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Blue Öyster Cult's first hit, this was written by lead guitarist Donald Roeser, also known as Buck Dharma. He contributed his vocals to this track and also wrote their other Top 40 hit, "Burnin' For You
This was rumored to be about suicide, but it actually deals with the inevitability of death and the belief that we should not fear it. When Dharma wrote it, he was thinking about what would happen if he died at a young age and if he would be reunited with loved ones in the afterlife. Dharma explained in a 1995 interview with College Music Journal: "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."
Blue Öyster Cult was considered a "cult" band, somewhere in the realm of Heavy Metal with complex and often baffling lyrics dealing with the supernatural. Those inside the cult took the time to understand that like Black Sabbath, BOC combined outstanding musicianship with fantasy lyrics, and they weren't for everyone. "Don't Fear The Reaper" exposed them to a wider audience, which was good for business but bad for art. Buck Dharma said in a 1980 interview with NME: "Ever since 'The Reaper' was a hit we've been under pressure to duplicate that success; the body of our work failed. Even on (1977 album) Spectres everyone tried to write a hit single and that's a bad mistake. The Cult is never destined to be successful at a format. To be a singles band you have to win the casual buyer."
Some of the lyrics were inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. In Shakespeare's play, Romeo swallows poison when he believes Juliet is dead. Juliet responds by taking her own life. This led many people to believe the song was about suicide, but Dharma was using Romeo and Juliet as an example of a couple who had faith that they would be together after their death.
For the lyrics that begin, "40,000 men and women," Dharma was guessing at the number of people who died every day.
The album features vocals and songwriting from Patti Smith. She was keyboardist Allen Lanier's girlfriend at the time and had also contributed to one of BOC's previous albums, Secret Treaties.
A 2000 Saturday Night Live
skit with Christopher Walken made fun of the extremely loud cowbell in this song. In the skit, the band would get upset when Will Ferrell would play the bell too loud, but Walken kept calling for "More Cowbell." In the skit, Walken plays a super-producer named Bruce Dickinson, who the band respects enough to put up with his cowbell antics. There really is a Bruce Dickinson (besides the Iron Maiden lead singer), but he didn't produce "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" - that was David Lucas, who also brought us the GE "We bring good things to life" and the AT&T "Reach out and touch someone" jingles. Dickinson is an archivist who works on album reissues, which means gathering master tapes to ensure the best sound quality. He is credited as the reissue producer on a later version of the album, which apparently is how he was named in the sketch.
Lucas and Dickinson both appeared on the Just My Show
podcast, and Lucas explained that the cowbell was his idea, as the song "needed some momentum." He grabbed a cowbell from a nearby recording studio and "just played four on the floor… not hard to do." He found out about the SNL
skit when a friend instant messaged him as it was airing.
Dickinson says he's always felt a little funny about getting the producer role in the famous skit, but it has made life more interesting. Said Dickinson, "I work with Iggy Pop on a lot of stuff and a lot of times when he calls and I pick up the phone, he goes 'More cowbell!'"
Another version of this song was recorded for their 1988 album, Cult Classics.
This has been used in several horror movies, including Halloween, The Frighteners and Scream. It was also used in a very non-horror capacity in the party scene of the Disney movie Miracle, which is about the US Hockey team beating the USSR at the 1980 Olympic Games. (thanks, Jerry - Boston, MA)
This wasn't released as a single in the UK until 1978, where it became their only hit in England.
Stephen King quoted the lyrics to this song in his novel The Stand, in which 99.9% of the US population is killed by a manmade disease called "Superflu." It is also used in King's miniseries of the same name during a montage showing the corpses of those who had been killed by the disease. King often quotes songs in the beginning of his books. (thanks, Eric - Suffern, NY)
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