When you invite Death into your love song, how do you keep It on message? You build a regular, reassuring heartbeat of guitar and drums, with a hint of melancholy in the A minor scale. Use words with warm, round ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘y’ and ‘b’ sounds. No guillotine cuts of ‘k’, ‘tt‘ or ‘ss’. No heavy, dead thuds of ‘d’ or ‘ug’. Light words, sung lightly, layered with the lalala of summertime. Death becomes a fact, not a fear; a natural part of life and love:
Songwriting is a process of choice. Selection, rather than planning. Out of all possible words, which word is the best possible word?
When Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult wrote Don’t Fear the Reaper, the best words, in the best order, will have revealed themselves as he tried them out with the music. His job was to listen. Carefully.
He won’t have planned to list the wind, the sun and the rain in that order. The order of lists is always important in song but the usual weather listing in English is sun, wind and rain. Why change the usual order? To focus our attention on rain.
Shaking up the accepted order of any list forces us to pay attention. We love the game. We know the usual order so we can guess rain as the missing element, but we’re not sure. So we listen expectantly. What’s our reward?
The spacious feeling of the double vowel diphthong at the centre of the word rain /reɪn/. Just that? In song, the tiniest sound is significant. Ending on rain gives us a taste of the message of the song – to accept. Ending on sun would have been too happy. Ending on wind would have been too blowy – and Buck is saving the wind for a starring role in the Gothic ending of his song. He can’t bring the wind in here as a line-ending word. That would waste its evocative power.
Try imagining the weather list in a different order: the rain, the wind and the sun or the sun, the rain and the wind. It feels different, doesn’t it? In a song, tiny details shift emotion. Buck has set up the weather and the seasons to introduce the Reaper/Death in its proper position: as part of the natural rhythm of life. He doesn’t want you imagining a horror film Death or a Grim Reaper. His Reaper is just a Reaper. Just doing his job. There’s nothing grim about him.
All of this sounds quite clinical. It isn’t. The ‘rightness’ of one word over another is a feeling, not a thought. Buck won’t have plotted any of this out on graph paper. He won’t have been actively conscious of any of it while writing the song. The human mind is a wonderful thing, especially when it wants to communicate effectively with other humans through words or music. Unconscious it may be, but songwriting choice is a powerful force.
Don’t fear is a brilliant choice of English. We all understand don’t fear, but it’s not our standard choice in conversation. When was the last time you said Don’t fear the neighbour’s vicious cat or Don’t fear your boss? We recognise don’t fear as unusual, ‘antique’, fairy-story English. It tells us to expect something with a mystical flavour and safely distances us from it. It’s Once upon a time language.
Buck Dharma chose his words well. Why is Don’t Fear the Reaper so much better than other single-syllable possibilities, such as Don’t Dread the Reaper? A similar meaning, but those heavy d sounds at each end of dread clunk the word down to the ground. Once you’ve sung the line Don’t Dread the Reaper, your point is made. There’s nothing more to say. Dread would drag the song down. It’s a cold word. The line: Don’t Fear the Reaper sounds magical, with a tempting touch of eeriness. Like a benign ghost. The words lift us with the light, floating sound of fear’s /ɪə/ (ear) diphthong satisfyingly split and repeated at either side of the swift cut of the p sound in Reaper. The light touch of those four words: Don’t fear the Reaper gives a natural/supernatural invitation to listen. It’s advice. It’s Ecclesiastes:
Don’t fear is doubly clever because the double vowel diphthong of fear /ɪə/ (ear) echoes through the song: here/clear/appeared/disappeared. The word Reaper, rather satisfyingly, splits the /ɪə/ diphthong of fear into its two separate vowel sounds, in the same order, with the /i/ (ee) sound first and the /ə/ schwa sound last: /ˈriːpə/ Beautiful. Just as the song promises, the Reaper’s cut doesn’t destroy outright. The sounds remain. We register that as we listen. Just as we register all the tiny hints in the way Buck sings his words: matter-of-factly. The Reaper, in this song, is as natural a part of the cycle of life as Winter.
The word Reaper is a masterstroke, for its mouthfeel alone. The word Death would have been too matter-of-fact. Too clumsy. Don’t Fear Death is a lumpen platitude. It’s hard to build anything but a comedy song from platitudes. Especially lumpen ones. The phrase Don’t Fear the Reaper is a series of intriguing, interlocking, repeating sounds. The sounds refract and bend in echoes. It carries a frisson of fear, the magic of tarot cards and a hint of medieval painting within it. The word Reaper sounds like what it is: the repetitive ‘swish’ of scything:
The sound of the word Reaper colours its meaning in song. As a songwriter, you build images in your listeners’ minds with sound. Sound is all you have. The image can shimmer, it can be shadowy, but it must be vivid. Vividly shadowy, if you like. That’s why Death, as a word and as a sound, wouldn’t suit this song. In The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman shows you Death playing chess. He lets you see Death and lets you hear Death speak. He gives Death a personality. Ingmar has music, light, camera angles, editing, costume and script to influence your idea of Death as a character in his film. Buck Dharma has sound alone:
Buck Dharma has no time to build up a detailed character portrait of Death. His song isn’t about Death anyway. It’s about life and love and the immortality of youth. That’s why Buck peppers Don’t Fear the Reaper with words that end in light floating sounds, like bubbles of air in chocolate: fly/eternity/baby/are/day/blew/flew. That’s why he layers the vocals on Romeo and Juliet, so that the wonderful, warm rolling sound of Romeo repeats luxuriously, round and round and round. Life and love pulse through the song.
That’s why Buck sings about forty thousand men and women every day: for the plump, soft sound of thousand bolstered by the spacious vowel sound of forty. Sixty thousand? Too thin, too sharp sounding with the s and x. Thirty thousand? Too many th sounds. Twenty thousand? Too many t sounds. Fifty thousand? Too much spitting of hard f sounds. Forty-five thousand? A mouth-shifting, tongue-trapping quagmire of f and v sounds. You get the picture. Invented numbers need to work hard to earn a place within a song. They need to be easy to sing. John Lennon’s four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire are four thousand because the words sound right:
Even the la sounds of Don’t fear the Reaper are there for a reason. They keep the mood of the song light and loving. If the song were about Death and endings alone, la would feel out of place (imagine a lalala in the middle of Back to Black), but for a song about the natural rhythm of Life, la has an energy that’s just right. Never discount the usefulness of a la or three when you’re writing a song:
I’d say that none of the covers of Don’t Fear the Reaper have outshone the original. Why? Because Death is a difficult word to sing, when Death isn’t the main flavour.
Buck Dharma gives Death enough attention, but no more than it deserves. He treads a liminal line. The Reaper is there, of course, in the title and in the chorus, but Buck doesn’t sing with a Death Metal focus or a slow, macabre intensity. He doesn’t sound too jolly, but he doesn’t sound sad either. He sings the words as he wrote them: the Reaper as an necessary part of life.
What made me think of Don’t Fear the Reaper? Dr Kevin Fong, the space medicine expert, was on Desert Island Discs and he chose Don’t Fear the Reaper to remind him of his time training as a medical doctor. I hadn’t heard the song for a long time and I was intrigued by the shape and the sound of the words.
When you write a song in English: let every word earn its place, through sound first and meaning second. Don’t fear is a masterful choice of words. It’s not the kind of English you learn in English class, but it’s the English that this song needs.
If English isn’t your first language: when you sing Don’t Fear the Reaper, let the words float free, but not too free. The intriguing power of the song lies in the contrast between its regular, upbeat sound and the presence of Death/the Reaper. Death is present, but so are Love and Life. Sing the words too ‘meaningfully’ and ‘death consciously’ and you lose it all. Sing it too casually and you’ll lose too. What has made the song a classic, in its original version? Look for the answer to that question before you sing it. Look carefully.