One of the earliest examples of commercially released music that could be classified as heavy metal was ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ by Led Zeppelin. Not only was this the first song on their debut self titled album (released in January 1969) but their first single (released in March of that year). And you know what? It has a pretty prominent cowbell on it. That’s right; the foundations of British heavy metal were built with John Bonham whacking a stylish cow accessory in a playful but focused manner.
Perhaps because the cowbell first became identified with popular music thanks to its use by American hillbilly groups in the 1920s, the cowbell became associated with an ‘American’ aesthetic. The first use in the pop era was Buddy Holly’s ‘Heartbeat’ (1958) and although this wasn’t a massively successful single at the time, its influence is indisputable. The use of cowbell in one of The Rolling Stones’ best known and sleaziest songs ‘Honky Tonk Women’ (1969 but after Zeppelin) probably went some way towards cementing the cowbell as a gimmicky way of referencing American culture in a grand, overpowering stadium setting (it was actually played by The Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller not their drummer Charlie Watts). By the time Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer used it to great effect on ‘We’re an American Band’ (1973) it had become a staple of American stadium rock.
The term ‘more cowbell’ has become a somewhat overused meme since the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch (2000) where Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken fictionalised the recording of the song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult, which I think has re-strengthened its reputation as a percussive bugle call for American stadium rock.
There are surprisingly few examples of cowbell in the NWOBHM era, and insistence (from those less familiar with the movement) that it’s a recurring frequent feature probably stem from hearing lots of Def Leppard and not much else (more about their cowbell fetish later). In this post I want to showcase some of my favourite examples of cowbells in NWOBHM classics. It’s not a list of ‘the best’ or even in the right order (ask me again next week and the list and order would have changed completely). So I hope you enjoy my selections and I’d love to hear suggestions of NWOBHM cowbells that have moved you in the comments box at the end of the post…
10 AIIZ Lay Down (1980)
Manchester’s A II Z’s use of cowbell (which, as we have already established, references American stadium rock) is made even more poigniant by the fact their debut live album ‘The Witch of Berkley’ (where this song is taken from) was recorded in the hall of their local high school, Hazel Grove. How rock n roll is that! The whole unit were a pretty convincing force (inking a deal with major label Polydor right at the start of the NWOBHM era) with all band members showing real prowess, so Karl Reti’s drumming is definitely impressive enough to highlight this as a memorable use of cowbell. Although he doesn’t over-saturate his performance with this unholy percussive device, he allows it to add character and atmosphere.
Hilariously, in 1981 the N.M.E accused them of being Nazi sympathisers because their logo was ‘clearly’ referencing a German worker’s paper from the 1920s! Oh it was such an innocent time, when a bunch of long-haired teens (who were so prolific they had produced more than enough songs to fill 2 albums by this time) could be seen a worthy focus for such a witch-hunt.
‘The Witch of Berkley’ is named after a story documented in ‘The Deeds of the Kings of England’ by William of Malmsbury circa 1125. It tells of an old witch who tries in vain to lessen posthumous punishment for her lifetime of sin. Evidence that they clearly spent their time reading far livelier old texts than obscure Third Reich papers!
9 Grim Reaper Fear No Evil (1985)
This one is quite well known because of the hilarious video. Loads of people complain about the prominence of cowbell in this track but I think it works. It demonstrates what happens if a band with a more powerful ambience incorporates our bovine percussive friend. This predates Iron Maiden’s ‘Can I Play With Madness’ by 3 years, but does pretty much the same thing, taking the traditional timbre of the band and giving it that final push towards that ‘stadium sound’. Drummer Mark Simon was poached from Virgin Star (another band local to the Worcester area) to play on the follow up (which this song is taken from) to their hugely successful debut.
The size of venue Grim Reaper were playing by this point was growing somewhat and they played at Texxas Jam that year. So in my opinion, this cowbell references the band’s self acknowledgment of their world dominating potential. Not only did this unshakable self belief make the ‘Fear No Evil’ album a force to be reckoned with, but the laughable album cover and band photos that have to be seen to be believed give Grim Reaper a really special place in my heart.
The new Grim Reaper album ‘From Hell’ is coming out later this year, I can’t wait to hear it!
8 Def Leppard It Don’t Matter (1980)
Although some feel that Def Leppard’s working-class common-man image in the early days clashed with their later clean cut aspirations, I see their frequent use of cowbell as (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that the band always had that desire to attain their destiny as stadium fillers no matter what the cost. The most discussed fact about Def Leppard is the one armed drummer thing, but the phase of their career that’s best known (and perhaps most treasured by fans) demonstrates how the peak of Rick Allen’s cowbell fetish predates his 1984 car accident. All three tracks released as singles from the 1983 album ‘Pyromania’ (‘Photograph’, ‘Foolin’ and ‘Rock of Ages’) in my opinion show the cowbell becoming a overused gimmick in their sound.
There’s actually a brief cowbell interlude to the first verse of ‘Ride into the Sun’, the first track on their first EP 1979 (with drums played by session drummer Frank Noon (Rick Allen joined just after the recording of ‘The Def Leppard EP’)) and I feel that song’s intro serves as a teasing preface to the band’s career. They have always intended to be, like the cowbell, perceived as glamorous, sleazy and er, polished?
I’m pretty sure the song embedded here is the only instance of cowbell on the ‘On Through the Night’ album. It’s quite deep in the mix and doesn’t sound too contrived. There’s only one cowbell on ‘High n Dry’ (1981) too, in the first song ‘Let it Go’. Again, this sounds like it belongs there, and the choice to use it proves to be a good creative executive decision.
The fact that Rick Allen lost his arm and continued to play with the band through the most successful phase of their career is characteristic of the ‘British resilience’ that is a feature of the more successful NWOBHM groups. He’s a special chap, and you can say what you like about their later career and reluctance to be considered a NWOBHM band, but the variety, texture and personality to his drumming throughout their less heavy later output (he’s an absolute machine on the earlier records too) really stands out.
7 Triarchy Hiroshima (1995)
Cowbell doesn’t have to be frivolous. This is the only re-recoded song on Triarchy’s amazing 1995 compilation ‘Before Your Very Ears’ (‘Hiroshima’ never made it onto vinyl while the band were initially around, so we’re really lucky they got back together ((with Mark Dawson from the Kent version of Legend doing production duties)) to finally get it in the can) and it’s pretty special. Strangely, here the cowbell highlights this song’s dark subject matter allowing the chiming to symbolise the soulless extermination of tens of thousands of people. Coming in through the second chorus (at 1:56) with a disturbingly upbeat groove juxtaposing the stark, chilling image of nuclear warfare. It’s absolutely ingenious! This effect comes back in again at the last chorus (4:38) and stops before the end… Although economically used it adds such an original tone to the song. In the ‘Before Your Very Ears’ CD inlay it lists both a drummer and a percussionist, not only Mark Newbold, original drummer from the ‘Save the Khan’ days, but another guy called Alan Tracy. I can’t help but imagine this mystery man playing the Will Ferrell role in the Saturday Night Live sketch, albeit with a melancholy look on his face…I really love Triarchy!
They also use cowbell on ‘Marionette’, which was recorded in 1983 with a line up featuring Mark Dawson from Kent’s version of Legend (Although this song has Paul Gunn on drums who used to be in Squeeze ((he’d left before ‘Cool for Cats’ though!))). This song wasn’t featured on the High Roller Records retrospective ‘Live to Fight Again’ released in 2007 for not being ‘metal enough’. Personally I quite like that song, it’s not soul-crushingly powerful (sitting a bit closer to Squeeze than Legend as far as heaviness goes) and the High Roller compilation more than redeems itself for this omission by replacing it with an early demo of ‘Wheel of Samsara’ and another song called ‘Rockchild’ that had been intended to feature on the ‘Kent Rocks 2’ compilation that never saw the light of day.
6 Jody St Got to Get it Right (1981)
Subtle, persistent and intense, this example of livestock origin percussion blows my mind.
In my opinion, the twists and turns Jody St use in this short song prefigure the more complex thrash bands that followed the NWOBHM. There’s just so much going on, and just check out how it builds up to the last movement, then despairingly fades out… I could easily listen to a 10 minute version of this song… Call them prog, call them funk, whatever, so long as you call them NWOBHM I don’t mind!
Legendary ‘axe phenomenon’ John Mizarolli used the services of session drummer Brett Morgan in the recording of the album’s worth of material that makes up their (more than likely bootlegged) album. Having played in Cream drummer Ginger Baker’s side project Energy in the late 70s prior to forming Jody St, Mizarolli produced so much music since Jody St.’s brief tenure in the NWOBHM limelight that I doubt he would have any idea how highly regarded these recordings are. Do yourself a favour and track them down…
OK, I’ll give you my choices for 5-1 of ‘top’ NWOBHM cowbell songs next week, I bet you’re on the edge of your seat!