Sunday, 21 January 2018

Club Ninja - Blue Oyster Cult

Provenance: I'm one of the biggest Blue Oyster Cult fans under pensionable age in the UK. I've got all the albums, hit up their shows, and I even used to pester them via email.

NB - this is my second BOC review and I feel I've hardly touched my music collection. However, if I did a different band every week, by the end I'll just be down to a rotation of Blue Oyster Cult / Steely Dan / Tom Waits (no bad thing, right?). For the sake of variety, I'll be sprinkling in the 'big boys' from now on, so you might get two or three BOC reviews before you encounter Atomic Rooster or Electric Wizard. Lucky you.

Review: In this guy's opinion the classic era of Blue Oyster Cult stretches from their self-titled debut (1972) through to Spectres (1977). One could therefore surmise, on that basis alone, that the 1985 album Club Ninja is not a classic - and one would be correct in doing so. However, just because a band is no longer in their pomp doesn't necessarily mean they aren't capable of pulling out the stops - witness Ratt in 2010 with Infestation, Cheap Trick's clutch of post-2005 releases or even Bob Dylan's sublime Love and Theft and Modern Times releases. Hell, I'd settle is this was Blue Oyster Cult's Get A Grip.

Well, Get A Grip it ain't. As was the case with last week's Hot In The Shade, Club Ninja features awful cover art, compounded by an absolutely dire name. [Adopting Jerry Seinfeld voice] And what's the deal with ninjas anyway? There was, of course, the execrable Michael Dudikoff vehicle American Ninja, a Cannon Films release from the same year as Club Ninja. You've got the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who made their first comic book appearance in 1984. The geekiest explanation involves the track 'Shadow Warrior', which doesn't mention ninjas explicitly but was co-written by thriller / fantasy novelist Eric Van Lustbader, who did write a 1980 novel called The Ninja. Your guess is as good as mine.

Another common factor with Hot In The Shade is songwriter Bob Halligan Jr. He wrote some cool stuff for Judas Priest like 'Take These Chains' and 'Some Heads Are Gonna Roll'. On his one outing with Kiss he penned 'Rise To It' (the song where Paul Stanley brags about maintaining an erection) and the crapfest 'Read My Body'. Here he's responsible for similarly cerebral cuts such as 'Make Rock Not War' and 'Beat 'Em Up'. Halligan now plays in a band who advertise themselves as a fusion of rock, Celtic and contemporary Christian music.

By this point in time BOC had sloughed off original members Albert Bouchard (drums / vocals) and Allen Lanier (keyboard / guitars), and had also long abandoned their creepy psychedelic proto-metal in favour of a more 'commercial' synth rock sound. Given all that Club Ninja is, in places - frustratingly - quite good. However, those two or three inspired tracks can't make up for the remainder on offer here, because when Club Ninja is bad, it's horrible. Brutally, irredeemably horrible.

The album starts promisingly enough, with Eric Bloom delivering a delightfully hammy vocal performance on the propulsive 'White Flags'. Buck Dharma (both an underrated guitarist and singer) is up next on 'Dancin' In The Ruins', which if anything is even better. I should point out that anything that works on Club Ninja does so either because of the music or the conviction of the vocal performances, because the lyrics are uniformly bobbins. The only track that gets close to resembling the golden years of Blue Oyster Cult is the sumptuous, shimmering 'Perfect Water', once again sung by Dharma, who also brings some questing guitar work to the table. These songs are really, really decent and could quite easily feature on 'best of' compilations without appearing out of place.

The rest, alas, is drivel. The aforementioned 'Make Rock Not War' and 'Beat 'Em Up' are as boneheaded and uninspired as the titles suggest. 'Spy In the House of the Night' has a stadium-sized chorus and a kicky riff to commend it, but that's about it. The final three tracks - 'When the War Comes', 'Shadow Warrior' and 'Madness To the Method' - all exist within a lacuna of their own; competently played, slickly produced but otherwise devoid of anything interesting. One exception - Dharma's guitar solo on 'When the War Comes' is much better than the track deserves. It's a song that floats by without leaving a mark, despite a voice-over from shock-jock Howard Stern (who was, I believe, married to Eric Bloom's cousin at the time) and, unaccountably, lifting the 'ooga-chu-ka' chant from Blue Swede's version of 'Hooked On A Feeling'. That sounds like something you'd want to be hepped to, right? Be my guest.

There's also not enough Joe Bouchard on this album. One of the defining elements that made Blue Oyster Cult brilliant was the interplay between the Bouchard brothers, Joe's freewheeling bass weaving around Albert's skittering jazz-influenced drumming. Jimmy Wilcox, the drummer on this album, played it straight, giving Joe little room for manoeuvre. And he's given, what, half a song to sing? Screw that. Joe Bouchard is a good dude, not least because he gave me an interview for my school magazine back in 2002 and answered all my dumbass questions with grace and patience. Did I really imply he might've been a Nazi sympathiser? Jeez Louise.

To sum up - Club Ninja was not the disaster it's sometimes made out to be. Indeed, Blue Oyster Cult followed a trend of 70s bands trying to update their sound to stay relevant. The gold standard for this approach will always be ZZ Top's Eliminator, which worked only due to the rarest of alchemy. Instead, this represented the terminus point of BOC's slide towards anonymity - where once they were the 'red and the black', now they were the dull and the bland. At least this didn't represent the end of their story...

1 comment:

  1. I'm delightfully surprised to find your review meshes mostly with my own feelings. I got this when it came out, and a few months later I saw the band in person for the only time, resulting in them jumping from my 2nd-favorite band to my #1 favorite. But they didn't play anything I liked from this during that concert.

    This is possibly my LEAST-favorite BOC album. I LOVE 3 songs on it-- but the rest is CRAP. Ironically, the 3 I like, none were written by the band. And of those 3, "White Flags" became my #1 FAVORITE BOC song!!!

    I also dig "Dancing In The Ruins" (I like to joke a better title would have been "Dance Among The Runes"-- more arcane-sounding). I also dig "Beat 'Em Up", partly because the opening keyboard intro for some reason always makes me think of the movie "ALIENS".

    Back in 2005, I did put together my own "best of BOC" CD comp-- consisting entirely of songs from 1986-2001. I'd gotten to love every song on every previous album, but this comp allowed to play the later songs I loved while skipping the rest. I included 8 songs from "Heaven Forbid"-- but only the 3 from "Club Ninja" mentioned above.

    I keep wondering if "Wings Of Mercury" was intended for this, or the next album that never happened. That was better than most of this. Thank goodness another BOC fan sent me a copy of the song from that live show in Philly!