More Cowbell: The 40th anniversary of ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’

May 23, 2016 | 0 comments

Blue Oyster Cult Agents of Fortune cover“(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult first hit the airwaves in May, 1976. I was just graduating from high school, the class of ’76. Saturday Night Live was in its infancy. Little did we know the meme “More Cowbell” would come from the convergence of these two pop culture phenomena.

The New York Times just explained the amazing life of a song about death in this story, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper is a Creepy Tune, Even With the Cowbell.”

The song was a Top 15 hit in an era when disco, punk, The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell were all the rage. It was used in a number of movies, most notably John Carpenter’s 1978 horror flick, Halloween.

But its message is not meant to be spooky. It’s supposed to confirm the belief in a life beyond death. In spite of exhortations to NOT fear the Reaper, people still do. It’s the same old problem. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.

The song was born after the guitarist and co-vocalist Buck Dharma (real name: Donald Roesser) learned in his mid-20s that he had an erratic heartbeat. Still alive and kicking 40 years down the road, Dharma wants the song played at his funeral.

SNL Reaper More CowbellAs for the “More Cowbell” connection – from the New York Times article:

Listen to “Reaper” in a snippet on a soundtrack, and you might miss the cowbell that drives it, along with a repetitive guitar line. That bit of innocent percussion was not lost on Will Ferrell, who in 2000 wrote a “Saturday Night Live” sendup of “Behind the Music,” the VH1 nostalgia documentary series then saturating the airwaves. We see the band cutting the track with a producer (played by Christopher Walken) who exhorts Mr. Ferrell’s earnest cowbell player to dominate the entire session (“Really explore the studio space this time”), to the other musicians’ frustration.

“I don’t think it was making fun of the band at all,” the actor Chris Parnell said by phone. He played a version of Mr. Dharma in the sketch (although he is referred to as “Eric,” most likely the band’s sometime lead vocalist Eric Bloom). “It was much more a parody of ‘Behind the Music.’”

Still, “S.N.L.” put the ersatz Blue Öyster Cult in ’70s garb, mustaches and wigs, Mr. Ferrell’s gut protruding from his too-tight shirt. “More Cowbell,” as the sketch would soon be called, became one of the first super-memes of the new century.

And, really, don’t fear the Reaper. While you’re at it, make some end-of-life plans BEFORE you leap into his arms. Check out A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.

A Good Goodbye