It’s hard to remember the first song I ever heard from Blue Oyster Cult. It must have been one of their well-known hits, either “Burnin’ for You,” from 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin, or “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” from 1976’s Angels of Fortune. But the first time I remember thinking to myself “This band is awesome” was somewhere around the final section of “Monsters,” the second song from their 1980 album Cultösaurus Erectus. The mid-tempo rocker with bits of avant-garde jazz had me enthralled from the get-go, but towards the end the pace sped up, the group’s signature harmonies started over guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser’s trademark soloing, and singer Eric Bloom bellowed “Monsters / monsters / on the road to hell…!” I was hooked.
I’ve always thought the Long Island group was underrated: BÖC’s heady mix of obscure lyrics, sci-fi/fantasy imagery, and good old-fashioned rock’n’roll was right up my alley, and I delighted in their nerdy odes to creatures from Japanese films (“Godzilla,” from 1977’s Spectres) and collaborations with fantasy authors such as Michael Moorcock (“Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” from 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin). And while I definitely have several favorite albums and dozens of top songs, there is one specific record which I feel has always been overlooked: Imaginos.
Now, let’s make something clear: Even though Imaginos bears the Blue Öyster Cult moniker, it’s not exactly a BÖC album. Let me explain (or at least try to.)
The idea started from a book of poems by music producer Sandy Pearlman called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos – in fact, Pearlman created the band in 1967 precisely to put music to his words (the story’s many threads are notoriously difficult to decipher, and the stuff of hushed talk amongst Blue Öyster Cult-ists). His concept blended everything from occultism to history to literature, with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian horror thrown in.
In essence the poems’ main character is Imaginos, a “modified child” created by a group of evil entities – Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones? – in order to gain control of our world. Imaginos must come to grips with his powers and decide whether or not he will be a servant to the creatures. What’s interesting is that the band’s complete persona is actually built around this mythos, extending to their very first album and appearing in different songs throughout the decades.
Then, after several years of success, BÖC found themselves adrift. It was now 1982. During the tour to support 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin, drummer Albert Bouchard quit – or was fired – from the band; keyboardist Allen Lanier would follow soon after. The next two albums, The Revölution by Night (1983) and Club Ninja (1985), would flop. Bouchard had gotten together with Sandy Pearlman and begun developing the Imaginos storyline again, intending to release a trio of concept solo albums. A bunch of guest players were brought in, including The Doors’ Robbie Krieger on guitars, Kenny Aaronson on bass, and Thommy Price on drums. Even some of the Öyster boys – Roeser, keyboardist Allen Lanier, and bassist Joe Bouchard – came in to help out with bit parts and choruses.
Unhappy with Bouchard’s vocals, Columbia Records requested other options. Singers Joey Cerisano and Jon Rogers recorded some tracks. Pearlman and Bouchard kept fiddling and polishing. After three years of production, the finished album was presented to the record label… and they rejected it again, not thinking it had any commercial prospects. Are you with me so far?
The story gets stranger from here. Imaginos is shelved for two more years, at which point Sandy Pearlman pitches it to Columbia again, suggesting they remix it with Eric Bloom and Donald Roeser as lead singers and release it as a BÖC album. Albert Bouchard gets booted out of the project (!) and more guests enter the studio to beef up the sound, including guitarists Joe Satriani and Marc Biedermann. The original lineup of songs is shuffled around for unknown reasons, some songs dropped completely; maybe Columbia wanted a more accessible record? No one really knows. But finally, in 1988, Imaginos sees the light of day.
It’s an immediate failure, uneven in sound and mix, lyrically confusing, bloated in parts and underdeveloped in others… and it put a nail in the coffin of the Blue Öyster Cult saga for the next ten years. Worse, it’s a piece of work that suffered so much meddling, it’s unclear how much of what’s actually heard is the band itself or the guest musicians (aficionados like to debate if a particular guitar solo is indeed played by Roeser or by another guitarist imitating Roeser).
Despite all of this – or perhaps because of it – Imaginos is a monumental achievement. It’s an ominous, foreboding album, closer to hard rock/heavy metal than anything else in the band’s body of work. It is also a scholarly rock opera so complex, there’s little consensus among fans as to what exactly is going on (perhaps this was always deliberate on the part of the inscrutable Pearlman, but there is no doubt the convoluted recording process did not help matters). To attempt a complete synopsis here would be a waste of time, and in the end it wouldn’t really matter: Part of the appeal of this nutso world domination tale is the fact that, like all conspiracy theories, it is virtually incomprehensible.
Guitars are at the forefront here, and the pummeling is obvious from the opener, “I Am the One You Warned Me Of,” with Bloom masterfully snarling the words among an onslaught of distortion. This is followed by the sinister “Les Invisibles,” the song that introduces the malevolent beings keen on influencing history to their own devices. The combination of the bass line and incessant chanting of “Seven, seven, seven…” at the end of the song burrows in your brain like a nightmare where the Devil demands your soul. It’s eerily effective, yet melodious in that uncanny way the Cult have of making the dark seductive.
Them there’s “In the Presence of Another World,” which begins as what seems like a soft rock ballad, but soon becomes a portentous heavy rocker that sounds like an omen of horrible things to come. The beautiful verse “In the presence of another world / A dreadful knowledge comes / How even space can modulate / And earthly things be done” opens the door to a chorus of “Your master / He’s a monster” that makes my hair stand on end. This is a horror story, no doubt, and BÖC milk the drama in a way that could easily go over-the-top, but somehow doesn’t.
Two other songs in the album are new versions of compositions that first appeared in Blue Öyster Cult’s third album, 1974’s Secret Treaties. The first, “Astronomy,” keeps the original song’s structure, but speeds up the tempo from the start. It’s a more fun song, particularly in its repeated “Hey / Hey hey” refrain, but fails to achieve the cosmic climax of the earlier effort.
In the second, the band remakes their classic “Subhuman.” Les Invisibles reveal themselves to Imaginos as he lays dying, the victim of a shipwreck. They tell him that they’ve been influencing his life since he was born, and now he has a choice: Serve them or die. Imaginos accepts his destiny and is resurrected by the Blue Öyster Cult (the band members themselves?), minions of the beings. But whereas “Subhuman” was rather straightforward, the new take (renamed “Blue Öyster Cult”) amps up the menace, with a keyboard intro that blends into a beautiful piano passage that perfectly underscores the verse “I am becalmed in virtue / Lost to nothing on a bay of dreams / Warm weather and a holocaust / The tears of God flow as I bleed.”
The melancholy doesn’t last for long. As Les Invisibles convince Imaginos to become their pawn Desdinova – the eternal light – you can’t help but feel the despair of a man who can’t fight a fate that’s been written for him: “We understand, we understand, we understand / And so do I.” It is in every way a superior song to the original, and a great example of the band’s songwriting abilities.
Rounding out Imaginos are two lighter compositions, “Del Rio’s Song” and “Imaginos,” as well as “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria,” an almost progressive mix of heavy metal and neo-classical theatrics. But of note is “Magna of Illusion,” supposedly the original ending to Pearlman’s saga. In it, World War I is triggered by Desdinova’s use of a cursed mirror, furthering the extraterrestrials’ stratagem for a new world order. Don’t ask. Just wallow in the grand scope of the swirling guitars, the piano/organ fluorishes, and that last epic sustained note.
Imaginos is devoid of the more tongue-in-cheek style of the group, which tends to lend a touch of humor to even their darker songs. When you hear the playful licks of “O.D.’d on Life Itself,” from 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation, or the baroque pop of something like “Joan Crawford,” from 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin, you can tell the guys were clearly being cheeky. But Imaginos just goes for the juggular in its seriousness.
So in the end, think what you will of this strange concoction. Sure, Imaginos is the work of many chefs stirring a demonic musical stew that sounds like Blue Öyster Cult but whose actual band contributions are as elusive as the concept itself. But it captures perfectly (at least to this fan) BÖC’s particular brand of clever imagery, wordplay, and hooks. In a way, it was the perfect swan song to the group’s original lineup. The Illuminati would be proud of this call to dominance and submission.