By Richard McKenna / June 12, 2017
Despite the dispiriting fug of “classic rock” that hangs about their name—largely thanks to the persistence in popular culture of the song for which they are best known, the wonderful but largely unrepresentative “Don’t Fear the Reaper”—Blue Öyster Cult began life as a high-concept countercultural proposition whose aim was to bring an underground literary and musical sensibility, as well as wit, to the dull, self-indulgent ceremonies of rock, parodying and inhabiting in equal measure the genre’s rituals and semiotics while outdoing it in terms of hooks, amps, and stack heels. “We were a parody of the heavy metal beast… sort of an inside joke to ourselves of what heavy metal really is,” the band’s frontman Eric Bloom told British music weekly Sounds in 1978. It was an intention that played as important a role in Blue Öyster Cult’s record covers as it did in their music and lyrics.
All veterans of the psych-rock scene, the initial—and definitive—line-up of Blue Öyster Cult was Bloom on lead vocals and “stun guitar,” Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, Allen Lanier on keyboards and rhythm guitar, and the powerhouse rhythm section of brothers Joe and Albert Bouchard on, respectively, bass and drums, with both providing backing vocals. In addition to the performers, contributors to the band included influential rock critic Richard Meltzer, writer of 1970’s The Aesthetics of Rock, one of the first serious works of rock music criticism (he was later part of punk group VOM with “Metal Mike” Saunders, the man credited with the first use of the phrase “Heavy Metal” in reference to music), and Sandy Pearlman, a polymath rock critic and songwriter who also managed proto-punks The Dictators and produced the Clash’s second LP, Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978). The principal brain behind the band’s initial aesthetic, Pearlman claimed that Blue Öyster Cult’s literary influences were “Rimbaud, Dada, H.P. Lovecraft and yer standard assortment of doomo writers i.e. turn-of-the-century Russian and German.”
Too smart to be actual “heavy metal”—music critic Robert Christgau called them “closet intellectuals” and Meltzer said they were “hard rock comedy”—all seven of them contributed to songwriting, with occasional external input, most notably from Lanier’s ex-wife Patti Smith and British New Wave SF author Michael Moorcock (who had also contributed lyrics and ideas to British spacerock giants Hawkwind).
At the time the band’s first string of albums was released, the principal sources of information for the rock fan were magazines, meaning that most of the audience probably would have been blissfully unaware of the concept behind BÖC’s lyrics: developed by the undergraduate Pearlman, the concept was an alluringly hokey blend of his interest in history, warfare, SF, Lovecraftiana, the paranormal, the occult, and conspiracy theory. To be honest, what the rock fans didn’t know probably worked to the band’s benefit, as the lyrical narrative proved much more evocative as vague revelations than as the rather tiresome “mythos,” which later emerged and grew increasingly less interesting as the band entered its dotage.
With their allusions to high strangeness of all types, Blue Öyster Cult’s album covers performed the same function as their content and—whether by accident, design, or coincidence—featured several of the artists who contributed to defining the pop aesthetic of the day, the influence of which continues to loom over our own times.
Blue Öyster Cult (1972) and Tyranny and Mutation (1973)
The memorable artwork featured on the covers of the first two Blue Öyster Cult releases was the work of Bill Gawlik. By all accounts a singular personality about whom little is known, Gawlick, who made ends meet by working nights as a taxi driver in New York City, had apparently been a student at the Rhode Island School Of Design (in the historic district of Providence, Rhode Island, just around the corner from H.P. Lovecraft’s former home on Angell Street) and the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village, and had also studied under architect, urban planner, and furniture designer William Katavolos (famous for his steel tubing and leather T-Chair) at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before transferring to Stony Brook University, where he met fellow students Pearlman and Meltzer. Gawlick was engaged after Pearlman saw the architectural drawings in which Gawlick detailed his vision of the future of America using a Pelikan pen on rolls of butcher paper, and was reportedly paid $500 for each cover.
Anecdotal contemporary accounts mention Gawlick’s influences including Albert Speer, the architect Hitler had charged with designing the urban landscape of the future Europe (and a proponent of “ruin value,” the idea that buildings should be designed so as to leave behind aesthetically pleasing, inspiring ruins when they inevitably collapsed), but Gawlick’s style—or at least what we can see of it on these two LP covers—appears to have less in common with Speer’s metastasizing classical triumphalism and more with the work of Futurist architects like Mario Chiattone and Antonio Sant’Elia, or with the draftsmanship of underground comics illustrator Paul Kirchner.
In addition to providing the band with the title of their second LP, Tyranny And Mutation, Gawlick was also responsible for devising Blue Öyster Cult’s memorable logo—a hooked cross with a dot at the center, allegedly based on the symbol of Greek agricultural god and “harvester” of human life Cronos. A direct ancestor of the Grim Reaper, Cronos was known in Roman cosmology as Saturn, and the symbol’s hook represents the sickle he used to castrate and depose Uranus, his father.
The two covers’ profoundly eerie metaphorical spaces, devoid of any trace of humanity and nodding to the lysergic perspectives and repetitions of underground comic art, yet executed with a peculiarly alienating rigor, provided a perfect framing device for the twitchy, idiosyncratic music within. After his work for BÖC, all public traces of Gawlick vanish entirely.
Secret Treaties (1974)
After keeping their identities hidden on their first two LP sleeves, the band was, according to Eric Bloom, “sick and tired of being anonymous [and] wanted people to have some idea of who we were and what we looked like,” so to this end they convinced Pearlman and Columbia to allow them to appear on the cover of their third LP, Secret Treaties, which for many remains Blue Oyster Cult’s greatest achievement. “Secret Treaties was created by the Columbia Records art department,” says Albert Bouchard. “But all in all, Secret Treaties was mostly Sandy’s idea.”
Columbia commissioned artwork from Ron Lesser, a graduate of the New York High School of Music and Art who had studied at the Pratt Institute of Art under Frank J. Reilly, a prolific illustrator who over the course of the ’70s and ’80s turned out vast numbers of paperback covers, many of them for cowboy novels. He also illustrated movie posters, including those for Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
Upon first inspection, Lesser’s black and white artwork appears less striking than the rest of the band’s album covers, the pencil lines evoking the dreamy pulpiness of some drugstore Western. At once eerie and ludicrous, it depicts the members of the band standing arrayed around a fighter plane with a hooked cross on its tail, parked in what looks like a town square or park. Clad in a seemingly-intentionally absurd cape, Eric Bloom holds the leashes of four German shepherds. The plane’s cockpit is manned by a death’s head, and, in the background, vague silhouettes wearing wide-brimmed hats and resembling Mexican pistoleros look on, though the modern-looking streetlights and scaffolding tower bearing the name “Lopez” seem to imply that we are in the present day. The back cover shows the plane seen from another perspective, its cockpit now empty and the four dogs lying dead on the ground, apparently victims of ritualistic murder.
Two color variations of the image were also produced, one a version of the front cover with what this time appears to be Victorian onlookers and in the distance the dome of what looks like a cathedral. Could it be the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos in Mexico City, and could the setting be that city’s Mestizaje Park? The other picture is a color variant of the back cover, but this time the background seems to be the dusty courtyard of some Latin American church.
The plane is a German Messerschmitt ME 262, the world’s first jet fighter aircraft, introduced into service in the final years of WWII. Bloom denies that there was any political intention behind its use on the cover—it was simply the advanced, potentially history-changing technology it represented that fascinated the band. Pearlman’s habit of littering the band’s lyrics and imagery with references to anything that might evoke mystery or cause a shiver—including the umlaut over the “O” in the band’s name—earned Blue Öyster Cult a reputation as crypto-Nazis in some quarters, though Bloom claims that the fact he, Metzner, Pearlman, and the band’s sometime producer Murray Krugman were all Jewish proves the unlikeliness of the charge. The association of Nazis with the occult became popular, especially among the counterculture, with the 1968 publication of Morning of the Magicians, an English translation of the Le Matin des magiciens, written by French Forteans Louis Pawels Jacques Bergier and originally published in 1960.
The artwork also seems to reference another group with an ambiguously swastika-like symbol: The Process Church of the Final Judgment, otherwise known as the Process Church, an offshoot of Scientology famous for its alleged links to Charles Manson and whose members were known for their black cloaks and predilection for German shepherds—which they were also accused of ritually killing. Given Pearlman’s penchant for throwing together cultish signifiers, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe. Whatever the intent, it’s a beautifully gauged artifact, poised perfectly between the reassuring cheap ’n’ cheerful allure of pop culture and the latent threat of its symbols.
On Your Feet or on Your Knees (1975)
Recorded in New York City, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Long Beach, Vancouver, and New Jersey, On Your Feet or on Your Knees was the band’s first live LP, and its cover image—featuring a limo flying BÖC diplomatic flags parked in front of the worrying-looking St. Paul’s Chapel of South Salem—synthesizes perfectly the band’s smelting of the sinister and the ludicrous—the bizarre overlaps of conspiracy, place, and cult. The picture was taken by John Berg, who commissioned covers for albums including Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (1967), Fresh (1973) by Sly and the Family Stone, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (1975). Berg was also responsible for the famous Milton Glaser poster of Dylan, which won him one of his four Grammy Awards.
The brushed-metal gothic blackletter logo, one of the first “Heavy Metal” logo designs, was created by Gerard Huerta, a typographer and graphic designer who did artwork and logos for Boston, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Rick Derringer, Bob Dylan, and AC/DC, as well as posters for Friday the 13th: Part III (1982) and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984). Huerta says of his contribution, “For some reason, I connected the idea of using Bible lettering for this logo, but rendering it with a bevel and in metallic. So, I did this lettering… which kind of became the look of heavy metal. I’ve gone back before that to see if there was anything done like that and haven’t really seen anything. It became the defining heavy metal look.”
The back cover was photographed by Don Hunstein, a staff photographer for Columbia Records who produced some of the company’s most iconic covers, including that of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), while the inside gatefold—a photomontage showing all five members playing guitar to an audience of hooded figures—makes manifest the Cult’s intent to parody rock’s sacred poses.
Agents of Fortune (1976) and Spectres (1977)
The symbol-rich cover of Agents of Fortune was one of only two album covers painted by artist Lynn Curlee (the other being Black Sabbath’s 1980 Heaven and Hell). Curlee, an art history graduate from the University of North Carolina, had been working as a professional artist since moving to Manhattan in 1971, and the band commissioned the cover after seeing an exhibition of his paintings. For the featured figure, Curlee took inspiration from a turn of the century photograph of a magician, possibly W. D. Leroy, a Boston illusionist and owner of a shop and school of magic that was one of the largest magical apparatus stores of its time. The figure holds in its hands four tarot cards—Death, The Queen, The King, The Sun—from the Thoth Tarot deck painted by Lady Frieda Harris under instructions from Aleister Crowley, a detail apparently requested by the band.
Featuring the band dressed up as what look like Edwardian psychic investigators, the cover of Spectres, BÖC’s fourth LP, was designed by artist and photographer Roni Hoffman, whose work on it earned her a gold record. The cover picture was taken by Eric Meola, a self-taught photographer who apprenticed with influential saturation-happy snapper Pete Turner (famous for his string of jazz LP covers throughout the ’60s and ’70s) before opening his own studio in 1971. Apart from a highly successful career as an editorial photographer for publications including Life, Esquire, and Time shooting editorial photos, Meola is also known for his many pictures of Bruce Springsteen, including the iconic black and white shot of Springsteen and Clarence Clemons which features on the cover of the Born to Run (1975) LP. The laser effects, including Eric Bloom’s famed wrist laser, were provided by laser pioneer David Infante of Laser Physics Inc. and used in the band’s laser stage show.
Some Enchanted Evening (1978), Mirrors (1979), and Cultösaurus Erectus (1980)
For the cover of their second live LP, designed by Andrea Klein with a concept provided by Hillary Vermont and Marty Pekar, the band brought in Todd Schorr. Now a well-known figure in the “Lowbrow” or pop surrealist movement, Schorr was at the time a jobbing commercial artist who, since graduating from the Philadelphia College of Art, had been attempting to combine renaissance technique with cartoon subject matters. In the late ’70s, he moved to New York City where he worked on projects including album covers for AC/DC, film posters for George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and covers for Time magazine. He also worked with his friend, illustrator and graphic designer Michael Doret, on an unused logo for the film Alien (1979). The image, rendered more simply than in Schorr’s usual Dalì-esque realism and showing the Grim Reaper riding a horse with a BÖC bridle through a desert landscape, captures perfectly the overlap of self-aware comic-book thrill and existential unease the band incarnated in their prime.
Mirrors possesses one of the least memorable of the band’s LP covers—fittingly, because it’s one of Blue Öyster Cult’s least memorable albums. Despite resembling a photo, the image is actually a hyper-realistic painting by Loren Salazar, a graduate of Central Washington State University. Salazar produced several album covers in the 1970s and another facet of his style can be seen on his cover for Heart’s 1977 LP Magazine.
For the cover of Cultösaurus Erectus, whose art director was Paula Scher, the band used a detail from a painting by Brit Richard Clifton-Dey, a prolific commercial artist from Yorkshire who had produced dozens of memorable paperback covers between the ‘60s and ‘80s. The wonderfully evocative Behemoth’s World—the picture’s original title—was used the same year in Paper Tiger’s amazing Tour of the Universe, a lavishly-illustrated coffee table book detailing a fictional journey around the inhabited planets. The art, like the record’s content (which included songs co-written with British New Wave science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock), underlined Cultösaurus Erectus’s emphasis of overtly genre subject matter, from the Elric-inspired “Black Blade” to the Lovecraft-esque “Lips in the Hills.”
Fire of Unknown Origin (1981), Extraterrestrial Live (1982), and The Revölution by Night (1983)
For these three LPs, the band turned to Greg Scott, a painter and illustrator who worked as an art director for Rolling Stone and The New York Times during most of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Scott produced a series of memorable images, which took the accumulated BÖC ephemera and regurgitated it in a form that shows the trippy influence of European comic artists like Mœbius and Bilal popularized by Heavy Metal magazine since 1977.
Designed by Paula Scher, Fire of Unknown Origin was the last BÖC studio LP to feature all the original line-up, so it seems apt that it should possess one of the band’s silliest and most compelling covers, featuring a wonderfully literal interpretation of the band’s name.
Though dogged by the same muffled sound that afflicts all BÖC live recordings, Extraterrestrial Live also boasted a cover for the ages and is a fitting bookend to the band’s career, with a gatefold that posited the band’s touring setup ferried about by a UFO, as well as an epochal image of a Mœbius-esque astronaut dressed in psychedelic colors.
The last of the three, The Revolution by Night, took its name from Max Ernst’s 1923 painting Pietà or Revolution by Night (which shows the artist cradled in the arms of the father who decried his work), and is also the least successful of Scott’s contributions (appropriately, for what is a pretty feeble record), its alien highway lacking any real mystery or underground chutzpah.
Club Ninja (1985)
For the cover of the lackluster (some would say atrocious) Club Ninja, the band engaged Don Ivan Punchatz. Despite the execrable typeface, it is as enjoyably pulpy as the record’s contents—especially the BÖC-shuriken-tossing space warrior on the rear—although it contributes little to the group’s mystique and marks the end of them as a consistently creative force. Punchatz (who famously accepted a flat fee for producing the cover art for video game Doom instead of the cut of the profits he’d been offered) was a prolific illustrator, producing work for Esquire, Heavy Metal, Playboy, Time, and National Lampoon (for whom he produced a legendary 1974 cover showing Gerald Ford ramming an ice cream into his forehead), as well as dozens of horror and science-fiction paperback covers for Ace, Dell, Avon, Warner, and the New American Library.
After being granted a scholarship at Burne Hogarth’s Cartoonist and Illustrator School by Hogarth himself, Punchatz worked as a medical illustrator and art director for various companies before opening his own, SketchPad, in 1970. According to post-underground comic artist and illustrator Gary Panter, who was an apprentice there, SketchPad was run like a renaissance workshop, with Punchatz providing the initial sketch, the intermediate steps being carried out by the apprentices, and Punchatz returning to finish off the work. Like Panter, many of SketchPad’s alumni—including Chad Draper, Mike Presley, and Roger Stine—went on to become well-known figures in the illustration and comic worlds. In addition to Club Ninja, Punchatz’s album cover work included Tomita’s 1979 LP The Bermuda Triangle.
“Goin’ Through the Motions”
Against all odds, the band’s next album, 1988’s Imaginos, would actually in some ways be a legitimate—albeit temporary—return to form, despite the band having fallen apart and the record’s best track featuring lead vocals from session vocalist Joe Cerisano. Instead of using the art that Greg Scott had been preparing, CBS decided to use a turn-of-the-century photo of the Cliff House in San Francisco as Imaginos‘s cover, effectively putting an end to the band’s run of mostly inspired covers.
Taken in its entirety, the artwork that featured on Blue Öyster Cult’s album covers over the 13 years between 1972 to 1985 brilliantly evoke a chaotic, colorful world where pulpy esotericism and genuine existential threat—from evil, from conspiracy, from economics, from history—overlap and become indistinguishable: a grand piece of sinister conceptual rock ’n’ roll theater, standing leagues above most of the band’s peers where the imagery, the costumes, the lasers, and the symbols were as much a part of the game as the songs. Blue Öyster Cult’s contribution to the music and the entire aesthetic of genres like post-punk and goth—genres that would reimagine and creatively distort rock archetypes—has yet to be properly acknowledged.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.