There was something missing the other night when Blue Oyster Cult, the '70s stadium rockers, kicked into their signature song, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," in a gig at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
Fans of the band, and of "Saturday Night Live," knew exactly what the song needed: More cowbell.
"I've probably seen [the skit] 20 times and I'm still not tired of it," says Don "Buck Dharma" Roeser, right, with Danny Miranda, center, and Eric Bloom.
(Ben Devries -- The Daily Nonpareil Via AP)
Ever since April 2000, when "SNL" first broadcast a skit parodying "Reaper's" recording session, the 29-year-old rock anthem has been inseparable from the humble cowbell. And perhaps from Christopher Walken's portrayal of "legendary" record producer Bruce Dickinson, who repeatedly pleads in the skit for "more cowbell."
In fact, a kind of cult has sprung up around the Blue Oyster Cult bit and its two magic words. "More cowbell" appears on T-shirts, coffee mugs and buttons, and the spoof is still discussed and debated on Web sites across the Internet. It has become a stock witticism in clubs and bars as bands begin to play (indeed, one group in Upstate New York named itself More Cowbell). Snippets from the skit pop up regularly on the radio. When the cable entertainment channel E! named its 101 Most Unforgettable 'SNL' Moments last fall, "Cowbell" ranked among the top five.
For those who've never seen it, the sketch's hilarity probably defies a printed description (it's best to see it for yourself at mknx.com/v/cowbell.wmv). Suffice to say, Will Ferrell, who wrote the skit, plays a band member named Gene Frenkle whose specialty is the cowbell (and whose shirt fails to cover his flopping gut). Walken, ever intense, is the producer who is determined -- good taste and common sense notwithstanding -- to get more cowbell into the song's recording. He urges Frenkle to "really explore the studio space" while whaling away on his cowbell -- which Ferrell does, in a breathtaking bit of physical comedy.
Despite the obvious irritation of the rest of the band, Walken's Dickinson persists. "Guess what?" he says between takes. "I got a FE-ver, and the only prescription . . . is more cowbell!"
Walken, an actor who has specialized in portraying the slightly unhinged, has described the six-minute sketch as career-defining. "People . . . I don't know . . . I hear about it everywhere I go," he told the Orlando Sentinel in October. "It's been years, and all anybody brings up is 'cowbell.' I guess . . . you never know what's gonna click."
Among the more amused viewers of the bit are the actual members of Blue Oyster Cult. "We didn't know it was coming," says Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, co-founder and lead guitarist of the group. "We all thought it was phenomenal. We're huge Christopher Walken fans." He adds, "I've probably seen it 20 times and I'm still not tired of it."
Roeser says the TV sketch accurately portrayed the look of the band in its mid-'70s heyday, but took some artistic license with a few details. For example, "SNL" player Chris Parnell, portraying the group's lead singer, is referred to in the skit as "Eric." That presumably would be a reference to longtime band member Eric Bloom, but it was actually Roeser, not Bloom, who was in front of the group when it made "Reaper." And while there really is a record producer named Bruce Dickinson, he had nothing to do with the recording of the song. (Dickinson did work on some of the group's later releases.)
What's more, the cowbell skit is presented as an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music," a real show that chronicles the lurid rise and fall of real-life bands. But Blue Oyster Cult never really was a "Behind the Music" kind of band. "We did our share of drugs, but we never really [expletive] up," Roeser says. In fact, after a break in the mid-'80s and a few lineup changes, the group (featuring three of its members from the 1970s) has toured continuously, and plays about 80 to 90 dates a year.
Roeser said people still ask the band about poor Gene Frenkle, whose image appears in a still frame at the end of the sketch with the words "In Memoriam. 1950-2000."
Roeser breaks into a laugh. "That's a total fiction," he says. "They made up that character."
Fact is, there is a cowbell on "Reaper." If you listen closely to it on oldies radio, you can make it out in the background. But it was an afterthought. The song was recorded without it, and was added as an overdub at the last minute. According to former BOC bassist Joe Bouchard, an unnamed producer asked his brother, drummer Albert Bouchard, to play the cowbell after the fact. "Albert thought he was crazy," Bouchard told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press in 2000. "But he put all this tape around a cowbell and played it. It really pulled the track together."
During its show at the Rams Head on Thursday night, the five-member group dusted off its hits from three decades ago, including "R.U. Ready 2 Rock," "Burnin' for You" and "Godzilla." Then, after a long guitar preamble, it snapped into its set-closer, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper."
The familiar sweet notes swooped and soared, drawing the mostly middle-aged crowd back to its headbanging youth.
Of course, it could have used . . . well, you know.