A mere stripling of 15, on 19th October 1975 I paid £2.50 to see the London debut of Blue Öyster Cult at the Hammersmith Odeon. I can recall being rendered temporarily deaf by the dreadful support band, who I was sure would come to nothing (Motorhead), and exhilarated – even today the strobes, flash bombs and five guitar finale remain lodged in an otherwise highly unreliable memory.
40 years and 9 months later, BÖC returned to London to play “Agents of Fortune” in full – the release that came less than a year after their London debut, their first platinum album, yielding the chart single and dad-rock classic “Don’t Fear The Reaper”.
Deafness, at least in one ear is no longer temporary but this return to London was enough to tempt me out of gig going retirement. I didn’t just go for the nostalgia. I’d pay just to see Richie Castellano. He’s a hugely talented all round utility player, who joined the band as bass player along with drummer Jules Radino back in 2004 but subsequently switched to guitar, vocals and keyboards when the late Allen Lanier retired. He can step out front and go note for note with Buck Dharma – as he does during “Last Days of May” – but out of the spotlight he adds a richness and depth to BÖC’s live sound, alternating between guitar and keyboards, as well as vocals on “Morning Final” and “Hot Rails To Hell”. As an aside I thoroughly recommend his “Band Geek” podcasts (all of which feature the equally talented BÖC tech guy and multi-instrumentalist Andy Ascolese).
Still, it’s been 15 years since the last BÖC studio album, so there was always going to be a retrospective vibe to the evening even if they weren’t playing “Agents” in full. Without any fanfare the band strolled on stage and launched into the riff heavy “Summer of Love”. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was up just 3 songs in, and humid and sweaty O2 Forum bounced around enthusiastically. Audience participation went up a notch on “ETI” – who could resist the chance to bellow out “Balthazar, he’s found the saucer news”.
Playing an album in its entirety means there’s no mystery about what’s coming next, and Eric Bloom remained as taciturn and unsmiling as ever. Bass player Kasim Sulton looked like he was having fun but he was eclipsed when founder member and original drummer Albert Bouchard joining to sing and play guitar on “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” with a grin so wide he must have been at risk of getting lockjaw. To the delight of the crowd, Albert remained a Tigger like character for the rest of the “Agents” set – he co-wrote half the album, and it also gave him the opportunity to sing “Sinful Love” and “Debbie Denise”. Even Buck Dharma laughed when Albert lost track of where he was just before the end.
Having played the whole album, the band took a quick break before coming back in standard 5-piece configuration. “Agents” is BÖC’s most varied, and least hard rock / metal album, so for the second set the band took things up a notch, galloping through my personal favourites of “Dominance & Submission” and “Od’d On Life”. Having played “Agents” with some reverence, the band now seemed to want to play the “hits” in old school full on rock n roll style and we were treated to full tilt versions of “Lips In The Hills” and “Buck’s Boogie” alongside the more complex “Harvest Moon”, “The Vigil” and another singalong in “Burning For You”. Buck Dharma’s switch from his trademark Cheesburger Steinberger guitar to a Strat announced the start of a bonkers “Me262” and suddenly it was 1975 again. Albert Bouchard returned to the stage to recreate the 5 guitar finale and as the song segued into “Born To Be Wild confetti and paper cannons exploded whilst Buck and Eric engaged in some guitar lunge and parry under strobe lighting to end the second set.
With “Reaper” already crossed off, the first encore of “In Thee” was dedicated to Allen Lanier, along with two members of the extended BÖC family who had died within the last week – ex road manager Sam Judd and former mentor, manager, lyricist and album producer Sandy Pearlman. A second drum kit was then wheeled out and Bouchard, in lockstep with Radino, made it clear it was party time as he took the vocals on “Cities On Flame”. The evening culminated is some Berryesque duck walking – with Castellano being shown how top do it by the old boys (Bloom is 71 and Dharma 68). The band looked genuinely delighted taking the final applause – band and crew snapped souvenir pictures and Albert gave a Eric a cheeky peck on the cheek.
I left sweaty, parched with an aching back, throbbing feet and a mile wide grin. I’ve no idea if I’ll see them again but I have some great memories to be going on with.