"We actually took it to a musicologist because we didn’t want to get sued": the story behind George Thorogood & The Destroyers' Bad To The Bone

George Thorogood studio portrait
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis)

In the summer of 1981, a white bluesman called George Thorogood, from Delaware, watched a Rolling Stones concert from the wings, and asked himself what they had that he didn’t. 

Thorogood and his band – at that time drummer Jeff Simon and bassist Bill Blough – had enjoyed sufficient success with their debut album to be invited to open for the Stones on that US tour. Unfortunately, Thorogood’s schoolboy fantasy was being soured by the muted audience reaction to his set of blues standards. 

“I did those gigs with the Stones,” Thorogood recalls, “and I noticed that every time they went into the opening of Start Me Up – it’s a very brief opening, and there’s a pause – the response from the audience was just over-the-top. 

"So I said to myself: ‘Georgie, you gotta come up with a song, kid. You gotta write something that gets that response when you go into it.’ Cos if I don’t, then 10 years from now people are gonna say: ‘Do you remember a guy called George Thorogood?’ and most of ’em are gonna say: ‘Oh yeah. Wasn’t he good at playing Chuck Berry covers?’” 

Thorogood set to work. The musical foundation on which he built his signature tune was straightforward enough: a call-and-response slide guitar riff that tipped its hat to the early blues. 

“We actually took it to a musicologist,” Thorogood recalls, “because we didn’t want to get sued and I didn’t want to blatantly rip someone off. I was trying to get it to be something that nobody had heard before, but for it to still remind you of stuff."

The lyrics took longer. And Thorogood finally settled on a title inspired by US slang of the era: “Our word in the neighbourhood was ‘bad’. “It was an alternative word, like ‘hip’ or ‘groovy’. And there was this guy in the neighbourhood who would always say: ‘Bad to death’. So I thought, hmmm… ‘Bad to the bone’. It was so common to say that word, so I knew that eventually someone was going to write this song, and it might as well be me."

Due to the autobiographical nature of the lyrics, the philandering outlaw of Bad To The Bone is often taken to be Thorogood himself. But “it’s a pure fantasy”, he says. “It’s like, a guy will listen to it and think: ‘I’d like to be that guy’, or a girl will listen to it and think: ‘I’d like to be with a guy like that’. It’s not me.” 

After the song was completed, somewhere along the line Thorogood hit on the idea of asking veteran bluesman Muddy Waters to record it. 

“I thought it’d be great for him,” he remembers. “But he wouldn’t even listen to it. His manager said: ‘Muddy will absolutely not listen to any songs written for him by white people – he’ll be offended by that’. And I said ‘bullshit – if I was Clapton or Keith Richards, he’d record it in a minute’. I wasn’t a high-profile enough. 

“So I turned to Bo Diddley. I was interested in getting him to record it, and he was interested in recording it. But he didn’t have a record deal. So it was down to yours truly to get the song out there.” 

At the time newly signed to the EMI label, Thorogood and his band headed into the studio in Jamaica Plains, near Boston, in April 1982, where they laid down Bad To The Bone with the help of the Stones’ then-keyboard player, the late Ian Stewart. 

“We were kinda flying without a producer in those days,” Thorogood recalls of the recording process. “We just went in and played the songs, and whoever engineered the session took credit for being the ‘producer’. But it was a very loose term.”

To The Bone became the name of the parent album, also released in 1982. But Thorogood denies that Bad To The Bone made him an overnight star. 

“It didn’t really catch on. What made it catch on was classic rock radio. But it wasn’t a big hit; I don’t think it charted at all. EMI was very disappointed. The first two months of sales were, like, 275,000 – which I thought was great, because I’d just come from Rounder Records. The vice-president of EMI, his whole thing with music was, if it’s not triple platinum and you’re not on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s a flop.”

Over time, however, the song’s rebel schtick and irresistible hook gave Thorogood the anthem he had dreamt of at that Stones gig. 

“I get a lot of blues bands that I used to play with 20 years ago, and they play better than me and they sing better than me, and they say: ‘George, we don’t understand it. You were opening for us in the 70s, and now we’re opening for you.’ And I go: ‘I’ll give you three reasons why: One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, Move It On Over, and Bad To The Bone.”

George Thorogood and The Destroyers' Live in Boston, 1982: The Complete Concert is released on December 4. Pre-orders are available now.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.