(Don't Fear) The Reaper

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is a song by American rock band Blue Öyster Cult from the band's 1976 album Agents of Fortune. The song, written and sung by 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.

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
Single by Blue Öyster Cult
from the album Agents of Fortune
B-side"Tattoo Vampire"
ReleasedJuly 1976 (1976-07)
  • 5:08
  • 3:45 (single edit)
Songwriter(s)Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser
Blue Öyster Cult singles chronology
"Then Came the Last Days of May"
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
"This Ain't the Summer of Love"
Official audio
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" on YouTube

Released as an edited single (omitting the slow building interlude in the original), the song was Blue Öyster Cult's highest chart success, reaching #7 in Cash Box and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1976. Critical reception was positive, and in 2004, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was listed at number 405 on Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 songs of all time.


"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 [death] (as opposed to actively bring it about). It's basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners."

 — Buck Dharma, lead singer[4]

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.[4] 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.[5] He used Romeo and Juliet to describe a couple who wanted to be together in the afterlife.[6] He guessed that "40,000 men and women" died each day, and the figure was used several times in the lyrics; this rate was 100,000 off the mark.[7]

Composition and recordingEdit

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was written and sung by lead guitarist Buck Dharma and produced by David Lucas, Murray Krugman, and Sandy Pearlman.[8] The song's distinctive guitar riff is built on the "i-VII-VI" chord progression, in an A minor scale.[9] 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.[10]

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."[11]

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."[12] However, producer David Lucas says that he played it,[13] a claim supported by bandmember Eric Bloom.[14]


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.[15] It was BÖC's highest-charting U.S. song and helped Agents of Fortune reach number 29 on the Billboard 200.[16] "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" charted even higher in Canada, peaking at number 7.[17] 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.[18]

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".[19] Nathan Beckett called it BÖC's "masterpiece" and compared the vocals to the Beach Boys.[20] 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".[21] Pitchfork Media also referred to the song as a "masterpiece".[22] "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."'[11]


Year Chart Peak
1976 Canada Top Singles (RPM)[17] 7
US Billboard Hot 100 Chart[16] 12
1978 Ireland (IRMA)[23] 17
UK Singles (The Official Charts Company)[24] 16
2017 US Billboard Hot Rock Songs[25] 11


Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[26] Gold 400,000 

 sales+streaming figures based on certification alone


In 1976 Rolling Stone named "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" the song of the year[8] and, in 2004, the magazine placed the song at number 397 on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time";[27] however, the 2010 version of the list moved it down to number 405.[8] In 1997 Mojo listed the song as the 80th best single of all time,[28] while Q ranked "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" number 404 in its 2003 countdown of the "1001 Best Songs Ever."[29]

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."[5] 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.[30]

Other versionsEdit


"More Cowbell"Edit

The song was memorialized in the April 2000 Saturday Night Live comedy sketch "More Cowbell". The six-minute sketch presents a fictionalized version of the recording of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" on an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Will Ferrell wrote the sketch and played Gene Frenkle, an overweight cowbell player. "Legendary" producer Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, asked Frenkle to "really explore the studio space" and up the ante on his cowbell playing. The rest of the band are visibly annoyed by Frenkle, but Dickinson tells everyone, "I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!" Buck Dharma said that the sketch was fantastic and he never gets tired of it[12] but also lamented that it made the song lose its 'creepy' vibe for some time.[53]

A segment of the song was performed by Red Hot Chili Peppers on May 22, 2014,[54] as the conclusion of a drumming contest between the band's drummer Chad Smith and actor Will Ferrell. In a repeat of the 2000 SNL sketch, Ferrell again played cowbell for the rendition, which appeared on an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.[55][56]

In other mediaEdit

Stephen King cited the song as the inspiration for his novel The Stand, and its lyrics are quoted at the beginning of the novel. It also appears as the opening theme song for the TV miniseries based on the novel.[21]

The coat-of-arms of British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, granted to him in 2010, has Noli Timere Messorem (Don't Fear the Reaper) as its motto. References to the song have appeared in Pratchett's work before and Death personified as The Reaper plays a recurring role in his books.[57]

In the film Halloween, the song plays in the car when Jamie Lee Curtis' character, Laurie Strode is being stalked by serial killer Michael Myers.[58]

The 1994 film The Stoned Age features the song when one of the main characters criticizes the song as being "a pussy song" despite it being performed by Blue Oyster Cult.[59]

The song was featured in the Full Motion Video Game Ripper, which, coincidentally, also featured Christopher Walken.[60]

The song was featured in the starting tracklist of the rhythm game Rock Band.[61]

The song is used as the theme song for the BBC Radio 4 sketch show V.I.P. R.I.P.[62]

Track listingEdit

7" Vinyl
  1. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (Roeser) – 3:45
  2. "Tattoo Vampire" (Albert Bouchard, Helen Robbins) – 2:40



  • Michael and Randy Brecker - horns (their contribution appears only on the extended album track and was edited out of the released single)[63]
  • David Lucas – backing vocals, keyboards, percussion, cowbell


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  2. ^ Strong, Martin Charles; Griffin, Brendon (2008). Lights, camera, sound tracks. Canongate. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-84767-003-8. Reaper' was a one-off return to their 60s psychedelic roots.
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