In 1975, Phil Everly had a kooky idea. The rock legend best known as one half of The Everly Brothers had just watched the 1935 horror film Werewolf of London, and he thought the title and subject matter would make for a great pop song and accompanying dance craze.
Everly shared this brainstorm with his touring keyboard player, a then-unknown musician and songwriter named Warren Zevon. Alongside buddies LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel, Zevon promptly wrote “Werewolves of London,” a darkly funny ode to a dapper beast who prowls England’s capital city, scarfing down Chinese food and mutilating old ladies.
Three years later, "Werewolves of London" was officially released as part of Zevon’s 1978 album Excitable Boy, and went on to reach #21 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Zevon’s first and only Top 40 hit, and it followed him throughout his career, returning with a particular vengeance each Halloween. Zevon once described “Werewolves of London”—featuring that irresistible "Ah-hoooo" chorus—as a “dumb song for smart people.” It’s certainly that, but it’s also part of a lineage of comedy-horror rock novelties stretching back to the ’50s.
The peak year for silly songs about the supernatural seems to have been 1958, when David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” and Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” both reached #1 on the Billboard charts. They would have reigned back-to-back, but another song held the top spot in between them: “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by—you guessed it—The Everly Brothers. Perhaps that explains why Phil Everly knew his werewolf idea had legs.
Fortunately, Zevon and friends didn’t waste a lot of time in writing “Werewolves of London.” The song came together essentially in one day at LeRoy Marinell’s house in Venice Beach, California. Waddy Wachtel—regarded as one of the greatest studio guitarists of all time—stopped by on his way to a different session and found Zevon hanging out. Zevon told Wachtel about the crazy song title Everly had suggested, and Wachtel responded, “‘Werewolves of London?’ You mean like, ‘Ah-hoooo?’”
That’s exactly what Zevon meant. Wachtel was off and running. First, he told Marinell to play the nifty guitar lick he’d been toying around with for years. As Marinell launched into his now-classic riff, Wachtel began ad-libbing lyrics about a werewolf eating beef chow mein at Lee Ho Fook, a real-life Chinese restaurant in London that's still in operation.
“I had just gotten back from England, so I had all these lyrics in my head," Wachtel said. "So I just spit out that whole first verse. Warren says, 'That's great!' I said, 'Really? OK, fine. There's your first verse. You write the rest. I've gotta go into town.'"
It took just 10 or 15 minutes to finish what Wachtel had started. Zevon penned the second verse, while Marinell took the third, which ends with the classic line, “He'll rip your lungs out, Jim / I'd like to meet his tailor.” When they were done, Warren’s wife Crystal told them how much she liked the song. “Fools that we are, we said, ‘You think it’s so great, why don’t you write it down?’” Marinell recounted in Crystal’s 2008 book I’ll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. “Otherwise, that song never would have gone anywhere.”
The next day, while recording demos for songs he hoped to sell to The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, Zevon played “Werewolves of London” for his producer, noted rocker Jackson Browne. Browne dug the song and began performing it sporadically in concert. Nearly three years later, Zevon set about recording it for Excitable Boy.
While “Werewolves of London” was a cinch to write, it proved a bear to record. Browne and Wachtel co-produced Excitable Boy and tried at first to cut the song with drummer Russ Kunkel and bassist Bob Glaub, session aces who had played with superstars like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Rod Stewart. Kunkel and Glaub definitely had the chops, but something wasn’t right.
“It didn’t sound stupid enough; it sounded cute,” Wachtel said. “Jackson was saying, ‘It's really good!’ and Warren and I were saying, ‘No, man, it's too cute. It's got to be ... heavy.’”
Wachtel and Browne proceeded to shuffle through session guys, assembling five or six different bands in the hopes of getting the desired level of dumbness. Finally, someone suggested they call bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, the rhythm section from Fleetwood Mac. Wachtel loved the idea, and since he’d just worked with Fleetwood Mac members Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, he knew how to find them.
McVie and Fleetwood had the right feel, but they weren’t quite nailing it. The band recorded take after take as the moon went down and night turned to day. “I remember at about 5 in the morning saying to Mick, ‘I think we're done!’” Wachtel said. “And Mick looks at me with that crazy look he gets in his eyes and sort of whispers, ‘We're never done, Waddy!’ I thought, ‘Sh*t, we've got a wild one here!’”
After 59 tries, Wachtel and Browne decided to use take #2. Wachtel fared much better recording his guitar solo; he laid it down in a single pass, before he could even sip from the bottle of vodka he had opened. But the song still wasn’t finished. Months later, Zevon called Wachtel out of the blue to say he wasn’t happy with the song’s closing line. Zevon thought it should end with, “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic's, and his hair was perfect.” Wachtel laughed but later realized it was exactly the right line.
Despite all the hard work they had put into recording “Werewolves of London,” Zevon and Wachtel were miffed when Asylum selected the song, which they considered a novelty, as the lead single off Excitable Boy. They would’ve preferred the more serious “Tenderness on the Block.” But from a commercial standpoint, the label’s instincts were correct. “Werewolves of London” spent six weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at #21. In the decades since, it’s never really gone away.
Even as Zevon emerged as a songwriter’s songwriter, developing a loyal fanbase that included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan, “Werewolves of London” remained his calling card. In addition to being a perennial Halloween favorite, it has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, including the 1986 Martin Scorsese film The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. “Werewolves of London” would have been perfect for John Landis’s 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London, but amazingly, the song wasn’t included.
“Werewolves of London” was especially popular in 1999. In January, Zevon took the stage at Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura’s inaugural ball and played piano as the newly elected leader sang “Werewolves of Minnesota.” Later that year, the minor league baseball team the Kalamazoo Kodiaks moved from Michigan to London, Ontario, and changed their name to the Werewolves. The squad’s sharply dressed mascot was dubbed Warren Z. Vaughn.
When Zevon died in September 2003 following a public battle with cancer, “Werewolves of London” was naturally mentioned near the top of almost every obituary. Folks even discussed the song at Zevon’s memorial, which gave Jackson Browne—one of the song’s early champions—a chance to reflect on what the lyrics were truly about. It turns out that the song may have been deeper than anyone ever realized.
“It’s about a really well-dressed, ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies,” Browne told Rolling Stone. “In a way it’s the Victorian nightmare, the gigolo thing. The idea behind all those references is the idea of the ne’er-do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman in gambling clubs and consorting with prostitutes; the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All of that is secreted in that one line: ‘I’d like to meet his tailor.’”