As promised, here’s the second part of my NWOBHM cowbell countdown. There’s a lovely introduction to my post last week, and as with then, this is just an opportunity 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 (I did make these choices over 10 days ago now, ah nostalgia!) although the one I’ve put at number one is still pretty magnificent. So I hope you enjoy my selections and I’d love to hear suggestions of NWOBHM cowbells that you feel have made your world a better place in the comments box at the end of the post…
5 Kosh The Hit (1980)
Not only did the ‘Good Bad Music For Bad Bad Times’ blog make me happy by sharing gems like this with the world, allowing their light to illuminate our glum lives, but they gave a really good description of the vocals on this abomination from the ‘New Electric Warriors’ compilation by referring to them as being ‘phoned in’. Not only does it sound phoned in as in half assed, it also really does sound like the atrocious attempt at singing is being made via phone call to the studio from a very echoey public toilet. Luckily the cowbell is recorded in the same toilet, allowing this pretty original example to shine. It almost serves as a polite ‘knocking’ introduction to each verse. What could be more British? Not much more is known about Kosh and this is their only legacy. Although everyone else slates this song, being ever the optimist I quite like the riff and the composition, complete with the ‘knocking and answering’ cowbell gimmick. For me, the inept production and performances merely increase the charm (and hilarity) of the mysterious spell woven by this song.
4 Damascus Open Your Eyes (1984)
These legendary Liverpudlians give us a subtle and uplifting cowbell attack. Seeing these guys totally kick ass throughout their one-off show at Brofest 2014 felt so special. Vocalist Billy Downs came on stage dressed very casual as if he’d just got out of work. Then to hear that incredible voice come out of the guy who looked like an everyday chap who could easily be your mate’s dad really sent shivers down my spine.
This song has everything, a crystal clear production, a creative vocal introduction, life affirming (and incredibly well worded) lyrics about a dream awakening the protagonist from bouts of depression alongside some suitably chanted backing vocals.
Prior to forming Damascus Dave Bridge had filled a vacant spot in drummer Bill Campion’s terribly named but pretty promising NWOBHM group Thin End of the Wedge, whose 1981 ‘Lights are on Green’ is worth checking out. They formed Damascus later that year, and Bill Campion passed the baton to Paul Ryan, who used it to rhythmically beat seven shades of poo-poo out of the almighty cowbell on this triumphant slab of NWOBHM.
Their 2012 ‘Cold Horizon’ CD on High Roller Records is great from start to finish and well worth tracking down.
3 Witchfinder General R.I.P (1982)
Yes, you read that right, the Stourbridge ‘kings of doom’ didn’t shy away from a bit of cowbell boogie. The lyrics (about robbing graves to make a Satanic sacrifice or something) help to identify the source of this dark chiming as the devil himself ‘Its heart does not beat but its body is given to Hell, The air it is silent and all that you hear is his bell’. Although Witchfinder General’s rhythm section was pretty much a revolving door of personnel, this is apparently Steve Kinsell knocking the cow-glock.
Not only does this example of cowbell sound almost down-tuned, but like most of the fun things about this band it sets the campy Halloween atmosphere vibe (which appears to have been caused either by smoking way too much weed or the contrived desire to market themselves through controversy, you choose!).
This is a similar use of ‘funeral march cowbell’ employed by Triarchy (see last week’s post), but with a lot more humour. They get extra points for slipping it under the radar so all the doom heads who credit them as being dark carriers of Sabbath’s black candle didn’t even notice it. Good work lads! I do actually love Witchfinder General; ‘Music’ (1983) is one of my favourite singles of the NWOBHM. Whenever I think of this song I imagine it to be full of cowbell, but neither the album nor single version employ its dark charms. If I didn’t have a life and had no wish to leave the seclusion of my obsessive NWOBHM blog writing space I’d make a list of other examples of ‘ghost cowbell’ NWOBHM songs (for example, is no one else surprised that there’s not a single cowbell on the Chevy debut? I definitely am… ghost cowbell!). Since I’m quite busy with other things I’d love to hear any of your suggestions of what could go on the ‘ghost cowbell’ list in the comments space below!
2 Big Daisy Fever (1980)
OK, so I’ve posted a Big Daisy song before, but this one’s pretty fantastic too, and it gives me a chance to talk a bit more about these Lichfield rock legends, which can only be a good thing. This song is the B side to ‘Footprints on the Water’ (another great example of a haunting NWOBHM ballad). Big Daisy’s softer songs are never straight forward ballads; Merv ‘Spam’ Spence’s piercing voice gives them a real metal edge. My favourite song on the 2012 High Roller retrospective is ‘Gypsy Queen’, and the wild, soulful vocals bring to mind an entertaining image from Merv’s anecdote about recording all his vocals in the toilet in his flat for ‘natural reverb’.
In ‘Fever’ Roger Fox (Brother of John, the bassist from Steel) puts so much variety into his guitar parts, which are full of clever pedal effects, not just in the heartfelt solos, but also the ingeniously composed structure. Drum wizard Deg Newman’s tasteful cowbell really elevates this NWOBHM prog onslaught to an ecstatic level. Also, what is screamed at the beginning just as the cowbell comes in? I swear it’s a loud and proud screech of the sacred British word ‘Arse’, disproving the belief that prog-heads have no sense of humour.
1 Jameson Raid Seven Days of Splendour (1979)
This for me is the song cowbell was made for. Phil Kimberley plays it with such panache and pride I bet loads of you never noticed it before, right? I often treat myself to an earful of Birmingham’s Jameson Raid when life gets a bit too much. Tony Dark’s enigmatic lyrics are full of subtle riddles that my mind often revisits as it wonders through day to day life. The alien abduction story in ‘Seven Days of Splendour’, far from being a nihilistic tale of fear, is an ambiguous but well crafted story of someone seeing into another dimension ‘above the stars’. Dating from 1979, this predates the more macabre lyrical themes that became more popular in the heavy metal subculture as the 80s and progressed.
This was the last song played at this year’s Brofest, and what a wonderful piece to go out on. Although Lars Wickett who has been in the Jameson Raid drum stool since 2013 didn’t use cowbell in this instance he was still really impressive, and I’m looking forward to the new album, which comes out on July the 1st.
So that’s it for my two-part trip down cowbell memory lane. I hope it has opened your ears to the charms of this often ridiculed piece of percussion. To me, in a NWOBHM context the cowbell is a powerful symbol of the gifted bands of our era who had been made to feel dwarfed by a giant fishpond of talent and insignificant by their limited budget, showing the desire to break these shackles and treat the small Friday night pub audience to the same triumphant explosion of rock power that they would unleash upon the appreciative American stadium crowd they were playing to in their minds. Treasure that sound, for it will never have the same charm as it did in those innocent, visionary, ridiculous days of the NWOBHM.