Sunday, June 13, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #6: Blue Öyster Cult, "Flaming Telepaths" (Buck Dharma)

Available On: Secret Treaties (1974)
Solo Bits: 2:48-3:35

Christopher Walken's SNL "cowbell" sketch is now one of those ubiquitous pop cultural moments (so rare in SNL's history), and obviously so: it certainly pointed the trajectory toward Walken's later career as professional arbiter of stilted weirdness. One thing that sketch didn't do, sadly, is reignite any interest in the band featured in the sketch, Blue Öyster Cult. And that's kind of criminal, because BÖC's now-unfashionable brand of working-class hard rock is at least as deserving of a comeback as, I don't know, Joy Division. In the annals of classic rock, once you get past the obvious heavyweights (Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who), none had a greater run of albums than Blue Öyster Cult.

This would include their debut album (which includes "Cities On Flame With Rock N Roll"), Tyranny and Mutation, Secret Treaties and Agents of Fortune in particular. Even beyond that original bloc, you have well-known singles like "Godzilla" (one of the most inexplicable choices featured on National Review's list of "50 great conservative rock songs") and "Burnin' For You." Here was a band that churned out great rock tunes, workmanlike, for fifteen years at least--for perspective, note that Zeppelin could only pull eleven (due to a common affliction--drummer death--but still...). And those first four albums are back-to-back awesome. On average, a Blue Öyster Cult album will have at least six legitimately great songs, four songs that hover around the merely "good" range, and maybe a duff track every couple of albums. Just extraordinary stuff, consistently presented. And subsequently, mostly revered by classic rock cultists, generally a shady, taste-suspect bunch.

Of course, BÖC also managed to do what very few arena rock bands could--gain the respect of the late 70s punks (in this sense, their closest musical brethren was fellow umlaut band Motörhead). Minutemen guitarist D. Boon took his nom de guitar from lead singer Eric Bloom (or rather his songwriting handle E. Bloom), and the band covered "The Red and the Black" on 3-Way Tie For Last. Metallica covered "Astronomy" in addition to more traditional hardcore covers on Garage, Inc. The Clash brought on their producer, Sandy Pearlman, to produce the under-respected Give 'Em Enough Rope. They solicited lyrics from people like Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith, and covered the MC5. How did a band so steeped in hard blues/boogie rock and extended guitar solos come to be revered by American and English punks? I think the answer has something to do with the Stooges and the MC5, but an answer can also be found in "Flaming Telepaths," the standout track from their standout album Secret Treaties.

"Flaming Telepaths" is a song that demonstrates nearly everything that Blue Öyster Cult did well, including lyrics alluding to comic book/science-fiction conventions, an unbeatably propulsive rhythm section, some great (and oh-so-manly) vocal harmonies, and high-octane guitar leads courtesy of Buck Dharma. Born Donald Roeser, Dharma was a guitarist skilled enough to pull out as many as two or three memorable solos a song, but he's never been known to bogart a track, completely--oftentimes choosing to switch things up between himself and keyboardist Allen Lanier. Found normally on a Gibson SG, Dharma was first and foremost a songwriter and contributor to the BÖC collective, which is why it's doubly striking that his leads are often so shattering as they are.

The solo in "Flaming Telepaths" certainly isn't the fastest thing Dharma has ever done, nor is it necessarily the longest or even the most intense. There's an amazing depth of feeling to this solo, though, that subtly connects the varying instrumental tensions that occupy "Flaming Telepaths." You'd think the title "Flaming Telepaths" would suggest an excess of rock star posturing and silliness, but this is as lean and intense of a six-minute rock song as there has ever been. Not a wrong note is ever played; it could be twice as long as it is, and still never be boring.

Dharma's manic frettings are preceded by two solos, one a tastily short synthesizer number and the other a more traditional piano solo. Both exist to increase the tension, while Dharma's job is to let all that go, but the interesting thing is that Dharma proceeds to then let all this air out, gaining speed and traction as he heads up the fret board, but then he continues playing even as the tension mounts again. Dharma is intuitive to start slowing down again, and just as we kick back into a verse he ends his showcase with a splay of repeated notes over the drum break--it made me wonder, the first time I listened, if he was even capable of going any further.

Dharma gets another, briefer solo at the very end, which I could talk about as well except I don't think it's as good--it doesn't add anything more to what we already know, and it ends rather abruptly in mid-stream, making way instead for the beginning piano tinklings of "Astronomy." Which is another great song, yes, and at some point I'll write about how wrong it was to make the transition between these two tracks so abrupt.


  1. Love the first two the best. They lost me after the live record. Too commercial for me. It's hard to top Tyranny and Mutation.

  2. It's great you like BOC. But stop fucking referring to them as workmanlike. The definition of that means done well, but with little excitement. That in no way describes their music!

  3. So many great Buck Dharma moments - as guitarist and/or songwriter - and that doesn't address the overlooked fact that all 5 original members contributed epic material for a decade. Very rare. Yes the first 4 studio albums are fantastic. Actually, I feel their most successful, Agents of Fortune, gets unfairly characterized as commercial, probably because of The Reaper. But it also has some weird, dark, wonderful stuff: "This Aint The Summer of Love," "Revenge of Vera Gemini," "Tattoo Vampire," and of course the concert favorite "ETI" - which explodes on their second, and best, live album Some Enchanted Evening thanks to an extended Buck solo. In fact their "commercial era" of the late 70s contains so many deep nuggets. Spectres is more than just "Godzilla." Songs like "Nosferatu," "I Love The Night," and "Golden Age Of Leather" (the latter two being Buck masterpieces) are spooky and sublime. Even the Mirrors album highlights the Buck dichotomy of catchy (the title track, with its fluid solos throughout) and the monumental with "The Vigil," which they occasionally dust off in concert. And yeah, not only did they collaborate with Patti Smith (and Jim Carroll and Ian Hunter), they put her on the map!