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