Before Christopher Walken – and don't get me wrong, I love the guy – ever had a thought about the subject, rock and roll legends were using the cowbell to drive the ever-lovin' rhythm into some of the finest songs of the 1970s and '80s. Here are ten of my favorites – in order, by the way, and I don't want any arguments:
Jump into the Fire – Harry Nilsson
Has anyone ever epitomized the phrase "passive-aggressive" better than Mr. Nilsson in this song? I just love the way, at the end, he demands, "We can make each other happy! We can jump into the fire!" What? I'm just here for the tour of the volcano. All the while, that cowbell incessantly affirms his intentions.
Calling Dr. Love – You'll have to forgive me for this one as I have a soft spot for KISS – I was a charter member of the KISS Army back in 1977. I still remember, a lifetime ago, singing this song with everyone from my little brother to my first girl friend.
Diamond Dogs – Bowie
Always a slave to fashion, Mr. Bowie arrived a little late to the cowbell party of the '70s but he still executed it perfectly in this little glam rock ditty that really talks about nothing at all. I can still see him banging on it while the girls leave the room.
A Little Less Conversation – Elvis (not Costello!)
Is there any list that The King doesn't show up on? Written and arranged by Mac Davis, this song uses the instrument in an understated but decidedly showy manner. Mr. Presley never had another more forward-looking song than this unlike his final word, "corn?"
Funk 49 – James Gang
Only used in the bridges, the simultaneous screams and wails of Joe Walsh and his band mates makes for some pretty entertaining moments in this amazing instrumental that only had words added to it after the fact. Play it to the end and enjoy!
Stuck in the Middle – Steeler's Wheel
With that off-beat clapping and driving beat, this song is a classic by itself but, for me, those few hits of cowbell really define the song. Please-eee-eee-eee-ease … Please-eee-eee-eee-ease … Oh yeah, and we all knew it wasn't by Bob.
Low Rider – War
How can anyone listen to this song and not be drawn to the incessant beat? The words are earthy, the beat is incessant. Then, the cowbell throughout the song manifests itself as the icing on the cake. All … my … friends … love the pow rider.
Born on the Bayou – Creedence Clearwater Revival
John Fogerty gives us a little nostalgia in this gem of a song. We also get some schooling in the language of the Crescent City. "Chasin' down a hoodoo there." Wait, what? With phrases like that, ain't no way, no how that the Cajuns are actually communicating with each other.
Honky Tonk Women – The Rolling Stones
The loneliness of the cowbell is pure magic in this classic song by Mick, Keith and the rest of the Stones. It starts off by itself but then infects the rest of the song. Charlie Watts – that grinning fiend – has never been better.
Hair of the Dog – Nazareth
Simply and purely, this is the apotheosis of the cowbell song; it uses a single well-timed but repeating strike throughout the curse of the chorus … no more, no less and with devastating effect. Even Mr. Walken could not ask for more in this brilliantly executed tune.