The Story Behind Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Cowbell’s Crowning Achievement

The band's Buck Dharma explores their most eternal song and the SNL sketch it inspired

don't fear the reaper blue oyster cult story behind the song podcast

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Classic rock legends Blue Öyster Cult burst onto the music scene in the early 1970s as the first band to feature an umlaut in their name, establishing a trend used by artist to this day. But the band — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — was no gimmick, releasing a string of major hits. Their most transcendent classic is of course 1976’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” a record that still haunts as deeply as ever, continually finding new ways to enter the zeitgeist.

Lead guitarist and singer Donald Roeser, a.k.a. stage persona Buck Dharma, penned “Reaper” in his early 20s as he contemplated his own mortality after being diagnosed with a heart condition. Little did he know that his inward meditation would become a quintessential perfect record, combining a signature hooky guitar riff and melody, inspired production, and timeless lyrics that tell a universal story about the human condition.

And of course there’s the relentless use of amplified cowbell. Meant to mark the track’s passage of time, the use of the instrument was given even more attention thanks to Will Ferrell’s classic 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Christopher Walken’s inimitable deadpan as Bruce Dickinson incessantly demanding, “More cowbell!” That phrase has entered the cultural lexicon as much as the song itself!

Interestingly, Dickinson wasn’t actually involved in making the record — and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” isn’t about what you might think it is. In this 14th episode of The Story Behind the Song podcast, Blue Öyster Cult’s Buck Dharma discusses “The Reaper” with host Peter Csathy, touching on the song’s lasting impact, its position in the modern music pantheon, and, of course, that cowbell.

Listen to the podcast above, and check out a video segment of the episode below.

Make sure you’re following The Story Behind the Song wherever you get your podcast, as there will be a special Halloween episode featuring Danny Elfman discussing Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party.” You can also keep an eye on the Consequence Podcast Network for updates on all our series, and follow host Peter Csathy on Twitter @pcsathy and at Creative Media.

Blue Öyster Cult are currently on the UK leg of their 50th anniversary tour, but they have more US dates lined up for November. Get tickets here.

If you’re having trouble seeing the player below, watch via YouTube.

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