It’s not easy, being a member of the Blue Öyster Cult. Maybe it’s not as difficult as being a member of a real, honest-to-goodness, live-in-a-compound cult, but still, it’s no picnic. The band commonly known as BÖC has been active since 1967 (that’s a full 50 years this year), yet nobody gives a crap about whether they release new material or not.
The last fresh BÖC album, Curse of the Hidden Mirror, came out in 2001 and it went down like a broken elevator with an apathetic public. These are passionate musicians who love what they do and, in the case of classic lineup members Eric Bloom (guitar) and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser (vocals/lead guitar) in particular, they have a lifetime of work invested in BÖC. Yet the desire to create something new is being driven out of them.
“In the economic reality, it costs money to make a record,” says Bloom. The time it takes to make a record, if you want to make it right, is time we would have to take off from working and we’d rather be out there working than making a record that nobody’s going to buy. We’re a classic rock act with a paradoxical future: the current buying public is not really going to care what we put out.”
That has to be a hard truth to face, but unfortunately he's right. Classic rock bands face apathy from audiences when they play new songs at shows while taking a break from the string of hits that the crowd expects. Sure, some hardcore fans will always be looking forward to the new stuff, but Bloom knows that those numbers are not high. We, the people, are to blame for this mess.
“Classic rock radio probably won’t play anything new from us,” Bloom says. “Pop stations won’t play anything from us. So people finding out we have anything new is unlikely. I know the hardcore people would love to have new stuff from us and eventually we’re going to do it, but for a decade there’s really been no reason to do it.”
Having said all of that, BÖC is working on new material, albeit slowly. As Bloom says, the road is where these eternal road-dogs make their living. Taking time out from touring means losing money at that end, while spending money on the record-making process at the other end. And then people won’t buy it, no matter how great it is. It’s a lose-lose-lose. So they have to be smart.
“People are individually working on writing the songs,” Bloom says. “Everybody’s doing their own thing. We’ve yet to get together and work en masse with it. But probably winter or spring, something will evolve. We’ve yet to see what that will be.”
BÖC, of course, released a string of critically-adored albums and singles in the 1970s going into the ‘80s, but mainstream success has always been a fingertip away, at least from a Billboard perspective. The highest any of their albums has ever placed is 24 (1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin). Unsurprisingly, their most successful single is also the one that they remain best know for to this day, the iconic “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Outside of that, the Blue Öyster Cult has always been kinda, well, cultish. And things are only getting harder.
“Obviously when we started, making records was all vinyl,” Bloom says. “The technology of everything has changed hand over fist. Every decade is something else. Cassette to CD, and now all streaming, and nobody seems to care about albums anymore. People just pick a song that they like and download it or stream it. The industry has totally changed. Record labels have come and gone. Now artists make their own label or just put their own songs up on Youtube. It’s all totally changed. The music business has collapsed.”
As Bloom and Roeser continue to work hard in the twilight of their impressive career, one has to imagine that it’s not only money that keeps them on the road with BÖC. Something about playing “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” again and again in mid-size theaters and at state fairs must give them a buzz, or they would surely have tried something else years ago.
“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Bloom says. “It’s better that sitting around and not doing it. That’s kind of a negative answer, but we like to work and I don’t think there’s a musician out there who doesn’t want to play. Everybody who plays wants to play. The only downside with it is the travel. We just did 18 days in Europe, and some of the travel was miserable. There’s bad hours and the food is ‘catch it when you can.’ But when it comes down to it, you want to play a good show.”
The fact that people still turn out in reasonable numbers must help too. Especially when, at some of the larger rock festivals that BÖC still gets booked to play in Europe, they’re attracting a relatively youthful crowd.
“We do festivals in Europe – we did HellFest in France, and we did Belgian festivals with multi-stages — big outdoor fests,” says Bloom. “In recent years we get a lot of young people who have heard about us and maybe never seen us. Maybe they listen to classic rock radio and then got tuned into us, or maybe they’ve got older brothers or sisters, or the parents even. People discover us, they start digging into the catalog, and they seek us out.”
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Attendees of the OC Fair can seek BÖC out when they play the Hangar on Sunday, part of a run of west coast shows for the band. The set will feature “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” but, beyond that, the setlist will remain a mystery until just before the gig.
“Obviously, we’re going to play the hits, and it’s an all ages kind of family affair so nothing in the way of the very, very obscure, but it all depends,” Bloom says. “I literally might change it right in the middle of the show, depending on what kind of vibe I get from the audience. I do write the set list just before we go on, and then I might change it right in the middle of the show. I’m known for throwing our sound-man for a loop on occasion.”
After all these years, it’s nice to retain a bit of mystery.
Blue Öyster Cult plays at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 16 at the OC Fair & Event Center — The Hanger; 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa; 714-708-1500; ocfair.com.