Sometimes a single song becomes so synonymous with an artist, that they are unable to outrun its shadow and anyone who is not a established fan only ever associates the act with that song, regardless of how rich and varied the rest of their output.
“Werewolves of London” certainly isn’t a bad song, but as the only ‘hit’ of Warren Zevon’s lengthy career, it is usually the only song of his that anyone with only a passing interest in his career can name. This is a genuinely great shame, because if he hadn’t enjoyed the freak hit single, he might actually be half in greater esteem by even more people. As it is, he’s too often associated with what many consider a novelty hit single, even if it is an absolutely brilliant one.
It is perhaps inevitable that, because “Werewolves of London” is on Zevon’s 1978 album Excitable Boy, that it became the best selling of his career. Anyone who bought the album for the hit single would no doubt be delighted to realise that it didn’t over shadow the rest of the album, as it contained a number of songs that were the equal of his best known number, if not superior.
For the established Warren Zevon fan, songs like Excitable Boy’s macabre title track, and “Veracruz” are among his very best, and the blood-seeped mercenary tale “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” may very well be his definitive statement. There are weaker numbers though, particularly in the second half of the album, where the disco-beat of “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” doesn’t really the misanthropic tendencies of Zevon, and the balladeering of “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Tenderness on the Block” just edge on the wrong side of AOR. While I’m being critical, I may as well also weigh in with my opinion that party starting opener “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” only ever truly ignited on stage. I mean, it’s a fine song and all, but it needs that extra bit of live grit to truly exploit its full potential.
Okay, so with so many tracks that could be considered filler, you might assume Excitable Boy to be a bit of a dud. The thing is, it isn’t. With the first four songs being “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Excitable Boy” and then “Werewolves of London”, it opens well, and hits such a rich seem of tunes, that it compensates for the fact that the second half of the album just isn’t quite as strong by ensuring that three of those four opening tracks are among the very best material of Zevon’s career.
That’s right, while “Werewolves of London” may be considered to be a novelty hit by some, you simply cannot deny that it is an utterly wonderful and unique rock song. From the opening piano vamps and that immortal opening line, to the lolloping bass line, to the tightly-wound riffing, to that unforgettable chorus, to Zevon himself mugging and capering to full effect, “Werewolves of London” a fantastic tune, both in the context of Excitable Boy, and as a standalone single.
With the second half of Excitable Boy being almost totally overshadowed by the first, it is saved from ending with deflating disappointment by the appropriately amusing mis-fit narrative of closing track, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, another of Zevon’s career highlights.
With four of its nine tracks being among the best songs that Warren Zevon ever released, and the other five varying between being notable and just filler, Excitable Boy is an appropriately difficult to assess album, just like Zevon himself. Although it is better known, and contains some of the best songs of his career, Excitable Boy is ultimately too uneven to overtake Zevon’s eponymous 1976 album as his very best album, but it’s still a must have for his fans and the curious alike.