(Don't Fear) The Reaper 45 RPM single
Blue Öyster Cult originated as a band called Soft White Underbelly in 1967, playing gigs in the vicinity of Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York at the prompting of critic and manager Sandy Pearlman. The original lineup consisted of Les Braunstein (vocals), Allen Lanier (guitars/keyboards), Andrew Winters (bass), and Albert Bouchard (drums). This lineup recorded an album’s worth of material for Elektra Records in 1968. When Braunstein left the band in 1969, Elektra shelved the album. Eric Bloom, formerly the bands acoustic engineer, replaced Braunstein, and the band continued to perform as Soft White Underbelly. However, a bad review of a show at the Fillmore East caused Pearlman to change the band’s name, first to Oaxaca, then to Stalk-Forrest Group. The band recorded yet another album’s worth of material for Elektra, but only one single was released: “What Is Quicksand” b/w “Arthur Comics”, and only as a promo edition of 300 copies. Joe Bouchard replaced Andrew Winters on bass in 1970. After a few more name changes, the band settled on Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. Pearlman was able to get Blue Öyster Cult another audition with Columbia Records. Clive Davis liked what he heard and signed them to the label. Their debut album, “Blue Öyster Cult” (1972) was issued, reaching #172 on the Billboard album chart. The next album, “Tyranny and Mutation” (1973), was issued while the band was on tour in support of their first album. The third album, “Secret Treaties” (1974), reached #53 on the Billboard album chart and was eventually certified gold. As a result of constant touring, the band was now capable of headlining arenas. The band’s first live album “On Your Feet or on Your Knees” (1975), was a double album that also went gold. It was followed up by their first platinum album, “Agents of Fortune”. This album contained the hit single, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” b/w “Tattoo Vampire”, which reached #12 on the Billboard singles chart. This is today’s featured single.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was written by Donald Roeser and is anchored by a relatively simple minor-key melody (a total of 4 chords) played in the key of C. It is a throwback to the jangle/power pop of the 1960s, albeit with more menacing overtones that make this one of Blue Öyster Cult’s most powerful songs, even though it sounds much more restrained than most of their other songs. One can see why Hubbs in “The Stöned Age” referred to this song as a “p**sy song”, but few songs capture the sense of impending doom as well as this song. The lyrical content complements the music well: “All our times have come/Here, but now they’re gone/Seasons don’t fear the reaper/Like the wind and the sun and the rain”. There are two brief solo breaks in the first half of the song; then about 2 minutes and 30 seconds into the track, we get the main solo, which starts off with a single guitar before a thunderous crescendo bursts forth, before we get the final verse and the resonant fade-out. This is one of Blue Öyster Cult’s signature tunes, and certainly one of their most powerful ones.
The B-side of this single, “Tattoo Vampire”, is a more straightforward rocker. The first 11 seconds feature Lanier moving his hand along the neck of his electric guitar (generating a rather unusual sound) before the main melody starts. The lyrics are pure heavy metal imagery: “I went down last night with a tattoo madam/To a nude dagger fantasy domain/Wrapped in hell, I lost my breath/Chest to stimulating chinese breast”. Although the song is only 2 minutes and 41 seconds long, we do get a very cool guitar solo 1 minute and 39 seconds into the song (although it only lasts 23 seconds). This song lacks the subtlety of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, making the latter the more enduring song. “Tattoo Vampire”, on the other hand, is more like an assault on your (auditory) senses, but it is nonetheless a good song, and one that fans of the genre will enjoy.
This single (catalog #: 4483) was released on Columbia Records in June 1976. The single version is 3 minutes and 45 seconds long (as opposed to the 5 minutes and 8 seconds of the album version), omitting the spooky-sounding guitar solo. No picture sleeve was issued with this single, but a Columbia paper sleeve was issued with the single (with the Pacman-style Columbia logo). The label was the red and orange Columbia label typical of singles issued during this time period. The length of track is on the left side, the catalog number is on the right side, and the artist/song information is on the bottom. The band would continue to release albums throughout the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s. The next album, “Spectres” (1977), was not as popular as its predecessor, but their next live album, “Some Enchanted Evening” (1978), went double platinum. “Mirrors” (1979) was a commercial disappointment, but “Cultösaurus Erectus” represented a comeback of sorts, reaching #14 in the U.K. and leading to a co-headlining tour with Black Sabbath. “Fire of Unknown Origin” (1981) generated the Top 40 single “Burnin’ for You” and went platinum. After this album was released, Albert Bouchard left, to be replaced by Rick Downey. “Extraterrestrial Live” (1982), the band’s third live album, went platinum, but the following album, “The Revölution By Night” (1983), was a commercial disappointment, in spite of having Bruce Fairbairn as the producer. Albert Bouchard returned for a 1985 tour, but left again after the tour, as did longtime keyboardist Allen Lanier. They brought in drummer Jimmy Wilcox and keyboardist Tommy Zvoncheck to complete the upcoming “Club Ninja” (1986) album, which was not the comeback they had hoped it would be. Bassist Joe Bouchard left after a tour of Germany and was replaced by Jon Rogers. BOC toured Greece in the summer of 1987, this time with Ron Riddle on drums, and the following year, they released “Imaginos” (1988). Promotion by the label was nonexistent and the album was a commercial failure. When Columbia was acquired by Sony Music, BOC was dropped from the label. They would re-emerge about a decade later, releasing two albums, “Heaven Forbid” (1998) and “Curse of the Hidden Mirror” (2001) both released on CMC Records (later purchased by Sanctuary Records). BOC later had a falling out with Sanctuary, and is currently without a record deal.