Blue Öyster Cult are, without doubt, one of the very biggest American hard rock bands of all time. With a stellar career that first started almost fifty years ago at a Long Island university, there are few other artists that come even close to the enduring adulation from both critics and, most importantly, fans.
Blue Öyster Cult – The Symbol Remains (Frontiers)
Release Date: 9 October 2020
Words: Paul Monkhouse
Like the titular ‘Godzilla’ in one of their most popular and well-known songs, they have laid waste to cities and have seen multi-platinum record sales as well as sold out stadiums and arenas.
Unlike a lot of their peers though, BÖC have always decidedly ploughed their own path, always doing what felt best to them artistically and it is always striking that within an album you come across a myriad of styles and paces, the band never sticking in a purely commercially focused rut.
This may have caused sleepless nights for some record company executives and A&R men, wanting the band to eternally crank out endless carbon copies of monster hit ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, but Messrs. Dharma, Bloom and Co had other ideas. It might be said that this resistance to bending to the will of their corporate masters held them back in some, small ways but becoming probably the biggest cult (no pun intended) band on the planet and retaining their integrity was way more important to the band than selling out.
In fact, this constantly moving tableau of sounds and styles, whilst all somehow sounding very much like Blue Öyster Cult, makes each new release an exciting prospect and an aural adventure of discovery.
Let’s face it, it became a cliché that you’d be able to tell exactly what a new Status Quo or AC/DC album sounded like even before the needle hit the first groove but there is a degree of truth and measure of reassuring comfort, as we dearly and rightly love them both, in that but this is certainly something that could not be levelled at the New York titans.
The band seem to have a lot more in common with quintessentially English rockers Queen than peers and fellow countrymen such as Aerosmith, always pushing the envelope and mixing things up, the listener never sure what is going to happen next, as they enter the realms of a new release for the first time.
As well as this unpredictability being a byword for the band, there was always a guarantee of quality and this was what kept people coming back to both the albums and the live shows (BÖC were one of the first bands to really utilise lasers for their concert tours).
They also benefitted from a strong image, their hook and cross logo an enduring feature on album covers, t-shirts and scrawled into thousands of school exercise books and desks.
Massively influential, bands ranging from Metallica, Opeth, Iron Maiden and Kveltertak, amongst many others, have expressed their thanks for the inspiration and these ripples continue down the years. It is true that you need only switch on a Rock radio station for an hour or two anywhere in the States and you will certainly hear ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ or another one of their hits coming from the speakers.
As mentioned earlier though, thankfully the band are not ones to rest on their laurels and the freshly released ‘The Symbol Remains’ is one of their finest albums for years, all fourteen tracks a distillation of what we love about them. To make your way through it’s constantly shifting patterns and sounds is to flick your fingers through an encyclopedic guide to not only the band itself, but also popular music in the last five decades.
We spoke to founding member, guitarist and singer, the very genial Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, on a call to his Stateside home where he talked about the past, present and future of the iconic band.
‘The Symbol Remains’ has had universally great reviews, possibly some of the best of your career. After all this time as a band does this still mean something to you?
Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser: “Yes…it means a lot because we certainly put our hearts and souls into it. When we were all done and I was able to step back and listen to it I thought it was pretty good and people were going to like it…the fact that the reviews have been unanimous have been very gratifying to me and the boys.
“Another thing is that there are fourteen tracks on it and a lot of people have different favourites and it is funny too that there is also broad opinion about what reaches out and impresses them.’”
With the huge variety of styles on this album; from crunching Heavy Metal, bubblegum Rock, 60’s Rock ‘n Roll, almost jazzy Prog and onto Rockabilly, I wondered how you write?
“We approach every song as a song…we don’t set any limitations for ourselves in terms of overall style. We didn’t even anticipate what the record would sound like all together, we just wrote songs that would fit the lyric or the concept of what we had in mind.
“Also…the different writers in the band covered different bases…obviously Eric Bloom is responsible for the heavier stuff and Buck Dharma does his thing and Richie Castellano bridges that gap and brings his own broad Rock sensibility into the band and you hear the result of that combination.”
BÖC has done so many different things in their career, always doing exactly as you want and are certainly not just a ‘Heavy Metal band’. You’ve always been labelled an intelligent Rock band which must be a nice epithet.
“Yes, as a listener it really helps to have a spread of styles to maintain your interest, certainly across the fourteen cuts [on the album].”
Do you have any particular favourites from the new album?
“I don’t know…I’m still enjoying the record…which (laughing)…again is a phenomenon, because we hear it so much creating it.
“The fact I can still listen to it and enjoy it pleases me no end…that’s good. As far as favourites…well, I don’t know…it’s different on different days.”
I guess it’s like asking who your favourite child is…
“Yes (laughs)…I’m digging ‘The Alchemist’ a lot these days, I like ‘Edge of the World’, I like ‘Florida Man’, I like ‘Box in My Head’, I like ‘Fight’, the last song on the record. But it changes…again…it’s like I said…I’ve yet to start skipping over cuts when I listen to the whole thing.”
Was it difficult to get the album together and the package out with the current global situation?
“We had to finish it under lockdown with the COVID-19 virus and yes, that was a unique situation.
“We couldn’t work together, but we did work over the internet and had video conferencing software to be able to see and talk to each other and there was other software that enabled us to listen in high quality in each other’s home studios.
“So, it’s a good thing that the technology did exist, because it let us finish the record almost as if we were in the studio. It was tough though.”
The band first got together in its original form (as Soft White Underbelly) fifty-two years ago…
“Yes, I wouldn’t count from there, but I guess you would have to if you look at the comprehensive history.”
…did you ever think back then that you’d still be together all this time later?
“No, no absolutely not. I had no idea about what the arc of my professional life would be and I didn’t expect what began as the Soft White Underbelly and Blue Öyster Cult would endure all these years.
“But I’m happy that it did and I’m grateful that I’ve had a good living as a musician all these years.”
What have been the personal highlights for you in your career?
“Ahhh…it’s a blur! (laughing) It’s not getting into the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’ or anything like that…it’s just that I think that history has been pretty good to us.
“The big arena shows we used to do were a highpoint and I enjoy the smaller venues we play now just as much.”
You have been incredibly influential through the years and that must be nice when you get that acknowledgement from other bands.
“It is. It’s nice to see how your influence spreads out into the larger culture. That’s a bonus and a gratifying thing when that happens.”
So, how do you think things have changed for you, the band and the industry since you formed?
“Certainly, the record business has changed with technology…the internet and digital technologies and the death of the old record companies and how people listen to and obtain recorded music.
“Everybody’s hanging on and seeing how it does change. I think in 2020, that streaming is the most popular way of consuming music and finally artists are being compensated in a fair way now.
“For a long time, artists weren’t making any money from streaming but, now people are paying for it, they are and I think at this point you can make a fair living out of it once again which is good.”
With the technology moving on it makes everything seem more instant and accessible. For yourself, do you listen to much music when you’re at home or out?
“Yes, I do…I try to at least sample the popular music. I don’t personally relate to a lot of the style of popular music today.
“I appreciate the craft of it but I’m just too set in my ways in terms of what I would create myself.
“As you can tell from ‘The Symbol Remains’, it sounds very much like a classic record even if it does sound modern in the sonics of it and you could hear basically stuff from all the years of our eras.
“I mean, I don’t listen to oldies exclusively, as I’m kinda bored of the music I grew up with, but I like to hear good music wherever it comes from. I don’t particularly prefer one genre.
“I think that’s an unfortunate thing about the way satellite radio is organised and even the streaming services tend to do that. If you look at the songs on my computer, they’re all over the place in terms of styles and artists.”
Good music is good music…
“Oh yeh, amen.”
In a years’ time, next October, you’re going to be going out on tour with Deep Purple. Does it feel good to be heading out with these fellow long-standing journeymen?
“Yes…you know, it’s funny, Deep Purple has always been a band I’ve admired, back even before Blue Öyster Cult and that they’re still out there and still making significant music is a wonderful thing.
“It’s too bad that we’re not out there in the UK right now touring with Deep Purple like we’re supposed to be, but I’m glad it’s happening next year and hopefully it’ll go off.
“There’s no clear indication that they’ll allow people in buildings again, but let’s hope that changes and we get on the other side of the virus and put it behind us.”
The attraction for that tour is so huge as both bands have just released great albums. Have you heard the latest Deep Purple album ‘Whoosh’?
“I haven’t heard it, but I know it exists and I know it’s good from reputation, so I look forward to checking it out.”
You’ve got two bands such as yourselves and Purple who have got classic back catalogues and both have brought out highly acclaimed new albums. The tour should be something that people will get a huge amount out of.
“Well, we’re certainly looking forward to doing our part in it and it should be great for the listener too.”
You wrote, sang and played on ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’. Did you have any idea that was going to prove one of THE all-time rock classics?
“No…I think if I did, I probably would have written more of them! (laughing) It obviously resonates with people’s experiences, that’s why it’s so durable and, of course, I’m very happy that it is and at this point we use ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ to pay tribute to people who have died now.
“We send them off with a dedication of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’…and I certainly want it played when I pass away.
“Again, it’s one of the things that’s a blessing to me and, hopefully to the listener, it gives a little comfort when they confront their own mortality.”
I hear you’re a big fan of the Saturday Night Live ‘More Cowbell’ sketch.
“Yes, that was very funny and as much as how famous that has become and how we’ve had to deal with that, that’s okay (more laughter) and it’s still funny.
“It’s a hilarious piece of history that has got a life of its own and I guess that we’re all riding that horse in the direction that its going.”
Probably from the moment that the record came out or saw the sketch, people always thought of BÖC when they heard the word ‘cowbell’
“(laughing) Yes…it’s funny and we had nothing to do with that part…that just came out of the blue.”
So, what does the future hold for Blue Öyster Cult? I know some people have said that this may be the bands last album.
“Yes…it might be our last recorded record and we could stop now and go out on a high point, but we will see what happens in the future.
“Our years of touring are now limited…we won’t do this forever. Travelling becomes more and more arduous and now, with the virus, we don’t know whats going on and are just taking things day by day to see how it goes.
“I wouldn’t say definitely that this is our last record but who knows. We’ll do it as well as we can, I figure, and if we can’t do it well we’ll stop, that’s probably the way it will go.
“We’re in reasonably good health and would definitely want to promote this record and had intended to play live a lot this year, but that didn’t happen, so we rescheduled most of the work into next year and we would definitely be doing that given the opportunity.
“Beyond that we will see…and 2022 is the 50th anniversary of Blue Öyster Cult’s first record, so we will probably do something to commemorate that…what, I don’t know yet.
“If we can’t show up in person, we will probably do some digital video, virtual thing…I know we are exploring that now and I am sure a lot of bands are too, just to keep up with being in front of people.
“We will see what happens…”
Given the strength of ‘The Symbol Remains’, Blue Öyster Cult are continuing to put out incredible albums, the legend growing bigger with each passing year.
If it is to be their swansong, then they have left us with an illustrious canon of tracks that will continue to echo down the years.
Hearts and cities will continue to burn with Rock ‘’ Roll… and that will be their legacy.