Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

BOC - (Don't Fear) the Reaper/ Tattoo Vampire single sleeve (1976) (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Agents of Fortune was described on its release as Blue Oyster Cult‘s most accessible and commercial album, which is true up to a point. Admittedly, it has a very clean clear production with plenty of catchy melodies, but the lyrics are intelligently dark and witty and are delivered with Eric Bloom‘s perfectly matched vocal. Added to this is the outstanding lead guitar work of Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, the range of complimentary keyboards of Allen Lanier(1) and the Bouchard brothers’ propulsive rhythm section. All combine to provide moments of inspired melodic hard rock, which avoid the sticky sentimentality of many bands who were to follow. Much of the credits were not written in stone as Roeser, Lanier and drummer Albert Bouchard all provided lead vocals on some tracks, while Bloom and Lanier were capable guitarists.

The intro to This Ain’t the Summer of Love(2) reminds me of a murky version of The Ripper by Judus Priest. However, this not so much heavy, as grungy some fifteen-to-twenty years before grunge. It serves as a reminder that BOC were no hippy band, but more a dark melodic rock faction. True Confessions is slightly commercial with piano to the fore. BOC’s greatest hit, (Don’t Fear) the Reaper, combines the harmonies of The Byrds with lyrics that sound bright, even if they are marginally sinister. The second half builds up to a guitar solo that was left off the single and is guaranteed to strip the paint from your door. Although written by Buck Dharma and serving as a vehicle for his singing and guitar, credit should go to Albert Bouchard’s drumming and choppy cowbell percussion, which drive the track.

E.T.I. (Exra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is the heaviest piece so far with spacey Hawkwind-like synthesizers and weird sci-fi guitar sounds, along with more of those Byrds harmonies. ETI segues directly into Patti Smith‘s breathy-voiced intro to Vera Gemini. She adds background voices throughout to a heavyish track with a great off-kilter bass riff. The lyrics demonstrate the brilliance of BOC’s songs and the lead guitar is as sharp as ever. Buck Dharma’s incisive guitar kicks off Sinful Love and is all-pervasive on another heavy song, with more terrific lyrics which dovetail perfectly with the instrumentation, ‘I love you like sinful love, but I won’t be your pigeon.’ By now BOC are on a roll and Tattoo Vampire is one of the best tracks on what is a flawless album, beginning with one of the best and strangest drum intros you will ever hear. Joe Bouchard‘s bass playing gives the track its dynamism, showing the brothers were an underrated rhythm section. vocal delivery of the alliterative lyrics makes for one of the most memorable hard rock songs of the seventies.

Opening track of the second side of the vinyl Agents of Fortune, Morning Final, reveals the overtly melodic aspect of BOC with its swirling organ, chiming piano, tubular bell, and wah-wah pedals. The only weak part of an otherwise perfect album is the blatantly contrived voice of the subway newspaper seller, but nothing is completely perfect. Tenderloin continues the melodic theme, a gentle song with a theme from ELP‘s Knife Edge, but about a district of a city where vice and corruption are prominent. Debbie Denise is beautiful with its interlaced mellotron and guitar, as well as vocal harmonies. It has several hooks to emphasise the cliched point about the girl left at home by the touring rock star, ‘I was out rolling with my band,’ and, ‘Debbie Denise was true to me-ee-ee.’ Buck Dharma’s guitar tone is sublime in the closing stages of the song. His playing is often criticised for fading, just when it gets interesting, and this is a case in point.

My version of Agents Of Fortune (Japan SICP-30662, 2014) has the song Fire Of Unknown Origin as a bonus, because, according to the excellent liner notes, it is an outtake from this album’s recording sessions. It reappeared as the title track of one of the band’s best albums after Agents. The outtake has a number of superb ‘sounds’ and deserves to be on this album. Sally and Dance The Night Away were demoed for Agents although not used – apparently versions were later recorded and released by The Brain Surgeons and Jim Carroll respectively. Sally is typically full of melodic tones, feeling like a cross between Bob Marley, The Shadows and the song Bony Moronie; it shows a lot of promise never fully realised. Dance Away is a John Lennon-ish piece and the only inferior track on the album, but it is a demo and who knows what it could have become? The first part of the demo of Don’t Fear the Reaper, with bongos, sounds less like The Byrds and a lot like America. It is different to the hit, but is no less wonderfully atmospheric, although the final section featuring the guitar solo seems a bit tacked-on.

Production was by the team of Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman, with David Lucas. If ever there was a fully consistent rock album with quality songs, strong vocals and shimmering instrumentation, it was Agents of Fortune. Possibly the only album to match Blue Oyster Cult’s effort was Boston‘s first album; that, however, is another story.

As part of my policy of swift writing, this review took about two days on-and-off, which is the blink of an eye by my usual standard of weeks, months or even years. It started as just a post on Tattoo Vampire for my ‘From the Alan Freeman Playlist’ series, but isolating one track from Agents of Fortune seems inappropriate somehow. Stuart Maconie, in his biography, listed a music journalist’s particular skills as, ‘Taking the piss, reviewing at speed and taking pop music way too seriously’ (Cider with Roadies, p.229). So, I have got to increase my writing speed, whether I like it or not.

(1) Allen Lanier, a co-founding member of Blue Öyster Cult, tragically died on 14th August 2013. The keyboard player and guitarist, who was 67, succumbed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of smoking. BOC guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, speaking of the habit in Rolling Stone said, ‘It wasn’t a big surprise, but it feels like the circle is broken.’
(2) BOC made no secret of the fact that inspiration for the riff of This Ain’t the Summer of Love was borrowed from Ascension Day by Third World War. It can be heard on: YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhKeMc8mQRg


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