION - Blue Oyster Cult (Columbia/Legacy)

This US summer's sure brought a bounty of reissue goodies for aficionados of Rock Action - "The Essential Radio Birdman;" the first four Ramones discos, remastered and larded with bonus tracks courtesy Rhino (not being as into the Bruddas as the Barman, I might just take it as an opportunity to cop somebody's cast-off "All the Stuff and More Vols. 1 and 2"); and now the first four Blue Oyster Cult studio albs given the remaster/bonus track treatment (albeit to a much more modest extent than the Rhino Ramones) by the taciturn folks at Columbia/Legacy. Not being as financial as some, I'm compelled to be selective in my purchases, but that's a no-brainer: BOC's second alb was always The One as far as I was concerned.

I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by the first BOC album when it arrived. After following the budding hype in the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, and (I think) Lillian Roxon's column in the New York Post, I was expecting something like a combination of the Yardbirds, Stooges, and MC5, shot full of crank and exploding off the stage (or out of the speakers in the privacy of my very own teenage room). What I heard was something a little more...sedate and calculated. While it bore slabs of monstrous riffage like "Transmaniacon M.C.," "Stairway to the Stars," "Before the Kiss, a Redcap," and most importantly, "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll," the band's sound on that first record was controlled, muted, not the guitar-driven sonic mindfuck we'd been led to expect. So I gave it a few spins, tried hard to like it (but not nearly as hard as I'd try to like "Quadrophenia" a few months later), then filed it away and went back to listening to my Alice Cooper albums. (Now THERE was a band that sounded shitty in the studio, although I still harbour a certain retrospective fondness for "Love It To Death," one which would probably NOT be borne out by hearing it again.)

It was in the spring of '73 that "Tyranny and Mutation" arrived, around the same time as such sterling Columbia releases as Johnny Winter's "Still Alive and Well" and Iggy's "Raw Power" (YAAAAAYYY!!!), as well as such less-exalted ones as, uh, Beck Bogert & Appice (BOOOOOOO!!!). I was just a coupla months away from my first ego-destroying exposure to psychedelic drugs and "Dark Side of the Moon." If only I'd known! I bought "T&M" more out of a sense of duty than anything else; surely, no band that Lester Bangs avowed loving as much as he did the Cult could suck as badly as I thought their first album did.

Just scant seconds of dropping the needle in the grooves of the first side, I was totally unprepared to have the top of my head blown off by the chordal blast that opens "The Red and the Black." (Stolen from or imitated by the Stooges on "I Got a Right?" YOU decide!!!) Formerly entitled "I'm On the Lamb," this little ditty was waxed by the Cult boys seemingly everytime they set foot in a studio, annually from 1968 to 1972, first as Soft White Underbelly, then Oaxaca, then the Stalk Forrest Group, and finally as BOC (see Rhino Handmade's "St. Cecilia" release and the bonus tracks on Columbia/Legacy's remastered version of BOC's eponymous debut for most of the good stuff). And a worthy toon it was, featuring a riff derived from the one in the Stones' "The Last Time" and showcasing some of slight but formidable axeman Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's nastiest guitar chops. For "T&M," however, they reworked the tune, adding a piledriving riff that elevated it to something entirely Other. Eric Bloom comes across like the punk he was, singing a classic Sandy Pearlman lyric, while Buck shreds the strings on his SG. The remaster restores the cutting edge to the sound that was lost on the abominably shitty original CD. (For that reason alone, I'd be interested to check out the remastered "Blue Oyster Cult" and "Agents of Fortune" - I suspect I'll find all kinds of good stuff in there I missed out on the first time around.)

"American Black Sabbath?" Gimme a fuckin' break. If these guys were Heavy Metal, even by 1973's definition, then I'm ITALIAN. They had far too light of a touch on guitars and drums - Buck Dharma used a clean tone with biting treble but almost no vibrato to shake yer synapses, while drummer Albert Bouchard was an agile sticksman, hardly the kind of hamfisted pounder you generally associate with metal - and their songs were far too complex constructions. (Just listen to "Man With Golden Helmet" or "Love Kills" or "Descent Into the Maelstrom" or, later, "Steel Beach" and tell me young Dr. Tek wasn't paying close attention.) Listen to the Byrds-y vocal harmonies, even on some of the rockers, and you can hear the band that cut "Don't Fear the Reaper" trying to get out.

More than just snot-nosed college kids from Stony Brook, these boys were journeyman musos who'd paid their dues in bar bands up, down, and around the Empire State, playing every rock style from surf to Motown to Beatles and Stones. Some of this comes out in unflattering ways on the bonus tracks included here; the studio "Buck's Boogie" which they wisely decided to leave off the original "T&M" is an example of how they COULD have SUCKED, all musicianly chopsmanship, boring as hell, while the 14-minute "7 Screaming Diz-Busters" abandons the hellfire forward motion of the studio track for clichéd seventies jamming and Rockstar rap. I can almost hear Frank Zappa taking the piss out of Eric's tale of signing a contract "in blood" to obtain Rockstardom from a fella "in a sharkskin suit;" it was tripe like this that convinced me that Big Rock Shows were all a scam back in the mid-'70s.

But back to the good stuff: just like your Original Sound Golden Oldies albums, "T&M" had a "rockin' side" (The Red; methedrine) and a "mellow side" (The Black; Quaalude) - incorrectly labeled on this reish! The first (The Red) side was probably my favorite LP side of all time after the first side of "Kick Out the Jams," and it still sounds damn fine. Highlights: the shifting background on "OD'd On Life Itself;" the layers of blazing guitars on the appropriately-named "Hot Rails to Hell," and that descending "Pipeline" bassline (a device fellow surf nuts Radio Birdman would later appropriate); and "7 Screaming Diz-Busters," which starts off slow (with a riff that sounds like it came from the Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed") but quickly gets to frantic (spot the quote from the first Velvet Underground alb). The "mellow" (Black) side, on the other hand, is probably my favorite of its kind, every bit as good as the second side of "Tattoo You" (a great 3 AM listen and the last Stones album I can remotely remember anything from), as well as providing more of a glimpse of things to come from the Cult once they started letting Buck sing lead. "Baby Ice Dog" boasts a cool lyric by Patti Smith (her first recorded composition). There's a fuzz bass line on "Wings Wetted Down" that provides the only valid Sabbath soundalike here, but the vocal is far too smooth and the lyric too cerebral for that comparison to stick (not to mention Buck's crystalline fretwork). "Teen Archer" is a chugging rocker with more Byrds-like harmonies, somber organ washes, and a jazzy break. "Mistress of the Salmon Salt" sounds like what Alice Cooper's "Killer" woulda if the band could play.

This release even gives you the full lyrics, so you can read 'em and laugh at all the silly things you THOUGHT you heard over the years. I like 'em even better this way than on the sheet of multi-part computer paper I got in exchange for my 75 cents way back in '73. - Ken Shimamoto
An essential reissue.