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Don't Fear The Reaper: Story of a Song

By Edited Nov 18, 2015 4 5

Reaper IV

Behind the wall to wall leather, hook and cross logo, cleverly cryptic lyrics, and relentless riffing of lead guitars, were some Long Island college kids who created one of the most enduring and influential American rock bands of all time: Blue Oyster Cult.

Donald Roeser and Albert Bouchard started jamming in an old house by Stony Brook College in upstate New York. Others joined the fun, including a film student named Alan Lanier. The boys played the local scene and bounced in and out of forgettable bands. It may not have gone any farther without a catalyst, in the form of boy genius Sandy Pearlman.

Pearlman, the student body president of Stony Brook College, had glitteringly subversive imaginings inhabiting his high IQ head. He was a founding father of rock music criticism and a guiding light for the flagship magazine for this new genre, Crawdaddy.

Pearlman offered Roeser, Bouchard, and Lanier paying gigs in exchange for influence over the band's direction. Pearlman had big plans for the boys. They would be the mouthpiece for Imaginos, a science fiction fantasy world Pearlman had created. The first step was to give the band a name. Pearlman decided on "Soft White Underbelly"(SWU), from Winston Churchill's description of WWII Italy.

SWU was a riff oriented instrumental psychedelic rock band - instrumental because they didn't have a lead singer. As the band soldiered on their sound man, Eric Bloom, tried his hand at lead vocal for SWU and got the job. The last piece was adding drummer Albert Bouchard's brother Joe as bass player. Pearlman used his influence to get SWU gigs opening for The Grateful Dead and Muddy Watters, and the band was on its way.

Five Guitars

Pearlman's next step was to give all the band members names from his Imaginos story. Unfortunately, each name was violently rejected by its recipient - except for Donald Roeser's name: Buck Dharma, which stuck. Pearlman had slightly better luck renaming the band after a group in his Imaginos story called "The Blue Oyster Cult, who were a group of aliens assembled to secretly guide Earth's history.

The band received the moniker with gritted teeth, but when no one could come up with anything better the name stayed with a couple of modifications. The “The” was dropped and, at Alan Lanier's suggestion, an umlaut was added over the 'Ö' in Öyster.” Later the band's umlaut would be copied by big ticket groups like Mötley Crue and Motörhead.

Tyranny and Mutation album cover

In 1972 BÖC released its first album, Tyranny and Mutation, with a single (in New York anyway) “Cities on Flame.” After two years of touring another album was released: the critically acclaimed and commercially popular Secret Treaties. Treaties was a harder edged album that fit with the marketing of BÖC as an American version of Black Sabbath. The album also contained what would become an enduring feature: a peculiar lyrical preoccupation with mirrors and eyes.

Secret Treaties

Controversy arose over the album cover showing the band standing next to a WWII German jet fighter. The band dedicated a song to the plane, “ME 262.” The lyrics are from the point of view of a German pilot trying to kill English planes. 

Producer Sandy Pearlman had the idea for the song, and liked the provocative nature of the subject. Roeser and Bloom were not as enthused but also collaborated. Although all three men are Jewish, this did not appease critics who called the band fascists and accused them of glorifying the Hitler regime. 

Later the band attributed the lyrics and attraction to Nazism as Pearlman's penchant for causing controversy. Perhaps, but it is also true that the band went along with it, at least for a while. During this time BÖC was trying to define itself. It used some goofy bondage gimmicks in some shows, and some mild satanism in others. Perhaps the “ME 262” period falls in this category. As the years went on Nazism was not something that recurred in album art or song lyrics, so the controversy passed. 


In 1975 a double live album hit the stores. “On Your Feet or on Your Knees” showcased BÖC's strengths as a live performing band: fast, clean, hard rock and roll featuring pronounced riffs, tastefully extended jams, scorching guitar solos by Roeser, and great chemistry between band and audience. The album showed that Buck Dharma's lead guitar was the band's driving instrument and signature sound, and that Eric Bloom had matured into a worthy frontman for the band.

Feet or Knees cover

Most of all, On Your Feet showed what a rock and roll powerhouse Blue Öyster Cult had become. The production sound of the album was terrible, but strangely this made the music even more appealing, giving it a raw spontaneity, a “you are there” quality more polished live albums sometimes lack. The result was BOC's first gold album. 

Back in the studio again, the band began working on the follow up to On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. Roeser had been working on a song he thought had possibilities as a single, something that had been elusive for the band. The album, released in 1976, was Agents of Fortune.The song was “(Don't Fear) The Reaper.”

Agents of Fortune album cover

 Reaper really was the agent of fortune for BOC. It reached number 12 in the Billboard charts, got extensive airplay and, of course, today is a rock and roll classic. The record went platinum. BOC was now headlining gigs, selling out coliseums, and appearing on the covers of rock magazines. Blue Oyster Cult had gone mainstream all because of one song. 

Reaper is a beautifully textured rock song with hypnotic guitars, almost angelic (!) choruses, and one of the baddest, most hypnotic guitar riffs ever created. The lyrics are typically cryptic. Roeser described writing the song this way:

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.”

So Reaper is a love song that faces death and mortality. Then we hit the second verse, “the one that’s caused all the trouble all these years,” Roeser admits. Here are the words: 

Valentine is done
Here but now they're gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity (Romeo and Juliet)
40,000 men and women everyday (like Romeo and Juliet)
40,000 men and women everyday (redefine happiness)
Another 40,000 coming everyday (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

Critics interpret the reference to Romeo and Juliet as a veiled invitation to suicide. Others interpret the “40,000” as the number of suicides in a day. So the message, it is argued, is this: Come with me, let's commit suicide: “We can be like they are/come on baby/don't fear the Reaper.”

Roeser says: “It frankly never occurred to me that the suicide aspect” would outweigh the real message of the song, which, according to Roeser, is this:

“ ‘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.” 

And the 40,000? “The “40,000” number was pulled from the air,” Roeser explains, “as a guess about how many people died every day worldwide, not how many people committed suicide.” 

As with “ME262”, the controversy over the Reaper has been forgotten over the years. The song still gets airplay, and is a fan favorite at BOC concerts. Yes the band is still touring, even after thirty odd years together. 

BOC today

During that time BOC's fortunes have gone up and down. Roeser penned more singles, and the band had its share of Spinal Tap moments going through a revolving door of band mates. Roeser and Bloom have always been in the band (at times they were referred to as “Two Oyster Cult”) and today the Oyster boys are still afloat. They are considered one of the seminal American heavy metal bands, and their influence has extended to groups like Mötley Crue and Metallica, who as a tribute covered BÖC's “Astronomy,” and thrash metal bands like Motörhead, Anthrax, and Slayer. 

Not bad for a bunch of Long Island college kids. Blue Öyster Cult, thanks for your songs; for your unique sound; your style, and your indecipherable lyrics. Godspeed to you on your trip down the rock and roll highway.




The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (16 CD/ 1 DVD)
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A History of Blue Oyster Cult (and Soft White Underbelly)


Oct 6, 2015 9:40am
I love BOC! And I love that they're still out there slogging it out. They've written some of the most intelligent and endruing hard rock tunes ever. Great piece on a great band--thumbin'!
Oct 6, 2015 7:57pm
Thanks Vic, always great to run into another boc fan. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.
i’ve always been a big boc guy, ever since “On Your Feet or On Your Knees,” love them live. Saw them once with the freaking laser show that just about blinded everyone lol
i like reaper but it is not my favorite song, that’s probably eti or red and black, buck’s boogie, or hot rails - all live of course
wish they got more recognition for their talent. I am happy to do my small part for the cause.

Oct 8, 2015 10:18am
Among musicos BOC has a great rep, and is cited by many as influential in their careers. My favorite album of theirs, from start to finish, is "Fire of Unknown Origin", and my favorite track of theirs, 'Havy Metal: Black & Silver" comes from that disc. I never got the chance to see them live. And it.was Sandy Pearlman's work with BOC that led The Clash to get him on board for their 2nnd LP, " Give 'Em Enough Rope".
Oct 8, 2015 10:19am
This comment has been deleted.
Oct 8, 2015 11:26am
This comment has been deleted.
Oct 8, 2015 11:28am
Sorry for the triplicate posting. Can you delete the extras?
Oct 8, 2015 12:43pm
S'okay. Yeah, you are right about Pearlman and the Clash. I'll check out that song you mentioned. i didn't follow them as close after Spectres.
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