Live music was not meant for social distancing – let alone for a rock group five decades into their legacy. Blue Oyster Cult recognizes this, but preservers anyway for the sake of their generation-spanning fanbase.
“We haven’t put out a record of new material in almost two decades,” says Blue Öyster Cult guitarist/co-vocalist Buck Dharma, calling from his Maryland home. “It was a tall order for us only because anything we’d do would be compared to the hits, so we were under pressure to make a good record. That was a big criteria for us.”
Dharma is talking about The Symbol Remains, Blue Öyster Cult’s first studio album in 19 years, released on September 9 via Frontiers Music SRL. As for why the band decided it was finally time to release new material, Dharma says, “If not now, when? Eric [Bloom] and I, the original members, are getting old. And it just seems like it was really important to record the band as it exists in 2020 because it’s really good. It’s really cohesive.”
Despite the long gap between albums, Blue Öyster Cult hasn’t actually gone away – they’ve remained popular as a touring act, playing their many hits including “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Godzilla,” and “Burnin’ for You” (all of which Dharma wrote, and also sang the lead vocals). He thinks that this has kept the band’s musicianship at a high level, which ultimately led them to return to the studio.
“I think it just reflects that the band is very muscular because we work constantly,” Dharma says of the songs on The Symbol Remains. He adds that a few of these new tracks were written during what he calls their “hiatus time,” but that “most of the songs were written contemporaneously with the recording [in] 2019.”
When it came time to actually record the album, however, the pandemic had hit. This forced the band to work in a way they’d never done before, with members recording their parts in their home studios and passing files back and forth online.
Dharma says he’s glad they made the effort to learn how to work this way because fans and critics alike have been so encouraging: “The fact that we finally did break new ground I think has delighted a lot of people,” he says. “We’ve been listening to reactions to the songs from reviewers, and a lot of people say that it’s reminiscent of various periods of the band’s career, and yet it sounds modern.”
This enthusiasm is, Dharma says, a welcome change from the way the band’s last couple of albums were received. Twenty years ago, “There didn’t seem to be a lot of rock and roll as Blue Öyster Cult knew it. [1998’s Heaven Forbid and 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror] didn’t receive much exposure. So we thought, ‘Well, why bother? It’s too much work for no recognition. We had plenty of songs to play live and we were doing very well as a live act.”
To be sure, the 1990s and early 2000s – awash in grunge and nu-metal – were not kind to classic rock acts like Blue Öyster Cult. Fortunately, that seems to have been a temporary bump in the road, and Dharma says he and his bandmates once again feel appreciated for their contributions to the music world. In fact, it’s not uncommon for him to hear their songs lately when he’s out at a grocery store or some other public place. “I rarely listen to our recordings,” he says, “so it’s nice when I hear them unexpectedly.
“I think history has been pretty kind to us as far as our legacy material,” Dharma continues. “I mean, it holds up. It doesn’t sound dated or stale. It got a lot of exposure but you’re not sick to death of hearing it when it comes up on the radio.”
Judging by their growing concert audiences in recent years, Dharma says, BOC fanbase even seems to be expanding significantly. “We get some of our original fans. We get children of original fans. But we also get a lot of people that have discovered BOC through various ways, whether it was the Internet or the Saturday Night Live cowbell sketch,” he says, referencing the enormously popular 2000 SNL skit in which actor Christopher Walken plays a zealous producer tormenting a fictional BOC as they play by repeatedly demanding “More cowbell!”
Dharma thinks he knows what caused this newfound (or rekindled) interest in the band. “One good thing about the Internet is that it has exposed our music to young people and people that haven’t been fans in a way that if it had been the old record business, they wouldn’t hear us,” he says. “You’d either have to hear it on a radio station or go out and buy the back catalog. Now you can hear anything you want on the streaming services or YouTube. So that’s great that you can hear just about anything you want, whenever you want.”
Having such a long and successful career has been something of a something of a surprise for Dharma, who says that when he co-founded Blue Öyster Cult in 1967 on Long Island, New York, “I didn’t figure it was going to last any real length of time before I did something else. But as it turned out, we are in our fifth decade now and it’s still good. Who knew?”
Really, though, becoming a professional musician may have been something that Dharma was born to do. His father was a semi-professional saxophone and clarinet player who had a day job but would play gigs on weekends. “So I grew up in a house where music was appreciated,” Dharma says. “I started playing music when I was about nine. I played accordion. I was a drummer for a while.” But then, he says, “I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and that’s where I was like, ‘I’m going to be a guitar player.’”
Dharma and his bandmates went on to create some of the most ubiquitous songs of the 1970s and 1980s – particularly “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – but Dharma says he doesn’t mind always having to play these hits at every show. “We never play the songs exactly the same any night. There’s a lot of improvisation in our songs. For instance, the lead guitar breaks are always a little different than the record. We like to entertain ourselves. I mean, that’s why we’re out there. We don’t have to do this. We can survive without working. But we certainly like to do it, so we’re going to do it.”
Now, with the pandemic, Blue Öyster Cult aren’t able to play as many shows, but they are finding ways to do the occasional outdoor/socially distanced gig. Dharma encourages fans to come see them play, despite these strange circumstances: “We’re not going to be touring for too many more years. If you want to see us live, you really should come.”
Even though it’s not an ideal time to be releasing an album or playing shows to promote it, Dharma is still hopeful about The Symbol Remains because, he says, “There seems to be some type of resurgence of classic rock music now. Maybe it’s my imagination. Seeing how this one does, it might get us to make another one. I’m enjoying being a recording artist again, which I haven’t been for a long time. And we’re still firing on all eight cylinders. We’re good!”
The Symbol Remains is out NOW on all streaming platforms!