Poor cowbell. The once-celebrated percussive instrument that has since been dragged through the comedic mud (albeit hilariously) by Will Ferrell, Christopher Walken and company on Saturday Night Live. But back in the day, some hard rock and heavy metal bands actually held the ole ‘bell in high regard (well, sorta). Whether used as the foundation for the song, in one particular section, or just for the intro, many legendary bands have utilized the percussion instrument – from Mountain to Led Zeppelin to Judas Priest to of course – Blue Öyster Cult.
And though there are some great modern rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age who’ve incorporated some cowbell-esque sounds (the jam block used on “Little Sister” for example) nothing quite compares to that sweet, sweet sound of clanking bovine metal (did we just say that?) ringing through some premiere 1970’s riff-rock. So to celebrate this week’s That Metal Show guest, Mountain’s very own Leslie West, along with the legions of other bands who respect the ‘bell, here’s 13 hard rock songs that make us crazy for the cowbell. DINK! DINK! DINK!
Mountain “Mississippi Queen”
Perhaps the most famous cowbell song on this list (along with “Don’t Fear The Reaper”), it was recorded for the band’s 1970 debut album, Climbing!, and is the band’s most successful single. Drummer Corky Laing, growing tired of the numerous takes to record the song, began counting the tune off with a cowbell – producer/bassist Felix Pappalardi liked it so much that he left it in the final mix.
Nazareth “Hair of the Dog”
The title track off the Scottish band’s 1975 album, it is sometimes called “Son of a Bitch” because of the repeated lyric in the chorus. The song is about a manipulative woman who has met her match with the narrator.
Grand Funk Railroad “We’re an American Band”
Written and sung by drummer Don Brewer and produced by Todd Rundgren, the song was an autobiographical account of the band’s life on the road and became a #1 hit – the band’s first really successful single.
Leaf Hound “Freelance Fiend”
The first track off the English band’s 1971 album, Growers of Mushroom, it’s probably the band’s most famous. The band would break up after releasing just this one album (with lead vocalist Peter French later reforming the group with new lineup and even releasing a new album in 2007) but they’re still cited as a major influence on the stoner rock movement.
Led Zeppelin “Moby Dick”
This instrumental jam and drum solo from the band’s 1969 album, Led Zeppelin II, uses the cowbell as the foundation for the main guitar riff. The song was also known by the alternate titles “Pat’s Delight” and “Over the Top” during various points of the hard rock band’s illustrious career.
Blue Öyster Cult “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”
The song, off 1976’s Agents of Fortune, was the inspiration for the SNL sketch “More cowbell” and is pretty much responsible for making the instrument legendary in modern pop culture. The track was originally recorded without cowbell but was overdubbed afterwards.
Mötley Crüe “Dr. Feelgood”
The title track to the heavy metal band’s 1989 album, it became their first American Top Ten hit and is their highest-ranked single to this day. The song (along with many others in the band’s catalog) is an obvious ode to debauchery, specifically drugs and seedy L.A. drug dealers.
Guns N’ Roses “Nightrain”
The third song on the band’s 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, it is a tribute to a cheap brand of California wine called “Night Train Express” which was popular during the band’s early days because of its low cost and high alcohol content.
Judas Priest “Cheater”
A song off of the band’s 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla, it is actually part of a suite entitled “Winter/Deep Freeze/Winter Retreat/Cheater.” But clearly the most exciting part of the suite is Cheater, with its introduction of the glorious cowbell.
James Gang “Funk #49”
A song off their second album, Rides Again, it is probably the band’s best known track. Though the cowbell doesn’t appear until about the 1:30 mark, it is featured right up front in this section along with some minimal percussion and yelping vocals.
Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It”
The song, off of 1984’s Stay Hungry, became an even bigger hit with the accompanying video, which displays the band’s sense of humor. The band wrote the song to the basic tune of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – because Christmas carols are as metal as it gets.
Van Halen “Dance The Night Away”
The band’s first top 20 U.S. hit was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and was written during the recording sessions for 1979’s Van Halen II. And what better way to dance the night away than with a loud honking cowbell.
Def Leppard “Rock of Ages”
Apparently big fans of the cowbell, the band has recorded at least 4 songs that feature the instrument. But perhaps none more obviously than this song from 1983’s Pyromania, where it appears immediately after the famous German-like gibberish in the intro (“Gunter glieben glauten globen,” anyone?)