Published on July 7th, 2001 | by Gerry Galipault0
More Cowbell! A Salute to the Late Great Gene Frenkle
Blue Öyster Cult lead singer Eric Bloom knows exactly where he was the night of April 9, 2000: Like many Americans, he was in front of the television, watching another episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
Only, imagine his surprise when an announcer, in a mocking “Behind the Music” voice, says: “After a series of staggering defeats, Blue Öyster Cult assembled in the recording studio in late 1976 for a session with famed producer Bruce Dickinson. And, luckily for us, the cameras were rolling.”
Guest host Christopher Walken, portraying Dickinson, says he’s ready to lay down the first track.
“Alright, here we go. ‘Don’t Fear (The Reaper),’ take one,” he says as he exits for the control booth.
The group breaks into the familiar opening refrains of the song, but Bloom (played by Chris Parnell) is quickly distracted by band member Gene Frenkle (Will Ferrell) banging on the cowbell. He stops the music and asks for Dickinson.
“That was gonna be a great track,” Dickinson says. “Guys, what’s the deal?”
“Are you sure that was sounding okay?” Bloom asks.
“I’ll be honest … fellas, it was sounding great,” Dickinson replies. “But … I could’ve used a little more cowbell. So … let’s take it again. And, Gene … really explore the studio space this time. I mean, really … explore the space. I like what I’m hearing.”
The group gives it another try, but Bloom again is distracted by the cowbell. Guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser (Horatio Sanz) agrees. They give it one more shot, but Frenkle bangs the cowbell next to Bloom’s ear. From there, it goes back and forth, until Dickinson proclaims, “Guess what? I got a fever! And the only prescription … is MORE COWBELL!”
The band, trusting Dickinson’s instincts, eventually reconciles with Frenkle and proceeds. “Babies, before we’re done here, y’all are gonna be wearing gold-plated diapers,” Dickinson declares.
The group starts up again, with the camera freezing on Frenkle. A graphic reads, “Gene Frenkle: 1950-2000.”
Bloom still laughs today about that skit and how it came totally out of left field.
“I even have it on tape,” he said recently, “and it still pretty much blows me away. Buck has it on MP3 and we listened to it in his car one day. It’s almost as funny to listen to it as watching it.”
What draws the biggest laughs for Bloom is how “SNL” writers used poetic license to relive the recording session for Blue Öyster Cult’s signature hit.
“It was completely fiction,” Bloom said, laughing, “but that’s what kind of made it bizarre. They made it all up. Funny thing is, the actor who plays the cowbell guy – Will Ferrell – he’s got a name at the end and it says he died. I’ve had people come up to me and ask, ‘What happened to that guy who died?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, there was no guy that died. It was all fiction from beginning to end.’ And Bruce Dickinson is a real guy, but he has nothing to do with ‘Don’t Fear (The Reaper).’ He works for Sony and he’s in charge of the production and remastering of all our old albums. He had nothing to do with the original 1976 ‘Don’t Fear (The Reaper).’
“Of course now, every time somebody talks to Bruce on the phone, they say, ‘Is this superstar record producer Bruce Dickinson?’ “
If there never was a Gene Frenkle, then who did play the cowbell?!
“I did,” Bloom said, with a chuckle.
“SNL” writers may have made light of Blue Öyster Cult, but they probably did so out of love, respect and red-blooded American nostalgia. For nearly 30 years, they have been the thinking man’s hard-rock band.
“We knew we were avant-garde in our own way,” Bloom said. “We were doing something a little different, and we’re still doing things different today. We were a bunch of weirdoes. Look at the kind of lyrical content we used. We were playing with KISS somewhere once and Gene Simmons pulled me aside and said, ‘Kids don’t want to hear poetry.’ We were using lyrics from Patti Smith and all this other heavy stuff. Up to a point, he’s right. If you compare our career and KISS’ career, it’s obvious who made more money. But we’re pretty happy with our lifestyles and our heritage, what we gave to music. We made a lot of great records, a lot of good tunes, and we feel like we can hold our heads up with anybody as far as careers go.”
They can hold their heads up so high, they can relish the June 5 release of their 15th studio album, “Curse of the Hidden Mirror” (CMC International), its first single, “Pocket,” making headway at album-oriented rock stations and Columbia/Legacy‘s June 26 reissue of their first four albums – “Blue Öyster Cult” (1972), “Tyranny & Mutation” (1973), “Secret Treaties” (1974 ) and “Agents of Fortune” (1976) – all remastered and expanded.
“I haven’t seen one pan of it,” Bloom said of the new album. “I’ve seen maybe six or seven reviews, mostly on the Net, and all of it was pretty positive.
“We spent a year making this record, writing it and working really hard on it, and it came out really well.”
The group, led by Bloom and Dharma, does about 80 to 90 shows a year, mostly at state fairs and city festivals. That’s fine with Bloom; it sure beats the lean years they had in the late 1980s.
“The late ’80s weren’t so hot for us,” he said. “We took a hiatus for about nine months and re-evaluated things, then we got so many offers to play, we started playing again and have done it pretty much full-time ever since.”
Classic-rock acts are a hot touring commodity this summer, and Bloom sees it firsthand.
“First off, a lot of people with disposable incomes want to go out to a springtime or summer event,” Bloom said. “The people who were in high school when ‘Don’t Fear (The Reaper)’ was a hit, they’re all like 38 to 42 years old right now, so these people have kids. I get a lot of e-mails from people who are like captains of industry who were in high school and had Blue Öyster Cult jackets they made at home. I meet interesting people on the plane who say things like, ‘I saw you guys in ’81, and now I’m the president of Univision.’
“A good friend, who’s a friend now but he first got in touch with me in ’94 through an e-mail, now he’s Ray Romano’s manager. My friend interviewed me for his high school newspaper when he was 16. I remember it very well; we met in a diner, and he said I changed his life. He was driving a black Audi and wore black clothes. He thought I was cool, and he decided right there and then that he wanted to be in the entertainment business. Now he manages Ray Romano, Robert Klein, Dick Cavett.”
Fans like him will savor the BOC reissues. “Blue Öyster Cult” contains four bonus tracks culled from a 1969 demo session by the pre-BOC outfit Soft White Underbelly; “Tyranny & Mutation” includes two previously unreleased live recordings from the band’s own archives and a studio outtake of the instrumental “Buck’s Boogie”; “Secret Treaties” has five bonus cuts, including a non-LP single, “Born to Be Wild,” and “Agents of Fortune” has three bonus demos and an outtake of “Fire of Unknown Origin.”
“The band played a part in digging up the old tracks, like ‘What tapes do you have sitting in a bin at home?’ you know,” Bloom said. “A lot of us, way back when, either inherited a tape or ‘Hold on to this tape’ or ‘Here’s a copy of this tape,’ and it’s sitting on a shelf for 30 years. Reel-to-reel tapes, old board cassettes, stuff like that. A couple of these songs were live shows from board mixes from 1975. There are other songs that were like the 11th cut on a 10-cut album; it was in the can but never used.
“Sony has a repository of old tapes that’s like a storage place inside a mountain somewhere. They found a lot of these tapes in there. Somebody had to go up there and go through it all. Some of it didn’t have track sheets, so somebody had to put it on an old eight-track or 16-track reel-to-reel and listen to each track to see what was on it. It was a pretty painstaking thing.”
Well worth it to BOC fans, many of whom – if they had their way – would induct Bloom, Dharma and Co. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It would be nice, but I can’t say anything one way or the other with the Hall of Fame,” Bloom said, “because it’s kind of corporate. It’s hard to say who gets in there and who doesn’t. It would be a nice achievement, but I just don’t think, even though we’ve been playing for so long and have had plenty of success, that as far as aboveground exposure, there are other bands who were much more in the public eye. We’ve never really been in the public eye that much.
“We have this new album out now, and when I get on an airplane, of course we look like a rock group getting on a plane, but the flight attendant asks, ‘You guys in a band?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m in Blue Öyster Cult.’ Either they’ve never heard of us or they say, ‘I saw you in the ’80s; didn’t know you guys were still together.’ Our aboveground consciousness is not that high, and it’ll stay that way unless we have a hit off this record, which is still possible – it’s only been out a few weeks, and ‘Pocket’s’ getting played at some of the biggest classic-rock stations. You never know.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The first single I got was ‘Raunchy’ by Bill Justis. As for albums, I got my first two albums on the same day, ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck and ‘Ray Charles’ Greatest Hits.’ “
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “That I don’t know, but the kinds of concerts I went to back then, around 1965 when I was in school in upstate New York, I saw Vanilla Fudge and Cream. I used to see many, many times in ’65 and ’66 James Brown and Wilson Pickett. I used to go down to the city in like ’66 to see bands like the Blues Project, one of my favorite bands of all time.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “It lasted a day, that’s how bad it was. The summer of ’67, I had graduated from college and I was in a band playing in upstate New York. Around July 4th weekend, the band decided to call it quits; there was no place to go and nothing to do and I still had the draft in front of me. Nobody would hire me because I had the draft right in front of me. I had a four-door Oldsmobile, and I drove to Provincetown, Mass., on a whim and parked it on a side street. I was hanging out in town a few days and got a job washing pots and pans. You had to stand there from 4 o’clock till midnight, and you never had a break. The second the guy was done cooking, he’d throw the pan in and I’d have to scrub it. As soon as I got to the bottom of the pile, three more guys would throw pans in. You had to eat dinner standing up. I remember I got a paycheck for $19. From there, I became a dishwasher, which was 10 times easier.”
BWF (before we forget): The Blue album discography – “Blue Öyster Cult” (Columbia, 1972); “Tyranny & Mutation” (1973); “Secret Treaties” (1974); “On Your Feet or On Your Knees” (1975); “Agents of Fortune” (1976); “Spectres” (1977); “Some Enchanted Evening” (1978); “Mirrors” (1979); “Cultosaurus Erectus” (1980); “Fire of Unknown Origin” (1981); “Extraterrestrial Live” (1982); “The Revolution by Night” (1983); “Club Ninja” (1986); “Imaginos” (1988); “Bad Channels” (Moonstone, 1992); “Heaven Forbid” (CMC International); “Don’t Fear the Reaper: The Best of Blue Öyster Cult” (Columbia/Legacy, 2000); “The Curse of the Hidden Mirror” (CMC, 2001); “A Long Day’s Night” (Sanctuary, 2002).