Saturday, October 16, 2010

October 16: Warren Zevon, "Werewolves Of London"

Artist: Warren Zevon
Song: "Werewolves Of London"
Album: Excitable Boy
Year: 1978

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With few exceptions, the overall history of folk music is one of rather serious, usually heartfelt words that rarely show any signs of humor or any emotions beyond love.  While the early songs of Woody Guthrie proved the style could be used for social change and the expression of frustration, this trend really never took a consistent hold, and the "folkies" have been a largely mellow bunch for a majority of music history.  Thankfully, scattered throughout this trend there have been a handful of performers, who whilst staying firmly rooted in the folk style, have shown the entire range of emotions and sound that can be achieved.  Bringing a sometimes angry, often sarcastic, sometimes absurd point of view, few folk artists have been able to achieve a similar sound to that of the late Warren Zevon.  Having tried various forms of getting his sound across, it took Zevon well over a decade before critics and the general public finally saw the true genius within his music.  Even after his 1976 self-titled album found success, he was strangely resistant to do the follow up, and yet it is that album, 1978's Excitable Boy, for which he is best known.  From the brilliant title track to hidden gems like "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," the album perfectly captures his unique, often wry writing style, yet there is no song for which Warren Zevon is better known than his indescribable 1978 classic, "Werewolves Of London."

The fact that Zevon did not write in the traditional folk style was not helped by the fact that instead of a guitar, his primary instrument was a piano.  However, this fact does allow him to have a far wider range and mood to his music, and "Werewolves Of London" exemplifies this perfectly.  The song kicks off with a swinging, almost waltz-like progression, and in many ways, this was as "anti-disco" as the heaviest punk around.  Yet while it stood in defiance to the modern trends, there is something irresistibly danceable to the song, and it is this aspect that shows Zevon's superb skills as an arranger.  However, one cannot overlook the fact that the other musicians on the track were the likes of John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and a number of members of Linda Ronstadt's group, The Section.  In many ways, this combination of talents made it almost impossible for the song NOT to be catchy, and it is the level of musicianship found here that sets "Werewolves Of London" apart from the rest of the Zevon catalog.  There is an exceptionally odd element at play on the song, as it seems to stick to the odd-folk style, until it is knocked over by a guitar solo that screams of the "Southern rock" style.  Somehow, this element manages to work perfectly, and it is perhaps this completely random combination of styles, played by top-notch musicians, that makes "Werewolves Of London" such an unforgettable song.

While his musical arrangement on "Werewolves Of London" was unlike anything else, one can also hear a number of different influences coming through in the vocals of Warren Zevon.  Though the verses are mostly spoken, they are delivered in a far more pronounced and almost aggressive style than a majority of the "beat era" lyricists of this style, and in some ways, they are more akin to the growing rap movement of the late 1970's.  Yet there is a grin that can be heard throughout the entire lyrical portion of the song, and it is obvious that Zevon had a very good time both writing and recording the lyrics.  Though at first glance it may not seem as such, "Werewolves Of London" is one of the finest noir-style stories ever recorded.  Letting the title be quite literal, Zevon paints a picture of a real-life werewolf stalking the streets of London.  He even name drops boy Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., who were both movie starts, with the elder being best known for his silent, grotesque creatures, and the younger starring in the 1941 film, The Wolf Man.  Along with these two, Zevon mentions a wide array of London hot-spots, as his creature seems to take a tour of the town, searching for a victim.  The gritty, somewhat cold picture he paints is quite vivid, yet the strangely upbeat sound in his voice and music create another fantastic juxtaposition, making "Werewolves Of London" play like no other song.

Due to the fact that there are so many styles at play on "Werewolves Of London," it stands as one of the truly impossible to classify songs in history.  The song fits in just as perfectly on "classic rock" stations as it does on "oldie" stations as it does on stations playing newer rock, and this timeless feel is one of the most amazing aspects of all.  Furthermore, the range of artists that have covered it over the years is just as diverse, with versions coming from everyone from The Grateful Dead to Magnolia Electric Co, and the main riff was ripped-off for Kid Rock's nauseating 2008 song, "All Summer Long."  Furthermore, the songs' opening line, "...I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain..." has oft been voted as one of the greatest first lines ever, as there is a brilliant absurdity to the words.  All of this from a musician who almost turned his back on the business after years of playing as a backing pianist and struggling to get a record contract of his own.  In the end, it was friend and fellow musician Jackson Browne that not only got Zevon the deal, but also produced the hit song.  Whether it was the seemingly strange combination of styles in both lyrics and music, or the sheer level of talent within the musicians on the track, there is no arguing that Warren Zevon's 1978 song, "Werewolves Of London" is anything less than a true music classic.

1 comment:

Waldo said...

Purchased a back copy of "Genius" last week, wonderful in its completeness