Over 45 years on, (Don't Fear) The Reaper still stands up as one of classic rock’s greatest tributes to everlasting love. Back in 1975, while writing and recording their third studio album, Agents Of Fortune, the last thing on Blue Öyster Cult’s minds was scoring themselves a big hit single but that’s exactly what happened with …Reaper. The track spent 20 weeks on the US Hot 100 peaking at No 12, while it also broke the Top 20 in the UK two years later.
The song’s breakaway success helped establish BÖC as one of the mainstays of the US arena circuit in the late '70s, while its inclusion in countless movies and TV programmes has helped ensure its longevity ever since. (On a side note, if you haven’t seen the hilarious Christopher Walken-led Saturday Night Live skit about the song, do yourself a favour below.
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper was written by Blue Öyster Cult’s lead guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, who also sung the lead vocal. Dharma, who still regularly tours with the band he’s been part of since 1967, is certainly touched that the song is still heralded by so many. “I think the song resonates with people and it doesn’t seem to matter how old they are or what generation they come from,” Buck Dharma told this writer back in 2008. “And for that I am grateful… it’s almost had a life of its own. I don’t even think it’s mine sometimes – it’s just out there! It’s unlike the rest of our music and it’s unlike the rest of the songs I’ve written, too, which is funny.”
The haunting melodic guitar motif that kicks off …Reaper came to Dharma almost instantly, as did the song’s opening words. “It was one of those things that just sort of fell off my fingers,” Dharma explained. “And I knew I had something there because I liked it the first time I heard it. I was like, ‘Wow!’ The first two lines of the lyric, again, just sort of came from my head rather unbidden. Then the idea of the song took shape but it took about six weeks to write the rest of it.”
Over the years, …Reaper has attracted negative publicity due to conservative pressure groups claiming the song encourages suicide, but Buck claims it isn’t about suicide at all. “It’s a love story that transcends the death of one of the partners and then they get back together again in another plain,” he continued. “It’s not about suicide, although I can see how people can think that, but that’s not where it’s at. It just imagines that there is an afterlife and that lovers will be reunited… Dying is a part of life, so don’t fear it, just know that it’s there for everybody and it just happens at different times.”
While writing material for 1976’s Agents Of Fortune long player, all the members of BÖC acquired TEAC four-track tape machines and (Don’t Fear) The Reaper was the first track that Buck wrote on his new setup. He even multi-tracked his own improvised drum kit. “I played drums on a dictionary and then I just mic’d my foot on the floor to get a kick sound!” laughed Buck. “And it was simple drumming, of course, but the guitar arrangement was essentially the way it was later recorded.”
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper was laid down at New York’s legendary Record Plant studio with equally legendary house engineer Shelly Yakus. “It was where most of the New York bands that were making hits were recording at that time,” explained Dharma.
“Most of the great rock records were being recorded there and so we were very happy to be a part of that. We’d run into Aerosmith, we’d run into Cheap Trick, we’d see Blondie and we’d see John Lennon and Yoko recording there, too.”
For …Reaper’s lead parts, Buck Dharma played his favourite Gibson SG while the main rhythm parts were laid down on a guitar owned by Murray Krugman, who co-produced Agents Of Fortune along with David Lucas and BÖC’s manager Sandy Pearlman. “The main guitar lick was played on a Gibson ES-175, which is sort of a jazz box, through my Music Man 410 amplifier,” Dharma said. “The ES-175 belonged to Murray Krugman. He’d brought the guitar into the studio and I just plugged it in and played it.
"It had a particularly unique sound – a little different than the SG with a bit more character to it. The hard part about it was that when we play it live, nothing really sounds like that 175 so the live version always sounds a little different than the record.”
After the final mix of …Reaper was completed, the band and their production team knew they’d captured something special, but nobody could have predicted that the track would go on to become such a huge hit and one of the most oft-played 70s rock anthems in American radio history.
“We knew we had something,” Dharma continued. “Shelly did a great job of capturing the essence of the song in the recording. When we were mixing the record and listening to the playback, we knew we had something good, but we had no idea what it was going to do! We were thinking that it was going to be a strong FM radio track, and in those days hit radio was AM and album radio was FM, so we thought we’d have a good album track for FM radio. But beyond that – that it would actually take off and be a hit single? We had no idea!”