Sunday, September 2, 2012

How the Music Died Part III

Welcome to part three of my rock 'n' roll series How the Music Died. This series has been a rough attempt at chronicling the profound transformation rock would go through between the years 1959 (when Buddy Holly died) and 1969, the year of Helter Skelter and the infamous Altamont Free Concert. The first two parts of this series, which can be found here and here, examined this transformation through the prism of the great Don McLean's "American Pie," quite possibly the most subversive song to ever become a hit single in this nation's history.

In part one I focused in on Buddy Holly's death, and the rich twilight language surrounding it. In part two I breakdown the lyrics of "American Pie" and explained their meaning with a special emphasis on the world of rock 'n' roll before Buddy Holly's death and after the Beatles rise in 1964. In this installment we're going to move away from McLean and his epic in favor of the 1970s heavy metal act Blue Oyster Cult and an especially curious song they released in 1974 known as "Dominance and Submission." However, before we can get to the song I need to do a rundown of BoC themselves, which will take up the rest of this post.

At this point I'm sure some are asking "How the fuck can you lob the great Don McLean and 'American Pie' in with the epitome of bloated 1970s arena rock" or something along those lines. And to be fair, there's no getting around the overwhelming suckiness of many of the Cult's big 70s singles, to say nothing of the albums they released in that era. After all, there's a reason why this band is most well known in this day and age for an SNL skit revolving around "Don't Fear the Reaper"'s use of the cowbell. If this wasn't embarrassing enough, there's "Godzilla" *shudders*.

By all accounts, BoC should have been awful throughout their entire career. After all, they were essentially nothing more than a biker bar band that was scooped up by a music critic-turned-manager/producer (Sandy Pearlman) who would guide their songwriting and image throughout BoC's heyday. Accounts of the early days I've read note that frontman/rhythm guitarist Eric Bloom could barely even play his instrument. I suspect this was true of most of the group outside of lead guitarist Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser (who allegedly played about all the guitars on the early albums), drummer Al Bouchard and maybe keyboardist/guitarist Allen Lainer, all of whom spent half a decade playing biker bars before the self titled debut.

While the band as a whole would grow as musicians over the years, it would always remain dependent upon outside songwriters, especially Pearlman. What's more, there was a dramatic decline in the quality of the BoC's albums once the group began to finally take the reigns from Pearlman after Agents of Fortune, their commercial breakthrough. Thus, BoC committed a lot of rock 'n' roll cardinal sins: they couldn't write their own songs without outside help, several members didn't play their own instruments on the early albums, and they were essentially a creation of their manager-producer. So yes, it would be quite easy to dismiss BoC as another bloated 1970s heavy rock group along the lines of Kiss, AC/DC, Uriah Heep, et al, and if not for the Black and White albums, this is all BoC would have ever amounted too. But shockingly, those albums were really, really good. BoC had a few things going for them that would make them far more interesting than their counterparts, even at the height of their suckiness.

the classic Black and White albums; mote the hints of sacred geometry in the first two (top)

For one, they were rather honest. Many rock bands over the years, including the Beatles, have been accused of being talent-less hacks propped up by their producers. BoC openly acknowledge, even celebrated, this state of affairs. Pearlman took songwriting credits on the bulk of their early songs and frequently dominated interviews sessions with the band. This kind of honesty has been one of the more amusing aspects of BoC over the years. When they finally became a full on arena rock band, for instance, they didn't pull any punches: Their sellout album was named Agents of Fortune. If this wasn't blatant enough, just look at the album cover:

What's more, BoC (or at least Pearlman) were rather clever, especially in the early days. This is first evident to many listeners in the sound of the Black and White era. Pearlman is on record as envisioning BoC's sound as the American answer to Black Sabbath. To be sure, BoC could lay down a fuzzy riff with the best of them and could churn out rockers like "Teen Archer" and "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll" that were as guilty of 1970s hard rock excesses as any band of that age. But their overall sound was far more complex than the bludgeoning sludge of the legendary Birmingham group or even the bluesy stomp of Led Zeppelin.

In the 1990s music geeks would begin to refer to a certain type of music that was released roughly between 1968 and 1974 as 'heavy psych,' a label that may best describe BoC's Black and White sound. Heavy psych derived from the garage rock and psychedelia that rose to prominence in America from about 1965 to 1968. Several well known rock subgernes would emerge from this movement --heavy metal and prog almost immediately, and later punk rock (there was a vibrant 'proto-punk' scene in the intertwining years, especially around Detroit, which yielded acts like the Stooges). However, there were a lot of bands in the early 1970s --groups like Hawkwind, the Groundhogs, Captain Beyond, Atomic Rooster, Sir Lord Baltimore, Leaf Hound, Flower Travellin' Band, etc --that just didn't fit in to any of the after mentioned categories. On the one hand, these groups were just to raw and fond of feedback-laden guitars to pass for being prog. On the other hand, their music was just to trippy and retro to fit in with mainstream heavy metal or even proto-punk.

Hawkwind (top) and Sir Lord Baltimore (bottom), two great heavy psych outfits from this era
And arguably the great ambassador of this sound was early BoC. When the Cult went for an uptempo track, they played it fast and raw enough to almost capture the intensity of the earlier garage or later punk sound. Some will probably scoff at the notion of aligning BoC with the coming punk scene, but keep in mind Sandy Pearlman was a good friend of Lenny Kaye, the future guitarist for the Patti Smith Group. Kaye, a major American garage rock buff, was also one of the main visionaries behind the original Nuggets double album. Nuggets, which was originally released in 1972, would serve as many folks' introduction to garage rock as well as having a major influence on the punk rock scene that would emerge in a few years.

Pearlman himself would also be involved in the early punk scene: He was also a friend of Patti Smith and briefly considered the punk-poetess for BoC's then-vacant lead singer spot in the very early 1970s. None of the band were too hip on having a chick front the group, but they did ultimately set several of Smith's poems to music beginning with "Baby Ice Dog" on 1973's Tyranny and Mutations album. Smith co-write the hit single "Career of Evil" on the final Black and White album, Secret Treaties. All of this would of course go along way toward launching Smith's legendary solo career. Pearlman also managed and produced the influential proto-punk the Dictators and produced the Clash's second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope. If you're still not feeling BoC's lineage in garage rock and heavy psych and their vastly underrated influence on punk, and subgernes such as New Wave and goth, then dig former The Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope's brilliant take on early BoC.

Patti Smith, regular BoC collaborator
So while BoC certainly had enough meaty riffs to satisfy early 1970s metalheads, they arguably rocked harder and rawer than virtually anything else from that era (at least on the Red side of Tyranny, anyway). Conversely, when BoC tackled mid to down tempo songs (which was pretty regularly), they managed to be as trippy and atmospheric as anything their prog counterparts were putting out at the time. What's more, there was a certain creepiness to be BoC's early sound that few, if any, bands were able to match then or now.

And this brings me to BoC's image and lyrical content. Anyone remotely familiar with the band is well aware of their widespread use of the occult in both. This was also largely due to producer/manger Sandy Pearlman, who by all accounts was quite interested in the occult. In 1966 Pearlman allegedly wrote a series of poems he dubbed The Secret Doctrines of Imaginos which were based upon his studies in anthropology and sociology, as well as his interests in science fiction and conspiracy theories. Wikipedia describes the story line thus:
"Although often referred to as a dream,[1][49] the concept behind Imaginos is what Pearlman described as 'an interpretation of history – an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it',[37] which he crafted on elements of mythology, sociology, alchemy, science and occultism. This "combination of horror story and fairy tale"[3] cites historical facts and characters, and is filled with literate references to ancient civilizations in a conspiracy theory of epic proportions, the subject of which is the manipulation of the course of human history. 
"Central to this story are Les Invisibles (The Invisible Ones), a group of seven beings worshipped by the natives of Mexico and Haiti prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 16th century, identified by some fans as the Loa of the Voodoo religion.[50] The nature of Les Invisibles is left unclear, though it is hinted that they may be extraterrestrials,[37] or beings akin to the Great Old Ones in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.[50] An interpretation of the lyrics of the song "Astronomy"[51] by some fans suggests that the star Sirius is of particular astrological significance to Les Invisibles, with clues identifying it as their place of origin;[14] it is during the so-called Dog Days of August, when Sirius is in conjunction with the Sun that their influence over mankind is at its apex.[14] By subtly influencing the minds of men, the beings are said to be "playing with our history as if it's a game",[37] affecting events in world history over the course of centuries. For the three centuries after European discovery of the New World, this game plays out as the desire for gold is used to transform Spain into the dominant power in Europe, only to be usurped by England in the 17th century and later, through technology,[1] by other nations ('Les Invisibles')." 
Veteran conspiracy buffs will note that Pearlman's Secret Doctrines bear a remarkable resemblance to various occult and metaphysical classics released in the 1970s such as Robert Temple's The Sirius Mystery, Kenneth Grant's The Magical Revival, and Robert Anton Wilson's The Cosmic Trigger Volume I (to say nothing of Wilson and co-writer Robert Shea's conspiracy satire The Illuminatus! Trilogy). All three works revolve around the concept of an extraterrestrial intelligence from or near the star Sirius that has been guiding humanity's development for thousands of years via various secret societies and occult orders. For more information on the so-called Sirius Tradition, check here and here.

Several major works of 1970s conspiracy culture Sandy Pearlman's vision predated
As noted above, Pearlman supposedly wrote these poems in the mid-1970s before any of the after mentioned works had been released. This would not be the first time that Pearlman's lyrics would prove to be eerily prophet of the zeitgeist of conspiracy culture, as we shall soon see. Over the years Pearlman would incorporate various aspects of the Secret Doctrine poems into BoC's albums, especially Secret Treaties (Eventually BoC would record a rock opera called Imanginos in 1988 entirely using these poems, but it was after Pearlman's influence was all but gone).

The name Blue Oyster Cult itself came from Secret Doctrines. In the Imaginos story line the Blue Oyster Cult were the servants of the 'Les Invisibles' (the extraterrestrials), a cult bent on helping their overlords achieve world domination throughout the ages. With such a pedigree, Blue Oyster Cult the band was given a rather apt logo (but not by Pearlman): a variation on Saturn's celestial symbol. The Roman god Saturn and his Greek counterpart Cronos have been linked to the Sirius Tradition that came to prominence in the 1970s.
"The Star of Horus is also the Star of Babalon --the seven-rayed star of the palnet Saturn (or Set) which rules Aquarius, the eleventh house of the Zodiac. Aquarius is the constellation through which the influence of Horus (the Sun) reaches man during thep resent Aeon. Saturn, therefore, is the power behind Venus, as Sirius is the power behind the Sun. These two great Stars (Set and Horus) are therefore symbolically identical, and in this way also is Venus transcended in Sirius, in a celestrial sense."
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pgs. 51-52)

BoC's logo (top) and Saturn's celestial symbol (bottom)
Of course, the occult was hardly unknown to rock 'n' roll bands by the early 1970s, especially in heavy metal. But it was BoC's approach to the occult that set them apart from their peers. Black Sabbath's occult allusions were largely derived from comic books and Hammer horror films (at this point anyway) while Led Zeppelin (which did feature a very serious occultist in guitarist Jimmy Page) was far more likely to invoke Tolkien rather than Crowley. In Sandy Pearlman, BoC had an individual with both a serious interest in the occult, and a novel approach to incorporating it.

Blue Oyster Cult's self-titled debut took the occult out of the fantasy realms it had generally occupied in 1960s rock and placed it in a modern New York awash with amphetamines, motorcycle gangs and kinky sex. In point of fact, BoC's early image and lyrics would hint at several strands of modern conspiracy culture that would rise to prominence as the 1970s wore on. This of course begs the question of whether Pearlman's lyrics were purely coincidental, and if not, how informed he was by scenes happening around him in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Pearlman, along with the rest of BoC, famously hailed from Long Island. Long Island was actually the birthplace of the modern Wicca movement in America, at least officially. It occurred in 1969 when two followers of the legendary warlock Gerald Gardner would establish a coven there.
"...Raymond and Rowen Buckland, an English couple who emigrated to the suburbia of Long Island, New York, and brought the craft with them... To celebrate the move, the couple invited journalists from the Long Island Press and Newsday to witness a genuine Halloween Witches Sabbath. Dressed in black robes trimmed with gold, the couple led the reporters to their basement, fitted out with velvet drapes, candles and the inevitable pentagram. Then, stripping out of their robes, the Bucklands invoked the spirit of the autumnal equinox sky-clad."
(Turn Off Your Mind, Gary Lachman, pgs. 243-244)
Raymond Buckland, a major player in them odern Wicca movement and former Long Island resident
As the 1970s made the scene Long Island, specifically Brooklyn, would become one of the major hubs of New York City's budding occult scene. Much of this would initially be based around Herman Slater's Warlock Shoppe, a place that has gained some notoriety over the years. Rogue historian Peter Levenda (who has been accused of being the author of the notorious Simon Necronomicon; this accusation has also been made at Pearlman) actually knew Slater and the Warlock Shoppe from the early days:
"...I was friendly with Herman Slater, the proprietor of the store, and had known him since the days when he ran the Warlock Shoppe in Brooklyn Heights where I lived. As the fame and notoriety of his establishment grew --being covered extensively in the overseas press as well as by local newspapers and television shows --he began to attract an equally notorious clientele. The Process would hang out at the Warlock Shop, as well as the odd Satanist and witches of various denominations. The Shop is alluded to several times in Maury Terry's The Ultimate Evil as a hangout for people who knew more about the Son of Sam murders than they were telling."
(Sinister Forces Book II, Peter Levenda, pg. 253)
Herman Slater (right)
Veteran conspiracy buffs may be arching a few eyebrows right now. For those of you unaware, Levenda is referring to the Process Church of Final Judgement in the latter part of the above quote. The Process has been the subject of much controversy and speculation ever since Ed Sanders published his highly controversial 1972 Charles Manson expose' entitled The Family. More fuel was added to the fire when Maury Terry published The Ultimate Evil in the 1980s, a book revolving around the Son of Sam murders that also found links to the Process.
"Much ink has been spilled on the subject of the Process; Ed Sanders in the first edition of The Family links the Process with an amoebic network of death cults in California and from there Charles Manson; investigative journalist Maury Terry has linked them to Charles Manson as well as to the Son of Sam killings. The problem is that the linkages are there, but not enough to put a smoking gun in the hands of the Process itself."
(Sinister Forces Book I, Peter Levenda, pg. 298)
a Process altar
Ah, but that hasn't prevented many from trying. As the theory goes, the Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, was actually a member of the New York branch of a splinter group of the Process. Serial killer Stanley Dean Baker, the notorious Arlis Perry murder and the murder of film producer Roy Radin (who was himself a resident of Long Island) have all been linked to this splinter group of the Process, sometimes referred to as the 'Four-P Movement.' Incidentally, the bulk of the shootings attributed to David Berkowitz happened in Long Island, especially Queens.

Another strange overlap between the Process and BoC is the fixation both had with motorcycle gangs. In the case of the Process, this fixation extended to individuals associated with them. The after mentioned film producer, Roy Radin, was said to regularly entertain outlaw motorcycle clubs at his Southampton, Long Island residency, dubbed the 'Ocean Castle.' The Process apparently saw them as storm troopers of a coming apocalypse.
"In California, through the 1960s, leaders of the Process Church of Final Judgement actively recruited from the ranks of Hell's Angels and Gypsy Jokers, calling the bikers 'agents of Satan.' One Processean, known to the faithful as 'Brother Ely,' actively rode with the Jokers for two years, before a rumble with Angels drove him out of San Francisco during 1969."
(Raising Hell, Michael Newton, pg. 261)
Charles Manson also recruited from the ranks of various LA-based motorcycle clubs. BoC was famously the house band for a biker bar named Conry's, located along the Hempstead Turnpike, a road that stretches all the way from Queens Village to the Suffolk County town of Babylon. Historically, the major motorcycle club along the East Coast was an outfit known as the Pagans (though they've apparently lost some territory to the Hell's Angels in the North East in recent years). The Pagans were long considered one of the 'Big 4' among motorcycle clubs, along with the Angels, the Bandidos and the Outlaws. The Pagans have apparently always had a heavy presence in Long Island. According to this website, the Pagans have generally kept their headquarters in Long Island, alternating between Suffolk and Nassau counties.

Pearlman would perfectly capture the world Sanders would present to the public a few months later and which Terry would take to new levels in the 1980s: a world teetering on the edge, being driven mad by strange drugs, Satanic cults and bikers of the apocalypse. The opening track off of BoC's self-titled debut, "Transmaniacon MC," with its allusions to the highly ritualistic Altamont Free Concert, the Hell's Angels, and it's proclamation of "Those who did resign their souls/Transmaniacon MC," captured this world as well as anything ever released, including the works of Sanders and Terry. Of course, Sanders was also a resident of New York and a member of the rock group the Fugs, so perhaps he and Pearlman had a meeting of the minds before BoC released their debut... though I've found nothing online indicating that Sanders or Pearlman knew each other.

And so that was the state of affairs BoC found themselves in 1972 at the onset of the Black and White albums. They hailed from Long Island, an area with any number of strange individuals and groups about --Gardnerian witch covens, outlaw motorcycles clubs, the Warlock Shoppe clique, even the Process. They had a manager with a unique vision --one that fused 1960s garage rock and heavy psych with commercial heavy metal sonically; and serious occult imagery with the decadent side of Long Island lyrically. It would all come together over the course of the Black and White albums, climaxing with 1974's Secret Treaties, long considered by fans to be BoC's definitive work. It was this album that contained the great "Dominance and Submission," of which we shall finally examine in the next installment.


  1. You are an awesome blogger!
    These 3 last posts in particular have really made me do a double-take on some things I thought I 'knew'.
    It is truly amazing how many things seem connected in the final analysis. I have recently finished Gore Vidal's autobio "Palimpsest" and am astonished by the conections just between the people this one man knew!
    Please keep up the great work- can't wait for the next installment!

  2. Devin-

    Thanks a lot dude! I hope you enjoyed part four of this series. And yes, the connections among some of these figures is astonishing. What's more, it's right out there in the open. There were so many individuals and events that I thought I was familiar with when I began researching this piece that I had to tally reconsider. Ah, but that's what makes it fun.:)


  3. I stumbled upon your blog during a search for the words "Warlock Shoppe."

    My sister was Herman Slater's first High Priestess following his relocation from Henry Street in Brooklyn (The Warlock Shoppe) to Manhattan (The Magickal Childe). Her Craft name then was Rhia (with the letter "i" not "e" - she is not the Rhea who is now in the Bronx). Their first meeting took place shortly after he opened the new location, and had tables upon tables of books laid-out for sale. She bought her first real book about Craft there, and the rest is history... or "her"story (LOL). Please contact me through my blog if you'd like to be put in touch with her, as we live together now. Blessings to you.

  4. Hi, what a great web blog. I usually spend hours on the net reading blogs on various subjects. And, I really would like to praise you for writing such a fabulous article. I honestly believe there is a skill to writing articles that only very few posses and yes you got it. This is really informative and I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks.
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  5. > I've found nothing online indicating that Sanders or Pearlman knew each other

    Sandy Pearlman was a big Fugs fan - he'd seen them on a number of occasions and was instrumental in - somewhat controversially - hiring The Fugs to play a "Mood" at Stony Brook in April 1966. (Strictly speaking, it should have been the Student Activities Board who decided who played or didn't play).

    Also - Sandy was involved in inserting the Soft White Underbelly into the "Pot Bust Benefit" impromptu gig at the gates of Stony Brook with The Fugs and Country Joe & the Fish on 27 Feb 1968... (this gig is also mentioned in the Ed Sanders "Fug You" book, although he gets the date wrong).

  6. Ralph-

    So sorry for taking so long to respond. Thanks so much for pointing out this connection. I suspected a Pearlman-Sanders connection was highly likely, but its awesome to now have it confirmed.


  7. If you hadn't taken up a third of the article slagging Blue Oyster Cult, it would have been far more enjoyable.

  8. Thee Lazycat-

    I really dig BOC but they can elicit some strange responses from people, so I tried to not be to glowing. Once I had a chick dump me in part because I put on "Secret Treaties" when we were driving back from Tallahassee.

    But this chick also though latter period Flaming Lips were good, so there's no accounting for taste...

    And yes, Supergrass rules.:)


  9. I've been told that the Church pictured on the cover of the BOC album "On your feet or on your knees" was used up till the mid 70's by the Process. Originally it was abandoned, and they found it through a member involved in real estate. That same Church (which is in Westchester) is today a Christian Church, whose current owners are unaware of its sordid history in the 70's.

    1. It is the St. Paul’s church in S. Salem, MA.

  10. Anon--

    The Process essentially became an Evangelical Christian sect (at least publically) by the mid-70s, so the transformation may have originated from the Process itself. Thanks for your information.