On Monday, July 26, famed rock producer, manager, and lyricist Sandy Pearlman died at the age of 72. His Wikipedia page says he "was the recipient of 17 gold and platinum records." He managed that despite not actually producing many bands, or even albums -- but he left a big imprint on every one he worked on.
Born in Rockaway (Queens), NY in 1943, he got a college degree at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island in 1966.
A year later, still in the Stony Brook area, he recruited a band so he could have a series of science-fiction poems he'd written (the Imaginos saga, about a group secretly controlling world history) set to music and performed. He named the band Soft White Underbelly after Winston Churchill's epithet for Italy, but changed its name to Oaxaca after Soft White Underbelly got a negative review at a big concert. After another name change, to the Stalk-Forrest Group, the band recorded two albums for Elektra, but only one single was released, and that only as a promo.Decades later, much but not all of the material was released asSt. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings. Many of the songs, including "Gil Blanco County," were part of his Imaginos cycle.
Stalk-Forrest Group: "Gil Blanco County" from St. Cecilia
Persevering, Pearlman renamed the band (which he was also managing) Blue Öyster Cult -- also taken from the Imaginos poems -- and got it a new deal, this time with Columbia. That worked out much better; in 1972 Blue Öyster Cult released its eponymous debut album. It was heavier than the band's earlier, more psychedelic sound, and Pearlman coined the term "heavy metal" -- a phrase taken from "Born to Be Wild" -- to describe this new genre (which is not to say BÖC was the first metal band; in fact, Pearlman and the musicians had quite specifically been inspired by Black Sabbath in creating their new sound).
Blue Öyster Cult: "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll" from Blue Öyster Cult
Now successful, BÖC toured doggedly; one tourmate was top jazz fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Pearlman must have made an impression on them and/or Columbia. Mahavishnu's 'live' album Between Nothingness and Eternity, recorded in concert in Central Park in 1973, was produced by band leader John McLaughlin and BÖC co-producer Murray Krugman, but Pearlman is credited as "production consultant." Given how good the album sounds, how tight the sonic focus is, I'm guessing Pearlman mixed it. (Other material from the concerts recorded for this album has been released, without his involvement, and doesn't sound as good.)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: "Sister Andrea" from Between Nothingness and Eternity
Pearlman began working with the now-obscure band Pavlov's Dog in 1974, co-producing them with BÖC co-producer Murray Krugman. Lead singer David Surkamp's high, tremulous vocals are an acquired taste (he makes Geddy Lee almost seem like Johnny Cash in comparison), but this hard-hitting, slightly proggy hard rock is worth checking out.
Pavlov's Dog: "Song Dance" from Pampered Menial
In 1975, Pearlman and Krugman co-produced the debut of one of the proto-punk bands on the New York scene, The Dictators, who were on Columbia's subsidiary label Epic. Though not credited, BÖC's Allan Lanier played keyboards on the rollicking Go Girl Crazy!, and in singer Handsome Dick Manitoba wrestler-shtick trash-talking intro to "Two Tub Man," he name-checks BÖC singer Eric Bloom. Pearlman would produce all three of the original Dictators' LPs.
The Dictators: "The Next Big Thing" from Go Girl Crazy!
In 1976, BÖC reached its peak when "Don't Fear the Reaper" reached #12 on the Top 40 Singles chart, vaulting the band into the mainstream. Years later, that song inspired a Saturday Night Live sketch in which the producer, played by Christopher Walken, asks for "more cowbell." Notoriously, the SNL writers ignorantly used reissue producer Bruce Dickinson's name in the sketch instead of Pearlman's.
Blue Öyster Cult: "Don't Fear the Reaper" from Agents of Fortune
Now in demand as a producer, in 1978 Pearlman took on another Epic project; the label wanted him to clean up the sound of English punk band The Clash for what would be its first U.S. release (the group's self-titled debut was then only available in the U.S. as an import). The members of The Clash were not fond of the slower, more detailed process this required, nor did Pearlman think much of Joe Strummer's singing, but nonetheless the album is a classic that did much to endear the band to American fans.
The Clash: "Tommy Gun" from Give 'em Enough Rope
In 1979 Pearlman began branching out even farther, becoming Black Sabbath's manager (they teamed up with Blue Öyster Cult for the joint Black and Blue Tour) and letting go of BÖC production. Other bands he managed included the Dictators, Romeo Void, Aldo Nova, and French band Shakin' Street. Ross the Boss of the Dictators joined the latter on guitar; later, Pearlman produced their 1980 LP, the group's second (also released eponymously titled). Singer Fabienne Shine is more famous as an actress (in Fellini's Satyricon and in Barbarella, among others); however, she also inspired Johnny Thunders to write "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," was taught guitar by Jimmy Page, and eventually married Damon Edge and thus ended up singing with his legendary underground band Chrome. (On her 2007 album, Fabienne Shine and the Planets, BÖC's Bouchard brothers appear.)
Shakin' Street: "Suzie Wong" from Solid as a Rock
After the Dream Syndicate got signed to a major label, Pearlman was brought in to produce their second LP. On its release in 1984, Medicine Show was harshly criticized for not sounding like the band's earlier music, which was heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But after all those decades, the beefed-up sound isn't such a shock, and certainly the guitars are killin' on this lengthy workout.
The Dream Syndicate: "John Coltrane Stereo Blues" from Medicine Show
Pearlman produced obscure metal band Rondinelli's 1985 recordingWar Dance (not released until 1996), notable for featuring vocalist Ray Gillen before he briefly joined Black Sabbath for a tour later that year when then-vocalist Glenn Hughes couldn't perform due to injury. (Later Gillen found more metal fame when he formed Badlands.) Bobby Rondinelli would later (1997-2004) become a member of Blue Öyster Cult.
Rondinelli: "War Dance" from War Dance
It is a cruel irony that Pearlman's Imaginos story, which he had created Soft White Underbelly to bring to life, was never to achieve a final form until 1988, and that when it did -- controversially, incompletely, and unsatisfactorily -- it didn't even start as a BÖC project, but rather as a solo project of the band's ex-drummer, Albert Bouchard. The plan was for three volumes covering the Imaginos cycle in depth. Pearlman and Bouchard worked on the first volume for five years, but Columbia rejected it because they didn't like Bouchard's singing. To get Columbia to release it, Cult singers Eric Bloom and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser (the last members of the band's classic lineup at that point, the other three members having gradually quit as its fortunes sank) were brought in to re-do some vocals, and the album was released as by Blue Öyster Cult (even though most of the playing was by sessionmen, including Joe Satriani and Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger), embittering Bouchard. Making matters even worse, Columbia meddled with the track order and cut two songs, making the already incomplete and difficult-to-follow saga even more confusing. The final blow was that after all that, Columbia dropped the band when the album didn't sell well enough, even though it was the sort-of-group's best work in years, reviewed favorably in Rolling Stone.
Blue Öyster Cult: "Astronomy" from Imaginos
With his life's dream ending in this disappointment, it is perhaps understandable that Imaginos was Pearlman's last production (I think; there's a vague reference to his involvement with another band, but I've never seen the album and it has left no trace on the internet, so I can't tell what it was he did with them). In the following decades Pearlman owned and operated recording studios in California, ran the Popular Metaphysics label (reuniting him with the ex-Dictators of Manitoba's Wild Kingdom), worked in academia, was a vice president at eMusic.com, and was an at-large member of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
- Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released in August 2015 by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).