Area Resident’s Stylus Counsel | More Cowbell!!

Track 135 | We'll all be wearing gold-plated diapers!

When it comes to cowbell songs, I’d never really considered (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. In fact, before the famous 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch, I never really noticed there was a cowbell in the song at all. It’s pretty buried in the mix.

Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the sketch, jokes that it ruined Christopher Walken’s life. The veteran, legendary actor still gets asked about it and reminded of his famous line: “I got a fever. And the only prescription is more cowbell.”

For those who somehow haven’t seen it — or the countless memes based on it — the sketch depicts Blue Öyster Cult in the studio in 1976, recording (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Walken plays fictional producer “THE Bruce Dickinson” who is insisting the track needs cowbell, and keeps demanding fictional cowbell player Gene Frenkel (Ferrrell) play louder with each additional take — to the growing frustration of his bandmates.

History has shown the sketch to be among the most popular in the nearly 50 years of Saturday Night Live — but it nearly didn’t make the cut. Ferrell had to pitch the sketch several times before it finally was included. And even then, it was buried near the end of the show. Ferrell rewrote some dialogue with Walken in mind; he had initially written it when Norm Macdonald was scheduled to host. Presumably it would have been Macdonald in Walken’s role.

Ferrell has reprised the Frenkel role a number of times, twice sitting in with musical guests on SNL — with Queens Of The Stone Age in 2005 and again in 2009, to the apparent surprise of Green Day.

Everything about the sketch is brilliant — Walken’s classic diction and the ridiculousness of his demands. Ferrell’s ill-fitting clothes, appearance and the notion that someone is exclusively a cowbell player. And maybe most of all — the cast members in the sketch who can’t keep a straight face. I’m looking at you, Jimmy Fallon.

It’s brilliant, though not at all historically accurate. While BÖC’s producer was insistent on “more cowbell,” it was David Lucas, not Dickinson, who produced the original track. It’s believed the Dickinson name made it into the script because someone had a copy of a Blue Öyster Cult best-of CD called Super Hits. Dickinson — no relation to the Iron Maiden frontman of the same name — was the “compilation producer” of that 1998 release on Sony’s reissue label Legacy, as opposed to the 1976 LP Agents Of Fortune, where the track originated. This type of compilation work seems to have kept the real Dickinson busy. He was the “compilation producer” of umpteen Super Hits collections by Living Colour, Paul Young, Ted Nugent, Mountain, The O’Jays, The Bangles, Loverboy, Eddie Money, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Jimmy Cliff, Mott The Hoople, Europe, The Romantics, The Byrds, Molly Hatchet, Engelbert Humperdinck, Dan Fogelberg, Bonnie Tyler, The Clash and more. I bet that Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam CD is wall-to-wall classics.

So, if the producer was Lucas, who was Frenkel? Well, there’s some debate about that. For starters, unlike the skit, the cowbell was added as an overdub after the bed tracks were done. In fact, BÖC reportedly recorded the rhythm track in a single take. Bass player Joe Bouchard says his brother Albert, the drummer, was asked by Lucas to play cowbell for the overdub. As Joe recalls it, his brother wasn’t keen on the idea but did as he was told — taping up the cowbell to dull its tone and then performing the take. Lucas has claimed it was actually he who played cowbell on the track — something which Albert disputes. Albert says it was indeed Lucas’ idea, and he did play cowbell on the album — but not on (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Meanwhile, keyboardist and co-lead vocalist Eric Bloom says he’s the one playing cowbell on the track. My money is on Albert. Someone is also clearly playing a ratchet, making that percussive clicking sound.

Anyway, while this song is clearly “the” cowbell song, thanks primarily to Ferrell, there are many more which feature cowbell far more prominently. So, seeing as I recently acquired a $4 cowbell at Value Village (already taped up, BÖC-style!) I decided to do a list and an accompanying playlist of rock’s best cowbell songs — ones with a cowbell right in the intro.

We’re An American Band | Grand Funk (1973). Cowbell by Don Brewer, who brought six different ones to the session at the behest of songwriter Mark Farner. They chose the one best tuned to the song’s key and then taped it up so it would “cank” not “cink.”

Hair of the Dog | Nazareth (1974). Cowbell by drummer Darrell Sweet.

Mississippi Queen | Mountain (1970). Cowbell by drummer Corky Laing, who had been using it to keep time during rehearsal, but producer/bass player Felix Pappalardi liked it so much he decided to keep it.

Honky Tonk Women | The Rolling Stones (1969). Cowbell by producer Jimmy Miller.

Calling Dr. Love | KISS (1976). Cowbell by drummer Peter Criss.

Time Has Come Today | The Chambers Brothers (1967). Cowbell by Lester Chambers and Brian Keenan — not just one, but two cowbells struck alternately to make the song’s famous tick-tock sound. The signal from these two cowbells was then warped using reverb and echo.

Low Rider | War (1975). Cowbell by Papa Dee Allen (if you watch the video).

Dance The Night Away | Van Halen (1979). Cowbell by drummer Alex Van Halen.

We’re Not Gonna Take It | Twisted Sister (1984). Cowbell by drummer AJ Pero.

Rock Of Ages | Def Leppard (1983). Cowbell by drummer Rick Allen.

Working For The Weekend | Loverboy (1981). Cowbell by drummer Matt Frenette.

Good Times Bad Times | Led Zeppelin (1969). Cowbell by drummer John Bonham.

Down On The Corner | Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969). Cowbell by John Fogerty (surprise!).

Oye Como Va | Santana (1970). Cowbell by Michael Carabello.

Soul Limbo | Booker T & the M.G.’s (1968). Cowbell by Isaac Hayes!

Funkytown | Lipps Inc. (1980). Cowbell by Steven Greenberg

Honourable mention…

Hey Ladies | Beastie Boys (1989). Cowbell break is sampled from Come Let Me Love You by Jeanette Lady Day (1981), rest of the cowbell is sampled from Holy Ghost by The Bar-Kays (recorded in 1975, released in 1978).


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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.