The Movie Story Behind the Song That Inspired “More Cowbell!”

This SNL skit–written by Will Ferrell, by the way–is one of the most memorable in the show’s history.

need more cowbell from nicemusicltd on Vimeo.

The original 1976 hit from Blue Oyster Cult is as immortal as its Grim Reaper subject matter. The New York Times takes a look at what it hath wrought.

When you hear the riff, something deadly is on the way. Blue Öyster Cult’s biggest hit single, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” has been spooking film audiences for nearly 40 years, ever since its release in May 1976.

As punk and disco were gathering strength, “Reaper” was a surprise Top 15 hit (appearing on the album “Agents of Fortune”), but it was hardly in fashion: a seamless bit of macabre romance with an expansive arrangement, Byrds-style harmonies and lyrics about how death might not be the end. Rock ’n’ roll has offered plenty of terrible advice: Ignore your homework, stay out late, exceed the speed limit. But flying into the arms of the Guy With the Scythe took the creepy cake.

In the four decades since, the song has been tapped more than two dozen times in film, television and video games and has become a most pliable standard. It can be used to take us back to the era of flares and muscle cars, as in the time-travel comedy “The Spirit of ’76” (1990). With earnest, transcendental lyrics about the indestructible spirit “flying” onward after death, it can be something of a punch line — Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson toke up to “Reaper” in the sharp horror farce “Zombieland” (2009). At its most effective, however, “Reaper” scares us out of our pants, as in the body-strewn opening of the 1994 mini-series “The Stand,” adapted from Stephen King’s novel).

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “The Movie Story Behind the Song That Inspired “More Cowbell!”

  • May 21, 2016 at 1:57 pm
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    I do an acoustic version of this song fairly often. BOC is one of my favourite bands. That said, the song reminds me of one of my favourite old films, “The Ghost And Mrs. Muir.” If you watch the final scene, where Captain Greg comes to take his beloved into the next world, it is just like the song, so this song really has always had a positive feeling to me, not a scary one.

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