Lawyers, Guns and Money: Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy at 45

Looking back on the legendary songwriter’s most popular album

Magazine ad for Excitable Boy (Image: Pinterest)

In these days of Spotify and streaming on demand, it’s easy to forget the kind of grip radio had on the music industry back in the ‘70s.

Artists dreamed of breaking into the Top 40 in order to break into the consciousness of music fans nationwide.

Early 1978 saw the radio airwaves dominated by songs like “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees (#1 as the year began), “Baby Come Back” by Player, and “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel. Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” was the more upbeat (!) tune you hoped to hear, but odds are the DJ would follow it up with something like Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.”

Yeah, it was painfully mellow times for Top 40 radio.

Then, in mid-April 1978, a howl cut through the mellow:

“Ah-hooooooo! Werewolves of London.”

Coming in at #36 for the week ending April 22, 1978, sandwiched in between Sweet’s “Love is Like Oxygen” and George Benson’s “On Broadway,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” – the first single off his third album, Excitable Boy – tore the mellow to shreds like Larry Talbot’s Wolf Man tearing apart Bela Lugosi in Universal’s 1941 classic.

 

VIDEO: Warren Zevon “Werewolves of London”

The song actually began as a joke. According to Zevon biographer George Plasketes, 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.”

But “Werewolves of London” was no joke. The smarmy werewolf / self-absorbed ladies’ man captured the public’s attention. His hair was perfect – and doesn’t that describe every 1978 disco dude who swaggered onto the dance floor wriggling to music of the Bee Gees, John Travolta’s Tony Manero included? (I know, Saturday Night Fever was released a year earlier. Still.)

“Werewolves” stayed in the Billboard Top 40 for more than a month, peaking at #21 and catapulting Zevon into the national consciousness in a career-making way that probably could never have been accomplished by “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” or “Tenderness on the Block,” two tunes Zevon preferred as initial singles.

Warren Zevon Excitable Boy, Asylum Records 1978

“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” was released as a single, as were three more of the album’s songs: “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” and the title track. None of them charted, but most of them added significantly to Zevon’s reputation for sharp, satiric, witty and macabre songwriting.

“Lawyers, Guns and Money” summarizes a wild tale of dating a waitress connected to the Russian mafia, gambling trouble in Havana, and subsequent exile in Honduras. It’s a story hinting at bad craziness worthy of Hunter S. Thompson, so it comes as no surprise that the song was used in the end credits of the documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

“Nighttime in the Switching Yard” strikes a funky groove, but the lyric is pretty disposable. Maybe Elektra Records was hoping this one might capture some of the dace floor audience of the day.

Ah, but that title track – holy crap! Had there been anything this hardcore in mainstream music since Johnny Cash sang that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? Zevon delivers these objectively gruesome lyrics with such a catchy, upbeat, happy sound it’s positively mind-blowing:

“He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom … and he raped her and killed her, then he took her home … after ten long years they let him out of the home … and he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones.”

Hannibal Lechter would be proud.

And while it wasn’t released as a single, there’s the wonderfully titled and delightfully gory “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” co-written with David Lindell, who spent time as a mercenary in Africa. Zevon and Lindell met in Spain, where Lindell was running a bar.

 

VIDEO: Warren Zevon’s final appearance on Letterman

The tale of CIA assassination and bloody revenge was one of the songs requested by David Letterman when Zevon appeared for the entire Late Night show on October 30, 2002. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was the last song Zevon performed before a live audience before his death from mesothelioma on September 7, 2003. He was 56.

And if you’re still doubting the greatness of Excitable Boy, consider some of the musicians who contributed to its sound: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Karla Bonoff, J.D. Souther, and Jennifer Warnes top the list. Consider too that in 1986, when A Quiet Life: The Best of Warren Zevon was released, six of Excitable Boy’s nine tracks Excitable Boy were included.

Zevon continued to make great music for decades. Sentimental Hygiene (1987), Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), My Ride’s Here (2002) and The Wind (2003) in particular are all excellent albums well worth exploring. But Excitable Boy, which peaked at #8 on the Billboard charts, will always be the go-to album for music fans looking to discover what Warren Zevon was all about. It sounds as great today as it did 45 years ago, and remains a solid introduction to a career cut short all too soon.

 

 

Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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