Top Ten Cowbell Songs
I got a fever! And the only prescription is…
Everyone loves the cowbell, and everyone has lists of their all-time favorites, but nobody explains their methodology. Being a fan of the new analytics used in sports, I thought it was time to establish a more robust rating system for cowbell-infused music. This list is based on the following four criteria (A-D), with ratings from 1–4 for each category.
A. Who used the unusual instrument first? (got to give props to the Beatles and Stones)
From Beyond the Fold:
On a wider scale, the cowbell found much favor with the world’s greatest band, and was used in everything from rockers to novelty tunes… As trendsetters in everything musical, the Beatles made it cool to use what, typically, wasn’t considered a cool instrument. Soon, more bands — from soul groups to dinosaur rockers — jumped on the cowbell wagon.
Without the Fab Four, would we even have cowbells in modern music?
B. How big a hit was the song? (that’s why I marked down traditional favorites like “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Hair of the Dog.”)
C. How much the cowbells are heard within the song? (Sorry, my brothers to the north, three cowbells in Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” just doesn’t cut it, eh?) Also, listen to the mix on the songs. Cleaner, sparser arrangements let the cowbell shine through. (According to CowBellSongs.com, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” has cowbells in it. Let me know if you can hear them.)
D. How imaginative is the use of the cowbells? (Not only in terms of rhythm and its role in the song, but in using it in unexpected genres.)
With this rating system in place, here’s my top ten.
#1 (tie) John Lennon’s “Cowbell Trilogy” 4–4–3–1 = 12
“You Can’t Do That,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “I Call Your Name”
Okay, I know I’m biased toward the Fab Four, but the group and producer George Martin were the first musicians to plant the flag in mount cowbell and you’ve got to give them their props. A Hard Day’s Night was a #1 album and a box office smash movie. How is that for bringing cowbell to the masses?
#1 (tie) “Honky Tonk Woman” 2–3–4–3 = 12
This Stones classic #1 hit has great syncopated cowbells—even though they came after the Beatles, they took cowbells to the next level. It’s so hard to rank the top two, I made them co-number ones.
#3 (tie) “Funkytown” 1–3–3–4 = 11
The only place where disco* and cowbells live as happy neighbors! For popularity and inventive cowbell rhythms Lipps Inc’s gets my vote for #3. The song reached number one in 28 countries, a record for released singles only broken by Madonna thirty-six years later. But it’s still disco, so it could not breach the top two positions. UPDATE: Upon listening through the whole song, I realized there is no cowbell during the chorus, so I had to deduct one point from category C, leaving it tied with Lowrider
#3 (tie) “Lowrider” 1–2–4–4 = 11
When it comes to cowbells, these dudes make love not War. Awesome layers of percussion instruments, led by a cowbell solo! They rock the cowbell the entire song, good enough for a tie for number three.
#5 (tie) “Drive My Car” 3–3–3–1 = 10
I couldn’t leave off Paul McCartney’s Beatles composition, which came a year after Lennon’s three songs. Paul is one of the greatest bassists ever, turning the bass into a melodic instrument as well as helping set the beat with the drums. The cowbell plays a clear role throughout the song, but doesn’t have the inventiveness of the songs above it.
#5 (tie) “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” 1–3–3–3 = 10
Barry White’s #1 hit gets into his groove… with cowbells!? At 1:30, can you hear the syncopated cowbells substitute for a drum fill? This proves without a shadow of a doubt that the big guy can’t get enough of their love, baby.
#5 (tie) “Time Has Come Today” 1–1–4–4 = 10
Shout out SRMerola: this Chambers Brothers song is “the ultimate cowbell song.” It is the only song besides Low Rider that gets top scores in categories C and D. If it had been a #1 hit, it’s in the top three, and maybe joins my co-number ones.
According to Wikipedia, “…One of the landmark songs of the psychedelic era.” Various effects were employed in its recording and production, including the the cowbell “tick-tock” sound, which was warped throughout most of the song by reverb, echo and changes in tempo.”
This use of cowbells as a clock that keeps ticking regardless of how far the band has taken us on an LSD trip (extended version here) is just as amazing as the cash register sound effects that became part of the percussion to Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Great guitar, a dedicated cowbell player, crazy Vincent Price-style laughter and a psychedelic light show. Who could ask for more?
#8 “King of Rock” 1–1–3–4 = 9
Run-DMC rapping with cowbells? Wow! Even though the song was not a huge hit, the inventive combination of rap, rock and cowbell made this a rare gem that I favored over the more obvious candidates. After the first verse, the cowbell serves as a second drum, creatively and as a vital part to the beat, featuring syncopation and fills. It’s just as good as “Funkytown and “Lowrider” for creative use. Plus it has the greatest rhyme ever for the word “needles.”
Every jam we play, we break two needles
There’s three of us but we’re not the Beatles
#9 “We’re an American Band” 1–3–2–2 = 8
Grand Funk Railroad’s #1 hit told us that every American band must have a cowbell player. It has some really good parts that feature the cowbell, but it’s not heard in the entire song. [UPDATE: I found this video of them playing live. The drummer is great as he sings lead vocals, bangs that cowbell and rocks a massive afro. Everybody had a part that featured their instrument, so it wouldn’t have been fair to force them to compete with that awesome cowbell!]
#10 (tie) “Don’t Fear the Reaper” 1–1–3–1 = 6
Don’t fear, I wasn’t going to leave out Blue Oyster Cult. But without SNL’s immortal sketch starring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, this would not be the quintessential cowbell song. It only reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. (Upon listening to the song more closely, there are major sections with no cowbell, so I deducted a point, and dropped it to #10.)
#10 (tie) “Play That Funky Music” 1–2–2–1 = 6
I can’t help it, I loved this song back in the day. And what do you know? Wild Cherry’s #1 Billboard Hot 100 featured a bunch of white guys with Afros who had enough of a groove to also reach #1 on the Hot Soul Singles list. All that, plus some cowbells!
Honorable Mention: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet”
Bachman-Turner Overdrive had a #1 hit with some solid cowbell work in the chorus.
By popular demand, here’s Mountain’s all-time cowbell intro, giving us 9 seconds of cowbell nirvana. The distinctive mix of cowbell and lead guitar is as powerful as any song in the top 10. (If they had kept the cowbell groove going longer in the song, I would have put it at #8.)
Santana did a couple of wonderful Latin rhythm songs that feature the cowbell. “Evil Ways” has more cowbell than “Oye Como Va,” so I included it here:
“Hair of the Dog”
Nazareth’s sparse arrangement of guitars and drums keeps the cowbells front and center all the way through the song. You’ve got to recognize the band’s total commitment to the cowbell throughout it, but the repetitiveness of the song and the politically incorrect lyrics make me keep changing my mind over exactly where this song belongs.
I hope you enjoyed these cowbell classics. Please list your own top ten in the comments below. I explained my system; you can design your own, if you like.
*The more I explored cowbell music, the more I realized that cowbell and disco hits are almost joined at the hip: “Funkytown” (#1), “Play that Funky Music” (#1), “Boogie Fever” (#1), “Get Down Tonight” (#1), “More, More, More” (#4), “One Nation under a Groove” (#1 on Billboard Soul). I apologize for not listing some of these songs, but so many songs used cowbell in the same two year window, disco needs it own top ten list.
UPDATE: Due to popular demand, I’ve added a special recognition award.
Best use of the cowbell as a solo instrument at the beginning of the song for three beats by a non-American band that regrets its use of headbands: “Working for the Weekend”
Loverboy gave us three exquisite beats of the cowbell, then turned us loose. Those hosers didn’t even say “sorry aboat that.”
If you’re dying for more cowbell, check out this library of cowbell sounds.
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