Behind the Band Name: Blue Öyster Cult

You may know them as the band that “needs more cowbell,” from the Saturday Night Live skit featuring Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell in 2000. You probably know them for their 1976 hit, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” which resurfaced after the SNL skit, bringing the “cowbell” song back to the Billboard charts. And if you don’t know the ’70s rock band from that, then it’s highly likely you’ve heard them in the 1978 original film Halloween.

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Whatever the case may be, we’re curious about how did one of the earliest heavy-metal bands end up with the name Blue Öyster Cult? Let’s find out.

The Band As Poets

It’s never unlikely for musicians to also be poets, especially in the ’70s when art was popular in a time when the U.S. wasn’t. In the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement emerged musicians like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Jim Morrison. 

Blue Öyster Cult is different from these traditional rock musicians, though, in two ways. The first is that they were a band that wavered between classic rock and heavy metal, never really establishing a steady genre. The second is that none of the band members were actually writing the poetry. Instead, it was their manager, Sandy Pearlman. He had a collection of poetry titled Imaginos, which later became the band’s eleventh studio album in 1988. Both the collection and the album follow the story of an alien conspiracy led by the alien, Imaginos. This is where their band name ties in—Blue Öyster Cult is just one of the poems from Pearlman’s Imaginos collection. The manager, producer, and poet claimed to have seen the name on a restaurant menu and liked it enough to have it as a poem title. The five original band members quickly latched on to Pearlman’s poem title, making it their official band name.

Before The World Became Their Oyster

Before they were “Blue Öyster Cult,” the New York-hailing artists were called “Soft White Underbelly.” This was another poem and decision made by Pearlman, and it was a reference to Winston Churchill, of all people.

Churchill made a famous remark about Italy, where he called Italy the “soft underbelly of the Mediterranean.” The irony is that the band was never known for their politics. They had a reputation for being the “thinking man’s heavy metal” for covering topics like drugs and alien cults, not for covering the news. They took Pearlman’s poetry concepts and ran with them, whether that was Winston Churchill or aliens on Earth, it didn’t matter. 

A Statement Piece

The timeliness of their title says a lot in and of itself. When all of these rock musicians were making protest music and political anthems, Blue Öyster Cult was making music about fictional aliens taking over the Earth. The ’70s were the prime of cult culture, as the Manson family roamed California, taking over Hollywood and targeting rock stars and celebrities. Adding “cult” to their band name during this time became a statement piece. And finally, the “Ö” in Blue Öyster Cult was a popular trend for hard rock bands: Mötley Crüe, Motörhead and Hüsker Dü.  

Photo Credit: Don Hunstein

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