Did you know Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” was written in Dallas?
“True, that’s where it was written,” says lead guitarist and occasional singer Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser.
Dharma is talking about the band’s first new album in nearly two decades, The Symbol Remains, but still takes a moment to reminisce about the origins of one of the band’s biggest hits.
“I was in the hotel room in Dallas warming up, and that sort of just happened," he says. "That’s where the riff came from, and that’s where [the lyric] ‘With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound he pulls the spinning high-tension wires down' came from. So, I wrote it down, and when I played the guitar riff, it made me think of Godzilla immediately.”
Blue Öyster Cult will make a tour stop in North Texas on Friday, Oct. 8, at Legacy Hall in Plano.
There’s no better band to see in October. New York’s fearsome five-piece — “the thinking man’s metal band,” as they've been called — has been channeling a uniquely Gothic and frequently tongue-in-cheek brand of hard rock for nearly 50 years, or as they once described it through song, a “Career of Evil."
In the fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Blue Öyster Cult released their first album of new music since 2001 and are now finally getting the opportunity to support it. Given BÖC ‘s “on tour forever” mantra, Dharma says the lockdown was somewhat of a reprieve.
“After we completed Symbol, it was nice to take a break and step away from everything," he says. "I don’t think I picked up a guitar for like six weeks, other than for the two socially distanced live shows BÖC did over the summer.”
Understandably, Blue Öyster Cult is not the same band it was at the height of the group's fame in the 1970s. Dharma and frontman Eric Bloom remain the band’s anchoring duo, augmented by a trio of new blood that keeps the train rolling in the 21st century. Bassist Danny Miranda, drummer Jules Radino, and guitarist/keyboardist/singer/producer/engineer Richie Castellano round out the quintet.
Castellano is an important force in the band’s modern incarnation. He's co-produced and engineered nearly all of the band’s releases (mostly archival concert releases, along with The Symbol Remains) within the last decade. He's also co-written seven of the new album’s 14 songs, singing lead vocals on three.
“I think Richie being as good as he is put some pressure on me and the rest of the band too,” Dharma says. “He’s two-thirds my age but he’s very much steeped in classic rock and progressive rock. Richie’s background is very much in the '80s and '90s progressive rock arc, bringing the post-Van Halen ‘shredding’ sensibility into the band. I think our playing really complements each other.”
People keep referring to the band’s current lineup as “new,” but other than some consistency issues with bassists, the band’s current lineup has been more or less stable for the better part of 13 years — longer than the band’s original lineup.
BÖC's new material was rapturous news for the band’s devoted cult (no pun intended) following. The Symbol Remains is leaner, meaner and heavier than anything the band has ever released, but still retains its signature melodic sensibility and macabre sense of humor.
“The heavy songs on the record were something that Eric Bloom wanted to achieve and emphasize,” Dharma says. “He’s the guy who sings those kinds of songs. He’s the guy who listens to that kind of stuff. He made it a priority to make sure that that got done and that’s another instance of Ritchie’s capabilities as a co-writer and performer that really facilitated getting those tunes to sound the way they did.
"I knew what to do as far as participating, but Eric and Richie were in the drivers’ seat.”
Blue Öyster Cult has a history of inviting outside lyricists who have a background in writing science fiction/fantasy to help elevate the band’s classic monster movie aesthetic. That tradition continues on The Symbol Remains, as longtime BÖC collaborators John Shirley and Michael Moorcock are present throughout the record.
“John is a prolific writer,” Dharma says. “He’ll send stuff out by email; he’ll send it to me, Eric, [founding bassist] Joe Bouchard — who has written some stuff with him. Richie is working with John now. The songs I write that John has done a lyric for, I choose because I think I can do a good job given my strengths and limitations as a singer. I will edit or rewrite John’s words, but it’s mostly John’s stuff. The exception is ‘Florida Man,’ which I commissioned John to flesh out an idea I had.”
"Dharma" exemplifies how Blue Öyster Cult’s signature off-kilter humor has carried over into their modern incarnation. “Florida Man” proposes that the infamous headline-worthy delinquent behavior of many a Floridian is due to an ancient Seminole curse.
Moorcock’s contribution, on the other hand, is the latest in a long line of lore that stretches back to before the band’s debut album, when original Blue Öyster Cult manager/lyricist Sandy Pearlman concocted an extraordinarily complex tapestry of poems, short stories and myths that show up in recurring fashion throughout many a Blue Öyster Cult lyric.
“After we completed Symbol, it was nice to take a break and step away from everything ... I don’t think I picked up a guitar for like six weeks." – Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser
“We invited Michael to participate, he sent us two lyrics, and Richie grabbed ‘St. Cecilia’ and he wrote an astonishingly good song,” Dharma says with a satisfied grin. “When Richie came in with his ideas, we all went for it.”
Pearlman’s death in 2016 put a sad end to his nearly 50-year relationship with the band, which was essentially his creation.
“We talked to Sandy when we made the deal with Frontiers Records about contributing to new material; unfortunately he had that stroke and that was the end of Sandy,” Dharma says. “I actually inquired with the person who was overseeing his affairs if he had any notebooks or anything we could use, but by that point, all of his possessions had been processed. Shame, really, because we would have loved to have done that.”
Of course, Blue Öyster Cult is not all spookiness and sci-fi obscurity. Dharma’s knack for accessible, melodic pop-influenced songwriting has always carried the band out of the trappings of rock-metal to the benefit of its audience. Look for the Easter egg in the last chorus of “Box in My Head” in which Dharma throws in a nod to pop group Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
Blue Öyster Cult has never really been a metal band, but an alloy band of sorts. The heaviness is present, but in enough palatable doses that the spookiness, humor and, most important, the songs shine through.
“I think that’s one of the really good things about The Symbol Remains,” Dharma says. “It definitely sounds like its own record. It’s BÖC 2020. It’s who the band is today, and the record sounds like it.”