In his second column for the site, Roadsaw bassist and expert on classic heavy Tim Catz takes us through the story of Blue Öyster Cult‘s Spectres album and the laser-fied controversy that followed its release in 1977. Enjoy:
Tim Catz’ 70 RPMs
This month’s record: Blue Öyster Cult – Spectres
“Raise your cans of beer on high / And seal your fate forever
Our best years have passed us by / The Golden Age Of Leather”
– Blue Öyster Cult, 1977
By the time Blue Öyster Cult released Spectres in 1977, the band was already showing signs of fatigue both artistically and personally. While the record was well received by fans, sales dipped for the first time in their career. Up until then, BÖC had enjoyed a slow but steady rise to the top of the hard rock heap. But following the massive popularity of Agents of Fortune, BÖC stumbled and would never again return to form. Though they would enter the ‘80s with the platinum selling Fire of Unknown Origin, much of the band’s mystique had been stripped away. In short, Spectres would be the last good album BÖC would make.
From ‘72 to ‘74, Blue Öyster Cult released what is widely regarded as their artistically best records. Blue Öyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties became hard rock classics and all bore the unique BÖC brand, the famous “hooked cross” symbol. Brimming with obtuse lyrical mysticism, expert musicianship and vague occult leanings, these three albums quickly established BÖC as force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning rock scene.
By 1976, BÖC was poised for a commercial breakthrough. Agents of Fortune brought the band huge success and gave them their first Top 40 hit, the now-infamous “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Slicker production and leaner song arrangements, together with a growing reputation for their live shows, brought BÖC out of the underground, onto FM radio airwaves and into the stadiums.
But joining the big leagues brought new pressures to the band . After all, this was the heyday of KISS, Queen and Alice Cooper and enormous and often outrageous stage theatrics were the rage. So on the advice of their manager, BÖC gathered up all their freshly-earned money and purchased the latest and greatest in light show technology: lasers. Designed to blow stoned adolescent minds, the enormous and cumbersome rig shot dozens red laser beams that cut through billowing banks of smoke, shot out of guitars into piercing prisms that showered the entire crowd through Eric Bloom‘s walnut sized diamond ring. The kids loved it.
The tours were a smash and kids everywhere scrambled into stadiums to bear witness. However as the show rolled on, rumors began to circulate about fans in the audience being blinded by rays that hit them directly in their bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils. Other problems arose with the lasers as well. The size and awkward design of the rig made transporting it difficult and expensive. So big in fact, that it required its own 18-wheeler and crew to care for it. Nonetheless, BÖC soldiered on.
With pressure mounting from Columbia Records to capitalize on Agents’ success , the band quickly wrote and recorded Spectres between breaks in their relentless tour schedule. Released in ’77, the record did well even if side one’s opening track , “Godzilla” was no “Reaper.” Many longtime fans balked at the song and called it a “novelty” on par with “Disco Duck,” which had topped the charts earlier in the year.
There are great moments as well. The album improves immediately with “Golden Age of Leather.” An ode to bikers who go to war with unknown forces in the desert, the song is forged in classic BÖC form. “Searching for Celine” and “I Love the Night” also stay true to BÖC’s best nature. Other tracks, however, show signs of lyrical laziness and overt “pop” leanings. The goofy “R.U. Ready 2 Rock ” is a no-brainer call and response crowd pleaser at best. Similarly disappointing is “Going through the Motions.” Co-written by Ian Hunter, the song is an obvious attempt to hit the charts and has a lukewarm mid-tempo feel throughout.
As sales of Spectres slipped, complaints from fans about retina damage from the laser show increased. Soon the FDA and other government agencies were involved and quickly handed down their ruling. BÖC’s infamous laser show was deemed unsafe for audiences and ordered to be removed from their live show. It was a huge blow. After having invested so much of their earnings into the rig, the band was now the proud owners of an unusable and unsellable monstrosity. The lasers were immediately warehoused and rumored to have eventually been donated to the Smithsonian Museum as a tax write-off.
The damage was done. The financial fallout was enormous as BÖC scrambled to find new props for their show to keep audiences interested and ticket sales from dwindling. They tried wheeling out a huge rubber Godzilla head during “Godzilla.” that breathed smoke and waved around over the head of drummer Alan Bouchard, who would routinely flip drum sticks into the spewing mouth of the monster. Truly a sight to see, but a far cry from laser beams.
In the years that followed, BÖC lost much of their power, popularity and original lineup. And while Spectres is by no stretch BÖC’s best album, it is the last album that even slightly resembles the imaginative force they once were. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” may have made them stars, but it was their costly laser failure that made them bona fide rock legends.
* In the 1994 movie Stoned Age, there’s a running gag where one of the “stoner dudes” keeps seeing a flaming eyeball following him every time “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays.
*The first three BÖC albums are known to fans as, “the black and white years,” due to the stark, colorless nature of the album covers artwork by illustrator Bill Gawlik.
* Keyboardist Allen Lanier‘s close friend, singer and punk icon Patti Smith contributed lyrics and backup vocals to a number of BÖC’s songs over the years.