In Random Reviews, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
Warren Zevon- “Werewolves of London”
PEAK: #21 on May 13, 1978
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You”
Throughout pop music, there have been artists who are critical darlings and fan favorites without having much success on the pop charts. There are lots of reasons for this: the artist may be intentionally shunning the mainstream or the mainstream may be intentionally shunning the artist. Many times artists like these have a hard time crossing over to a wider audience with their music often in parallel to the popular sound at the moment. But sometimes the artist and the mainstream manage to intersect in some cases to the annoyance of the artist themselves.
Having one major hit can be both a blessing and a curse to your career. On one hand, you’ve finally achieved massive success with a larger audience dramatically raising your profile. And your song continues to live on through various covers, samples, TV, and movie placements. But on the other hand, that one hit tends to dwarf many casual listeners’ perspectives who instantly think of you through your big hit even if it’s not representative of your artistry. That kind of profile can be annoying at times and may make you not think of your hit in a very high manner.
Warren Zevon is one of those artists. By the late ‘70s, he’d already made a name for himself with two highly acclaimed albums complete with highly literate songwriting that helped him gain the respect of his more famous contemporaries. But to the larger public, his main musical legacy is a goofy song about a werewolf ordering beef chow mein and a fun howling singalong that Zevon didn’t exactly care for but has grown in popularity in the years since. It also helps that the song slaps.
Warren Zevon did not grow up in London. He was born in Chicago to a Mormon mother and a Russian immigrant father who gambled and worked for the mob. The family soon moved out to California where Zevon started developing his interest in music which included learning classical music from famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky often visiting his house a lot. By the age of 16, Zevon’s parents had divorced and he dropped out of high school moving to New York City to chase his music dreams.
With a high school friend, he formed a folk duo called lyme and cybelle with the lowercase styling. They got a recording contract and released music immediately getting minor chart success with 1966’s “Follow Me” which broke the Hot 100 peaking at #65. But none of their other singles made much impact so Zevon quit the group and went out to Los Angeles getting work wherever he could in music by being a songwriter, jingle ad writer, and a session musician. Then in 1969, Kim Fowley, the man who had produced the Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 #1 “Alley Oop” and would later discover Joan Jett’s early group The Runaways, offered to help Zevon record an album.
Fowley and Zevon came together to work on Zevon’s debut album, 1969’s Wanted Dead Or Alive, but it didn’t last for long. Fowley walked out after getting into arguments with Zevon, who wanted to do everything himself and wound up producing the album himself. The album wound up being a huge flop making little impact upon release. This led Zevon to go back to doing behind the scenes work which included becoming the keyboardist and musical director for the Everly Brothers. (The Everly Brothers’ have hit #1 themselves with 1960’s “Cathy’s Clown.” It’s a 7.) When the duo broke up in 1973, Zevon continued working for them playing in their solo shows as well as writing and playing on some of Phil Everly’s solo albums.
Frustrated with the lack of a breakthrough, Zevon left America for Spain before returning in 1975 and hooking up with the big names in California music at the time including Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Browne took a big liking to Zevon getting him signed to his label Asylum Records and produced his second self-titled album released in 1976. (Jackson Browne’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Somebody’s Baby,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.)
The album didn’t sell much peaking at #189 on Billboard but critics loved it and looking at the album credits had the support of the music establishment who played or sang backup on the album: Browne, Nicks, Buckingham, members of the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, etc. Browne brought Zevon on tour as his supporting act and fellow California-based rock star Linda Ronstadt covered his songs and even gave Zevon his first taste of chart success when her 1978 cover of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” peaked at #31.
All this industry goodwill helped Zevon as he went back into the studio to record his sophomore effort 1978’s Excitable Boy with Browne once again producing. Zevon’s music at this point fit him in well with the California-based singer-songwriter folk and rock music popular in the ‘70s but unlike his contemporaries was a more sophisticated songwriter with a distinctive baritone voice to boot. The song that would help cross him over to a more mainstream audience was a song written largely as a joke that Zevon and the people around him thought had no chance of being a hit.
“Werewolves of London” was already a few years old by the time it was released. When Zevon was still working with Phil Everly, Everly brought up the 1935 horror film Werewolf of London that he had recently seen on TV and suggested to Zevon that he make a song and dance craze out of it. This led to Zevon and fellow collaborators Waddy Wachtel and LeRoy Marinelli writing the song in about 15 minutes which Zevon described as a “joke between friends.” Zevon didn’t care much about the song so he left it off his self-titled album. But Browne liked the song and started performing it during his concerts. Soon enough, it wound up on Excitable Boy.
For a song written as a joke, a lot of time and effort went into recording. Wachtel, who co-produced with Jackson Browne, said “Werewolves of London” was the hardest song he ever worked on working through seven different groups of musicians for the rhythm section before settling on Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie and Mick Fleetwood to play bass and drums respectively along with Wachtel’s guitar and Zevon’s piano. Because of this effort, much of the budget for Excitable Boy was spent largely on making “Werewolves of London.”
In the years after “Werewolves of London,” Zevon still didn’t seem to think highly of the song. Over the years, he dismissed it as a novelty song and going as far as to call it “a dumb song for smart people.” He and Wachtel even felt insulted when Asylum selected “Werewolves of London” as the lead-off single for Excitable Boy yet it wound up as Zevon’s biggest and signature hit in the high disco era. Sometimes the record labels make the right decision.
Regardless of what Zevon thought, you certainly can’t hear it in “Werewolves of London.” Zevon delivers the song in his usual baritone conversational style while also embracing the jokey tone of the song. In the song’s video, Zevon looks like he’s having fun with the song amid shots of a goofy werewolf actor. He knows it’s a silly song but is still committed to giving it his best. When you hear him delivering that howl on the chorus, how can you resist?
In the production, Wachtel and Browne bring a late ‘70s professional rock sheen to the song that adds to the fun of the song. There’s nothing that incredibly stands out but everyone here does their job well. Zevon’s three-chord piano riff is catchy enough to get you into the song, McVie and Fleetwood fit in well with the beat without being too showy, and Wachtel gets the most flashy parts with his crunchy electric stabs before letting loose on his solo in the middle which he recorded all in one take.
In “Werewolves of London,” Zevon observes some mysterious werewolf who walks around London with a Chinese menu in his hand and is seen drinking piña coladas at a bar. We also learn he’s a murderer, a cannibal, and has perfect hair. In the last verse, Zevon also sings about the horror movie father-son actors Lon Cheney Sr. and Lon Cheney Jr. who are seen doing the titular dance and walking around with Queen Elizabeth. You can tell from the lyrics that not a lot of thought went into it. They don’t connect a lot but they still sound cool. Despite these scary scenarios, the song doesn’t treat it as such. Like Halloween, it’s scary in a fun way. And of course, the main reason people still know the song today is for its gloriously goofy howl than anything.
After “Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon wouldn’t make it into the Top 40 again. Turns out a fun howling singalong isn’t enough to sustain a career for long. He only made the Hot 100 once more in 1980 with “A Certain Girl” which peaked at #57. After getting Excitable Boy to go platinum, all of Zevon’s subsequent releases never reached the same commercial heights even as he continued collaborating with big-name artists including 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene where he had R.E.M. as his backing band. (R.E.M.’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Losing My Religion,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) In later years, he’d find new fame appearing on David Letterman’s Late Show often filling in as his bandleader when regular bandleader Paul Schaffer was absent.
As with many artists who experience fame, Zevon fell easily into its excesses often abusing alcohol. But the real health struggle came in 2002, when after experiencing heavy coughs, he was diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. He died soon after in 2003 at age 56 but not before recording and releasing his swan song album The Wind. If you find yourself singing along to “Werewolves of London” this Halloween, let out a howl for Warren Zevon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the big scene from 1986’s The Color of Money where a young Tom Cruise shows off his pool playing skills to “Werewolves of London:”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Adam Sandler’s cover of “Werewolves of London” he recorded for the 2004 Warren Zevon tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich:
(Adam Sandler has never had a Top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Kid Rock sampled “Werewolves of London” along with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” for his 2008 single “All Summer Long.” Here’s his video for the song:
(“All Summer Long” peaked at #23. “Sweet Home Alabama” peaked at #8 in 1974. It’s a 10. Kid Rock’s highest-charting single, the 2003 Sheryl Crow collaboration “Picture,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Joel McHale stripping down for a game of pool on a 2010 episode of Community in a parody of the Color of Money scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2013’s Grown Ups 2 where “Werewolves of London” soundtracks the scene where the cast walk into a K-Mart: