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Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Success Story #2: Blue Oyster Cult - Imaginos

This album is not being included here because it’s great (although it is very good).  I’m including Blue Oyster Cult’s Imaginos because of the balls-out insanity of its concept, the over-arching reach of its story and how it inflamed the band’s still-rabid fanbase to further flesh it out.

Blue Oyster Cult is one of my all-time favorite bands.  They combine two things I absolutely love (horror and rock music) into consistently great material.  They’re not for everyone, but they scratch my particular itch pretty regularly. 

The band’s heyday was in the 1970’s and while they maintained a solid output into the 1980’s, they never achieved the same heights they did while riding high on singles like “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Burning for You”.  By 1988, they’d released 13 albums, but pop music had passed them by.  With one album left on their contract with Columbia, they went back to the well and produced a concept album based on a story written by their longtime producer Sandy Pearlman.  

The album is called Imaginos and it’s darker and heavier than any Blue Oyster Cult album before it.  It was truly a return to form and also a great album to go out on (at least until the inevitable reunion four years later). 

That’s not why I’m writing this though.  I’m writing this about the story itself. 

Pearlman’s story is amazingly ambitious.  I can’t possibly tell it any better than Pearlman himself so here is a snippet from an interview with Kerrang magazine (Sept 1988).

"Basically, it's an interpretation of history - an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it.

“Imaginos is the main character, and is what I call 'an actor in history'. He plays different roles in history and was born as a modified child, modified by an alien influence, and his mission is to present the human race with the challenge of evil.

“The aliens are playing with our history as if it's a game, and he motivates the game and presents the choices to the human race. They react as they will."

Thus Imaginos tells the tale of a character realizing his true nature (as an architect of evil) and setting events in motion that bring about WWI.  It’s the kind of revisionist history that authors like Alan Moore did with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only instead of fictional characters, Pearlman used real events.  Also, he beat Moore to that concept by eleven years.

Here’s the thing about Blue Oyster Cult that most casual fans don't know.  Many of their albums featured lyrics by people outside the band and not just some random group of writers.  They called in heavy hitters in the sci-fi world to help them out.  Lyrics were written by people like author Michael Moorcock, poet/rock icon Patti Smith and rock critic Richard Meltzer.  

For Imaginos, Sandy Pearlman (who had written some of BOC's biggest crowdpleasers) wrote all of the lyrics and since he had an intricate knowledge of their catalog, he started linking older material to this new album.  For superfans, this was like catnip.  Pearlman dropped clues throughout Imaginos that link songs from almost every BOC album together into a narrative that spans over a decade of music.  

Here, at the end of BOC's career, fans suddenly found there was a hidden story threaded through their catalog.  They began scouring through old albums looking for clues.  Pearlman himself dropped a couple of hints to get people started.  He noted that the song “Astronomy” from BOC’s 1974 album Secret Treaties told the story of Imaginos realizing he was of alien origin.  He also included a song on Imaginos called “Blue Oyster Cult” which revealed the band’s name was the name of the alien forces manipulating Earth’s history. 

It attempts to lay out the various links in the story that had been collected up to that point.  Warning though, this is serious BOC nerd stuff.  Songs are connected through single lines of lyric in some cases and unless you are familiar with where they’re coming from, it’s easy to get lost.

Still, in my opinion, any concept album that has a group of dedicated fans twisting and spinning it like that puzzle cube from Hellraiser is a pretty good concept album.  Below is a link to the album on YouTube.  


Lisanne Harrington said...

Not familiar with this band at all. Of course I've heard of them (who doesn't know Don't Fear the Reaper? It's used in every horror TV show ever), but couldn't pick them out of a line up. Interesting how they acquired their lyrics, though. That's pretty cool.

Cary said...

Yeah, musically these guys were (are) all very accomplished. In some cases they did write their own lyrics, but some of their bigger hits had lyrics by outside writers. It was a case of them running in the same circles as these people just through mutual acquaintances. Patti Smith, for instance, had a long term relationship with one of the guys in the band. Michael Moorcock was a friend of Sandy Pearlman and became involved with the band that way.

On a side note, I saw them play last year at the OC Fair. There are only two original members (both are the two main songwriters) and even though they're in the 70's, they play and sound fantastic. The lead guitar player is in his early 70's and was playing next to a hotshot guitarist who was easily half his age. He held his own, soloing through a full set of songs and trading lead parts back and forth. It was fantastic to watch.

I actually hope they're playing again this year because I'll totally go again.