What makes a good song great? A strong melody and a sturdy riff are key starting points. Meaningful lyrics are always a plus. Put all three together and you just might have yourself the beginnings of something.
But if it's a hands-down hit you're after, a tune so happening that it'll get the crowd clapping, dancing and, more importantly, laying down their cold hard cash for your creation, you're going to have to break out the big artillery. And in the world of hit songs, no gun is bigger than the cowbell.
Bruce Dickinson knew it. During his now-legendary session with Blue Oyster Cult, the iconic producer took the Long Island band from the C-list to the top of the charts.
Noting that the group had what appeared to be a "dynamite sound," he listened as they ran through their new composition. The track, which would be called (Don't Fear) The Reaper, was promising. But something was missing, or rather, something needed to be accentuated.
It was the cowbell, as played by band member Gene Fenkle. It wasn't loud enough, it needed to be played with gusto. "I got a fever," Dickinson told the band, "and the only prescription… is more cowbell!"
And thus, a hit was born. In honor of that magical (and fictional, but then you knew that already, right?) day in the studio, and as something of a kick in the pants to bands everywhere, let's run down some classic cowbell workouts. Bruce Dickinson didn't produce all of them, but were he behind the board, he would have known what to do.
1. Blue Oyster Cult - (Don't Fear) The Reaper
Sure, BOC had a neat-o riff (one that was no doubt nicked by The Police for Message In A Bottle - compare them, they're close), but it was the steady rap of the cowbell that buried this 1976 tune into the thicket of one's senses. In recent years, Blue Oyster Cult embraced the notoriety generated by the SNL sketch, and had one of their roadies appear on stage when they play the song to re-create the "Gene Frenkle" character by enthusiastically banging a bell. Smart guys.
2. Beastie Boys - (tie) She's Crafty and Hey Ladies
Even on their 1987 debut album, Licensed To Ill, Adrock, MCA and Mike D knew that sampling Zeppelin wasn't enough to get their cage dancers going. Busting out the cowbell did the trick. Two years later, on their groundbreaking, kaleidoscopic release, Paul's Boutique, the Boys triggered similar sexual responses from women everywhere, thanks to a clanging cowbell and the exhortation to "get funky!" Moral of the story: girls like rings, but they adore bells.
3. War - Low Rider
On this 1975 love letter to hydraulically hot-rodded classic cars, the multi-genre-spanning ensemble known as War provided a soundtrack to an idealized lifestyle that has become universal. Cheeky innuendo and a laid-back vocal performance were key to this song's popularity, but the welcome sound of the cowbell put it over the top.
4. Grand Funk Railroad - We're An American Band
Despite their popularity, the early '70s rockers were called "the worst band in history" by Rolling Stone magazine. That was until they released this good-time anthem in 1973, which became the group's first number one single. And although one could point to the tuneful melody and insightful lyrics ("booze and ladies keep me right/the hotel detective he was outta sight!"), it was, in fact, the clarion call of the cowbell that rocketed this ditty to the top of the charts.
5. Tone Loc - Funky Cold Medina
Marrying Foreigner's Hot Blooded riff with a cowbell was a truly inspired musical move on this 1989 hip-hop jam. While the Locster might have been selling his peach-and-cranberry vodka concoction as the ultimate in funky aphrodisiacs, what really drove the ladies wild was the sexy clang of the CB. Wanna set the mood right? Pour your special someone a drink, and don't forget that bell!
6. Marvin Gaye - Got To Give It Up
Nobody could lose themselves in a groove like Marvin Gaye. And because he knew what was goin' on all the time and in all ways, he knew how to get the folks on the dance floor: a smooth falsetto and a beat that emphasized the cowbell. Originally cut as an 12-minute epic, the 1977 song was edited to a tight four-minute single and released as Got To Give It Up, Part 1. The result was a chart-topping smash.
7. Wild Cherry - Play That Funky Music
The bass line is a monster, but it would have gone nowhere without the lock-step accompaniment of the cowbell. Vanilla Ice would later update this song, in which he ditched the CB. Idiot.
8. The Rolling Stones - Honky Tonk Women
When Keith Richards used the open-G guitar tuning for the main riff, Ry Cooder accused The Stones of ripping him off. Whatever. Fact is, Cooder could never have imagined the intoxicating cowbell-driven intro that kicks this 1969 gin-soaked masterpiece into rock 'n' roll bliss. Interestingly, that CB wasn't played by the incomparable Charlie Watts; it was producer Jimmy Miller who banged the bell. This is what you pay some guys the big bucks for.
9. Mountain - Mississippi Queen
You've got a larger-than-life guitarist (Leslie West), a whale-sized riff, and lyrical subject matter that is truly panoramic. What more does a song need? That's right: some big-time cowbell, courtesy of drummer Corky Laing. Mountain's 1970 paean to Cajun ladies and their mesmerizing lovemaking skills was the band's biggest hit. It was also their only hit. Obviously, nobody heeded the prescription for more cowbell.
10. Queens Of The Stone Age - Little Sister
When it comes to penning rockin' cowbell numbers, Josh Homme needs no schooling. This 2005 behemoth is a nifty metal twist on the Elvis Presley classic of the same name. The song's so good, in fact, that when QOTSA performed it on Saturday Night Live, none other than Gene Frankle made an appearance - bangin' the bell, of course.