Aug 1, 2006

The birth of a catch phrase

I get a kick out of instances where lowbrow pop-culture references make their way into the conservative world of corporate America. I witnessed just such a case yesterday in Manhattan, where I was invited to make a presentation to a group of media industry-types on an idea I've been kicking around, and which they might be interested in being a part of.

After I was done with my dog and pony, the operating officer of this company shared his feelings on where various resources should be deployed within his operation in order to meet those all important financial objectives that had been set by his board at the beginning of the fiscal year. His means of verbally framing his argument was noteworthy:

"Phil needs more cowbell if he is going to have any chance of wrapping up his project in the next three weeks--we have to give him more people," he implored his associates.

I chuckled at the "more cowbell" reference. The others at the table didn't---either they had seen this guy's act before or the phrase has flown over their heads. Given that this particular group of people made their living by keeping themselves attuned to the latest buzz of youth culture, my guess is that they all got it.

A short history of this phrase: In the mid-70's, the Long Island based rock band Blue Oyster Cult hit it big with a smash tune called Don't Fear the Reaper. The royalties alone on this song have likely kept these guys living comfortably ever since. The tune would have been nothing more than a Gretest Hits entry on those late night infomercials if not for a second life it gained with the help of a wacky TV segment.

Saturday Night Live did a sketch, featuring guest host Christoher Walken. In a BEHIND THE MUSIC parody, Walken played the part of a famous producer insisting that "More Cowbell" is the key to making Dont Fear the Reaper a smash. Although hesitant at first, the band eventually gave in and the rest is history. Will Ferrel played the part of fictional cowbell player Gene Frenkle. (Watch it here)

The phrase immediately became an inside joke among those that had viewed the show. But slowly, it gained favor among the wider tragically hip, spawning a cottage industry of tee shirts, bumper stickers, tatoos, and similar products. It also made its way into the everyday lexicon, into the stage play Spamalot and, apparently, into corporate business meetings.

More Cowbell, then, has become a means of asking someone to add certain resources to an effort to make it more attractive, useful or profitable. Just like Mr Walken was arguing for the addition of louder dunk-dunk-dunk to the studio session, these two words might be used to argue for more color being added to a painting, for more effort being devoted to a practice session or, as seen in the case of my NYC friends, for more money and manpower being allocated to a software project. Or a million other creative uses for this valuable addition to the English language.

I'd heard it used before: my neighbor shouted it out it as a way of instructing me to rev his car's engine harder as he was under the hood troubleshooting a carburator problem. You too can find a way to work it into your everyday life! I've noticed somebody sneaking it into our website's FORUM and randomly adding it to various topics. Hey dude, if you're reading this: ring us up and tell us how you got started--and why.

For a jump start education on how to master this phrase, head over to the Empire State Plaza tomorrow (Wednesday) night. It just so happens that the Oyster Boys are in town playing a free show there, in front of the State Museum steps.

I'll lay 10 to 1 odds that you'll hear "More Cowbell" being yelled out a minimum of 50 times. Anyone interested in taking me up on this wager?

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