011 — Join the cult

A bit of a departure for us in the history section here, but I never promised I’d stick to some kind of chronological order. In fact, I believe I promised otherwise. So, have you ever listened to Blue Oyster Cult?

Yes, I know you’ve heard Blue Oyster Cult, or BOC as they’re lovingly abbreviated, but have you ever listened to them? You’ve heard “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and probably “Godzilla” somewhere. But have you heard Spectres?

BOC didn’t exactly confine their fantasy and SF to one album. This one isn’t even mostly fantasy. But bear with me a bit.

The 1970s were a watershed for fantasy in America,, partly because of British entertainment. In prose fiction we were getting the fantastic work of Michael Moorcock (who wrote several songs for BOC, by the way), Brian Aldiss, and M. John Harrison. Basically, the British New Wave transformed how people could view SF and fantasy from within the field, not outside it. Right now we’re suffering from, well, pretty insufferable people trying to dictate from outside, or nearly outside, the genre. And that’s not actually bad, not on its own. Everything needs new blood, goodness knows. But we have a crop of excellent writers right now who adore SF/F and want to improve it, but won’t label their own books SF/F.

The New Wavers did it right from inside. Moorcock was editing New Worlds, the British equivalent of Galaxy (or for us younger folk, Asimov’s or TMFSF).

Harlan Ellison and other American writers loved this trend, even while old guard figures such as Asimov decried it. And wouldn’t you know it, the same thing was happening in music?

We had the Beatles come over, and then we had the Stones (or whatever order). Somewhere in there were the Monkees probably. But in the 70s it was Black Sabbath. Purportedly it was Sandy Pearlman, the guy who wrote a lot of BOC’s lyrics, who coined the phrase “heavy metal” in a review of Sabbath. Pearlman was writing long-ass poems about things no one could understand, tinged with Lovecraftian overtones, monsters, sex, drugs, vampires, fun stuff like that. He couldn’t play music I suppose, or not well, thouh famously BOC’s front man was credited on their albums as “stun guitarist” because he strummed a guitar that wasn’t plugged into an amp and reviewers gushed in papers about his playing. So, y’know, don’t know what was stopping Sandy.

Anyway, there is a famous SF/F story permeating most or all of BOC’s albums but I figured I’d start with something lighter today, hence Spectres. It’s a 1977 album about hauntings – obvious given the name, I suppose. Let me do a very short summary of the tracks one by one until we get to the final two:

  • Godzilla: thumping metal/rock song about Godzilla tearing shit up. Also about science’s spectral haunting through the nuclear attacks on Japan.
  • Golden Age of Leather: Hell’s Angels style bikers pick colors in order to have to sides so they can go out in the desert and kill each other, which they do. Implication of an age’s spirit passing on.
  • Death Valley Nights: Love song wherein speaker’s fear of the future manifests in paranoid fantasies of freezing in the desert night, haunted by space and time
  • Searching for Celine: Speaker searches for Celine (naturally), who appears to have fled because the speaker lies and their love is dangerous to the both of them.
  • Fireworks: Speaker lovingly describes tracking down and assaulting (possibly raping and / or killing) a woman, describing the moment in terms of fireworks
  • R. U. Ready 2 Rock: semi-parodic rock anthem – probably representing the haunting of past music in present music
  • Celestial the Queen: speaker with delusions may or may not meet a woman who is a demon or fairy.
  • Goin’ through the Motions: ballad about a dead or dying relationship and a reflection of what space it will occupy in the former lovers’ futures.

OK, here’s where we’re going, though. There’s nothing to suggest this, but imagine for a moment that this is a snapshot of a mad city, a haunted city. It works as a kind of kaleidoscopic view of a ghostly view of the world, interweaving madmen and spirits in equal measure with quotidian hauntings of love and art.

But then there are two songs about vampires. In the first, “I Love the Night,” the speaker’s girlfriend breaks up with him. As he walks home in the fog at night, a woman in white approaches him, offering to show him how much better the night can be over the day.

In the second, “Nosferatu,” the band basically sums up the movie Nosferatu. The minor differences between the film (and of course the song) and Dracula, which it’s based on, is that “only a woman can break [Nosferatu’s] spell / pure in heart, who will offer herself / to Nosferatu. . .” It’s not exactly a huge puzzle why two songs about vampires would show up on Spectres, but what kind of sense does it make with the other songs? Most of them aren’t fantastic in nature – and BOC was entirely willing to devote quite a bit of time to fantasy songs, though they never dominated a single album until Imaginos.

All the songs that go before are about loss in some way. And in the first vampire song, the speaker loses his humanity, even though he adores his new form, saying mortals weren’t meant to “see such wonder.” The song is played straight, with no regrets voiced by the narrator.

“Nosferatu” uses the thing about the pure-hearted woman as the refrain, repeating it constantly. She must offer herself to the monster, and she does. That causes the monster to miss the dawn coming, and he burns to death. So the monster could only be destroyed by destroying, in turn, the desires of the purehearted woman who wanted him. It’s a bit as though Beauty and the Beast ended with Beast being killed because he’s so stunned Belle wants him. That’s, uh, cheery.

So what’s happening here to vampires? They’re not exactly reinventing them – and that’s meant to be clear, they just sing about the classic movie for a whole song. But they’ve made vampires back into something dangerous: Interview with a Vampire was actually published the year before this was published, so that slide toward inoffensive, safe vampires had sort of begun. But instead of being dangerous in entirely the traditional sense, they’re instead representing something we want but can’t have – that we end up destroying because we’re meant to. BOC loves nothing so much as the underbelly of things, the hidden parts we love but don’t want to talk about. We’re haunted by these vampires because we’re haunted by our own desires, the ones that threaten us.

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