It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
For a while, rock 'n' roll's mushy mid-'70s flux was positioned as some sort of battle for the genre's moral soul, where Creem-championed figureheads of punk iconoclasm lobbed stones at stadiums that were lorded over by tyrannical, bloated megastars. The way it's depicted now, that was a line that few dared cross, let alone straddle. But a certain group of Long Island hard-rock weirdoes throw that particular narrative into doubt. While bands and the press were considering rock's future as an either-or proposition, Blue ï¿½-yster Cult opted to deal in as many permutations of heaviness as they could handle: the space-age decadence of glam, the adventurous sprawl of psychedelic rock, the frenetic energy of proto-punk and the doom-laden intensity of metal.
A nimble heaviness subtly infused with pulp-horror camp, Bï¿½-C's attitude was like the teenage geek id channeled into enigmatic badassedness, complete with superfluous umlauts and a bitchin' logo that was easy to carve into a detention-hall desktop. Their first three albums ï¿½? 1972's self-titled debut, 1973's Tyranny and Mutation, and 1974's Secret Treaties ï¿½? were pure jolts of often-frenzied, occasionally-spooky hard rock, loosely engineered to approximate the towering horror of Black Sabbath but just as often leaning towards the theatrical archness of Alice Cooper or David Bowie. Critics subsequently portrayed them as metal for smart people, with Robert Christgau memorably dubbing them "closet intellectuals" in his review of their '75 double live LP On Your Feet or on Your Knees. An odd niche, maybe, but a rewarding one.
With their fourth studio LP, Blue ï¿½-yster Cult would find an even bigger audience than the self-fulfilling following hinted at in their name would anticipate. 1976's Agents of Fortune went platinum within two years, while breakout single "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" hit No. 12 on the pop singles chart. But the album was a stylistic breakthrough as well: a band previously deep-rooted in the myriad definitions of hard rock saw themselves stretch out until they flirted with '60s pop, even as their heavier tendencies took on a more intricate quality that played like prog without the bloat. Flashy yet catchy, arcane without being pretentious, it's a solid refutation of the idea that rock lost its way when it headed toward the arena.
In 1970, manager/producer Sandy Pearlman scored his new band Stalk-Forrest Group ï¿½? soon to become Blue ï¿½-yster Cult ï¿½? some recording sessions with Elektra, resulting in an album's worth of scotched material that was eventually released in 2001 as St. Cecilia: the Elektra Recordings. Those songs came hot on the heels of their almost-labelmates' Morrison Hotel, and there's a certain kinship with the Doors that's stuck with the Cult ever since. Allan Lanier's keyboards grew out of a Manzarek-ian baroque-freakout approach, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's guitars rang like Robbie Krieger's set to stun, and Jim Morrison's obsession with the psychedelic macabre was filtered through a rogue's gallery of collaborating songwriters ranging from Pearlman and Roeser to Patti Smith and Richard Meltzer. Even after the refinements and breakthroughs that the eventually renamed group went through to get to Agents of Fortune, a lot of those bedrock traits remained present ï¿½? and came in handy later when Krieger himself joined the band for a faithful cover of Morrison Hotel opener "Roadhouse Blues" that appeared on Extraterrestrial Live.
The Subliminal Influence
It's never been widely acknowledged as a direct inspiration for Agents of Fortune, but when Columbia labelmate Bruce Springsteen hit paydirt with his opus of doomed romance, shady dealings and youthful restlessness, other East Coast rock bands must have taken at least some notice. Though it's a bit of a stretch to try and draw contrasts between the love interests of "Born to Run" ("Together, Wendy, we'll live with the sadness") and "Debbie Denise" ("I didn't care 'cause she was just there"), or connect the desperate, doomed hoodlum of Bruce's "Jungleland" with the murderous junkie that Joe Bouchard sings of in "Morning Final," the sonic evidence is compelling. Lanier's pianos are often front-and-center, pounding out driving chords as though taking cues from Roy Bittan, and in some key moments ï¿½? "Sinful Love"; "Debbie Denise"; "True Confessions" (which features a brief, Clemons-ish sax solo from Michael Brecker) ï¿½? the songs take on the same cast as Springsteen's girl-group-inflected high points.
The Secret Weapon
Smith had years' worth of history in the rock world before her debut LP emerged, and part of that history was integrally connected to Blue ï¿½-yster Cult's. Smith co-wrote songs on Tyranny and Mutation ("Baby Ice Dog") and Secret Treaties ("Career of Evil") before taking on a more prominent guest role on Agents of Fortune, adapting "Debbie Denise" from one of her poems and contributing some appropriately eerie backing vocals on her other co-writing credit "The Revenge of Vera Gemini." (The intro, where she intones "You're boned like a snake/with the consciousness of a saint", might be the spookiest thing on the album.) And the collaborative effort worked both ways: Horses tracks "Kimberly" and "Elegie" were co-written by Lanier, who was a romantic partner of Smith's for a time, and it's his guitar you hear cutting hauntingly through that latter, album-closing track.
The Distant Disciples
"We saw the Stooges and MC5/ drove themselves insane alive," Rob Younger wails in the last verse of 1977's euphoric "Do the Pop," and the namecheck is no joke ï¿½? guitarist Deniz Tek hailed from Ann Arbor, and his transplanted sensibility helped turn Radio Birdman into one of Australia's greatest punk bands. But there's a subtler reference, too: "Come on baby, said squeeze the weez/ on your feet or on your knees." And the album that song appeared on Radios Appear, itself titled after a refrain from Bï¿½-C's Secret Treaties standout "Dominance and Submission." Those references aren't their only debt: while their frenetic, two-minutes-and-change rave-ups slotted them alongside punk countrymen like the Saints, they also compare favorably to earlier BOC cuts like "Career of Evil," "Hot Rails to Hell" and "Transmaniacon MC," which often made their way into their live setlists. And if you have to pick one song of the late '70s that approaches the brooding/intense dynamics of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," "Man With Golden Helmet" translates it through Pip Hoyle's icy-fingered piano and Tek's panic-attack guitar to amazing effect.
The Heirs Apparent
The phenomenon of the punk-friendly heavy metal band may not have started specifically with Blue ï¿½-yster Cult, but they were definitely ahead of the curve. And when those supposedly disparate genres were merged into something a bit more streamlined, the end result was a sound that would eventually take over rock in the early '90s. Seattle's Green River was the origin point of two iconic alt-rock bands ï¿½? guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament went on to join Pearl Jam; frontman Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner formed Mudhoney ï¿½? and they concocted something of a grunge-rock standard in the process. "Swallow My Pride" was first recorded in 1985, re-recorded for Rehab Doll in '88 and covered by Soundgarden and the Fastbacks that same year. And through the spitting-cobra guitars and Mark Arm's wail against the emptiness of cheap patriotism, a familiar riff coalesces into a blatant lyrical nod to Agents of Fortune's menacing opening track, "This Ain't the Summer of Love". And so bicentennial bad vibes age into the hangover of punk's year-zero aftermath.