BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: AGENTS OF FORTUNE (1976)
1) This Ain't The Summer Of Love; 2) True Confessions; 3) (Don't Fear) The Reaper; 4) E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence); 5) The Revenge Of Vera Gemini; 6) Sinful Love; 7) Tattoo Vampire; 8) Morning Final; 9) Tenderloin; 10) Debbie Denise.
Sometimes live albums are just live albums, and sometimes live albums mark off, or summarize a certain period — been there, done that, recapitulate, draw a line, time to move on. This is one of those cases: the Blue Öyster Cult of Agents Of Fortune is not the Blue Öyster Cult of Secret Treaties or any previous records. Goodbye, heavy metal — hello, pop rock.
Of course, it's not as if the band had always been a stranger to «softer» forms of music: from ʽRedeemedʼ to ʽWings Wetted Downʼ to ʽAstronomyʼ, their repertoire had frequently had its nods to folk, art-pop, and «progressive» styles. Nor is Agents Of Fortune completely devoid of riff-based tunes: ʽTattoo Vampireʼ has a riff as gritty as anything they'd done previously. But it would be futile to deny that the accents have seriously shifted — with the band being more preoccupied with melody and harmony now, rather than the good old kick-ass routine.
Case in point: if there is one logical predecessor to the album's big hit song and the one number that is today most commonly associated with Blue Öyster Cult — ʽ(Don't Fear) The Reaperʼ — it would hardly be any of the hard rock bands, but rather The Byrds circa 1966-67. Buck Dharma's famous «jangly» riff is like a minor variation on the riff that opens ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Starʼ, and the gentle folksy harmonies, culminating in the simplistic la-la-las of the chorus, sound as if coming straight out of sunny California, rather than the twisted, post-modern alleys of New York City. Add to this that Roeser envisioned the song as a fairly straightforward invitation to get rid of the fear of death — nothing ironic in that — and the "seasons don't fear the reaper" line, with its associations with ʽTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ, and there you have it. Oh, and don't forget all the raga influences in the guitar break, too, which just about clinches it.
Why the song became such a big hit and such a ubiquitous staple is hard to tell — it was popular way before Will Ferrell and co. immortalized it for the hip crowds in the «more cowbell» SNL sketch, but I am not altogether sure that the cowbell itself could have had such a hypnotic effect on the public. Maybe its «optimistic melancholy», embodied in Roeser's unusually tender singing, filled in some sort of spiritual niche that was empty in 1976, or something. It is a good enough folk rock song, for sure, but hardly a classic example of «The BÖC Special» — knowing the band through this tune is a bit like knowing The Rolling Stones through ʽMiss Youʼ (which, I guess, could also be quite an option for a young person circa 1978).
Now if we take ʽThis Ain't The Summer Of Loveʼ, now we're talking: for all the difference that Agents Of Fortune makes, it opens in classic-traditional fashion, with heavy distorted guitars, eerie grinning vocals ("this is the night we ride!"), and a mock-apocalyptic message that is only a little bit set back by the raucous barroom-rock abandon of the chorus — the hookline is delivered by a bunch of bozos who've had one too many, rather than the Four Horsemen in their prime. You should not read too much profundity into the song — by 1976, everyone in the world knew fair well that «the summer of love» had ended with Altamont seven years back, or so they said — but this is not to say that the song has no snap, or has that snap misplaced. Most importantly, they can still generate that snap through music rather than words: the heavy riffage on ʽTattoo Vampireʼ, for instance, is so much more engaging than the silly lyrics about the protagonist's adventures in a tattoo parlor that the song may have worked better as a mean, fast-paced, athletic instrumental. (On the other hand, the endless references to vampires, daggers, demons, and flying skulls do a good job of directing one's mind to various «dark» associations for the music — otherwise, it might just as well be a modernistic tribute to Link Wray).
But the bulk of the record is far softer than that — you have your Band-style ʽTrue Confessionsʼ, dominated by honky-tonk piano and oddly plaintive vocal harmonies resolving in a falsetto hook; your arena-rock-oriented ʽExtra Terrestrial Intelligenceʼ, with bombastic guitars and anthemic choruses (all that's missing is a stadium and a neon-lit flying saucer landing in the middle); more falsetto harmonies on ʽSinful Loveʼ, mostly memorable for its bizarre refrain ("I love you like sin, but I won't be your pigeon"); more cowbell on ʽTenderloinʼ, where Eric Bloom suddenly decides to introduce a little bit of croon into his vocals and the whole thing ends up sounding like a slightly toughened up Billy Joel rocker; and ʽDebbie Deniseʼ, which is their softest album closer since ʽRedeemedʼ — pop harmonies all around and a chorus that, from my perspective, borders on sea shanty (or maybe it is just because I keep mishearing the "where I was out rolling with my band" line as "where I was a-rowin' with my band").
This should not, however, be taken as a criticism, for one simple reason: most of these songs are fun. They are imaginative, intriguing, (sometimes) lyrically challenging, memorable, and, most importantly, they come alive — it's almost as if the band were temporarily rejuvenated by gaining the right to step away from the hard rock formula and explore some contiguous territory. I mean, they even get Patti Smith to not only continue supplying some of the lyrics, but — now that her own musical career had kicked off with Horses a year ago — actually acquiring the right to duet with them on one of the tracks (the vampire anthem ʽRevenge Of Vera Geminiʼ): regardless of whether you are partial or not to the idea of Patti's warbling voice echoing Bloom, this is evidence of the band frantically searching for new solutions.
It all smells of a little campiness, where even ʽThe Reaperʼ might eventually begin to look like a parody on the «serious life-and-death message» song than the real thing, but ideologically, the album is not all that different from the early «meta-rock», «post-modern», «intertextual» etc. BÖC — most of the songs really work whichever way you want them to work, so that ʽVera Geminiʼ may look creepy one moment and hilarious the next one. In any case, ʽReaperʼ or no ʽReaperʼ, the record as a whole is a success, hard as it is to understand exactly what is so special about it. Maybe it's just that whole aura, a mix of sleaze, sarcasm, and «modernist spirituality», and the amazing discovery that it still stays relevant and involving even as the band rejects the gritty hard rock stomp as the primary means for conveying it. Thumbs up.