The Mortal Meaning Behind Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 Classic “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

Ruminating on what would happen if someone died at a young age and was reunited with all their loved ones in the afterlife, Blue Öyster Cult (BÖC) singer and lead guitarist, Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser) wrote one of the band’s biggest hits “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

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Released on the New York-born rocker’s fourth album, Agents of Fortune, in 1976, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Cash Box chart and within the top 20 (at No. 12) of the Hot 100.

(Don’t Fear) The Meaning

Right from the start, the title says it all. Don’t fear the reaper. Don’t fear the inevitable: death.

All our times have come
Here but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are

Dharma initially wrote the song while thinking of his own mortality after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat at a young age.

“I thought I was going to maybe not live that long,” said Dharma in a 2019 interview. “I had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and your mind starts running away with you—especially when you’re young-ish. So, that’s why I wrote the story. It’s imagining you can survive death in terms of your spirit. Your spirit will prevail.”

Love and Life

Further into the lyrics, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is also a semi-love song, transcending one’s physical existence on earth. Referencing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a verse, some listeners initially believed the song was about something entirely different.

Valentine is done
Here but now they’re gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity (Romeo and Juliet)
40, 000 men and women every day (like Romeo and Juliet)
40, 000 men and women every day (redefine happiness)
Another 40, 000 coming every day (we can be like they are)

Come on, baby (don’t fear the reaper)
Baby, take my hand (don’t fear the reaper)
We’ll be able to fly (don’t fear the reaper)
Baby, I’m your man

In the play, Romeo swallows poison when he believes Juliet is dead. Juliet then responds by also taking her own life, which led many people to believe “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was about suicide, which appalled Dharma.

“It’s not about suicide, although people kind of get that from the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ reference,” said Dharma. “But Blue Öyster Cult’s lyrics have always been, not obtuse, but deep. They’re certainly open to interpretation, and everybody seems to have their own thoughts about what stuff means. We purposely let people do that, draw their own conclusions from the lyric.”

Deaths Per Day

The verse 40,000 men and women every day, was Dharma’s guess of how many people died every day. In 1976, an estimated 140,000 people died each day, worldwide.

In 2022, alone, there were approximately 67.1 million deaths per year, according to a United Nations report.

Love of two is one
Here but now they’re gone
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn’t go on

Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew and then disappeared
The curtains flew and then he appeared
Saying don’t be afraid

“More Cowbell”

On the April 8, 2000, Saturday Night Live skit, “More Cowbell,” Blue Öyster Cult is depicted in the studio recording “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Actor Christopher Walken played their producer Bruce Dickinson who, like the band’s real-life “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” producer David Lucas, suggested adding cowbell to the track.

“I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell,” says Walken’s character in the skit.

Throughout the skit, the recording is cut as Will Ferrell’s cowbell playing dominates the other instruments.

The actual recording of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” does feature cowbell, played by the band’s former drummer Albert Bouchard. Unlike Ferrell’s character, Bouchard covered the bell in gaffer tape and hit it with a timpani mallet to keep the sound down.

“It’s really funny,” said Dharma in 2019 of the SNL skit. “The band had no idea it was coming, either. It was quite a surprise and phenomenal in its endurance and the way it’s worked its way into the culture. If the cowbell has been at all an annoyance for Blue Öyster Cult, it’s got to be 10 times worse for Christopher Walken. So, I’m riding that horse in the direction it’s going.”

Blue Öyster Cult released their 15th album, The Symbol Remains, in 2020. In October 2022, Blue Öyster Cult supported Deep Purple at a series of shows in the UK.

Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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