Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon might not yet be in the actual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although he should), but if there were a Halloween rock hall for famous spooky songs, Zevon and his catchy hit “Werewolves of London” would definitely be enshrined there.
Each haunting season, “Werewolves” records as many plays as other super-Halloween hits such as “The Monster Mash,” “Thriller,” and “Ghostbusters”.
The song about the stylishly dressed, hairy handed gents who run amuck in Kent actually originated from a challenge by Phil Everly, who along with his brother Don, formed the rock Hall of Fame duo The Everly Brothers.
In the early 1970s, Zevon was serving as keyboard player and band leader for Phil’s touring band. After watching the 1931 movie Werewolf of London, a film which preceded Lon Chaney Jr.’s Universal Studios wolfman monster classic by six years, Everly jokingly told Zevon he should create a song about a London wolfman, which could then be accompanied by a special dance like the monster mash.
Zevon and his sometime writing partner LeRoy Marinell began working on just such a tune. At one session, they were joined by Zevon’s friend, the brilliant Los Angeles guitarist Waddy Wachtel.
When Wachtell asked what they were doing, Zevon explained they were trying to compose a song about London werewolves. Wachtell supposedly replied: “Oh, you mean like aahoooooo”.
Suddenly the creative floodgates were opened. The trio began exchanging clever, sometimes surrealistic lines, which were captured on paper by Zevon’s wife, Crystal. The lyrics took about 15 minutes to finish.
When Zevon introduced the tune to his friend and fellow singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, Browne felt the toss-away song had serious potential and began performing it during his own concerts. Browne never recorded it, but Zevon did on his 1978 album Excitable Boy.
When it came time to select the first single off Excitable Boy, studio executives chose “Werewolves of London,” despite strenuous objection from Zevon and Wachtell. “I don’t know why it became such a hit,” Zevon, one of the most literate writers in all of rock, would say before his death from lung cancer in 2003. “We didn’t think it was suitable to be played on the radio.”
Browne believed the seemingly simple song perfectly captured and satirized upper-class English womanizers, while at the same time addressing universal subconscious sexual fears, much like the real-life story of Jack the Ripper.
“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”. Browne says. “The idea behind all these references is the idea of a ne’er do-well who devotes life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman, consorting with prostitutes, the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All that was secreted in just one line: ‘I’d like to meet his tailor’”.
Of course, werewolves have a long history in folklore and gothic tales.
The ancient Roman writers Ovid and Virgil both mentioned a form of werewolf in their writings. Werewolf legends thrived in 16th and 17th century Europe, many related to supposed occurrences of witchcraft. Scholars believe the idea of an evil man-wolf in Europe was inevitable. The wolf was the most feared predator there, so it was a natural to be projected into folklore. In other parts of the world, folklore presents man/predator animal monsters such as weretigers (India), werehyenas (Africa) and werejaguars (South America).
In the 20th Century, movies played a huge role in imprinting the supernatural werewolf onto public consciousness.
In 1941, Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed the character Lawrence Talbot, who was bitten and turned into a wolf. His portrayal helped placed the Wolf Man in the pantheon of the other great Universal monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula. It was during this period that the idea of men becoming wolves during the light of the full moon originated. The idea of the moon effect was prompted by a long-held notion that lunar cycles can affect human behavior negatively. It was also a convenient visual storytelling technique, similar to vampires having to avoid bright sunlight.
“Werewolves of London” reached #21 on the music charts and launched Zevon’s career as a solo performer. Its popularity and resurrection each Halloween forced Zevon to make it a staple of his live set list. But Zevon, despite his initial reluctance to feature the song, didn’t mind.
When asked if he ever considered dropping the song from his live repertoire Zevon replied: “Not really. I suppose it just wouldn’t feel right without the obligatory three minutes of howling every night.”
“It didn’t become an albatross,” he added. “It’s better I bring something to mind than nothing. There are times when I prefer it was ‘Bridge Over Trouble Waters,’ but I don’t think badly about the song. I still think it’s funny.”
Ironically, the simple three-chord song was extremely difficult to record. Zevon and Wachtel used seven different combinations of bass players and drummers on the song’s 59 takes, before finally settling on John McVie and Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac. “It was the hardest song to get down in the studio that I ever worked on,” Wachtel says.
In addition to its continuing airing at Halloween, the song’s popularity was increased from its many other uses.
It was featured in the soundtrack for the Tom Cruise/Paul Newman movie, The Color of Money. For many years, the Grateful Dead included their version of “Werewolves …” in their live shows, especially in October. Former professional wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura used a tailored version for his campaign and even sang the song at his inauguration, accompanied by Zevon on piano.
With his shaggy beard and hair, former Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth perfectly used the song as a walkup tune for his at-bats. In another baseball connection, when the Independent Frontier League team the Kalamazoo Kodiaks relocated from Michigan to London, Ontario they changed their name to the London Werewolves and their mascot was a harmlessly howling wolf dressed up in top hat and tails and named “Warren Z. Vaugh”. Kid Rock sampled “Werewolves …”, along with the similar sounding Lynard Skynard classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” for his huge 2007 hit “All Summer Long” and pop singer Masha recorded an extremely eerie, slowed-down version of Zevon’s signature song to use in an ad campaign for Three Olives Vodka.
But perhaps the greatest tribute for the song Zevon labeled “a dumb song for smart people” came in 2004 when a poll of BBC listeners decided “Werewolves of London” had the greatest opening lines of any rock song ever recorded. And here are those winning lines:
I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hands
Walking down the streets of Soho in the rain
He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook’s
Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.
Those lines were followed by the first of several “Aahooooo Werewolves of London”. And the rest, as they say, is both rock and Halloween history.
To learn more about Warren Zevon and his Werewolves of London:
• I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon
• Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles by George Plasketes
• Excitable Boy CD
• Stand in the Fire: Recorded Live at the Roxy CD
• Werewolf of London (1931) movie
• Three Olives Vodka commercial featuring “Werewolves of London” (YouTube)