“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is a song by the American rock band Blue Öyster Cult from their 1976 album, Agents of Fortune. The song, written and sung by the band’s lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, deals 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.
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.[not in citation given]
“(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. The song’s distinctive guitar riff is built on the “i-VII-VI” chord progression, in an A minor scale.
The riff was recorded with Krugman’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.
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.”
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.” However, producer David Lucas says that he played it, a claim supported by guitarist Eric Bloom.
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. It was BÖC’s highest-charting U.S. song and helped Agents of Fortune reach number 29 on the Billboard 200. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” charted even higher in Canada, peaking at number 7. The single edit was released in the UK in July 1976 (CBS 4483) but failed to chart. However the unedited album version was released as a single (CBS 6333) in May 1978, where it reached number 16 on the UK Singles Chart.
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”. Nathan Beckett called it BÖC’s “masterpiece” and compared the vocals to the Beach Boys. Writing for PopMatters, James Mann hailed it as a “landmark, genre-defining masterpiece” that was “as grand and emotional as American rock and roll ever got”. Pitchfork Media also referred to the song as a “masterpiece”. “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.”‘
In 1976 Rolling Stone named “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” the song of the year and, in 2004, the magazine placed the song at number 397 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”; however, the 2010 version of the list moved it down to number 405. In 1997 Mojo listed the song as the 80th best single of all time, while Q ranked “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” number 404 in its 2003 countdown of the “1001 Best Songs Ever.”
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.” 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.
Blue Öyster Cult performed a live version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” on the band’s 1978 album Some Enchanted Evening. A live version appears on their 1982 album Extraterrestrial Live. Blue Öyster Cult’s 1991 live album Live 1976 features “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. A live version appears on their 2002 album A Long Day’s Night. Buck Dharma released an acoustic version of the song on the 1994 various artists compilation album Guitar Practicing Musicians 3.