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A Disease With A Long Incubation: Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos
Joseph Stannard , July 23rd, 2013 08:39

Joseph Stannard charts the protracted gestation of BÖC's most fearless gesture, Imaginos, which turns 25 this month, and recalls the impact it had on him as a teenager

“A bedtime story for the children of the damned...”

New York’s Blue Öyster Cult are perhaps the weirdest rock group of 70s vintage ever to scan an arena crowd with potentially dangerous laser technology. Though Alice Cooper, Kiss and Rush did their best to maintain rock’s big bucks, high-visibility lunatic contingent, BÖC’s insanity was a great deal more insidious and intricate. Steered by manager, producer and lyricist Sandy Pearlman, the band’s career between 1972 and 1988 took in songwriting collaborations with writers Michael Moorcock, Eric Van Lustbader and Richard Meltzer, not to mention Jim Carroll, Patti Smith and Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, while titles like ‘I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep’, ‘Transmaniacon MC’ and ‘Mistress Of The Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl)’ hinted at an oblique wit equalled by few of their peers. In addition, Bill Gawlick’s monochrome sleeve art ensured that BÖC’s first two albums Blue Öyster Cult (1972) and Tyranny And Mutation (1973) looked like nothing else in the racks. For the third, Secret Treaties (1974), pulp paperback artist Ron Lesser continued the B&W theme, casting the band members as comic book supervillains gathered before a modified Messerschmitt piloted by Death himself.

“To the rhyme of the, of the, of the star clock...”

It’s often said that Crawdaddy contributor Pearlman had intended his charges to be the US equivalent of Black Sabbath. While the band could certainly grind out the heavy riffs when required - as the debut’s ‘Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll’ demonstrates - their music just as often betrayed the unmistakable influence of West Coast psychedelic ensembles The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. BÖC were laser-sharp and fleet-footed where their contemporaries were blunt and monolithic. Guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser alternated between post-Nuggets garage fuzz, blues-based repetition and Garcia-like prettiness. “Stun” guitarist and frontman Eric Bloom - he of the permanent aviators - intoned tales of interstellar intrigue and earthbound debauchery in a velvety, laconic croon. Allen Lanier’s keyboards added a sickly, gothic tinge. Brothers Albert and Joe Bouchard (on drums and bass respectively) comprised one of rock’s most underrated rhythm sections, supple yet forceful. Something else that distinguished BÖC from their contemporaries was the fact that each member of the band could, and would, sing. Their reluctance to fully relinquish the innovations of 60s acid rock resulted in music which didn’t sound, as Sabbath’s did, like a wholesale rejection of sophistication; rather, its oscillation between force and filigree echoed the post-Altamont confusion of a generation rudely cast from Eden into a grave new world of paranoia, mistrust and murder. “This ain’t the summer of love,” indeed.

“The writing in the notebook, notation from the stars...”

As a university student in the late 1960s, Pearlman devised an epic fable entitled The Soft Doctrines Of Immaginos. Within it, he blended elements of Lovecraftian horror, science fiction and conspiracy theory to form a metanarrative spanning centuries and continents, populated by characters real and fictional from Dr John Dee to Victor Frankenstein. This “random access myth” was described by Pearlman as "an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it" and centred around the character of Imaginos, a “modified child” born in New Hampshire at the turn of the 19th century. Leaving home to seek adventure, Imaginos travels far and wide until a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico washes him up at death’s door. As his life ebbs away, he is approached by entities who identify themselves as ‘Les Invisibles’ (another name for the Loa or Mystères of Vodou lore). They disclose his true heritage and offer him the choice of death or servitude. Opting for the latter, Imaginos is renamed Desdinova and charged with a special task; using his shapeshifting abilities, he is to adopt pivotal roles throughout human history in order to test mankind’s “ability to respond to the challenge of evil”. His destiny takes him to the brink of the First World War, brought on by the poisonous presence in Cornwall of an obsidian mirror - a sister to John Dee’s scrying glass - stolen from a Mayan pyramid in Yucatán. It’s the kind of labyrinthine, history-warping plot one might expect from a comic book visionary such as Mike Mignola, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison. But Pearlman’s yarn predates Hellboy, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Invisibles by over two decades.

“We understand. We understand. We understand...”

Following a brief period during which they operated under a succession of names including, but not limited to, Soft White Underbelly, Oaxaca and Stalk-Forrest Group, the band settled on a moniker plucked straight from the Soft Doctrines, referring to a sinister cabal of presumably aquatic origin, possibly inspired by the Esoteric Order Of Dagon from Lovecraft’s 1936 novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Fragments of the narrative would be scattered throughout the group’s recorded works as they evolved from post-psych proto-metal to the polished, arena-filling rock of 1976’s Agents Of Fortune and 1977’s Spectres. Out of context, ‘Subhuman’, ‘Astronomy’ and ‘Gil Blanco County’ (the latter recorded as Stalk-Forrest Group) were intriguing shards of opaque mysticism that made little obvious sense, even alongside the similarly coded likes of ‘7 Screaming Dizbusters’ and ‘The Red And The Black’. These songs seemed like, and indeed were, isolated pieces of a bigger puzzle. As the 70s progressed, the band sought to break free from Pearlman’s influence. Despite having already recorded and released several songs whose lyrical themes were drawn from the Soft Doctrines, they became increasingly resistant to the idea of recording a full-blown concept album. Aside from key songwriter Albert Bouchard, whose enthusiasm for the project only intensified.

“When time gets slow and rivers freeze I think you’d know enough...”

In the early 80s, Pearlman and Bouchard (who by then had left BÖC) commenced work on an album intended to gather this fragmented mythology into a concentrated whole, employing session musicians to fill in the blanks. BÖC, meanwhile, failed to build on the resurgence of 1981’s Fire Of Unknown Origin and entered a period of commercial and critical exile. In 1984, CBS rejected what was essentially a Bouchard solo project and Imaginos lay dormant for another two years. When Blue Öyster Cult’s ill-starred (but intermittently terrific) 1985 album Club Ninja failed to justify the time and expense involved in its creation, the band ground to a halt. Sensing an opportunity, Pearlman re-pitched Imaginos to CBS as a BÖC release and secured a modest budget to complete the recordings - without Bouchard. In 1988 the album was issued bearing the distinctive alchemical insignia of the “doyens of punk mysterioso”. The original line-up were credited on the sleeve alongside a lengthy list of hired hands and guest contributors including Joe Satriani and Robbie Krieger of The Doors. The sleeve art, a gloriously atmospheric shot of San Francisco’s Cliff House Hotel circa 1900, harked back to the black and white trilogy of 71-74.

“The light that never, never warms...”

In spite of its messy, protracted genesis and the fact that some consider it a compromise compared to the album Pearlman had originally conceived - a Smiley Smile rather than a Smile - the released version of Imaginos is a monumentally audacious work that sounds unlike anything else in the history of rock. Multi-tracked chorales and supercharged sea shanties collide with quicksilver metal riffs and atmospheric synthwork while the sly, ironic wit displayed on early BÖC albums is present in titles such as ‘I Am The One You Warned Me Of’ and ‘The Siege And Investiture Of Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle At Weisseria’. The density of Pearlman’s lyricism is mirrored by the album’s production, which is best appreciated through a decent pair of headphones. ‘Magna Of Illusion’ and ‘In The Presence Of Another World’, for instance, are 72 tracks deep in esoteric detail, from the former’s dramatic spoken interludes (“Granddaughter, it’s a foreign mirror, taken from the jungle BY CRIME!!!”) to the crazed polyphony of the latter (“Your master is a monster/Born from a yolkless egg/He has dominion over animals/He walks the world/Entrail diviner/And when the stars are right-t-t-t-t/He locks the door behind the door behind the door...”). The term ‘concept album’ seems insufficient to describe the album’s narrative complexity and depth of vision; this is Cinemascope for the ears. Indeed, there’s ample evidence to suggest that Pearlman had intended Imaginos to be a multimedia enterprise; there was talk of a movie adaptation while horror author and diehard BÖC fan Stephen King was drafted in to provide a spoken introduction to the lead single, a pacy update of ‘Astronomy’ from 1974’s Secret Treaties: “From a dream world, paralleling our Earth in time and space, the invisible ones have sent an agent who will dream the dream of history...”

“Fresh from zones of moisture and afterwards the meat...”

Bouchard and Pearlman’s 81-84 demos have been widely circulated, but despite a handful of curios - the acapella ‘Magna Of Illusion (Chorale)’, an updated ‘Gil Blanco County’, ‘Blue Öyster Cult (Reprise)’ and ‘The Girl Who Made Love Blind’ - there’s little evidence to suggest that Imaginos would have been a better album without the involvement of Bouchard’s former bandmates. The songs frankly demanded a more refined vocal approach than Bouchard’s earthy rasp could provide, and Bloom and Roeser’s overdubs unquestionably enhance the material. Bloom’s performance on the officially released version of ‘I Am The One You Warned Me Of’ is one of his finest, wringing every drop of menace from a gloriously lascivious lyric; by contrast ‘Les Invisibles’, ‘Magna Of Illusion’ and ‘Astronomy’ find Roeser adopting the measured tone of a campfire storyteller. The presence of multiple vocalists, including Jon Rogers and Joey Cerisano, who had been drafted in by Bouchard prior to the BÖC takeover, creates the impression of a multi-dimensional, populated universe.

“Ships charmed and ordinary sailed the glidepath to the sun...”

Imaginos was decidedly rich meat for the late 80s marketplace. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare it must have presented to the CBS marketing department. Not only was it the work of a band whose stock had fallen dramatically since 1981’s Fire Of Unknown Origin, it was a convoluted occult rock opera bearing little relation to prevailing trends in late 80s popular music. It bombed so hard that BÖC were dropped by CBS and spent the next decade in search of a new label. Two proposed sequels (Act II: Germany Minus Zero And Counting and Act III: The Mutant Reformation) were abandoned and the new songs were quickly yanked from the band’s live set. Imaginos has been in and out of print ever since, most recently appearing in remastered form as part of last year’s The Complete Columbia Albums Collection box set. Twenty-five years after its release, the album is spoken of in hushed tones by Cultists scattered across the globe, an oddity, lost, last and luminous, perched at the crossroads between rock, literature and myth.

“Known to me, the starry wisdom...”

My first meaningful contact with Blue Öyster Cult came in my teens while browsing the tape racks of long vanished Harrow record emporium, Jamming With Edward. For a couple of quid each, I picked up second-hand copies of Secret Treaties, Career Of Evil: The Metal Years and, yes, Imaginos. These cassettes eventually wound themselves in and around a series of life-altering summer holidays in Wales. The full details of those visits must remain undisclosed but suffice to say they were a whirlwind of teen angst, romantic intrigue, UFO sightings and spectral visitations. In the absence of artificial light, the constellations filled the entire sky from horizon to zenith - what better place to acquire the starry wisdom? Those BÖC tapes - specifically Imaginos with its themes of maritime misadventure and cosmic conspiracy - formed the perfect accompaniment to a period of my life I look back on with a sense of dazed wonder. In the midst of all this, I learned to peel back the layers of the real to access the timeless world that lies behind. It’s this action, like the habitual picking of a scab destined never to heal, that I’ve been repeating ever since.

“World without end... world without end... world without end...”