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Four albums and nearly a decade into a career that traded heavily on traditional blues at a time when pop and rock radio were increasingly focused on sounding as modern as possible, George Thorogood and the Destroyers seemed like unlikely candidates for a breakout hit in 1982. But then came the band’s fifth album, Bad to the Bone — and the bar anthem that would come to define a career.
Looking back, the period surrounding Bad to the Bone should have been anything but conducive to Thorogood’s best material. Always a busy touring act, he and the Destroyers really poured it on in 1981, mounting a wildly ambitious string of dates they called the 50-50 Tour — as in 50 states across 50 days, racking up 51 shows in all.
Those concerts put Thorogood and the Destroyers in front of roughly 150,000 fans, a sum total aided by the fact that they also served — along with the J. Geils Band and a young Prince — as an opening act for the Rolling Stones along the way. As Thorogood told Ultimate Classic Rock, it was actually on those dates that his creative wheels started turning toward “Bad to the Bone.’
“I had witnessed J. Geils and the intro to ‘Love Stinks’ and the Rolling Stones and the intro to ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and the reaction they got from the audience. I said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to come up with a song someday with some kind of signature intro or people are not going to remember you,’” Thorogood recalled. “You can’t just do it by doing covers of Chuck Berry the rest of your life. I was inspired with that.”
Although he still professes to be unsure of exactly how it happened, Thorogood took additional inspiration from record exec David Geffen, who somehow caught wind of “Bad to the Bone” in its nascent state and approached him to express his belief that it would be a hit.
“I didn’t even know who he was. I found out later,” said Thorogood. “He seemed very nice and he knows all about the song and then he said, ‘I’m David Geffen’ and I said, ‘Holy smokes.’ You know, because I’d never met him, I never saw him, I didn’t know what he looked like. But yeah, it was a confidence builder, someone of that level of the record industry.”
Another confidence builder came in the form of Stones sideman Ian Stewart, who drifted into Thorogood’s orbit during the tour after hearing his cover of “The Sky Is Crying” and asking if he could sit in — and then ended up sticking around for the Bad to the Bone sessions as well as the following tour.
“He was really quite a wonderful guy. I think we were kind of a throwback to the old Rolling Stones in ‘62 and ‘63 when they were first getting together and they were doing all blues covers before they produced original rock and roll hits,” Thorogood told UCR. “Ian was still very much into that — he liked our blues boogie thing. I was just on the cusp of starting to write originals. We still had a bag of non-originals that we did that he enjoyed. He didn’t enjoy my volume too much! I guess I played a little loud, but I said, ‘You play with Keith Richards and Ron Wood, what are you talking about, volume? Don’t talk to me about volume!’”
At the time he was prepping for Bad to the Bone, Thorogood was between record deals — after leaving longtime label home Rounder Records, he was shopping for a new contract, and in the meantime, he initially thought the title track might be best served in the hands of a veteran blues performer. As he told UCR, the song was shopped to Muddy Waters — who “wasn’t interested” — and Bo Diddley before Thorogood got around to putting together a proper recording with the Destroyers.
“Bo Diddley was interested, but he didn’t have a record deal at the time,” he explained. “But then EMI Capitol came along and said, ‘That’s the reason we’re signing you, is because we want that song! We want George Thorogood to do the song, not Bo Diddley.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So they put Bo Diddley in the video.”
The video proved key to the song’s success. While “Bad to the Bone” was nowhere near Thorogood’s most popular song in terms of chart position, like a lot of singles, its impact resonated well beyond the pop charts — and it started with the nascent video network, where “Bone” aired in heavy rotation at a time when promo clips were in relatively short supply. Inspired to write a song with an insistent, immediately memorable hook, Thorogood had delivered — and the track’s audience has only continued to grow over the years, moving from AOR favorite to soundtrack mainstay to musical shorthand for any screen character who’s flashing a little bit of attitude.
In the short term, Bad to the Bone catapulted Thorogood to household name status, ensuring that when he returned with his Maverick album in 1985, he’d make a much more immediate impact on the charts — and although subsequent releases proved a study in diminishing returns, he’d continue to score hits throughout the remainder of the decade. Segueing into statesman status during the ’90s, he’s continued to tour and record steadily over the past quarter of a century and counting — and cashed countless “Bad to the Bone” royalty checks along the way.
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