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(Don't Fear) The Reaper

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This article is about the song by Blue Öyster Cult. For the EP by Clint Ruin and Lydia Lunch, see Don't Fear the Reaper (EP). For the album by Witchery, see Don't Fear the Reaper (album).
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
Single by Blue Öyster Cult
from the album Agents of Fortune
B-side "Tattoo Vampire"
Released June 1976 (1976-06)
Format 7-inch single
Recorded 1976

3:45 Single Edit

5:08 Album Version
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Buck Dharma
Blue Öyster Cult singles chronology
"Born to be Wild"
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
"Goin' Through the Motions"

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is a song by the American rock band Blue Öyster Cult from their 1976 album, Agents of Fortune. It was written and sung by the band's lead guitarist, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser and was produced by David Lucas, Murray Krugman, and Sandy Pearlman. The song is built around Dharma's opening, repetitive guitar riff, while the lyrics deal with eternal love and the inevitability of death. Dharma wrote the song while picturing an early death for himself.

Released as an edited single, the song was Blue Öyster Cult's biggest chart success, reaching #7 in Cash Box and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1976. Additionally, critical reception was mainly positive and, in 2004, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was listed at number 405 on the Rolling Stone list of the top 500 songs of all time.


"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 realized that some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something that was not my intention at all. It is, like, not to be afraid of it (as opposed to actively bring it about). It's basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners."

 — Buck Dharma, lead singer[3]

The song is about the inevitability of death and the foolishness of fearing it, and was written when Dharma was thinking about what would happen if he died at a young age. Lyrics such as "Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity" have led many listeners to interpret the song to be about a murder-suicide pact, but Dharma says the song is about eternal love, rather than suicide. He used Romeo and Juliet as motifs to describe a couple believing they would meet again in the afterlife. He guessed that "40,000 men and women" died each day, and the figure was used several times in the lyrics.[4]

Composition and recording[edit]

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was written and sung by the band's lead guitarist, Dharma, and produced by David Lucas, Murray Krugman, and Sandy Pearlman.[5] The song's distinctive guitar riff is built on the "i-VII-VI" chord progression, in an A minor scale.[6]

The riff was recorded with Krugmann's Gibson ES-175 guitar, which was run through a Music Man 410 combo amplifier, and Dharma's vocals were captured with a Telefunken U47 tube microphone. The guitar solo and guitar rhythm sections were recorded in one take, while a four-track tape machine amplified them on the recording. Sound engineer Shelly Yakus remembers piecing together the separate vocals, guitar and rhythm section into a master track, with the overdubbing occurring in that order.[7]

Mojo described its creation: "'Guys, this is it!’ engineer Shelly Yakus announced at the end of the first take. ‘The legendary once-in-a-lifetime groove!’ … What evolved in the studio was the extended solo section; it took them nearly as long to edit the five-minute track down to manageable length as it did to record it."[8]

The song features prominent use of the cowbell percussion instrument, overdubbed on the original recording. Bassist Joe Bouchard remembered the producer requesting his brother, drummer Albert Bouchard, play the cowbell: "Albert thought he was crazy. But he put all this tape around a cowbell and played it. It really pulled the track together."[9] However, producer David Lucas says that he played it,[10] a claim supported by guitarist Eric Bloom.[11]


A sample of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" from Blue Öyster Cult's 1976 album, Agents of Fortune.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The song was on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 20 weeks, reaching number 12 for the weeks beginning November 6 and November 13 in 1976.[12] It was BÖC's highest-charting U.S. song and helped Agents of Fortune reach number 29 on the Billboard 200.[13] "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" charted even higher in Canada, peaking at number 7.[14] It was not released as a single in the UK until 1978, where it reached number 16 on the UK Singles Chart.[15]

Critical reaction was mostly positive. Denise Sullivan of Allmusic praised the song's "gentle vocals and virtuoso guitar" and "haunting middle break which delivers the listener straight back to the heart of the song once the thunder is finished."[16] Nathan Beckett called it BÖC's "masterpiece" and compared the vocals to the Beach Boys.[17] Writing for PopMatters, James Mann hailedit as a "landmark, genre-defining masterpiece" that was "as grand and emotional as American rock and roll ever got."[18] Pitchfork Media also referred to the song as a "masterpiece."[19] "Extremely poetic" was the verdict of Fountains of Wayne founder Chris Collingwood. "A sad ballad about a man who wants to die with his true love before their love is spoiled by earthly things."'[8]


In 1976 Rolling Stone named "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" the song of the year[5] and, in 2004, the magazine placed the song at number 397 on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time";[20] however, the 2010 version of the list moved the song down to number 405.[5] In 1997 Mojo listed the song as the 80th best single of all time,[21] while Q ranked "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" number 404 in its 2003 countdown of the "1001 Best Songs Ever."[22]

When The Guardian released its unranked list of the "1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear" in 2009, the song was included. The publication wrote that the song's charm "lies in the disjuncture between its gothic storyline and the sprightly, Byrdsian guitar line that carries it."[23] In his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, rock critic Dave Marsh ranked the song at number 997.[24]

Other versions[edit]

Blue Öyster Cult released live recordings of the song on numerous albums, including the 1978 album Some Enchanted Evening;[25] the 1982 album, Extraterrestrial Live;[26] the 1991 live album, Live 1976;[27] and the 2002 album, A Long Day's Night.[28] Dharma released an acoustic version of the song on the 1994 various artists compilation album Guitar Practicing Musicians 3.[29]

In other media[edit]

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" appears on the soundtracks of several films and TV shows, most notably the 1978 horror film Halloween and its 2007 remake.[16]

In addition, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was also featured in the films Gone Girl and Holding the Man, as well as the television shows Orange Is the New Black, in the episode We Have Manners We're Polite[47] 12 Monkeys, the Parks and Recreation episode "Ron & Tammy: Part Two," and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The track also appeared as the first song used in the BBC Three Sitcom Uncle starring Nick Helm

The song features prominently in the 1996 video game Ripper, appearing more than once throughout the course of the game and serving as the solution to one of the game's puzzles.

The Worthless Peons sing an a cappella version of the song in the Scrubs episode "My Lawyer's in Love."

Stephen King cited the song as the inspiration for his novel The Stand, and it appears as the theme song for the TV miniseries based on the novel.[18] Its lyrics are also quoted at the beginning of the novel.

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, Death's granddaughter Susan has the family motto Non Temetis Messor: "Don't Fear the Reaper." Pratchett's own arms, granted in 2010, has another Latin version of the phrase: Noli Timere Messorem.

The song was memorialized in the April 2000 Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedy sketch "More cowbell." The six-minute sketch presents a fictionalized version of the recording of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" on an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Will Ferrell wrote the sketch and played Gene Frenkle, an overweight cowbell player. "Legendary" producer Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, asked Frenkle to "really explore the studio space" and up the ante on his cowbell playing. The rest of the band are visibly annoyed by Frenkle, but Dickinson tells everyone, "I got a fever, and the only prescription--is more cowbell!" Buck Dharma thought the sketch was fantastic and said he never gets tired of it.[9]

A segment of the song was performed by Red Hot Chili Peppers on May 22, 2014,[48] as the conclusion of a drumming contest between the band's drummer Chad Smith and actor Ferrell. In a repeat of the 2000 SNL sketch, Ferrell again played cowbell for the rendition, which appeared on an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.[49]

In October 2013, Banksy featured the song as part of one of his installations, titled "Reaper," in New York City, U.S. (part of Better Out Than In); the song also appears on his YouTube video of the installation.[50]

Track listing[edit]

7" Vinyl
  1. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (Roeser) – 3:45
  2. "Tattoo Vampire" (Albert Bouchard, Helen Robbins) – 2:40



  • David Lucas – backing vocals, keyboards, percussion, cowbell

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1976-1978) Peak
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[14] 7
Ireland (IRMA)[51] 17
UK Singles (The Official Charts Company)[52] 16
US Billboard Hot 100 Chart[13] 12


  1. ^ Kelly Boyer Sagert (1 January 2007). The 1970s. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-313-33919-6. Meanwhile, Blue Oyster Cult released two of the decade's hard rock favorites: "Don't Fear the Reaper" and "Godzilla. 
  2. ^ Martin Charles Strong; Brendon Griffin (2008). Lights, camera, sound tracks. Canongate. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-84767-003-8. Reaper' was a one-off return to their 60s psychedelic roots. 
  3. ^ Lien, James (November 6, 1995). "Buck Dharma interview". College Music Journal. New York City: CMJ. 
  4. ^ "Great Moments in Pedantry: Fact-checking "Don't Fear the Reaper"". 
  5. ^ a b c "500 Greatest Songs of All Time: No. 405, Blue Öyster Cult, 'Don't Fear the Reaper'". Rolling Stone. Wenner Publishing. Retrieved May 30, 2011. 
  6. ^ Rooksby 2002, p. 93
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  50. ^ John, Del Signore. "Banksy's Reaper Was Too Much Cowbell For Disgruntled NoHo Neighbors". Gothamist. Retrieved 29 October 2013. 
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  • Rooksby, Rikky (2002). Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-710-2.