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As a huge boxing fan I often stumble on tracks about boxers, one such track was "Boom Boom Mancini", a track about former WBA Lightweight champion Ray Mancini. I decided soon afterwards to explore the man who recorded that track, a man called Warren Zevon.
As far as I was aware he was some incredibly obscure artist who did a song about the popular Mancini to gain some sort of attention, instead however it turned out he was a hugely influential recording artist and song writer who actually had a career spanning from 1969 to his death 2003 of peritoneal mesothelioma.
Although Zevon's influence was massive on the music industry with people associated with him reading as a who's who of the music industry with the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, REM, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles (amongst many, many others) his actual commercial success was relative poor. Despite the poor sales he did manage to break into the US top 40 once with the memorable "Werewolves of London".
It was using "Werewolves of London" as a starting point that I managed to fall upon Zevon's third studio album, "Excitable Boy", an album recorded 1977 and released early the following year to genuine success reaching #8 on the billboard charts and eventually going platinum in the US.
The album opens up with "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" an easy to listen to track that has an almost radio friendly light rock feel to it. The song is catchy enough as an opener though really pales in comparison to what immediately follows it which are quite truly a trio of excellent, if somewhat dark, songs.
The first of the dark tracks is the wonderfully titled "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner", a dark story about a Norwegian mercenary who battled in the Congo before having his head shot off by a supposed ally. The song goes on to explain that the headless Roland is still roaming through the world and still turning up at various conflicts and using his Thompson gun. Although the story, at least how I've explained it is convoluted it's genuinely hilarious and brilliant through out.
Following on immediately from "Roland..."is the title track "Excitable Boy". If "Roland..." is lyrically dark then "Excitable Boy" really crosses the line as Zevon sings about a character who can only be described as "disturbed". The songs content may be a little too extreme in it's humour for some though for others it'll be hard to not smile through out as the macabre word play of Zevon.
The last of the dark trio is the aforementioned "Werewolves of London", the most famous of Zevon's tracks. The song is nothing short of hilariously odd as he sings about a Werewolf reading a Chinese menu, a "little old lady" who was "mutilated late last night" and even asks about the Werewolf's tailor (I kid you not). Ignoring the excellent lyrical content the backing music it's self will be recognisable to many as being very similar to Lynard Skynard's smash hit "Sweet Home Alabama".
After the fun and dark humour of that trio of tracks we then get Zevon flipping things around as we get a slow love ballad in the form of "Accidentally Like a Martyr". The track feels somewhat out of place with the preceding tracks though shows there was a deepness to Zevon as an artist as he shows a genuine self awareness of himself as a person.
If the ballad hadn't shown that Zevon was more than a one-trick pony then "Nighttime in the Switching Yard" certainly did as he threw in a dance track. Unfortunately as a fan of the darker work of Zevon this track seems a bit like filler rather than anything of real quality and although it's a acceptable enough dance track it really feels so out of place on the album that it's hard to figure out what it's even doing on here.
The album has it's second ballad in the form of "Veracruz" a song about the US occupation of the Mexican city in the early part of the 1900's. In terms of purely being a ballad this is a much better on than "Accidentally Like a Martyr" even if it is less deep in terms of the artist.
"Tenderness on the Block" is the album's 8th track and is another more serious song talking about the relationship of a young girl. I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of the track though it's a completely acceptable song and it's difficult to complain about Zevon being a little bit more serious than he was in the earlier part of the album.
After a number of more serious tracks the album ends on a more fun high with the catchy "Lawyers, Guns and Money", a song that seems to be about cold war paranoia with Zevon mentioning a character who "took a little risk" and has ended up "hiding in Honduras". The track, like the dark trio, is very much a darkly humoured track which shows Zevon's ability to by dark yet also very easy to listen to.
Now whilst I've openly said I didn't like the ballads or the dance track, it's hard to actually slate the album. Yes some tracks were poor and felt out of place though they served a purpose, they let the humour of stand out tracks really stand out. It would have been all too easy to have had 9 dark rock sounding tracks that sounded similar, instead Zevon broke up the album brilliantly, oddly meaning that the "bad track" were "good".
Interestingly some 21 years after the album was released it was remastered and had 4 extra tracks with it including "I need a Truck", an alternative version of "Werewolves of London", "Tule's Blues" and "Frozen Notes". Whilst the alternative version of "Werewolves.." is interesting it's difficult to really compliment the the other bonus tracks
This is a review of just the album.
The first time I heard Warren Zevon was when I saw 'The Color Of Money' years ago on T.V and thought; 'who is that awesome song by?' in the scene where Tom Cruise takes apart a local pool hall with his cue skills. Of course it was Martin Scorsese deciding to showcase a brilliant songwriter's music in a perfect scene, the song was 'Werewolves Of London' by Warren Zevon. The song has been covered many times including a recent 'mash-up' by Kid Rock with 'Sweet Home Alabama', which I didn't personally think much of, but if it gets more people listening to Warren Zevon then fine!. This album is probably his strongest overall containing at least 4 of his signature songs, I listen to it a lot and is a real classic in my view.
1. Johnny Strikes Up The Band
Not always featured on 'best of' albums, this is a great song, it definitely grew on me. I remember getting this album at uni and my flat mate finding this really annoying!, in all honesty I didn't like it at first but it has really grown on me over time. A great start to the album, it's written by Zevon alone though he often collaborated.
2. Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
The first of the 4 'established' Zevon classics here a classic tale of the Nigerian civil War [??!!], with great lyrics the song was co-written by David Lindell who Zevon met and befriended when he was living in Spain.
3. Excitable Boy
The second 'classic' here, the album's title track has great sardonic lyrics about a young man going mad and killing his girlfriend, with a great piano riff played by Zevon. The song was co-written with LeRoy Marinell. This one is guaranteed a place on any 'best of' and is a regular on my Ipod.
4. Werewolves Of London
Classic number 3, if someone has not heard Warren Zevon they WILL have heard this one somewhere down the line. Another great simple piano riff by Warren is backed by Fleetwood Mac's rhythm section John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums. Total perfection, love this song which was co-written with Marinell and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, though it's the piano riff that makes it with some superb storytelling lyrics.
5. Accidentally Like A Martyr
A ballad which ends out side 1 of the original vinyl release in great style, the songs on the album tend to rock slightly more than a typical Warren Zevon album, but this shows his ability to craft a slower song.
6. Nighttime In The Switching Yard
Not a Zevon track, this is little more than a groove fleshed out into a song, it's pretty funky though with Jeff Pocaro [later of Toto] on drums giving a sort of calypso feel. Zevon had lots of great musicians as friends who were happy to contribute their services to the album taking it that notch higher.
Written with Jorge Calderon this is another great ballad with a poignant feel.
8. Tenderness On The Block
Jackson Browne co-produced this album and here he co-writes with Zevon, it has that commercial 'sheen' sound that Browne brings to his music, but I'm not sure I'm that keen on it. Browne felt that Zevon was very underrated and helped get the cream of L.A session musicians to work on 'Excitable Boy', he did a fine job as producer.
9. Lawyers, Guns and Money
This is my favourite Warren Zevon song, again featuring a classic simple piano riff which drives the song with some real power. When the riff is backed by the guitar [Waddy Wachtel] its a great moment, Zevon would struggle to ever top this. It's one of my personal favourite songs ever and gets a ton of play on the Ipod, a true classic.
So there it is, Warren Zevon passed away in 2003 but left an impressive body of work behind him. His fans included Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bob Thornton and Will Self [who writes the liner notes to the 'Genius' compilation]. I would get that compilation for a good way in and then proceed to this album. Only Zevon nuts [like me!] will really need any more. This one is an absolute keeper though.
Get the 2007 remaster on C.D for about £5 on Amazon UK.
Producer: Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel
1. Johnny Strikes Up The Band [Warren Zevon]
2. Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner [David Lindell, Warren Zevon]
3. Excitable Boy [LeRoy Marinell, Warren Zevon]
4. Werewolves Of London [LeRoy Marinell, Waddy Wachtel, Warren Zevon]
5. Accidentally Like A Martyr [Warren Zevon]
6. Nighttime In The Switching Yard [Jorge Calderon, David Lindell]
7. Veracruz [Jorge Calderon, Warren Zevon]
8. Tenderness On The Block [Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon]
9. Lawyers, Guns and Money [Warren Zevon]
Running Time: 31:29 [much too short!!]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Johnny Strikes Up The Band
2 Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
3 Excitable Boy
4 Werewolves Of London
5 Accidentally Like A Martyr
6 Night Time In The Switching Yard
8 Tenderness On The Block
9 Lawyers Guns And Money