In Random Reviews, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
Blue Oyster Cult- “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”
PEAK: #12 on November 6, 1976
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Steve Miller Band’s “Rock’n Me”
Death is the kind of topic that lends itself to lots of interpretations. After all, we’re all going to die at one point or another and there’s no evidence of what happens to us mentally and spiritually once we’re gone so it’s a perfect subject for people to place their own definitions. And we’ve seen that approach a lot in our cultures and traditions through religion, literature, movies, and in today’s case music.
We wind up being afraid about death a lot of the time because of the unknown but considering it’s a part of the natural life cycle it helps to accept that death will eventually happen. That’s what “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the biggest and signature song for New York-based rock group Blue Oyster Cult, is essentially about. It uses death to tell a love fantasy and how this couple will live together forever so why fear inevitable death. It’s also a song that still gets plays on classic rock and Halloween playlists. It’s not hard to see why.
Almost a decade before “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult had originated on New York’s Long Island in 1967 as Soft White Underbelly made up of students at Stony Brook University. Guitarist Donald Roeser (Buck Dharma) was friends with fellow student and future rock critic/producer Sandy Pearlman who had heard Dharma and his group play one day. Liking what he heard, Pearlman offered to help them becoming their manager and creative partner. Through Pearlman, Soft White Underbelly started playing local gigs and got an early deal with Elektra Records. Things didn’t go well at first. The music the group had recorded for Elektra didn’t get released and Pearlman instituted several name changes for the band before settling on Blue Oyster Cult, taken from a line in one of Pearlman’s poems.
With the new name, Pearlman and the group hooked up with producer David Lucas recording a series of demos that made their way to record producer Clive Davis who signed Blue Oyster Cult to his Columbia label. The group wasted no time recording their self-titled debut album released in January 1972 which right away gave a good indication for their early sound: a blending of Black Sabbath heavy metal lyricism with psychedelia and radio-friendly hard rock. They even collaborated with the legendary rock poet Patti Smith who contributed the songs “Baby Ice Dog” and “Career of Evil” which appeared on their second and third albums respectively, 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation and 1974’s Secret Treaties. (Patti Smith’s highest-charing single, 1978’s “Because The Night,” peaked at #13.)
Blue Oyster Cult did not launch to fame right away. Their first album as well as their second, Tyranny and Mutation, peaked in the lower rungs of the album charts. Singles-wise they weren’t doing much better as all of their songs had failed to chart on the Hot 100. Like many rock acts of the time, Blue Oyster Cult built up their fanbase by touring heavily where they opened for various acts including Alice Cooper and the Byrds. All of this started to pay off as Secret Treaties performed better peaking at #53. Their 1975 live album, On Your Feet or on Your Knees, outperformed all of their studio albums peaking at #22 and going gold.
For the band’s next album, Agents of Fortune, Dharma had an idea for a song contemplating his own mortality inspired by his recent heart condition as he told Songfacts, “It was sort of inspired by a personal health scare – I thought I was going to maybe not live that long. I had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and your mind starts running away with you – especially when you’re young-ish. So, that’s why I wrote the story. It’s imagining you can survive death in terms of your spirit. Your spirit will prevail.”
Listening to the song, you can’t really tell that it was inspired by someone’s health condition. It is a song about anticipating death though not in the way Dharma describes. He uses the inspiration to tell a love story that he and his girl shouldn’t fear death and that their love will transcend death noting “Seasons don’t fear the reaper/Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” It makes its point further by referencing the classic love tale of Romeo & Juliet and the 40,000 people that die every day stating “we can be like they are” which made some listeners suspect the song was about suicide which Dharma has denied. (Dharma estimated that 40,000 people died every day but his figure was way off. In 1976, about 140,000 people died every day but I guess 40,000 was easier to sing.)
In the second part of the song, everything changes. We get a moment of silence before a quiet eerie repeating guitar riff plays and then all of a sudden BOOM! the song attacks you with an out of nowhere dark sounding guitar tone and drumming that sounds like the reaper himself has come which lingers on thanks to the feedback echo on the third verse. When that ends, on the last verse and chorus, we hear of the girl dying and the reaper coming to take her away saying goodbye to the life and love she leaves behind, “She had taken his hand, she had become like they are.”
Despite the dark and creepy tone, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” doesn’t sound much like a song about impending death. Dharma delivers the song in a mournful tone but it’s done through lush sounding harmonies that make it sound nice to listen to. Even the music doesn’t sound too dark anchored by one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever and a driving beat that was written and recorded on a Teac four-track recorder that Dharma had recently bought. It’s a dark lyrical song that works well as a classic rock road trip jam and I love it.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” helped bring Blue Oyster Cult the biggest success and audience of their career breaking them onto the Hot 100 and helped Agents of Fortune go platinum. The band wouldn’t reach these heights again but they kept moving along regularly releasing albums that continued to sell while adopting a slicker studio rock sound. On the Hot 100, Blue Oyster Cult had one more Top 40 hit with the 1981 banger “Burnin’ For You” which peaked exactly at #40 and like “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” still gets residual play on classic rock stations.
“Burnin’ For You” wound up being the gasp of relevance for Blue Oyster Cult. Drummer Albert Bouchard left soon after and band members have been coming and going ever since. Dharma and fellow lead singer Eric Bloom are the only members on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” who are still in the band today. They’re still at it today constantly touring on the classic rock nostalgia circuit before the pandemic hit where I saw them live on Long Island in 2013 which was a good show. They’ve continued to release albums including a new one just this month. It seems like Blue Oyster Cult will be active for as long as they want to. They don’t seem to fear the reaper. Maybe we could be like they are.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1978 classic Halloween where “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” plays in the car as Mike Myers follows Laurie and Annie around:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Stephen King cited “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” as the main inspiration for his book The Stand even quoting its lyrics in the intro. When The Stand was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1994, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was used in the opening scene depicting a bunch of dead people. Here’s that intro:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” would become further immortalized when it was the subject of the classic 2000 Saturday Night Live skit More Cowbell showing Will Ferrell going crazy on the cowbell in a fictionalized account of the recording of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Here’s the skit:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” soundtracking some kind of reaper scene on a 2006 episode of Supernatural:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2014’s Gone Girl where Ben Affleck drives around while listening to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper:”