A Buyers Guide to Warren Zevon – The Asylum Years

Warren Zevon is one of those songwriters who is unfortunately best remembered for one song which overshadowed the rest of his career. This is a great shame, as Zevon’s output is one of considerable depth which underwent repeated twists and turns in terms of commercial success which lead to a relatively stop-start career punctuated by various issues with record companies.

Zevon’s run of five albums on Asylum remain his most celebrated period and all but one are relatively easy to obtain.

Zevon’s self-titled album from ’76 reintroduced him as a musical force. After flat sharing with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and a career leg-up from Jackson Browne, Zevon had signed to Asylum and his natural charisma enabled him to recruit the cream of the American session musician scene and those further up the commercial food-chan to assist him in create his new musical calling card. With Jackson Browne in the producer’s chair, the American music scene apparently willing him forward and an excess of great material, why his debut on Asylum wasn’t a monster hit is something of a mystery, though the fact it was so cerebral when compared to its contemporaries probably didn’t go in its favour.

It starts off with a brace of tunes which give the impression that Zevon was a capable country-rocker, however “Hasten Down the Wind”, confirms that Zevon was a balladeer of rare talent and the following rocker “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” solidifies his reputation.

This ability to switch gears so smoothly would become one of Zevon’s great strengths, but on this album it was a real feature, with “Mohammed’s Radio”, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Carmelita” combining to make the second half of the album one of Zevon’s most satisfying sequences. Best of all though is closer “Desperados Under the Eaves”, one of the high-tide marks of the 70s singer-songwriter movement, despite its relative obscurity. It’s a stunning song and it closes an album which stands head and shoulders above the work of such leviathans as The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.

The most obvious place to start with Zevon’s career is Excitable Boy for two reasons. Firstly, it contains a large percentage of my favourite songs included on the aforementioned compilation, and secondly, unlike a lot of Zevon’s output, it’s easy to track down.

It’s a slight disappointment then that Excitable Boy opens with the uncharacteristically lightweight “Johnny Strikes Up The Band”. It’s by no means a bad tune, it just doesn’t fill you with confidence for the rest of the album. Thankfully things improve quickly with one of Zevon’s landmark tunes, the vengeful mercenary tune of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” and from there the album is on a roll. Next up is the joyously upbeat song of insanity, murder and grave robbery that is the title track, another top draw tune, which is the followed in rapid succession by his best known song, the brilliantly catchy “Werewolves of London” which opens with possibly the greatest opening line in the history of popular song.

While it would be optimistic to expect the rest of the album to match the quality of these three fried-gold classics, the pace does drop slightly with the fine “Accidentally Like A Martyr”, which is a tuneful and concise slice of FM rock that The Eagles would have traded a few dozen of their platinum discs to be able to write. This is followed by “Nighttime In The Switching Yard”, which throws another musical -curved ball with it’s oddly funky, even disco-like, tune. Balladry then takes pole position on the next two numbers and it’s masterful stuff, though it doesn’t get the pulse racing. World-beating form is resumed though with the closing “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, another misfit’s tale that comes as close as anyone to Randy Newman’s tales of characters you find it hard to sympathise with.

All things considered, Excitable Boy is a strong album, showing Zevon’s range without outstaying its welcome. At this point in his career, the world was very much Zevon’s oyster.

And sometimes oysters are not all they should be…

Sometimes there’s an album in a discography that reminds you that the artist was fallible. I’m not talking fallible as a personality, indeed Warren Zevon’s lesser qualities are well documented – Indeed, Zevon himself requested his ex wife that she should write a totally truthful and unflattering biography about him shortly before prematurely shuffling off his mortal coil. No, I’m talking about as a recording artist here, an arena where Zevon is the very definition of a cult figure and his unwaveringly loyal audience slowly swell in numbers each year. For each great songwriter there is at least one album which highlights the fact that the muse wasn’t always with them and they genuinely did struggle from time to time. For Warren Zevon, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is that album.

The less consistent and more wilful sibling of the best selling (well, best selling for Zevon) Excitable Boy, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is a shadow of its predecessor in so many ways, with the same tricks being pulled out of the hat with slightly less impressive results. “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado” is this album’s attempt at “Werewolves of London”, but ends up as a rather flimsy novelty tune, “Jungle Work” is the mercenary follow up to the blood-seeped “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and while they are fine songs in their own right, when you compare them to the material on Zevon’s two previous releases, it becomes obvious that they are little more than seemingly rushed facsimiles of better material.

It’s not a dead loss though, as “A Certain Girl” is a fun nod to doo-wop and “Play it All Night Long” has become even more of a statement when you consider Kid Rock’s act of musical necrophilia a while back. The track that will get the average rock fan salivating though would be “Jeannie Needs a Shooter”, not because it’s particularly memorable, or pushed the boundaries of popular song, but because it is the result of Zevon collaborating with his considerably more commercially successful contemporary, Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps the album’s best moment though, is its most overlooked, the small but perfectly formed “Bill Lee”, which although under two minutes in duration is the best track on this album.

In terms of phase one of Warren Zevon’s career, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is the least impressive release, but it’s not without it’s great moments, it’s just a shame that there aren’t enough of them to make the album a genuinely satisfying listen. Perhaps this is the reason that Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School was omitted from the reissue campaign a few years back, making it one of Zevon’s harder to find albums, though it was included in 2010’s Original Album Series box set, which frustratingly means that the majority of us that want to hear it will already have at least one of the other albums in the set.

As the 80s dawned Warren Zevon seemed to be the only songwriter willing to bridge Randy Newman’s intelligent world-weary literate cynicism and Bruce Springsteen’s everyman rocking. Blistering live album Stand In The Fire finds Zevon very much on Springsteenesque rocking form, at the top of his game as a performer and entertainer.

While most live albums are pretty expendable, being little more than contract fillers, or cynical ploys to squeeze more cash out of a gullible fanbase, Stand In The Fire stands alone on it’s own terms. While the majority of live albums are recorded in massive soulless enormodomes, those few that are recorded in small club-like venue tend to have a unique energy of their own. They’re not always recorded particularly well, but when the stars are aligned sometimes it can provide a hidden gem in the artist’s catalog. As Zevon used session musicians in the studio and (for want of a better term) a ‘club’ band for live shows, Stand In The Fire is considerably more raw and rocking than his studio work and possesses a unique energy compared to the rest of Zevon’s output.

The album starts off with it’s title track, a pretty standard by-the-book rocker that didn’t appear on an album previous to this recording being released. While it kicks the set off in style, it doesn’t quite measure up to Zevon’s best work and the fact that it’s followed by the worthy, but unremarkable “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”, means that the album struggles for traction early on. This is rectified by an energetic version of “Excitable Boy” which shows exactly what Zevon and his band are capable of. Later on the set this is matched by a brilliant “Werewolves of London” in which Brian de Palmer, James Taylor and Jackson Browne all get name-checked via some sweaty ad libs. Of course it would have been almost impossible to maintain these energy levels, so “The Sin” allows the set to drop a gear, but normal service is resumed with “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and the snarl of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”.

The original album closed with a rocking medley of “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” and “Bo Diddley”, but last decade’s reissue sees four bonus tracks act as an encore on this remastered version, so after a concert of rough-cut rocking it closes with a couple of numbers performed by Zevon alone at the piano, underlining the fact that Zevon could easily switch between sweaty rock to heartfelt ballads in a heartbeat.

The final album of Zevon’s time on Asylum, 1982’s The Envoy has long been pointed to as the nadir of Zevon’s career. This is a touch unfair really as it’s certainly not as bad as Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and it manages to flip between a state of the world address (the title track), simple pop songs (“Let Nothing Come Between You”), sly humour (most of “The Hula Hula Boys” sounds like Zevon is about to segue into “I’m So Worried” by Monty Python) and some of Zevon’s most mature material (“Charlie’s Medicine” and “Jesus Mentioned”).

The Envoy does boast a trio of stand out tracks though. “Looking for the Next Best Thing”, is undoubtedly the albums most commercial moment and should have got a lot more airplay than it did at the time, as it may very well have saved this album from semi-obscurity. My personal favourite moment on The Envoy, is “Ain’t that Pretty at All” which to a lot of Zevon’s fans is little more than a throw-away rocker, but as his throw-away rockers go, it’s rather good. The closing “Never Too Late for Love” is the album’s final hidden gem and the track that has aged best from the whole of this admittedly uneven album.

After The Envoy, Asylum dropped Zevon and he himself fell off the radar for a few years to battle his personal demons, before returning on the Virgin label, and releasing a pair of albums in the latter half of the 80s, one critically well received and the other one not, becoming a Hindu Love God and then being dropped again. The 90s saw Warren Zevon come to terms with operating in reduced circumstances and as the new millennium started, he was seemingly at piece with his place in the world, releasing a trio of well received albums before cancer took him from us.

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