The Secret Inspiration Behind Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London’
How ‘a dumb song for smart people’ became an unlikely hit
By George Plasketes
From his 1978 album Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon’s terror trilogy — a ghostly, ghastly three-song sequence brimming with abandoned amusement — was comprised of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Excitable Boy,” and “Werewolves of London.” The latter was another “literally 15-minute song” that none of its co-writers — Zevon, LeRoy Marinell, and Waddy Wachtel — took seriously. The spontaneous composition, referred to by Zevon as “a dumb song for smart people,” defied the conventional attributes of songwriting such as labor, craft, and agonizing.
The idea originated with Phil Everly who, after watching the movie Werewolf of London (1935) on late-night television, suggested to Zevon that he adapt the title for a song and dance craze. When Wachtel heard the idea, he mimicked a wailing wolf — “Aahoooh” — which became part of the howling chorus. The trio frivolously alternated verses, beginning with what may be one of the all-time opening lines: “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand/Walking down the streets of Soho in the rain.” The romp is comic noir, featuring a stylish werewolf on his way to Lee Ho Fooks for a “big dish of beef chow mein” and another “drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s.”
There is a warning of “the hairy handed gent who ran amok in Kent” alleviated with nifty alliteration — “little old lady got mutilated late last night,” droll fashion statements — “his hair was perfect,” characteristic celebrity name dropping — Lon Chaney, and Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the Queen, the dance endeavor Everly had hoped for, “doing the Werewolves of London,” and an “Aah-oooh” chorus. Zevon effortlessly sprinkled verses with punch lines: “You better stay away from him/He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim/Heh, I’d like to meet his tailor.” He drolly punctuates the prance with a salivating, “Draw blood.”
Fortunately, Crystal Zevon was present to transcribe the lively lyric exchange onto a steno pad that she always carried. The following day in the studio with Jackson Browne, who was cutting some Zevon demos to solicit to the Eagles and Ronstadt to possibly record before the Warren Zevon sessions began, they mentioned the “new song” and recited the “Werewolves” lyrics. Browne responded favorably. One listen was enough to prompt him to occasionally perform the song live as early as 1975 — three years before it was recorded. Bootleg recordings of those performances, notably the Main Point show, frequently circulated, creating expectations from Asylum that Browne was going to record the song.
Recording “Werewolves” was a contrast to its hasty composition. Wachtel compared his struggles during the studio sessions to the challenges that director Francis Ford Coppola faced during the production of the Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now (1979), as chronicled in the documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). Though the comparison of a three-minute song to a three-hour film may be a bit disproportionate, Wachtel nonetheless considered “Werewolves” the hardest song to get down in the studio that he ever worked on.
The song was built around a lick that Marinell had been carrying around for years. Wachtel used seven bands and endless combinations of musicians, before recruiting Fleetwood Mac members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, who finally executed the drum and bass parts to best fit the song during an all-night session. Most of the Excitable Boy budget went into recording “Werewolves of London” due to the disproportionate number of attempts to get the song done.
When the record label chose “Werewolves” as the album’s single, Zevon and Wachtel were insulted from an artistic stance. They were perplexed by Asylum’s logic in taking “that piece of shit.” Their preferences for the single were “Tenderness on the Block,” the tune co-written with Browne that they considered exceptional, or the mid-tempo lead cut, “Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” Whether luck, intuition, or music marketing savvy, to the label’s credit, “Werewolves of London” became an overnight hit, reaching number 21 and remaining in the Top 40 for six weeks. The single was also issued in a limited-edition, 12-inch picture disc featuring a werewolf close-up and Zevon sitting in the sleeve’s bottom-right corner in his three-piece suit.
Zevon conceded that “Werewolves of London” was a novelty, though “not a novelty the way, say, Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ is a novelty.” Zevon’s hairy-handed hit contained qualities that, had it been recorded five years later, might have settled somewhere between a Weird Al Yankovic parody and the John Landis epic 13-minute music video of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983, with werewolves replacing zombies in the horror choreography. Surprisingly, Landis did not include the song in his film An American Werewolf in London (1981). Similar to “Excitable Boy” in its lyrical dexterity, surprising hooks, merry piano melody, and guilty pleasure sing-along aura, “Werewolves of London” possessed a novelty nature and abandoned amusement that translated well beyond a Halloween standard as a song that was as sardonically smart as it was savage.
Browne, an unwavering acolyte, gives the song more credit than Zevon does. Browne told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that when someone inevitably made reference to “Werewolves of London” at Zevon’s memorial service in 2003, Browne came away with a new perspective on the song 25 years later, with one of Zevon’s patented comes-out-of-nowhere lines his focal point. Browne’s incisive “Werewolves” reading reveals him to be one of those “smart people” Zevon’s “dumb song” was written for:
It’s about a really well-dressed, ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies. In a way it’s the Victorian nightmare, the gigolo thing. The idea behind all those references is the idea of the ne’er do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman in gambling clubs, consorting with prostitutes, the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All of that is secreted in that one line: “I’d like to meet his tailor.” ~Jackson Browne
“I don’t think it was as big a hit as people think it was. People remember it from year to year more — it’s been in movies and it gets trotted out regularly — but it’s not as if it sold four million copies, like a Paula Abdul single, you know what I mean? “~Warren Zevon
“Werewolves of London” was “trotted out regularly.” The hit song’s 15- minute conception, prompted by a horror film and a dance-crazed Phil Everly, progressed into a lineage of assorted and unusual cultural citations. In addition to the song’s signature “Ahh-ooh” chorus howl and idiosyncratic “I’d like to meet his tailor,” the opening lyric has been abstracted with recognition. In 2004, “Werewolves of London’” won the BBC Radio 2’s “Greatest Opening Song Line” vote, finishing ahead of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” “Hey Joe” by the Leaves, Jimi Hendrix, and others, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” The first part of the opening line — “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand” — has also been appropriated as a bumper sticker, with the verse catchy but confounding to those not familiar with Zevon.
The most common conveyance of “Werewolves of London” is as a Halloween standard. Beyond the annual October playlist, the song has been used widely in television, including Californication, Community, Grimm, Glee, Hawaii Five-O, and Dancing with the Stars; and in film, notably Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986). Cover versions range from the Flamin’ Groovies, David Lindley, and Magnolia Electric Co., to actor Adam Sandler. Masha Shirin’s sultry rendition provides a striking divergence from the original within the ironic setting of a noirish musical featuring a stylish lupine ladies’ man that was part of an ad campaign for Three Olives vodka in 2014. There is also ironic juxtaposition in Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” a huge hit that reached number one in eight countries in 2008. The song samples the “Werewolves” piano hook, mashed up with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song Zevon satirized in “Play It All Night Long” in 1980.
“Werewolves of London” surfaced in several rather uncommon settings. During the gubernatorial inauguration ball in 1999, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura growled his way through an organic live performance of a tailored version, “Werewolves of Minnesota,” guided by Zevon who shared the stage on piano. In major league baseball, Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth includes “Werewolves of London” in his rotation of walk-up tunes played over the stadium PA system as he approaches the batter’s box. The personal theme was presumably selected to correlate with Werth’s beard and shaggy hair.
The song also circulated to the spirited atmosphere of minor league baseball. In 1999, when the independent Frontier League team Kalamazoo Kodiaks relocated from Michigan to London, Ontario, their name change to “Werewolves” seemed an oddly obvious choice. The team mascot, a harmlessly howling wolf dressed in top hat and tails, named “Warren Z. Vaughn,” erased any doubt as to the source of the team name. The caricatured Zevon homage was weirdly transcendent, an Elvisian distinction and a rarity for rockers that highlighted the song’s cartoon qualities and novelty party mythology.
In cameos on two 1990s cable comedies on HBO, The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On, Zevon advanced his own “hit song torment” counter-mythology. Zevon displays deft, unaffected, and edgy comic timing in hilarious scenes in which he expresses his ire at the endless requests, whether from fans or television show hosts, to play their favorite Zevon song, “Werewolves of London.”
“Listen, I don’t want to be a prick, but every single show I do, I play ‘Werewolves of London’ and it’s driving me fucking crazy.” ~Warren Zevon, scene from ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ (HBO), September 15, 1993