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(Don’t Fear) The Reaper

| October 25, 2011 | 22 Comments

Prior to recording their fourth album, Agents of Fortune, Blue Oyster Cult were just that—a cult band. They had a mystic logo which represented the Greek god Chronos (who, in a related story, ate his son, the Grim Reaper). They played heavy-riff rock with lyrics that touched on the weird (“She’s as Beautiful as a Foot”) and the occult (“Workshop of the Telescopes”). Certainly not a group you’d ever expect to see in the Top 40.

But the Byrds-y “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” changed all that. Written by guitarist Donald Roeser, it coupled the group’s mysticism with a beautiful melody, lush harmonies and one of the coolest guitar riffs of the ‘70s. Of the song’s beginnings, Roeser says, “I was thinking about my own mortality. I wrote the guitar riff, the first two lines of lyric sprung into my head, then the rest of it came as I formed a story about a love affair that transcends death. I was thinking about my wife, and that maybe we’d get together after I was gone.”

Nothing boosts a song’s popularity like a little controversy, and there was plenty surrounding “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Roeser said in 1998, “The second verse is the one that’s caused all the trouble all these years. ‘Valentine’ is a metaphor for mortal love. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I used as an example of a couple who had faith to take their love elsewhere when they weren’t permitted the freedom to love here and now. What I meant was, they’re in eternity cause they had the faith to believe in the possibility. It frankly never occurred to me that the suicide aspect of their story would be plugged in to people’s take on ‘Reaper,’ making it an advertisement for suicide. The “40,000” number was pulled from the air as a guess about how many people died every day worldwide, not how many people committed suicide.”

The song got another lift from author Stephen King, who quoted from it in his gruesome opus The Stand (and later used it for the soundtrack of the TV mini-series based on the book). “It never bothered me that ‘Reaper’ was embraced as a horror icon or allegedly enjoyed by [convicted murderer] Gary Gilmore,” says Roeser, who is still an active member of Blue öyster Cult 36 years on from their formation. “It would bother me to know the song gave someone an excuse to commit suicide. I never have come anywhere close to really wanting to commit suicide. I’m gonna live until I die. On the other hand, when I go, I don’t want ‘Amazing Grace’ as the musical centerpiece of my funeral. I want ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.’”

—By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 72

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (22)

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  1. T Harsanyi says:


  2. Ginny says:

    I lost my first love and his sister to a car accident when I was 16 in January of 1976 and this song came out in July of that year. This was MY song. It got me thru that shit, it spoke to me better than my friends and family and is STILL one of my favorite songs of all time. You can never replace your first love, and a broken heart never fully heals. Peace.

  3. SPM says:

    Loved the song back then and love it now. Truly beautiful sound. I could listen to it nonstop. And for me, the Reaper is JESUS CHRIST, so NOTHING TO FEAR! Looking forward to it! :-)

  4. Jim from Buffalo, NY says:

    When I find out I have cancer, I’m going to play this on the most comfortable fitting, sound isolating set of digital headphones as I leap off of the tallest building I can find.

  5. Murray Melander says:

    I can remember being in a music store in Seattle in 1976 and was trying out a Les Paul. I’d recently learned the main riff and the basic’s of DFTR. When I started playing it, several guys came over and wanted me to show them the lick.

  6. Tricia says:

    The song I think is about drug abuse , the solicitation of drugs, the use of drugs , then the sex made on drugs and eventual death on drugs by drugs by the users .
    Don’t do drugs

    • van deveraux says:

      not at all. its about a man whose wife finally joins him in the afterlife,not because of suicide or drugs

  7. Dawn says:

    My husband loved this song. He passed Nov 2015 and every time I hear I think of him. I hope some day like the song says I can join him in the after life. I will be looking forward to him reaching out his hand to me. Great song and lyric!

  8. Layla says:

    This is one of the most beautiful and romantic songs ever written!
    IMHO… I feel that the best song ever written is by Cream “Tales of Brave Ulysses”

  9. Ray M says:

    Great song, but ironically it was forever immortalized as the song inspiration for the Saturday Night Live skit “More Cowbell”.

  10. David says:

    After all these year when the song came out i loved it and grew tired of it. It would stayed on my mind. The lyrics and that guitar riff is just hypnotizing. One of the all time classic rock songs. Blue Oyster Cult….Rocks On !

  11. scott says:

    My parents listen to this so all of the music they listen to i do too. Cant stop listening to this song!

  12. Fred says:

    Simply put, a GREAT song that stands the test of time. Loved it since the 70’s and love it today!

    Saw the at the Bachanal in San Diego back in the day. Had a crazy girlfriend at the time and we sat 3rd row center for BOC. 1/2 way thru this song she gets up and leves and 10 minutes later shes still missing. I go out to look for her and shes just gone.

    Found out the next morning she called her ex-boyfriend to come pick her up. Bitch ruined the concert for me because I dint know what happened to her and spent hours looking, missing the rest of the concert.

    Oh well, heard shes a waitress at a slimy bar restaurant now so I suppose we all get what we deserve in the end.

  13. Sammy Bowman says:

    As my husband lay dying, I made sure the radio was playing. He loved music. As he was taking his last breath this song was playing. My children and I will never forget this song, it has a wonderful meaning to us. My husband always liked the song as well.

  14. Kathy says:

    I cant explain it, but this song speaks to me. My favorite song of all time. I can listen to it over and over.

  15. jean says:

    One of the finest and greatest (and most memorable) guitar riffs ever. ever!!!

  16. Wayne says:

    It may be a bold statement, but I’d have to say “Don’t Fear The Reaper” is probably the greatest song of all-time. It is most certainly my favourite. It’s just so hauntingly beautiful.

  17. Nale Dixon says:

    How about one of the coolest guitar riffs of ALL TIME. It’s more iconic than “Smoke On The Water” or “Satisfaction” if you asked me. I was disappointed to here Eric Bloom say that he didn’t think much of this tune at first. I wish I had written it.

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