Blue Öyster Cult: the truth behind the cowbells

Blue Oyster Cult relaxed next to a swimming pool in 1976
(Image credit: Michael Putland)

Originally a track on Blue Öyster Cult’s Agents Of Fortune album in 1976, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper reached No.12 in the US, and also took the band into the UK Top 20 for the first (and last) time.

BÖC’s biggest ever hit was born when guitarist/vocalist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser sat down in 1976 to write songs for the East Coast group’s fourth studio album. They had just returned from their first European tour, and were enjoying life as a big album-selling act. Having a hit single would make life all the more comfortable.

Roeser had already invested in a TEAC four-track tape recorder – what was then state-of-the-art technology. It was an important acquisition: “It completely changed the way that Blue Öyster Cult wrote songs,” he says now. “We all had TEAC machines, and they enabled us to flush out our nascent arrangement ideas into something that was so much more presentable to the rest of the band.”

The introductory guitar lick for the song had come first, followed by the first two lines: ‘All our times have gone/Here but now they’re gone’. The rest, Roeser recalls, came together fairly easily over a two-month period while the band toured and rehearsed.

To this day, conjecture has surrounded the song’s afterlife-themed subject matter. With a flowery and memorable guitar motif as its central theme, its haunting strains reminded us that the (Grim) Reaper is never too far away. Many times since the song’s release, however, Roeser has denied suggestion that the song is about suicide.

“And I’ll do so again right here,” he insists. “That was never what I had in mind when I wrote it. It’s more to do with recognising the inevitability of death, and postulating and celebrating the hope that there is an afterlife.”

With its lyrical reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet being ‘together in eternity’, it’s easy to see why people might assume the song is about a suicide pact.

“They’re just a couple whose love – you assume – survives suicide,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily about suicide, but of course the Romeo and Juliet part was what made people believe that had inspired the song.”

Roeser also puts paid to another couple of persistent myths surrounding …Reaper. One is that an almost fatal health scare of his own had given him the idea for it. The other is that Patti Smith supplies backing vocals on it .

“I wasn’t what you’d call close to death, but a doctor did diagnose that I had a heart condition,” he says of that illness. “Of course, it did cause me to start pondering my own mortality. My general health is good again now, but the incident definitely provided me with some timely food for thought.

“And Patti Smith was in our circle at the time,” he adds, “but she didn’t sing on that particular track.”

The song’s crucial line: ‘Forty thousand men and women every day’ was a ball-park figure of how many people Roeser believed would pass away in any given 24 hours: “I had no way of knowing the exact numbers for sure, it was just guesstimate on my part.”

And the following reference: ‘Another forty thousand every day – we can be like they are’ alluded to spirits being reborn in earthly form to replace those that had died?

“Forty grand leaving, and then coming back again, every day. In other words, the population turns over but all of these life forces never truly go away.”

Despite the above, it would be unfair to call …Reaper depressing or morbid. It’s actually haunting and uplifting. “To me, the mood of the music is eerie,” Roeser offers. “That’s the description I’d prefer to use.”

Nevertheless, some people were only too willing to embrace the song’s more sinister connotations, and for a while Blue Öyster Cult found their concerts picketed by placard-wielding do-gooders accusing them of doing the Devil’s work.

“Our image certainly didn’t help,” Roeser chuckles. “Right from the start we’d purposely cultivated a dark and mysterious persona. In the Bible Belt, those kind of people did sometimes start to get the wrong impression of what we were saying.”

In later years, …Reaper was used in the closing credits for The Simpsons, was quoted in Stephen King’s book The Stand, and its use of cowbell was even lampooned on hit US TV show Saturday Night Live. Has Roeser ever wondered how life might have been different had he not written it?

“Sure… briefly. It’s kinda hard to say if we’d still be having this conversation now had I not. Had the song not been a hit and helped Blue Öyster Cult to become successful, there’s every chance I’d have gone down the engineering or production side of music. Who can say for sure?”

“Its appearance in The Simpsons was one of this band’s proudest moments,” he chuckles. “I’m highly amused at the way it has rippled out into popular culture. I still enjoy playing it, and it doesn’t bother me that we’re still obliged to do so night after night. Some bands’ signature songs make me cringe, ours doesn’t.”

This feature was first published in Classic Rock issue 84.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.