Summer 1976: "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" Rings a (Cow)bell

A stil from 'Saturday Night Live'
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video screenshot/Broadway Video/NBC

In the middle of 1976, hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult enjoyed an unexpected taste of success with the release of their fourth studio album, Agents of Fortune. To the surprise of everyone, the album's single, "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," became a sleeper hit that fall, climbing to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

While BÖC continue to record and tour, with original members Eric Bloom and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roesner leading the charge, the song might have been a pleasant footnote in a lengthy career. That all changed thanks to a popular late-night comedy show, a handful of committed performances and an instrument buried deep in the mix that's arguably its signature feature today.

Indeed, "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" reached a new audience on April 8, 2000, on a memorable episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Christopher Walken. In the now-iconic sketch, a send-up of VH1's Behind the Music, BÖC and producer Bruce Dickinson - the Bruce Dickinson, played by Walken - attempt to record the track, but no one can agree on how much fictitious member Gene Frenkle (Will Ferrell) should put his cowbell into the track.

Ferrell and co-writer Donnell Campbell had the idea for the gag for years. "Every time I heard the song," Ferrell later recounted to Rolling Stone, "I would hear the faint cowbell in the background and wonder, 'What is that guy's life like?'" But it reportedly took seven pitches to get the sketch to air, with Walken's signature off-kilter performance - one of his seven times hosting the long-running sketch series - sealing the deal. (Another behind-the-scenes secret: Ferrell intentionally wore a too-tight shirt in the final sketch to make his movements funnier - a detail that not only causes cast member Jimmy Fallon to break character, but even makes Walken crack a smile from the producer's booth.)

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And while the mock-doc took some liberties with the facts about the song - Roeser, not Bloom, sang the song, and Bruce Dickinson was the name of the compiler of a BÖC greatest-hits collection - it's well-loved by not only fans and critics but the band themselves. "I've probably seen it 20 times and I'm still not tired of it," Roeser told The Washington Post in 2005.

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Warner Records/Rhino
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(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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