A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1981 single by veteran American hard-rock band, taken from the album Fire of Unknown Origin. Managed to become both a minor pop-radio hit and a staple of classic/hard-rock radio programming, at least back in the ’80s and early ’90s, when I still listened to classic/hard-rock radio.
And here’s why I like it:
1. The epic opening. The early to mid-’80s would not treat Seventies rock dinosaurs well. Some would slip off the charts, while others would adopt Eighties trappings in an attempt to stay relevant.
Set against that canvas, the opening of “Burnin’ For You” plays like one last shot of the old grandiose medicine.
Harmonized lead guitar, choral samples (at least, I assume that’s not a real choir) and rolling drum fills create a classic tense-yet-melodic hard-rock intro. Plus, there are no identifiably ’80s production touches, which means it ages well.
2. A private grumble. In the second verse, singer-guitarist Buck Dharma sings about “time everlasting,” followed by a clearly enunciated (perhaps even bitten-off) line: “Time. To. Play. B-Sides.” You can practically feel a nudge in the ribs as he sings it.
I have no idea what his complaint is; but clearly, he’s airing out some sort of private beef. Which I find kinda funny and entertaining.
Plus, he does it in the course of a hit song — so he got his dig in over a million American radios.
Whatever his behind-the-scenes argument was, I hope he won it.
3. Number Two. Speaking of hits, as indeed we were: “Burnin’ For You” reached the Top Forty by the skin of its teeth, placing at No. 40 for several weeks in October 1981.
This officially handed the BOC their ticket out of One-Hit Wonderland, thereby exempting them from all those snarky VH1 countdowns of Biggest One-Hit Wonders.
(The band’s first and biggest Top 40 hit, of course, was 1976’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” also written and sung by Senor Dharma.)
A band as catchy, sardonic and cool as Blue Oyster Cult doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Los Del Rio or the Singing Nun. And thanks to “Burnin’ For You,” it doesn’t have to be.
4. Call-and-response. Every good hit single has one or two instrumental details that catch the ear.
In “Burnin’ For You,” my favorite touch is the wry little guitar bend, low in the mix, that follows the fourth line of each verse (“Ain’t no home for me” in the first verse, “Got no time to slow” in the second.)
A close listen on my computer speakers suggests the bend is not being played by the same guitar that’s playing the crisp, tightly reverberant rhythm chords on beats two and four.
So now I’m imagining Dharma (one of my favorite rock-and-roll noms de guerre, by the way) doing an extra track of guitar overdub just to add those two bends.
It was worth his time.
4 1/2. Another cool production touch, if you wanted me to name one: The way Dharma’s lead guitar swoops in at about 2:49 to start the solo.
5. The epic ending. Well, sure, why not? You gotta get out of a song as stylishly as you got in.
To end “Burnin’ For You,” we get a last taste of that malevolent harmonized guitar lick, followed by the “choir” fading out on an ominous chord.
Not genuinely evil or scary — it’s only rock n’ roll, after all.
But at a time when hit-radio stations were playing Al Jarreau, Juice Newton, Quincy Jones with James Ingram, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Ronnie Milsap and Christopher Cross, “Burnin’ For You” might have been the only song in regular play with an edgy or mysterious touch … the only one that made the listener think, “What was that, and where did it come from?”
Rock n’ roll is all about that fire of unknown origin, after all … and we takes it where we finds it.