Criminally under-appreciated yet darn near ubiquitous in some of the greatest rock and roll songs ever recorded, today is the day we celebrate a musical instrument first developed to assist herdsmen in keeping track of their wayward future Big Macs and Whoppers:the cowbell. First appearing in American mountain and hillbilly music back in the 1920s, the cowbell really started gaining traction during the ‘60s, as the psychedelic movement embraced all forms of musical (and other) experimentation. Today we honor the cream of the cowbell crop!
10. “Red Morning Light” Kings of Leon
A surprising yet entirely deserving newcomer to the pantheon of cowbell classics, Tennessee-based Kings of Leon deliver a raucous and raw cowbell confection with “Red Morning Light.” No longer relegated to the second-tier of percussion instruments, the cowbell gets the real spotlight treatment thanks to drummer Ivan Nathan Followill’s groovy and sparse mid-song breakdown.
9. “Nightrain” Guns N’ Roses
Slash was always a big fan of “Nightrain,” proclaiming in his autobiography that it was his favorite song to play live because “when we had our huge stage later on [after Guns N’ Roses got big], I’d run the length of it, jump off the amplifiers, and lose it just about every time we played it. I’m not sure why, but no other song we ever played live made me move like that.” Slash might not know why “Nightrain” did that to him, but we do: monster cowbell intro! Duh!
8. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” Blue Oyster Cult
A strong staple on rock radio since its release in 1976, Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was catapulted into the cowbell stratosphere thanks to its hilarious send-up by Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken on Saturday Night Live. “I’ve got a fever!” Walken exclaims during his portrayal of producer Bruce Dickinson, “and the only prescription is more cowbell!” This singular moment in rock history ushered the cowbell to its rightful place in the forefront of iconic rock instruments, just behind the ‘59 Les Paul Standard.
7. “Low Rider” War
Appearing on War’s 1975 album Why Can’t We Be Friends?, this cowbell classic shot to #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #7 on the pop chart, making it one of the California band’s biggest hits. One of the first songs to glamorize the Chicano culture’s love of utilizing hydraulics to lift and lower their hot-rods, the prodigious use of cowbell propels “Low Rider” beautifully, like a pimped-out ‘67 GTO rolling smooth down Ventura Boulevard.
6. “Time Has Come Today” The Chambers Brothers
Originally released in 1966 then re-released as a shorter radio-friendly version in 1966, this Chambers Brothers classic painted a psychedelic sonic picture of the events of the day, namely the Vietnam War. Considered ahead of its time because of the multiple effects incorporated throughout the song, particularly the longer original album cut, the most notable and memorable effect is the constant “tick-tock, tick-tock” of a cowbell.
5. “Rock of Ages” Def Leppard
“Gunter…glieben…glauchen…globen,” and with those four head-scratching German words (actually spoken by Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange), the Leps’ still fully-armed drummer Rick Allen turns his attention to the almighty cowbell, clanging out the classic intro to one of the ‘80s greatest fist-pumping anthems. It’s better to cowbell than fade away!
4. “We’re an American Band” Grand Funk Railroad
Grand Funk Railroad’s first-ever chart-topping hit was a song sent from cowbell heaven. Produced by Todd Rundgren and originally released on gold transparent vinyl, 1973’s “We’re an American Band” kicks off with drummer Don Brewer thwacking out the beat with his kick-drum, snare and ubiquitous cowbell. Brewer also sang the song instead of Grand Funk’s usual lead vocalist Mark Farner.
3. “Hair of the Dog” Nazareth
Scottish rock stalwarts Nazareth kick off the title track to their 1975 masterpiece album Hair of the Dog with a colossal cowbell cacophony. The lyrics alone scare the bejeezus out of you: “Now you’re messing with a…S.O.B.!” Ever had your noggin pummeled by the business end of a cowbell? Trust me. It’s not pretty, and this cowbell classic does just that.
2. “Mississippi Queen” Mountain
Mountain drummer Corky Laing co-wrote this scorching cowbell-driven number with guitarist-singer Leslie West. Originally appearing on Mountain’s 1970 album Climbing!, “Mississippi Queen” remains the group’s most popular song, even more so today with the younger crowd thanks to its inclusion in both Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and Rock Band gaming systems.
1. “Honky Tonk Women” The Rolling Stones
What separates The Rolling Stones copious cowbell from the herd during the intro to this debaucherous little ditty is the non-traditional beat producer Jimmy Miller thunks out on the cowbell (no, Charlie Watts did not play the cowbell on this one). Where most cowbellists stick to a straightforward hard-driving cow-beat, Jimmy’s softer, funkier take on the beef bongo instantly identifies one of the Stones’ greatest songs. Your blue ribbon winner!