Songs Everyone Should Know
“Werewolves of London”, Warren Zevon (1978)
I saw Warren Zevon about a year before he died. He performed “Werewolves of London” and it was still very good, but was somehow tinged with sadness or something I could not quite put my finger on. The imagery in the song is still poignant but the style is a bit dated now. We seem to like things much darker now, and there was something fun about this song.
Co-written with Leroy Marinell and Waddy Watchel1, “Werewolves” appeared on 1978’s “Excitable Boy” album. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac joined his to record the album, as well as Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, Kenny Edwards, J.D. Souther, and Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals for “Excitable Boy”.
With the amount of airplay this song gets now you would have thought it may have done better when it was released, but it peaked at #22 on the U.S. charts. It is sad to say this is the biggest success the Warren Zevon had commercially in his career. I’m sure the radio royalties were pretty good though.
This often political and dark view of the world was apparent in other songs he wrote including “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Roland the Headless Tommy gunner”, both on the “Excitable Boy” album. Warren also wrote songs for others; probably his most famous would be Linda Ronstadt’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”.
Born in Chicago in 1947, when he was young he moved to Fresno, California. When he was 13 he started to visit Igor Stravinsky, where he studies classical music for a time. Igor of course is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Warren’s parents divorced when he was 16. Before finishing high school, he moved to New York to become a folk singer.
After giving it a go in NY, his greatest success being a song that made the “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) soundtrack called “He Quit Me”. Then working with the cult figure Kim Fowley, finally Warren ended up touring with the Everly Brothers in the early seventies as their keyboard player.
By 1975 he was back in Los Angeles rooming with Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. I bet that was awkward. It was there that he started to collaborate with everyone. Then Jackson Browne produced his 1976 “Warren Zevon” album although not a commercial success, has found critical acclaim long after its release. The strange cocktail of his influences: classical, folk, country is dashed with dark irony.
There is a darkness and hints of violence in a number of Zevon’s songs; I think this overshadows a lost and innocent “excitable boy”. His humour is a defence against his pain –his sarcasm missiles in the war against loneliness, and for a time his battle against alcohol and drug addiction. I was saddened to hear of his passing and will always remember the opening notes of “Werewolves” on his electric piano in the warm night air.
1. Robert (Waddy) Watchel was one of the most sought-after session musicians in the seventies, playing with artists such as James Taylor, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Andrew Gold, and John David (J.D.) Souther. Zevon hired him in 1972 as a session musician.