A coiling guitar figure wraps itself around your consciousness, drawing tighter and tighter. And then… and then… the cowbell comes in.
This, my friends, is as good as it can ever get.
Blue Öyster Cult had been a rather gnarly biker-rock band, all greasy hair, leather trousers, and weird, occult imagery. They even had their own runic symbol, man. Their first three albums are packed with post-Altamont death jams, best summed up by the fantastic ‘Career of Evil’ from their third album, Secret Treaties, a song that begins with the lines, “I plot your rubric scarab, I steal your satellite, I want your wife to be my baby tonight.”
But on their fourth record, Agents of Fortune, the band cleaned up the production a little, streamlined their sound, and unleashed a record that possessed a winking theatricality, full of songs about UFOs, weird people, kinky sex, and vampires, but still packed with punchy riffs and – crucially – big pop hooks. And the crowning masterpiece of the album, of Blue Öyster Cult’s entire career, was the incredible ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, an otherworldly ballad that captured an ethereal horror unlike anything else in rock and roll.
Composed and sung by guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser, the song is a haunting voyage into the abyss, of a doomed couple, of murmurings of suicide, possibly murder, ending up in the loving embrace of Mr Death himself. If Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote a rock and roll song, it would probably sound like this. And the music rises to the occasion, the Blue Öyster Cult sacrificing their usual hard rock attack in favour of something more subtle, an insidious melody that worms its way into your soul, refusing to let go. This is one of those songs that sounds like it’s always been there, always lurking in the shadows of reality, waiting to make its presence felt.
The song was a huge hit for the band, but also managed to work its way into other creative works, becoming a mainstay of horror cinema, the sweeping melodrama of Roeser’s lyric and melody providing a perfect backdrop to some of Hollywood’s most chilling moments. John Carpenter used the song in his classic slasher movie Halloween, whilst Stephen King claims it was the inspiration for his apocalyptic fantasy masterpiece The Stand.
But as we dive headlong into the season of evil, we should take a moment, play this song, and marvel as the curtains blow open, revealing the spectre of The Grim Reaper, come to take us with a smile on his skeletal face.
And a cowbell in his hand. Steven Rainey