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All our times have come: Night Flight’s 1983 interview with Blue Öyster Cult’s Allen Lanier and Joe Bouchard
In this full episode of “Night Flight” that we’ve added to Night Flight Plus, which originally aired on July 15, 1983, a lengthy interview with Blue Öyster Cult’s Allen Lanier and Joe Bouchard is broken up by a couple of the band’s 1981 videos (the somewhat controversial “Joan Crawford” and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” a dark, brooding track featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack), making for one of our more interesting and informative conversations with classic rockers of the ’70s and ’80s.
BÖC’s chain-smoking keyboardist/rhythm guitarist — who for more than six years during the 1970s lived on and off with girlfriend Patti Smith — and the band’s bearded bassist (Lanier, who died on August 14, 2013, and Bouchard, respectively… and yes we already know we spelled both their names wrong back in ’83) had both come to the Ed Sullivan Theater to sit down for the interview on the afternoon of January 10th, although it would not appear until July of that year.
Both were showing signs of extreme fatigue, as the night before this interview they’d just played what Bouchard would later call a “marathon set” at a Long Island club called My Father’s Place, one of their early club haunts.
BÖC — called “the world’s brainiest heavy metal band” by Dave Marsh in his 1989 music tome The Heart of Rock & Soul — had taken the stage the night before at the Rosalyn, NY-based club as Soft White Underbelly, a name they’d previously called themselves, dating back to their nascent beginnings (it was derived from something Sir Winston Churchill had said about Italy being the “soft white underbelly of Nazi Europe”).
Soft White Underbelly, with vocalist Les Braunstein (center)
They’d resurrected SWU for use during the previous year or so when the band were booked to play more intimate club gigs at small to medium size venues; usually these special shows were promoted on local FM rock stations with their massive hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” playing in the background of the radio ad, leaving no doubt to true BÖC fans listening at home who exactly Soft White Underbelly was.
As dinosaurs go, BÖC have weathered several ice ages. Guitarist Donald Roeser and drummer Albert Bouchard met at a Potsdam, N.Y., college in 1965, and played together in a succession of bands.
After Bouchard moved to Chicago, Roeser enrolled at Long Island’s State University at Stony Brook. There he began working with a group of musicians that included his high school buddy Andy Winters (who ultimately played bass in the first Öyster incarnation) and Georgia native Allen Lanier (who would double on guitar and keyboards).
These musicians soon hooked up with Stony Brook philosophy students Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, both of whom had also written for Crawdaddy!, the first rock magazine. A lineup coalesced in 1967 when Al Bouchard returned and vocalist Les Braunstein was brought into the fold. De facto manager Pearlman supplied the group with a name, Soft White Underbelly, and Meltzer became principal lyricist.
Largely on the basis of Braunstein’s Jim Morrison–like looks, the band won a contract with Elektra Records. After a clash of wills, Braunstein quit the band and was replaced by its equipment and road manager, Eric Bloom. The ex-vocalist for an upstate band called the Lost and Found, Bloom had been brought onboard mainly because he owned a PA system and a van.
Morris’s article delved into the first-time issuance of their actual debut recordings, made while going by an entirely different name — the Stalk Forrest Group, which had replaced Oaxaca in the series of band names they’d assume post-SWU — but those master tapes had been shelved by the record company who owned them, Elektra, until they’d been excavated and compiled in 2001 for a limited-edition compendium for the Rhino Handmade boutique label, titled St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings.
Full disclosure: Yours truly wrote the liner notes for that unique CD release, interviewing both Pearlman and Meltzer by phone.
Elektra had dropped the band in 1970 without releasing the album, despite two full attempts by the band to capture what Morris calls “the Long Island equivalent of the Bay Area boogie” (a promo-only single of “Arthur Comics” was the only official release issued back in the day).
That lineup Morris mentions above was actually the first time the band had used nicknames, which had scrawled out on the master tape boxes by their friend and the band’s “brain trust” Sandy Pearlman: Donald Roeser was dubbed “Buck Dharma” (it was the name he’d continue to use thereafter, even after the others had dropped their monikers); Allen Lanier became “La Verne”; Eric Bloom was “Jesse Python”: Andy Winters was “Andy Panda”; and Joe Bouchard’s brother, Albert, became “Prince Omega.”
The Stalk-Forrest Group ended up firing bassist Winters and replaced him with Albert Bouchard’s brother Joe, and the next year Pearlman (who had a friend who worked at Columbia Records) got the band an audition in a small conference room at CBS with label honcho Clive Davis, who signed them three weeks later.
Needing a new name once again, Pearlman re-christened them Blue Öyster Cult (often abbreviated BÖC), which was the name he’d used in an epic dream-like poetic cycle he’d written back in the mid-60s, called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos but usually shortened to just Imaginos (it was Patti Smith’s favorite section of the work, in fact).
Meltzer has taken credit for adding the umlaut, while the group’s official website gives Lanier the honors.
Years later, BÖC would finally use Imaginos for the title of their eleventh studio LP, a concept album cum rock opera about an alien conspiracy which had originally begun its life as the first in a trilogy of planned solo albums by drummer (and chief BÖC songwriter) Albert Bouchard; the album was rejected by CBS when it was delivered to them in 1984, however, the year after this interview with Lanier and Albert’s brother was done (the studio album Imaginos would not appear in the record racks until 1988, the same year that Columbia officially dropped the band from their roster).
Going back to the start, though, BÖC’s self-titled debut arrived in January 1972 along with heaps of critical praise (legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, wrote: “…with the Blue Öyster Cult, New York has produced its first authentic boogie beast, and with any luck this one should be around for awhile…”).
Along with the new album and name came a sinister new leather-clad sound, evocative of hedonistic time-traveling biker gangs in an acid-drenched Altamont apocalypse, sometimes seemingly choking on the thick exhaust fumes of fervid heaviosity (indeed, the neologism “heavy metal,” which doesn’t always fit every band its applied to, is a perfect fit for BÖC).
In that L.A. Weekly article, Morris writes: “If the Stalk-Forrest Group was about tie-dyed trippiness, this incarnation was about bad vibes.”
However, the epynomous platter peaked at #172 on Billboard‘s 200 chart. Undaunted, and in Morris’s words again, “BÖC responded with increasingly potent albums,” including Tyranny and Mutation (1973), and Secret Treaties (1974), but their fortunes weren’t revealed fully until Buck Dharma’s lead guitar-drenched “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” — Morris calls it “a masterfully conceived paean to love beyond the grave” — that the band scored their first memorable Top Forty radio hit (#12 on Billboard‘s Hot 100), and propelled 1976’s Agents of Fortune album to platinum status.
The long version of the cowbell-rich “Reaper,” with Dharma’s blisterning lead guitar solo, would forever cement their reputation with permanent classic rock FM airplay for decades to come, but subsequent albums — a gold studio album Spectres (1978), a platinum live album Some Enchanted Evening and Mirrors (1979), a more polished effort and their first album not produced by longtime producer and band mentor Sandy Pearlman, working with slick Cheap Trick producer Tom Werman instead — all failed to build upon the foundation they’d laid.
By the end of the 70s, BÖC were touring endlessly, and they were no doubt reaching their peak as a live act, easily filling large sheds and rock enormodomes (it’s one reason the band put out several live albums during the decade), but album sales weren’t steadily increasing like everyone wanted, especially their record label.
As the 1980s dawned, and with a renewed attempt to get back to the sound of their earlier hard-rock sound, BÖC turned to British producer Martin Birch — who had previously produced Black Sabbath and Deep Purple — to produce their seventh and eight studio albums, Cultösaurus Erectus (1980) (#34, Billboard 200) and the more theatrical Fire of Unknown Origin, respectively.
The latter platter — recorded in both San Francisco (at the Automatt) and also their old Long Island stomping grounds at Kingdom Sound Studios — managed to incorporate synthesizers and other New Wave elements in addition to rocking out heavy, hard and steady.
Arriving in June 1981, it produced a #1 hit single, “Burnin’ For You,” spending three week in the Top Forty of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart.
The Meltzer-penned single — which like “Reaper” and “Godzilla,” a track from Spectres which became a staple of their live performances — were both sung by guitarist Buck Dharma, and MTV gave the video (which was shot in the tunnels of the Los Angeles river) heavy airplay.
The album was certified gold in 1982 (over 500,000 in sales) and charted at #24 on the Billboard 200 chart, and things were looking like they were on an upswing when a major setback for the band came with the firing of drummer Albert Bouchard in August of ’81, leaving BÖC without their creative heartbeat; Rick Downey, who was their lighting man, was drafted in to play drums and the band finished off the year, touring with Foghat, but for a time, the band languished and tried to figure out what to do next.
The band released a handful of singles from Fire of Unknown Origin, including “Joan Crawford” and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” which are the two videos we’ve included along with our interview with Allen Lanier and Joe Bouchard.
The first of these, “Joan Crawford,” was one of many tracks by the band that seemed to have been based on old Hollywood film icons. It was written by drummer Albert Bouchard, David Roter and Jack Rigg, and Bouchard has said it was inspired by the book Mommie Dearest, a memoir and exposé written by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of the actress named in the title.
The film of the same name — starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid — was released to theaters on September 18, 1981, but Bouchard says that he’d already read the book and written the song before the film was released (he has also said that his ex-wife’s behavior one day had inspired the song).
According to Billboard magazine (September 19th, 1981), the video, directed by Richard Casey, was filmed at a home called “Beulyland,” a Spanish-style mansion with a pool located somewhere in Los Angeles, and allegedly the former home of silent film star Mabel Normand.
The video and song — which begin with Lanier’s classical piano intro before fully rocking out — imagines Crawford “rising from the grave,” horrified to find that “policemen are hiding behind the skirts of little girls.”
During the interview, Lanier had openly questioned whether Night Flight was going to show the controversial video or not (it was banned in some places because of a simulated oral sex scene), but of course we did.
The other video here is an intense mini-suite called “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” and was co-written by British sci-fi author and former Hawkwind collaborator Michael Moorcock.
Although “Vengeance (The Pact)” (and possibly several other tracks on the Fire of Unknown Origin) was written for inclusion in the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal, the producers of the film declined to use it; apparently the lyrics were too much of a summary of the film’s “Taarna” vignette, and so they used “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” on the film’s soundtrack instead.