More Cowbell (Unsung overdubs series #1)
We were driving yesterday, up near Napa and Sonoma, and the NPR signal was going in and out to a frustrating degree. Reluctantly, we switched the channel to another station and, having a stronger signaled classic rock station called The Bone programmed into the dash, we decided to go classic. The first song that came on was an old Nazareth tune, “Hair Of The Dog.”
We used to cover that song in my first teenage garage band Nighthawk, jamming in the back room of The Advent Lutheran Church, located on an isthmus in the middle of Don Mills Road in North York, a land mass known as “The Peanut” for its supposed shape when seen from above. Dave, our other guitarist, was the son of the minister there, so we got to rehearse in what would have been a church basement, if it had been downstairs. Hearing the Nazareth tune on the radio, a couple of thoughts immediately came to mind. One, you hardly ever hear the phrase “Now you’re messing with a son-of-a-bitch” in polite conversation, and secondly, “Hair Of The Dog” is time-capsule worthy as an excellent specimen to illustrate a perfect 70s rock single. For one, it features a Manny Charleton solo where his guitar is run through a Heil Talk-Box , a mouth-assisted, verbal phasing effect made famous on signature records by Peter Frampton (“Show Me The Way”), Bon Jovi (“Livin’ On A Prayer”) or Joe Walsh (“Rocky Mountain Way”) wherein the screaming lead guitar signal is diverted, by a stomp box, up through a length of clear plastic garden hose which is strung up the microphone stand and ends up in the mouth of said guitarist who then moves his mouth around, vaguely “verbalizing” his solo. Very seventies.
Ah yes, the cowbell. Now a hallmark of kitsch after being celebrated (and mocked) by Will Ferrell in the famous Blue Öyster Cult “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” session sketch on SNL, which also starred Christopher Walken as the record producer who demanded “More cowbell” on the track.
That phrase, in itself, has become a cottage industry of shorthand rock humour, on T-shirts, posters and conversations between musicians.
Okay, then, the cowbell has got a bad rap, but I want to stand up for it here. Like the mighty tambourine (the unsung hero of repeat choruses and middle sections everywhere) or the magnificent “group handclaps” overdub, the cowbell is the magic metal that makes a song clang and rock in all the right ways. Of course, the origin of the cowbell was in Afro-Cuban and other latin percussion, a little bit of syncopation dancing among the timbales, congas and bongos, well before its more “four-on-floor” application in 70’s rock. Sometimes you can clearly hear that, in such seventies cross-over acts like War, who used it to great effect in “Low Rider”...
But it really sounds good in rock and roll, such as on “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones (excuse the dumb video, it’s got the audio track nice and clean!)
Or “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain
There’s cowbella magnificence in the verses of “Hey You” by Bachman Turner Overdrive
Don’t forget “We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk
and when you go back, the cowbell really isn’t all that prominent in the mix for the song which started all of this talk, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by the aforementioned Blue Öyster Cult