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The Friday Flash Review with Jon Deutsch: Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

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The Friday Flash Reviews is the bit where the TNOCS.com admin and I pick a category of song to review, and the community votes up the song they want reviewed within said category.

This week’s voting category was:

It ended up with an unprecedented tie.

So I extended the deadline for voting. Which ended with another tie.

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So I finally asked our dutiful TNOCS.com admin to break the tie.

Which he dutifully outsourced to his dutiful…dog. 

Look, we each have our own preferred outsourcing strategies. Who am I to judge which species he outsources a key decision like this to?

It’s not like his dog’s vote was any less nutty than decisions many noted presidents have made of late, amirite? 

goodboy.png
“We don’t have that kind of time.”

So, what did the dog drag in?

Perhaps the only song for which a Saturday Night Live skit about the song is far more popular than the song itself. 

Dogs and skits aside, there’s a key issue with reviewing “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper:

The album version is far more interesting than the single.

Yet, the nature of the category (“Billboard’s Hot 100 chart”) essentially requires me to review the single version that was released to the Billboard charts. 

This is all slightly made more complicated by the fact that it was only the album version that charted in UK’s pop charts, but that’s not Billboard, folks.

Meanwhile, the edited-down single version went all the way up to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

One can only imagine if someone had the guts to release the unedited version on the American charts – I bet it would have made it to the Top 5. 

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll review the single version primarily, and add appendages where I feel the album version significantly deviates from the assessment of the edited single.

Fair?

“Sounds good, Jon. And if you need me,
l’ll be on assignment for the good folks at Charmin.”

In-a-Flash “Gut Take” Review:

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is yet another song that definitively defines the sound of “classic rock:” Guitar-driven, moody, accented by a series of guitar solos/riffs, and lacking in pure pop song structure to give the impression of a live jam session.

As you may or may not recall, I was raised by a music nazi who didn’t allow me to listen to “noise” until the 1980s.

Due to this suboptimal dynamic, I didn’t benefit from getting acquainted with songs like this until I was exposed to them at college parties and beyond.

So I come at the classic rock era as an outsider.

And my outsider perspective on (DF)TR is that it’s an epic classic rock song that has a seriously long tail, and certainly creates a mood.

However, as a song — especially the edited single that made it to #12 on the Billboard 100 — about all it is, is a mood (the album version is far more of an interesting-if-disjointed song). 

As mood songs go, it scores high. But the edited single to me doesn’t light my fire, if you will. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very good song. But I simply cannot co-sign onto the epicness that appears to surround the feelings for this song far and wide. 

In-a-Flash score: 7/10 


The Full Friday Flash Review:

Production: 7/10

Creating a mood requires a strong point of view that is executed end-to-end in the production. And this is achieved to great effect here. I’d argue that the vocal production does the most to evoke this vibe: they’re smooth-as-silk, delicately overlaid, and elevated high in the mix so that their softness doesn’t act as a detriment to sonic legibility.

There are also some somewhat novel production decisions in allowing a heck-load of guitar solos to play ping-pong with the vocals during the chorus.

(And the guitar solos in the middle of the song in the album version take this song into a whole other stratum of production decisions.)

But perhaps the most perplexing production decision is the series of “breaks” – where the song kinda reboots itself over and over again throughout the song. Don’t get me wrong — these work. But they work far better in the album version. 

Last, but certainly not least, is the Hammond B3 that lurks in the mix…

And once in a while rises to the top of the mix, to add even more “classic rock” vibes to the whole experience. 

Songwriting/melody: 8/10

As Hooktheory.com nicely conveys, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” does punch above its songwriting weight in melodic complexity and, interestingly, the chord bass melody. I say interestingly because the way this song is mixed, I barely hear the bassline.

Even in the edited version, the songwriting stands out for two reasons: 

1. There is precious little commitment to traditional song structure. The chorus just seems to burst right in whenever it wants to, and the post chorus is prettier than the chorus, and the versus sometimes sound like pre-choruses. In fact, perhaps they are, in which case there are literally no verses in this song. That’s weird! But also interesting, and interesting is good here.

2. There’s just a lot of melody in this song, coming from the vocals primarily, but also the guitar. The way the vocals and the guitar riffs do interplay, it ends up being something far more than a traditional song melody. It’s more like a ping pong match, done to music. Very good stuff.  

The album version takes things a notch or two higher with the addition of an entirely new subsong that lives within the song that’s cut from the radio edit.

This intermission-of-sorts transforms this song into a prog-rock experience that almost puts the song in a whole other category.

It does so by completely switching up the key we’re in and doing something completely different with melodies, tones, and guitar riffs. It’s frankly quite disjointed, but it also inarguably elevates the experience at the same time. 

Vocals: 9/10

There is an intangible essence to the vocals on this track that not only ground the mood the song conveys, but allows (DF)TR to stand out uniquely amongst virtually all songs.

It’s not entirely clear how they did this, but my sense is that it’s the combination of a certain type of reverb that is at once heavy but also not mushy, combined with pushing up the gain on the track such that it sits atop the entire musical bed of the track.

Usually, reverb is used to allow elements to blend in better with its surroundings. In this case, the reverb is used strategically to pull the vocals out from the mix. That’s interesting. And it makes for a rich, full, yet somber vocal experience that has rarely — if ever — been repeated. 

Lyrics: 8/10

Singer and guitar player “Buck Dharma” (oh, the 70s!) had recently been diagnosed with a heart condition and needed to process the grief he was experiencing that his demise may be nigh (spoiler alert: he’s still alive).

So he wrote a song, naturally, about dying — and recontextualizing it as not just a necessary part of life, but a romantic one. He blended the idea of death with love, and developed a bit of a psychedelic (oh, the 70s!) take on how death and love can live in the same mindspace, in harmony. 

This, ladies and germs, was apparently quite easily misconstrued as a song valorizing suicide, and specifically, suicide pacts, which created a bunch of hoopla back in the day.

I have to say, I’m kinda with the people who misconstrued the lyrics. 

So, when your lyrics say this (after referencing Romeo and Juilet and saying “C’mon baby, don’t fear the reaper”):

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

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper{” – Blue Öyster Cult – Billboard # 12, August 1976 -Songwriter: Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser

…it really does absolutely sound like the narrator died and is inviting his love to join him in death. 

And I have no problem with this interpretation, despite Buck’s insistence to the contrary. No matter how you slice it, these are pretty poetic and thoughtful lyrics about death and love, intertwingled. 

Ear Worminess: 9/10

Be it in the intro guitar riff that repeats throughout the song, or the very first vocal (not even sure it’s a verse), it seems like the majority of the stanzas of this song end up being everlasting earworms.

The song is coming up on being 50 years old and once you hear this song, you can never unhear it.

I’m not even a huge fan of the melody myself, but it sticks to your cranium like eggs on an unseasoned skillet. Only one point deducted because the earworms themselves just seem to be a bit…creepy? Yes, even “Buck Dharma” preferred to think of it as creepy! 

Final Friday Flash Review Score:

SCORE: 8.2…
rounds its way down to a 8/10!  

TL;DR: 

The Full Friday Flash review has not changed my mind: I am personally dead-set on this being a solid 7/10 song, even if it is considered to be one of the more epic songs in classic rock history.

I personally think it’s considered epic due to Will Ferrell.

Which is fine, but that’s a meme, not a song. 

The Full Friday Flash Review does bump things up from my personal POV, which is absolutely fine, and in fact, good. Truthfully, I don’t think I’d want to endure the feedback if the full review didn’t raise things up a level! 

The full review has good reason to one-up my gut take: the lyrics are really pretty, poetic, and philosophical, and the earworm effect is undeniable, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the earworm (like me). This is a weird song that twists its way into being quite good on multiple levels. 

Ratings aside, the most fascinating thing about this song to me… besides the fact that the cowbell is actually downmixed incredibly well:

… is that the cowbell was an intentional overdub performed atop of the final mix, and nobody can agree to who actually played the cowbell overdub! 

It’s cowbell confabulation. And I’m here for it.  

Cheers!

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

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rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 7:11 am

A lot of good insight here. This song goes deep into my musical consciousness, as I was 12 when my older brother came home with this album, which he bought solely because of this song. I still remember hearing that opening guitar riff for the first time and loving the song instantly, though at the time I inexplicably thought it sounded similar to “Day Tripper”. I grew up with the album version, and even as an adult, the classic rock stations I listened to would normally play the full version, so when I hear the single version on that rare occasion, it is very disappointing. You are totally on point about that instrumental section making a huge difference.

I appreciated the details on the vocals. They really are unique for a hard rock song in their mellow almost hypnotic nature and just completely sell the lyrics in a much more understated way. I totally admire it for that and it definitely grabbed me as a kid. When I was doing karaoke, I found that a lot of classic rock was off limits for me as it was too high and sung so forcefully, that it would have destroyed my voice. (“Lady” by Styx nearly did.) This song was a welcome respite, but I only sang it one time, as the deejay had the long version and it gets awkward standing up there with nothing to do for quite awhile during that instrumental break.

The Will Ferrell bit is okay, but it does bother me that the song, and the cowbell for that matter, is forever associated with it for so many folks, something I have brought up elsewhere on this site. As far as it being the only song where an SNL skit about it has become more popular than the song itself, that is probably true. The Roxbury Guys head bobbing to Haddaway’s “What is Love” is not about the song itself, per se, but it bears mentioning that the song is forever linked to it and has probably been eclipsed by it in the general public consciousness, similar to what happened to Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Anyhow, great analysis, and I’m grateful that this song was chosen to be reviewed. Dogs really are wise.

Last edited 17 days ago by rollerboogie
Zeusaphone
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February 2, 2024 8:34 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

Dogs don’t fear the reaper

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 2, 2024 7:35 am

“US Charts: Like the UK Charts, without any pesky guts.”

[This ad brought to you by Kraft American…Sausage Rolls]

Before today, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song outside of some TV show or film (just recently I rewatched The Stand from 1993 and it played prominently).

I like it. It sounds like heavy metal Simon & Garfunkel, or the Byrds gone evil, which is pretty unique. I agree that it’s more of a mood piece, especially without the dramatic guitar intermission of the album version.

“Don’t Fear the Reaper” is what I tell people when reading their Tarot cards, and they draw the Death card. It’s like, life cycles, transformation, ego death, and le petit mort, man…

Anyway, a very fair and methodical review!

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 2, 2024 7:37 am

Actually, I am only now noticing the album art, and it looks like they made the Tarot connection as well!

Those are Thoth Tarot cards, slightly altered: Death, the Empress, the Emperor, and The Sun.

rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 9:07 am

When you made that reference, were you aware that there are tarot cards featured on the cover of the album from where the song hails?

BlueOysterCultAgentsofFortune
rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 9:08 am
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Ah I see from the comment below that you were not. Very cool coincidence.

Virgindog
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February 2, 2024 9:00 am

Today’s trivia: Blue Öyster Cult’s original name was Soft White Underbelly.

I’ve never been a massive fan but looking at their discography just now, I’m shocked that “Godzilla” never charted. That song was everywhere for a while. And “Joan Crawford” got to #49 on the Mainstream Rock chart without being released as a single. Odd.

7 or 8 out of 10 seems fair. Nice review, Jon!

Virgindog
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February 2, 2024 9:05 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Also, shout out to mt58’s pup. Good dog.

mt58
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February 2, 2024 9:26 am
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My new best friend. Just as predicted.

Everyone, meet Maple.

Pauly Steyreen
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February 2, 2024 1:37 pm
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So your new friend is Canadian, eh?

mt58
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February 2, 2024 3:28 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Leaf it to Pauly to come up with a good pun…

cstolliver
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February 2, 2024 10:39 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I think “Burnin’ for You” may be my favorite #40 peaking song ever. It’s certainly among my favorites (the only one vying with it right now is Kenny Loggins’ “Forever”).

cstolliver
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February 2, 2024 11:02 am
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Hmm … on second thought, Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” and Donna Summer’s “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” are also contenders…

ISurvivedPop
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February 2, 2024 11:39 am
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“Just Like Heaven” is probably up there, unless you’re not a Cure fan.

rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 5:07 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

Does this #40 from Kansas do it for anybody? It’s from 1980 and you can hear the beginnings of their move to a poppier direction and Christian-tinged messaging. Opens with a nice violin line from the late Robby Steinhardt.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xikm2YS_7xM

Last edited 17 days ago by rollerboogie
rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 9:20 am

This is neither here nor there, but BOC covered “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5 on a live album that my brother owned. We loved the title of the song. For about a week, our elderly neighbors had a massively large RV parked in their driveway. For some reason, my brother one day just randomly yelled “Kick out of the jams!” at it.

LinkCrawford
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February 2, 2024 11:57 am

I never was a big fan of BOC’s hits. Never had any of their albums. I couldn’t even remember the difference between “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You” when I would hear them on the radio…I just knew that one of them had a rip-snort guitar solo in the middle. (Confusion added when the single version would play without it).

But it’s not terrible. The general moodiness of the song kind of works in its favor. But for me there is no question. Without that guitar solo, this song suffers. I especially love the quiet, delicate triplets on the guitar before the wall sound explodes on the listener. That moment is always worth hearing. It’s not uncommon for me to listen to the song up to that point and then turn it looking for something else. I’d give the whole song a 7, but that moment on the album version is a 10.

lovethisconcept
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February 2, 2024 1:22 pm

I have loved this song forever, but I never hear it without thinking of my mother-in-law. My husband and I took her to visit another of her sons and this song came on the radio. She did not like most rock music, but she thought that this sounded kind of sweet. Asked me what it was about. Umm…suicide pacts? She was not impressed. Turned off the radio soon after.

JJ Live At Leeds
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February 2, 2024 2:01 pm

My knowledge of BOC is limited to this song. I had no idea we opted for the album version as the single, go UK.

I’ve also never been exposed to the SNL skit so have nothing blurring my memory of the song.

A girlfriend at university put this on a mixtape for me. I didn’t take it as a sign that we were doomed lovers and she was proposing we took the Romeo and Juliet way out. She got it from her dad’s record collection, that and some Iron Butterfly. I was already familiar with Don’t Fear The Reaper. It was only a #16 hit here (maybe the single edit would have done better?!) but it was one of those classic tracks that seemed to be part of the furniture.

I’m between a 7 and 8 as well.

dothestrand
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February 2, 2024 2:32 pm

one of those songs which, although maybe not an objective classic, will always be a 10 bc my dad loves it, like ‘Where Do You Go to My Lovely’ or anything by Gino Vannelli

rollerboogie
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February 2, 2024 3:13 pm

One more story that I may have told before at the mothership. Can’t remember. A number of years ago, I was heading to a rehearsal at a church. I had “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blasting on my stereo as I pulled up, where a funeral procession happened to be making its way out of the parking lot. Either it was a strange coincidence, or somebody up there has a sick sense of humor.

Ozmoe
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February 3, 2024 7:38 pm

I’d just like to say that given all the possible contenders for a song that made the Hot 100 without making the top 10, the dog did a pretty good job of selecting a worthy tiebreaker, in my opinion.

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