Blue Öyster Cult’s
Agents of Fortune
Thank Saturday Night Live for making the hypnotic “tock-tock-tock-tock” pulsing through Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” the most famous cowbell part in the history of song, a distinction that is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” has kept B.Ö.C.—a hard rock band that bikers, rock critics, and record-store nerds can all seem to agree on—and drummer Albert Bouchard’s percussive prowess alive in the public’s consciousness. At the same time, since the much-beloved “More Cowbell!” sketch debuted on SNL in 2000, it’s impossible to hear the eerie “Reaper” without thinking of Will Ferrell banging out that part in his two-sizes-too-small shirt as Christopher Walken pleads for more.
With decidedly less fodder for comedy sketches based on incidental percussion parts elsewhere on 1976’s Agents of Fortune, the album that spawned “Reaper,” we can focus on why Bouchard was the ideal drummer for a unit often dubbed “the thinking man’s heavy metal band.” It’s a label B.Ö.C. earned by infusing arena-ready boogie that owed a debt to punk progenitors like the MC5 with sci-fi and fantasy-based lyrics ripe for dissection in creative-writing classes.
B.Ö.C. seemed as though it was still figuring out how metal, blues, or prog it wanted to be on its first three albums, leaving Bouchard with a lot of ground to cover. This inspired some busy and ambitious kit work on early jams like “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” and “Seven Screaming Diz-Busters” (you’re encouraged to check out the 1975 live album On Your Feet or On Your Knees to hear killer versions of both).
By the time the band members got to making Agents of Fortune, they refined their idiosyncrasies into a beautifully weird sound that didn’t demand playing-to-the-back-row shredding. Bouchard adapted by morphing from a hybrid pulverizer/technician to a song-first player who made sure the backline (which he held down with his brother Joe on bass) was delivering what B.Ö.C.’s twin-guitar and keyboards frontline required.
A lot of the drummer’s work here focuses on small details and simple parts geared toward supporting the song. Sure, SNL mined comedy gold from that cowbell part in “Reaper,” but those metronomic quarter notes (played by Bouchard with a timpani mallet) are a key component. They sit strategically buried in the mix and just on top of the beat, subliminally focusing the listener on the elements of the song’s soft and spacey wall of sound: the cycling arpeggio guitar part, the ethereal organ, the near-constant harmony vocal, and Bouchard’s 18″ Paiste flat ride, which shimmers throughout the verses just as hypnotically as the infamous cowbell. And on the heavier end of things, the dumbed-down “boom-boom-bap, boom-boom-bap” beat he puts to “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” creates the perfect pocket for the song’s note-heavy guitar riff. When Bouchard slips in a few slick snare fills just before the heavenly choruses pop, it’s an especially sweet payoff.
Such sensitivity to the song and the arrangement makes sense, since Bouchard wasn’t just B.Ö.C’s drummer. He was an integral part of the band’s songwriting brain trust, either writing or cowriting half of the ten songs that appear on Agents of Fortune, and singing lead on “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” and “Sinful Love.”
Lyrically, those two songs share themes of deception, murder, and lust. Musically they couldn’t be more different, and Bouchard delivers ace song-centric performances on both. “Revenge,” featuring a spoken-word intro and backing vocals from Patti Smith, is a spooky shuffle with Bouchard’s kick drum pattern bouncing along in perfect lockstep with his brother’s bass line. On “Sinful Love”—a burner that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Iggy Pop record of that era—Bouchard digs in hard without overpowering the song’s pure-evil falsetto chorus. The combination of Bouchard’s restraint and a dead, flat drum sound (heard throughout much of the album) gives the song a sonic intimacy that’s a few shades darker than a lot of smash-and-grab hard rock of the times.
Most everything Bouchard plays on Agents of Fortune, from those cowbell clunks in “Reaper” to the hard-driving pulse in “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” fits this slab of thinking man’s metal perfectly, like a hand throwing up devil horns inside a black leather fingerless glove. It’s classic drumming on a truly classic album.
More…“Reaper.” There’s so much to love in this song. Bouchard’s exits and entrances when the action halts are consistently tasteful. His two kick drum hits when the band drops out after the first chorus make the perfect bridge from the soloed arpeggio guitar part to the band reentering. And that middle section is nuts, as Bouchard builds from the hi-hat accents to the half-time feel to the 16th-note snare pattern/cymbal combination to, ultimately, a graceful collapse. It’s a drum solo within a guitar solo, and it’s brilliant.
Disco prog? “Tenderloin” is B.Ö.C. at its most Steely Dan. Or B.Ö.C. at its most Genesis. Or B.Ö.C. at its most Sparks. You get the idea: This ambitious deep cut defies categorization. Bouchard excels at navigating the song’s choppy changes. His straight-16th-note pulse allows the modulating hooks to really soar. And his syncopated stops and crazy fills as the song starts morphing into disco-prog territory harken back to the band’s early days.
Agents of Fortune (1976)
This Ain’t the Summer of Love • True Confessions • (Don’t Fear) the Reaper • E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) • The Revenge of Vera Gemini • Sinful Love • Tattoo Vampire • Morning Final • Tenderloin • Debbie Denise
Eric Bloom: guitar, vocals
Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser: guitar, vocals
Allen Lanier: keyboards, guitar, bass, vocals
Joe Bouchard: bass, piano, vocals
Albert Bouchard: drums, vocals
Produced by Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman, and David Lucas