He Really Did Want That Cowbell

July 15, 2011 4:24 pm

David Lucas

“All of a sudden, I got an [instant message] from one of my friends…and she’s like, ‘Oh my God. Turn on Saturday Night Live, like right now.’”

With all the must see sketches SNL has turned out over the years, chances are you may have gotten a tip like that yourself. But YOU’RE not Bruce Dickinson. THE Bruce Dickinson. ROCK LEGEND Bruce Dickinson, who at that moment, unbeknownst to him, was being portrayed on national television by Christopher Walken. Bruce Dickinson, who’s full name was mentioned eight times in the six minute sketch, which would become one of the show’s most famous in its long and celebrated history.

That sketch, if you’ve somehow managed to avoid it, was a fictionalized re-enactment of the recording session that resulted in Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. In it, Walken plays the song’s “famed producer,” who’s “gotta have more cowbell,” a reference to the quirky instrument used in the 1976 hit. But the quirky actor, who introduces himself to the band as Bruce Dickinson (“Yes, THE Bruce Dickinson”) doesn’t just gotta have it. “He’s got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!”

“Of course, the funny thing is, is like I didn’t really produce that particular record,” mused the REAL Bruce Dickinson during a recent chat with Just My Show. In fact, not only is the real Bruce Dickinson not really a “rock legend,” the only original songs he’s ever produced are demos. But seeing as I just quoted him, he’s clearly not a fictional character either. Confused?

The actual producer behind the recording of Don’t Fear the Reaper is David Lucas, who this October, will be inducted into his hometown of Buffalo’s Music Hall of Fame. It’s the culmination of a long and successful career in which he’s worked with names like Ray Charles and Paul McCartney and written some of advertising’s most famous jingles. Remember “GE, we bring good things to life?” Lucas wrote that tune. AT&T’s “Reach out and touch someone?” That was him too. “I just submitted it with 30 other submissions and I won. That’s the way it goes,” Lucas told Just My Show by phone from Buffalo, where he was attending the museum’s new class announcement. “You win some. You lose some.” But no matter how many he’s won, and he’s won a lot, David Lucas’ place in pop culture was already sealed during one routine recording session in 1976 – even if he wouldn’t know it for almost 25 years.

“It needed some momentum,” recalled Lucas to JMS about Don’t Fear the Reaper. “I had a great cowbell at my recording studio around the corner,” he remembered. “I got my cowbell and just played four on the floor…not hard to do.” What would have been hard, would be to imagine that two and a half decades later, that simple event would be spoofed by Saturday Night Live and that the fictional call for “more cowbell” it inspired would make its way onto the list of all time great comedy catchphrases.

“I was thrilled, thrilled, honored,” Lucas told Just My Show. “I was sorry they used Bruce Dickinson’s name,” he continued. “I mean, Bruce Dickinson had nothing to do with the original recording.” It’s a point that even Bruce Dickinson wouldn’t object to.

Bruce Dickinson

“There’s different things that fall under the term producer in the music business,” explained Dickinson, who refers to himself as an archivist and musicologist. One of those things happens to include restoring old albums for release on CD. “There’s a lot of, I guess for a lack of a better phrase, nerdy studio work that I do, and a lot of research finding the right tapes, finding the actual original tapes because they’ll always sound better, even if they need some repair.” One such project was the restoration of the Blue Oyster Cult album Agents of Fortune, which featured the original version of the famous tune. It’s his credit on that 1990s release, Dickinson speculates, that SNL staffers saw and chose to use for Walken’s character in the 2000 sketch.

“I’ve always felt a little funny about that,” he admitted of the mistaken identity. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not amused by his inclusion. “I thought it was kinda hilarious,” he told JMS. “I work with Iggy Pop on a lot of stuff and a lot of times when he calls and I pick up the phone, he goes ‘More cowbell!’”

But don’t worry, David. When he’s asked about his recognizable name, which happens noticeably more after the sketch re-airs, Dickinson doesn’t try to take credit. “I usually, when I get that question, I say yes, they’re referring to me, but I’m not the guy who really produced the record, he laughed. “And of course that confuses them a little more.”

Despite their unlikely connection, Dickinson doesn’t believe that he and David Lucas have ever met. “Certainly, he’s done a lot of good stuff,” he said before acknowledging his recent recognition. “I think it’s great that he’s being inducted up in Buffalo.” Lucas thinks it’s pretty great too. “You come from a town. You live your life there. You go away and you seek whatever you seek, and when something like this occurs and they give you such recognition, it just makes it all worth while, he said. “It’s wonderful to be a hometown boy makes good.”

So after all he’s accomplished in the music industry, does David Lucas care that the conversation keeps coming back to that cowbell? “Fame is fame,” Lucas quips. “Spell my name right. I don’t care what the hell you say.”

You can hear some of Lucas’ and Dickinson’s comments in the latest episode of Just My Show: The Retro Pop Culture Podcast. Make sure to visit www.justmyshow.com for more interviews with the stars of classic TV, movies, music and much more.

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