May 16 2011 5:34pm

Planet of Sound: Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”

Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

The title of Warren Zevon’s song “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” was appropriated for a 1995 crime drama, but “Werewolves of London” is the one that really could have cashed in on cinematic treatment.

In his biggest hit, Zevon does for werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires—except Zevon was writing in the 1970s. Brad Pitt’s a bit too shaved-chest smooth to star in this one. It’s more a Burt Reynolds role:

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s / His hair was perfect.”

So yes, they could have made a movie of this. They really could have*—but it would probably have missed the point, as Hollywood adaptations of genre materials often have. The song is a jumble, an exercise in juxtaposition. The riff is meathead classic rock, but the lyrics, literal descriptions of werewolves in modern society, only seem to fit with it for a little while. The opening is just weird enough to be memorable: “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand.” That line was voted best opener ever by BBC2 listeners, in a victory that always seemed even odder to me than Lord of the Rings’ selection as Britain’s Best-Loved Book by the BBC Big Read readers’ poll.

*A quick Wikipedia jaunt tells us that the title actually came from the first Hollywood werewolf movie. Whatever, they could have remade it in Warren’s image.

But as the song continues, it gets a bit more disturbing. You come to the chorus, and it’s only a howl before the title phrase. The verses begin to seem rather inappropriately jaunty. “Little old ladies” get mutilated, and the narrator cheerfully blames “werewolves of London again.” Actually, that howl is rather jaunty, too, isn’t it? Nothing here is taken seriously—except, wait, how could it not be? If this is metaphor, it’s metaphor for murder. If it’s not, we’re not talking charming furballs, or even the sexy wild-men who tend to end up in love triangles with vampires. We’re talking creatures who’ll rip your lungs out, and Zevon’s just as happy singing about that as about how well they’re dressed.

The last line he sings, quiet and off-beat after the guitar, is “draw blood.”

This one is an example of a spec-fic song that caught on in the mainstream, perhaps because there’s a straightforwardness to its structure—the riff and the repeated title/chorus—that provides an easy handle for what’s really a very strange song**. Is this funny? Cheesy? Frightening? Well-told? Tossed off? I don’t know, but when the song ends I mostly feel that the werewolves aren’t scary, but Warren kind of is.

**Admittedly, Zevon had lots of these. He was always an iconoclast, and for more on the speculative side from him, try my personal favorite, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” or go deeper with his neglected cyberpunk-inspired album, Transverse City.

Joshua Starr works for DAW Books, wrote for College Music Journal, and is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.

1. wiredog
"Excitable Boy" is his song about a serial killer....
David Lewis
2. dglewis
"Run Straight Down" could be the theme song to Neal Stephenson's Zodiac.
3. Lev Abalkin
How could we forget Lawyers Guns and Money ... ? (Soundtrack for anything involving US citizens set in MesoAmerica, the Carribean, or the northern part of South America.)

Now I'm hiding in Honduras
I'm a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan
Joshua Starr
4. JStarr
@3: "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" is indeed great, and wonderfully cinematic, but I'm not sure any amount of stretching could make it speculative...

@2: Ooh, I do not recall that one. I will refamiliarize myself.

@1: Yep. Always loved that second line: "He rubbed the pot roast all over his chest / 'Excitable boy,' they all said." Zevon's songs are often incredibly story-filled--with so few lines and only 3-4 minutes, they summon whole characters and relationships... or at least, they sketch those things, and the type of imagination sparked by music/songs fills in the rest.

As for a thus-far unmentioned weird one, I always thought "Gorilla, You're a Desperado" was underappreciated:

Big gorilla at the L.A. Zoo
Snatched the glasses right off my face
Took the keys to my BMW
Left me here to take his place

Also, if anyone wants to give this a shot, I created a couple Grooveshark playlists for Planet of Sound. One just has the songs from the feature so far (Planet of Sound), and the other (Planet of Sound Plus) has songs from the feature plus related songs or other songs mentioned in the post or comments. Let me know if they work or don't for you!

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