Is it an optimistic take on the inevitability of death, or a glorification of suicide? Is the “sound” exemplary of Blue Öyster Cult’s music, or is it an anomaly that deviates from the style of their discography? Will the timeless quality of its production continue to fool new listeners into thinking the song was recorded “just yesterday,” or will future remasters need more cowbell?
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was a hit: from the day it was released, through the writing of these words. To be honest, that trajectory seems like it’s here to stay. And for good reason too.
On one hand, the massive pop-culture adoption and widespread use in media is the dream PR and promotional success story that (almost) anyone would want for their song. On the other hand, when the band and producers showed up at the studio, they brought the thunder: a culmination of talent, advances in technology, and cooperation allowed for unprecedented efficiency during the recording window.
All in all, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is a staple in FM radio, a cornerstone inspiration for progressive rock, and a song heard around the world.
By 1976, Blue Öyster Cult’s fan base had stretched from shore to shore in the US, and the band toured regularly. Their three previous albums, Blue Öyster Cult (1972), Tyranny and Mutation (1973), and Secret Treaties (1974), had given the band ample experience in rehearsing for studio recording sessions.
The methodology, sound, and process would soon change during the creation of their fourth album.
Up until this point, the music was psychedelic, especially in the debut album. This style of rock remained in the two albums that followed, which also saw ‘heavier’ sounds and darker thematic content imbued into the tracks. When it came to writing, ideas were conceived and developed in the live manner, typical of a
jam-band. The group prepared for their album recording sessions in similar, live-music rehearsals. Demos, if any, were done on a simple, stereo recorder.
However, each of the band members eventually got their hands on multi-track recorders; evolving their capabilities and song-writing-approach all together.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was the first song Dharma wrote on a tape recorder; in particular, the guitar idea for the main riff and progression for the iconic bridge section.
Eric Bloom and Allen Lanier would end up supporting the guitar with backing parts. Dharma sang lead, with Eric and David Lucas providing backing vocals. Allen and David also played keyboard, supported by the spongy bass playing of Joe Bouchard. The percussion section is an amalgamation of various contributions from David, Eric, and main drummer Albert Bouchard. Eric’s sole contribution to the percussion section, however, was as the band’s famed cowbell player.
However, this has been contested by famed cowbell player, David Lucas:
“When it came to producing the band, I would conduct. And to keep the tempo, keep the groove going, I just decided that the cowbell would put that ‘[pedal] to the floor’”
Which… also goes against the testimony of famed cowbell player, Albert Bouchard:
“Yea, I was, and even though Eric thought that it was him, I don’t even remember him being there. Because if he was there, he would have played it. He usually did the percussion, I’m not that great at percussion, as Eric is much better. And David Lucas thought that he did it, but it was just his idea, and he thought that he had come in when we weren’t there. But that was for another song, he got the two songs mixed up. But I remember exactly what happened.”
It’s normal for accounts to differ on the *who*, the *what*, and the *when*. As many of you may know, songwriting can be collaborative in nature. Moreso, all rules and plans might go out the window when ad-hoc ideas are conceived in a
recording studio. However, it’d be interesting to know if any of the confusion was just the result of the iconic SNL skit and the popularization of the cowbell in the song…
The band credits recording engineer, Shelly Yakus, with achieving the song’s unique, timeless sound; a mix that sits well with our ears, even to this day. Shelly was joined in the “chaotic,” but effective environment of three producers: Marry Krugman, Sandy Pearlman, and David Lucas.
Lyrically, Dharma claims the track is a love song, carrying a message that worrying about death is pointless; because it’s inevitable. However, the widley-held cultural criticism that it glorifies and promotes suicide is, at least, understandable.
The third verse is very obviously about suicide. But even the “Romeo and Juliet” section goes beyond simple allusions to the star-crossed lovers and their story when the backing vocals say “we can be like they are.”
Ultimately, both lyrical views hold weight to their arguments. The popularity of the track alone carries the implication that a wide range of people across the planet were able to find their own, personal connection with the song; for their own, personal reasons.
RELEASE and IMPACT
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was first released on the 1976 Agents of Fortune album, but that’s not actually the version that most people know today. The original track featured a slow building interlude, with a horn section provided by Michael and Randy Brecker.
The edited version, released as a single the same year, reached Number 12 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and Number 7 on the Canada Top Singles list. In the UK, the original, long version was released as a single, and reached Number 16 in 1978; beating the short version, which hadn’t managed to chart in the UK at all. The track has since gone platinum in the UK.
In 1976, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was awarded “Song of the Year” by Rolling Stone. In 2004, and again in 2010, the song found its way onto the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
Placements ranged from lyrical quotes in Stephen King’s novel “The Stand,” to audio features and covers in movies like “Halloween,” “The Stoned Age,” “X,” “Zombieland,” and “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey;” games like “Rock Band,” “Returnal,” and “Prey;” and of course, who could forget the 2000 SNL skit.