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(Credit: Eric Meola, Columbia Records)

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The Story Behind The Song: Blue Öyster Cult's enchanting masterpiece '(Don't Fear) The Reaper'

Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 track ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ is an undisputed rock classic. Fusing hard rock with the ethereal beauty of psychedelia, the song remains one of the most enchanting efforts of the 1970s. The guitar riff, the harmonised vocals and yes, the cowbell, all combine to make it one of the most instantly recognisable moments in the history of alternative music. Taken from the band’s album Agents of Fortune, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ was written and sung by the band’s lead guitarist Donal ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser. 

People long thought that the lyrical content of the song derived from the Shakespearean suicide pact, due to the lyric “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity”, however, the song is a lot more personal than that. Dharma has claimed at many points in the past that the song is actually about eternal love, which certainly fits in with his karmic nickname. 

Dharma has frequently explained how he chose Romeo and Juliet to embody couples who want to be together in the afterlife. Interestingly, he also took a punt. He guessed that “40,000 men and women” die every day, although the figure is actually, and not surprisingly, much higher than his guesstimation. The song was also inspired by the inevitability of death. Clearly a deep thinker, Dharma penned the lyrics whilst picturing an early demise for himself. As the title of the song implies, it is foolish to fear death though, as Dharma found for himself when he feared death as a young man. 

In a 1995 interview with the CMJ, he explained all: “I felt that I had just achieved some kind of resonance with the psychology of people when I came up with that, I was actually kind of appalled when I first realised that some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something that was not my intention at all,” Dharma once explained. “It is, like, not to be afraid of (death) (as opposed to actively bring it about). It’s basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners.” 

Given the mystic quality of the lyrics, the band knew they needed something magical to augment Dharma’s song. Famously, the iconic sound engineer who worked on the track, Shelly Yakus, proclaimed at the end of the first take, “Guys, this is it!”. 

He dubbed it “the legendary once-in-a-lifetime groove”. After that, the music evolved. The famous middle section was at first an extended solo, and it was a time-consuming feat whittling it down to just five minutes. It is said editing the track down to a manageable length took nearly as long as it did to record it.

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Of course, we cannot discuss the creation of such an iconic song without delving deep into the use of the cowbell. Well, there’s a couple of contentious claims made about its provenance. The band’s bassist Joe Bouchard posited that producer David Lucas requested that his brother, Albert, the band’s drummer play the cowbell. He said in a 2005 interview with The Washington Post: “Albert thought he was crazy. But he put all this tape around a cowbell and played it. It really pulled the track together.” 

Bouchard’s claims are contested by a couple of figures who were present during the recording process. The first is producer David Lucas who maintains that it was he who manned the metallic instrument, whereas lead vocalist and synth player, Eric Bloom, has argued that it was him who immortalised the cowbell. 

Either way, it really doesn’t matter who played it. ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ is without a doubt the most iconic use of the cowbell in all of history and it is what made the instrument semi-acceptable in rock ‘n’ roll. Queens of the Stone Age song ‘Little Sister’ actually has a lot to thank Blue Öyster Cult for. 

Famously, the song was canonised in the 2000 SNL sketch ‘More Cowbell’. The six-minute sketch was a fictionalised version of the song’s recording process. In one of Will Ferrell’s best early moments, he played Gene Frenkel, an overweight cowbell specialist. His opposite number in the sketch is the fictional producer Bruce Dickinson, played by the inimitable Christopher Walken. He asks Frenkel to “really explore the studio space”, and take his cowbell playing up another level. 

Classically, the rest of the fictional Blue Öyster Cult get annoyed by Frenkel’s incessant cowbell playing, but Dickinson exclaims: “I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!”. Dharma was even a fan of the sketch, although he admitted that it did kill the song’s mystical vibe due to Ferrell and Walken’s star turn.

A classic track, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ will be played for years to come.