ANNIVERSARIES: Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" Enters Top 40 Singles Chart 30 Years Ago

agents.jpgBlue Oyster Cult was strictly an album-rock fave before lead guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's song "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" surprisingly entered Billboard's Top 40 Singles chart the week of September 4, 1976. It peaked at No. 12 on Billboard's singles chart in October 1976, the band's only Top 20 single. The song returned to the spotlight in 2000 thanks to a Christopher Walken-starring Saturday Night Live comedy sketch that spawned "more cowbell" as a catchphrase.

Another twist on Agents of Fortune, which went platinum after its July 1976 release, is the presence of punk icon Patti Smith, who wrote the lyrics for "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" (to which she also contributed vocals) and "Debbie Denise." Smith was dating rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Allen Lanier, and had already contributed the lyrics of "Career of Evil" on 1974's Secret Treaties, but before any records had been issued under her own name.

The band's sardonic humor shows up immediately on the chorus of the opening "This Ain't the Summer of Love," as does their powerful multi-guitar attack. "True Confessions" is more wry in both words and sounds, a warped throwback to earlier rock 'n' roll sounds complete with ironic falsetto and saxophone (guest Michael Brecker). Then comes the mesmerizing rhythm guitar riff of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" and a lyric that's a paean to love that lasts beyond death. The instrumental interlude, featuring a shredding guitar solo over two contrasting rhythm riffs, sets the stage for the Reaper's entry in the last verse.

"E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" is a mysterious tale of alien visitation with lyrics by BOC manager/producer Sandy Pearlman that are X Files dark but undercut by a sorcery reference and overstated melodrama. It's hard not to take it seriously when the guitars are crunching, though. "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" describes mutual double-crossing in colorfully poetic terms, but "Sinful Love" and "Tattoo Vampire"are comically broad in their twisting of standard "dark" imagery.

Bassist Joe Bouchard's "Morning Final" is a largely serious description of a subway murder, but punctuated by a last verse in which the incident is used to sell newspapers. Lanier's "Tenderloin" describes an evening of debauchery over music that recalls fellow smart-alecks Steely Dan. The LP closed with a relatively sweet song of a rocker neglecting his girlfriend, "Debbie Denise."

The original 10 tracks are augmented on the current CD by four bonus tracks. "Fire of Unknown Origin" was slated for Agents of Fortune but was cut for reasons of space; this is the version that would have made the album rather than the one that became the title track of BOC's 1981 album, and includes a credit to singer/guitarist Eric Bloom, the only member who didn't contribute to the songwriting on the 10 issued tracks. Albert Bouchard's "Sally," which sounds like a late British Invasion ditty (the heavy organ and swinging groove suggest the Spencer Davis Group), is another outtake but didn't make it quite so far in production; a relatively elaborate 16-track demo is heard. Dharma's original four-track demo of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" already sounds like a potential hit, all its crucial elements in place. Another rarity is Lanier's home demo of "Dance the Night Away," never recorded by BOC but later used by co-writer Jim Carroll. - Steve Holtje

Blue Öyster Cult

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Mr. Holtje grew up on Long Island and as a result reveres BOC (and Billy Joel, for that matter) as musical gods. He is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who recently recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.

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