Most people who were lucky enough to be a kid in the 80s spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to explain to anyone within earshot why that particular Golden Era was so extraordinary. Just ask any of them (ahem…us) creaky bastards—the reasons are as long as Manute Bol’s arm, may he block shots in peace. However, most would likely avoid correlating the glory of the 80s to a serendipitous lack of the internet. Virtually anyone of sound mind would never willfully choose to close that particular chapter in technology—what has been seen cannot be unseen—but the truth of the matter is this: Part of what made those early years great was the fact that the internet didn’t have a chance to ruin mystery yet. Mystery and the underground as it relates to music, just to further spice the argument. In the 80s, our brains were left to do most all of the rationalizing if we stumbled across something cryptic, and anyone hoping to dispute the second part of the argument can choke on the grim truth that the underground currently hangs by the tiniest of threads in a world where a device once used to call your dear mum on Sundays can also be used to listen to Mütiilation demos on Youtube.
This is important, because if you were stumbling around rock and metal LPs thirty years ago and had insufficient BÖC knowledge, you came across Fire Of Unknown Origin in those bins and wondered just what in the grim hell might be going on, thanks to the artwork alone. And tough luck, kid—you couldn’t slip out to the parking lot and cue up a series of youtube videos to discover if the music lived up to the visuals. In 1981, sweet mystery and wild gambles were par for the course, and most who lived through it wouldn’t change that aspect for the world.
Just having the word “Cult” attached to your name back then was cause for alarm, and that iconic image of creepy parishioners gathered with those precious aqua oysters in hand made everything all the more seductive. The design of Fire Of Unknown Origin came courtesy of artist / graphic design mogul Paula Scher, who was also responsible for designing the previous BÖC album cover, plus quintessential covers such as One On One from Bob James & Earl Klugh, and the debut by a little band called Boston. The artwork itself, however, was done by Greg Scott, then art director for Rolling Stone and The New York Times—a fellow who also lended his talents to BÖC follow-ups Extraterrestrial Live and The Revölution By Night.
Feel free to judge the book by its cover. Those stony eyes shaded behind ornate masks and deep hoods, combined with the band’s typical use of esoteric symbols—including their unmistakable upside-down “?” logo (based on the astronomical symbol for Saturn and designed by Bill Gawlik)—made the record irresistible from a visual stance. At the time, the worlds of Michael Moorcock (an occasional collaborator with BÖC), C.J. Cherryh, Mœbius and the film Heavy Metal were prominent, and BÖC’s general aesthetic often managed to fall inside those sorts of fantastical sci-fi lines, particularly with Fire Of Unknown Origin. And just as is the case today, metal’s frequent escapist slant paralleled these fantastical realms, so an eagerness to delve was palpable. Plus, metal has never been able to resist umlauts.
The BÖC-ignorant with a fresh interest in hard rock and a still very youthful metal likely remained cautious, because these guys had already established themselves as a successful radio-rock band, and other groups like Molly “Please Get Me Out Of The Metal Bin” Hatchet had already fooled us once with tempting cover artwork. If you eventually surrendered and brought Fire Of Unknown Origin home, however, you probably walked away… Happy? Confused? Undecided? If you were fortunate enough to snag a smattering of other ’81 gems such as Mob Rules, High ’N’ Dry, Too Fast For Love, Fire Down Under, Moving Pictures, Welcome To Hell or Killers, you were perhaps not quite sure what to make of Fire Of Unknown Origin. Even those with an awareness of BÖC’s back-catalog must have found it strange from the gate, despite the relief that the band hadn’t jumped back to the soft-rock sounds of 1979’s Mirrors. Understanding why, though, requires a bit more history.
DON’T BREAK THE PACT
Originally billed as “America’s answer to Black Sabbath,” Long Island, New York’s Blue Öyster Cult spent their formative years perfecting a brand of loud and weird hard rock that fell more in line with the likes of Alice Cooper than anything Sabbath produced along the same timeline. Heavy metal, though? Mostly on a song-by-song basis and in subject matter, and certainly to the parents who were worried about their kids blaring yet another guitar-forward band with wailing vocals. Truthfully, the closest the band ever managed to get to Sabbath occurred once Martin Birch was landed as a producer in 1980—a man whose work behind the boards helped bring the heavy to Heaven And Hell, Mob Rules, plus virtually all of the classic runs from Deep Purple, Rainbow and Iron Maiden.
Birch’s heavy hand helped deliver the extra weight to BÖC’s under-prized Cultösaurus Erectus in 1980, just in time for a significant tour with Sabbath that same year. He was also the natural choice for ’81’s Fire Of Unknown Origin because a portion of the record was being written for the sake of accompanying a stack of other hard rockers of the day to fill the soundtrack to the film Heavy Metal. Strange is as strange does, though—the only song selected turned out to be “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” a cut co-written with Michael Moorcock that wasn’t specifically intended for Heavy Metal.
Choosing a motif that involved Moorcock’s Eternal Champion was about as metal as you could get in 1981, and the song was clearly gloomy enough to appeal to the metal-minded mopers hitting record stores. However, it also very quickly demonstrated the leading eccentricity regarding Fire Of Unknown Origin: prominent keyboards. BÖC was certainly no stranger to the instrument prior to ’81, but album number eight dragged keys directly into the spotlight. “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” still had those martial drums and that sporadic riff to keep it rooted to something that felt heavy, and the keyboards themselves carried a palpable weight as well.
Nonetheless, it was clear that the era’s fixation on the burgeoning New Wave and Synth-Pop movements made an impression on BÖC, and a song like “After Dark” made it clear that the band was willing to embrace shifting trends and assimilate them into their design.
Established fans were used to the band altering their sound, but a dramatic deviation like “After Dark” must have been off the wall at first blush. The only thing that truly separated the song from being an outright Devo homage was Buck Dharma’s screaming lead around 2:30 and Bloom’s delightful Rob Halford wail at its close.
Undeniably, BÖC wanted to remain weird—couldn’t help being weird—but they’d already reaped (ugh) the rewards of success via “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” from ’76’s Agents Of Fortune (Platinum status) and “Godzilla” from ’77’s Spectres (Gold status), so radio play was still on the radar. The closest Mirrors came in ’79 was the the decidedly delicate “In Thee,” and Cultösaurus, while strong from start-to-finish, failed to deliver in that regard entirely.
Fire Of Unknown Origin, however, returned the band to commercial success, reaching well into Gold numbers again. The record still gripped BÖC’s characteristic hard rock stylings, but the keyboard and synth overtones brought in a freshness that managed to whisper greetings to those interested in cutting edge records such as The Completion Backward Principle from The Tubes, Oingo Boingo’s Only A Lad, or even Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. New Wave was gaining crucial traction in 1981, but it would be a couple years before it truly dominated charts, so the songs from Fire that ultimately landed the band back into Billboard’s graces were the ones that simply rocked and rocked very infectiously. Typical of BÖC’s uniqueness, they figured out how to get a cut relating to an undead version of Joan Crawford from the film Mommie Dearest onto the airwaves, but it was “Burnin’ for You” that pushed Fire to Platinum status.
Like previous Blue Öyster Cult mega-hits (and counter to the rest of the record’s Bloom-dominated crooning), track number two from Fire Of Unknown Origin featured guitarist Buck Dharma on lead vocals. The song absolutely screamed “rock of the 80s”—riff-dominated, and the sort of thing you’d expect to hear pealing from a Chevy Camaro at the height of summer—so it gutted other 1981 hits from the likes of Hall & Oates, Kool & The Gang and Climax Blues Band just by virtue of having actual teeth.
Despite these isolated radio-friendly anthems and touches of New Waviness, it was Fire Of Unknown Origin’s more shadowy side that obviously appealed to those who’d fallen under the spell of hard rock and metal. An overwhelmingly somber atmosphere behind the lights dominated the middle of the record, starting with “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” and extending through track six, “Vengeance (the Pact).” Within this stretch, a mostly slow, brooding song like “Sole Survivor” didn’t wallop the listener with riffs, but the subject matter was undoubtedly grim, and the way Bloom snarled “I AM THE END OF THE HUMAN RACE / WHEN I AM GONE THERE WILL BE NO TRACE / FOR I’M THE SOLE SURVIVOR” was as heavy as anything else hitting ears back then.
However, the clearest nod to the early years of metal landed with the one-two punch of “Heavy Metal: Black and Silver” and “Vengeance (the Pact)”—the prior being a hard-driving, no frills sort of cut that banged heads via the weight of Albert Bouchard’s dense rhythm and a notably noisy guitar, and the latter finalizing Fire’s grimmest face by hammering with a proggy grade of heaviness akin to Rush’s Moving Pictures before racing off around the 3-minute mark for the record’s most heated moment.
“As their leader (their leader!) / Swoops from the clouds (swoops from the clouds!) / She sticks him with her sword / Then she throws him down (throws him down!)”—how this walloper specifically written for the Taarna segment of Heavy Metal didn’t end up landing on the official soundtrack is clown shoes of the highest order. But the fact that it and handful of other Fire cuts even had the chance of being featured likely lead to a heavier design, so the consequence was definitely favorable.
Fire Of Unknown Origin was significant not only because of the quality of its music, but also due to the fact that it marked the last time the classic line-up of Buck Dharma (lead guitar, vocals), Eric Bloom (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards), Allen Lanier (keyboards, rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Joe Bouchard (bass, backing vocals) and Albert Bouchard (drums, percussion, backing vocals) played together on a record. During the subsequent tour in 1981, Albert was fired due to excessive head-butting with other members, so he went off to write his own music that would, oddly enough, eventually get pieced together for BÖC’s underrated eleventh record in 1988, Imaginos. Between those seven long years, the rest of the band managed to release two fairly enjoyable but mostly unsuccessful records—1983’s poppy Revölution By Night and 1985’s quirky Club Ninja—and they would never again come close to the bar set by Fire Of Unknown Origin.
Today, BÖC soldiers forward with a version of the group that’s still fronted by Dharma and Bloom, but the fact that current set-lists continue to be dominated by the material produced from the earliest interpretation of the band proves the duo recognizes precisely which sorts of oysters fans most want to see shucked. What’s unfortunate is that, outside of the occasional return of “Burnin’ for You,” Fire Of Unknown Origin remains mostly absent from shows. Although exceedingly unlikely, this seems like a golden opportunity to get the old band back together for one more tour that delivers the record front to back. Unfortunately, Allen Lanier passed far too early in the grip of cancer back in 2013, and Albert Bouchard once sued the band, so chances of this ever going down are about as good as spotting a beer-bonging Dave Mustaine wearing an all-over-print Deicide shirt.
Blue Öyster Cult were unmistakably successful during their heyday, but their quirkiness and refusal to color inside the lines kept them from ever attaining “Next Level Big.” They sure as hell knew how to deliver the fire, though. And quite heavily at times, too. Straight-up rock, hard rock or heavy metal, these fiery New Yorkers used numerous designs to their advantage over an extremely vital career, and their works continue to inspire most any (smart) band in the present day that elects to throw howling guitars into people’s ears.
Tucked away inside a discography that includes multiple gems, Fire Of Unknown Origin continues to tower as a release that will never, ever lose an ounce of its luster, no matter how many years manage to pass. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, there’s no better time than the present to finally join the faith.