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  • Tony Harris

LAUGHING IN THE FACE OF FEAR



As many of you know, one of my major contentions concerning how music is consumed today is that it seems less valuable. We think of tracks and playlists not albums and singles - even the lovingly constructed mixtape with its attendant rules and hand inscribed covers. No queuing for releases, no desperate scouring of the airwaves, no frantic ill-synchronised taping of the top 40.


However, the benefit of immediate access and the ability to curate has meant that the lines that different musical styles inevitably drew have become much more blurred. Artists themselves collaborate across genres and accordingly, the modern listener's taste can be more varied and more open. They may be less interested in a major set-piece such as a latest long-playing release but they feel no pressure to stick to their lane - cherry-picking is perfectly acceptable. You can like it or not like it - you probably didn't save up for a month to buy it so you can always experiment.


In days gone-by, music felt much more tribal and because of the inherent value of your music choice (both financially and in terms of time). You tended to stick to your allotted lane without crossing over too much. Hence your music choice was a much greater driver of your own style, your fashion and your persona. Nowhere was this more accentuated than in the world of what we know as Heavy Metal or Hard Rock - boy did those guys (though not exclusively male but definitely in high proportion) stick to their lane.


If you liked Blue Oyster Cult, for instance, then most casual listeners kept well away on their side of the road.


Blue Oyster Cult first came to prominence in the early 70s. They were heavily influenced by bands such as Black Sabbath and as they released more albums, their sound became louder, more direct and more powerful. Likewise, their live shows became overwhelmed by outlandish laser shows to bring added drama to a setlist which included songs such as "Hot Rails To Hell", "Career Of Evil" and "Dominance And Submission".


Throw in their easily recognisable Hook & Cross logo which represented Cronos, the King of The Titans and was also the alchemical symbol for lead and you really would know what kind of night you were going to be in for...


By 1976, they had built a loyal following on the live circuit and their first three albums had sold increasingly well though their appeal was limited to the Metal coterie. When they released their fourth album "Agents Of Fortune", the lead single release was called "Don't Fear The Reaper" - a story about eternal love continuing into the afterlife.



Sadly, the song was misinterpreted as an encouragement to suicide - partly because the approximation in the lyrics that "forty thousand men and women every day" died was about 100,000 out. An audience readily receptive to the band's darker messaging thought this was certainly about taking your own life - a thought that horrified the song's writer Buck Dharma.


Ironically, Blue Oyster Cult's song with the darkest interpretation had one of the lightest deliveries. And everyone who heard it from its first take knew it would be a hit.


It is even more surprising that this track relied far more on the band's earlier more psychedelic and rootsy earlier days. So they came up with a song that sounded like the Byrds (whom they had supported) with jangling guitars, a percussive platform from a muted cowbell (get ready!), an almost soft inviting vocal (not too smart a move if people think it's about suicide, I imagine) and a mighty mighty riff.


This was a song that would not be confined to its lane and crossed over to the US Top 20 and made big sellers of their next two albums. The second of which was a live album called "One Enchanted Evening" which included a version of The Animals' "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place" recorded at Newcastle City Hall - so everyone I knew had a copy, having claimed to have been there on the night of the recording.


And in 1978, two years after its initial release, it became a hit in its full seven minute glory on a 12 inch disc in the UK. To date, it is Blue Oyster Cult's only top 20 single in either territory but such is the affection for it that "Don't Fear The Reaper" now figures in Rolling Stone's Top 500 songs of all time. It was the opening theme to the TV series of "The Stand" and featured, naturally enough in "Halloween".


And, in 2000, was part of one of Saturday Night Live's funniest sketches...



There is no Gene Frenkle though the playing of cowbell is greatly disputed. David Lucas, the co-producer claims to have done it whilst drummer Albert Bouchard is also alleged to have played it. The mystery has never been solved.


In the sketch, you'll see Jimmy Fallon playing the drummer, Albert Bouchard, and though he only has one line he finds it impossible to deliver it without corpsing. This came from a combination of Christopher Walken's deadpan delivery and Will Ferrell's late (and previously unseen) costume change for a more accurate and hence tighter shirt.


The track was actually laid down at the Record Plant in New York and had already been released by late summer 1976. But really who cares? The co-producers of the record were Marty Krugman, Sandy Pearlman (who would go on to rather incongruously produce The Clash) and David Lucas.


Nothing whatsoever to do with Bruce Dickinson.


Nor even the Bruce Dickinson who was (and still is) the lead singer with fellow brothers in metal, Iron Maiden.


Bruce Dickinson was a previously unknown middle manager at Columbia Records who is listed as the project producer for a Blue Oyster Cult compilation released in the 1990s. Apparently, the SNL intern sent out to get the CD came back with the wrong one. You couldn't make it up.


In rock, never send a boy to do a man's job.


The band have always been big fans of the sketch though felt that for a while the song lost a little of its trademark eerie atmosphere. Walken not so much - apparently the much admired Hollywood actor often has his theatrical performances disrupted with cries of "More Cowbell" to this very day.


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