The Epic Track: “Don’t Fear The Reaper”

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.


Blue Öyster Cult is well known for songs like “Burnin’ For You,” “Godzilla,” “Then Came the Last Days of May” and “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” but the band’s biggest hit is “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” an evocative tale about a journey to the other side.

The group was originally formed at Long Island’s Stony Brook College in 1967. Early incarnations of the band were known as Soft White Underbelly, as well as Oaxaca and the Stalk-Forrest Group. Sandy Pearlman, the group’s manager, worked tirelessly to get them noticed, and after several fits and starts, including a pair of unreleased albums recorded for Elektra Records, the band’s self-titled debut was issued in 1972 on Columbia Records.

The group’s most famous lineup featured Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, Allen Lanier on vocals, keyboards, and guitar, Eric Bloom on vocals, guitar, synthesizer, and keyboards, and brothers Joe Bouchard (vocals, bass, and keyboards) and Albert Bouchard (vocals, drums, percussion).

The band’s unique sound, an amalgam of hard rock, heavy metal, and psychedelia, topped off with a touch of progressive rock, garnered them a loyal group of fans through the release of albums like 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and 1974’s Secret Treaties. The group was also well-regarded for their solid concert performances, which were featured on 1975’s On Your Feet or On Your Knees, a live record that reached number 22 on the album charts.

Their next release, 1976’s Agents of Fortune, includes a guest appearance by punk rocker Patti Smith, who was dating band member Allen Lanier. Smith co-wrote the track “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” with Albert Bouchard. But it was a tale about an encounter with the Grim Reaper that helped secure the band’s place in rock and roll history.

The atmospheric “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” written by lead guitarist Roeser, includes ethereal lyrics, a memorable lead vocal, an enthralling guitar riff, and of course, the sound of that ever-distinctive cowbell, all meshed together into a compelling soundscape. The version of “(Don”t Fear) The Reaper” released as a single in the US was edited down to three minutes and 45 seconds from the full-length album track, which runs five minutes and eight seconds. The longer version of the tune was released as a single in the UK, where it reached number 16.

“(Don”t Fear) The Reaper” made it to number 12 on the Billboard charts in the US, and helped Agents of Fortune climb to number 29 on the album charts. While some listeners and reviewers interpreted it as being about suicide, Roeser has stated throughout the years that the song’s haunting lyrics are actually about not being afraid of death, as well as the eternal power of love, the spirit of which transcends all things.

“(Don”t Fear) The Reaper” was featured in John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, the 1994 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, Wes Craven’s Scream, and TV shows like The Simpsons, Supernatural, and Orange Is The New Black. The song became a longtime staple on rock radio playlists, and it’s been covered by bands like Heaven 17, Goo Goo Dolls, and Candlemass.

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” gained new fame in 2000 when it was used as the centerpiece of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. In a spoof of the VH1 series Behind The Music, “More Cowbell” showcased a fictionalized version of Blue Öyster Cult recording the song in the studio. Christopher Walken, playing “legendary” producer Bruce Dickinson, urges musician Gene Frankel, portrayed by Will Ferrell, to up the ante on playing the cowbell. The sketch and the cry for “more cowbell” have become pop culture staples. Even Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser was amused by the sketch, which helped create a resurgence of interest in Blue Öyster Cult and their music.

If your song is enough of a classic to be named to Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and be satirized by SNL, then it must be epic.

-John Visconti

Photo: Blue Oyster Cult, 1977 (Public domain)

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John Visconti is a lifelong music and movies aficionado with wide-ranging tastes, from The British Invasion and Motown, to the blues, a dash of jazz, on through to power pop, funk, retro soul, folk, bubblegum and metal. He digs film noir, screwball comedies, classic B movies, and Toho’s original Godzilla series. In the late 1980s, John was a writer and editor for the KISS fanzine Fire. A friend once called him “the human incarnation of an entertainment encyclopedia.” After long stints in the worlds of publishing and IT, he’s currently working in healthcare. You can check out his blog, John V's Eclectic Avenue at http://jveclectic.blogspot.com.

5 comments on “The Epic Track: “Don’t Fear The Reaper”

  1. Steven Valvnao

    John, Well done. Great description of a outstanding track. Eric Bloom actually said at the time he thought ‘Reaper’ was not heavy enough for the band. ….. the song certainly changed their whole direction.

  2. Andru J Reeve

    Really enjoyed your take on the song and BOC. Great job.

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