NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m still socially distant, so thanks for bearing with me.
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Here’s some groovy trivia for ye today:
What song literally came to Johnny Cash from out of the sky? No hints; ‘cause this one is fun. So once again: what song came to Johnny Cash, literally from the sky?
I’ll have that answer to that question, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.
Warren Zevon is one of those artists who got so much well-deserved love and respect from music philes and professional musicians, but never quite parlayed it into commercial success the way many of his collaborators did. But in 1978 he, along with a treasure trove of musical talents, put together his third album, which contained his biggest hit, and even that song still didn’t manage to crack the Top 20.
But before we talk about that, we need to back up a couple of years, to 1975. Zevon was working with the Everly Brothers on a potential comeback album. He’d hired Waddy Wachtel to play guitar as part of their backing band, and one night, Phil Everly saw an old horror movie from 1935, called Werewolf of London. The next day, Everly suggested that he adapt the title into a dance song, which, he joked, would become its own dance craze.
A little later on, Zevon, Wachtel and LeRoy Marinell were noodling around on their guitars when someone asked them what they were playing. Zevon told him it was “Werewolves of London,” which led Wachtel to start howling. And that got the creative juices flowing. Zevon came up with the line “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,” and they all started kicking in lyrics until they had…well, something anyway. Call it a comic noir tableau. Zevon’s wife at the time, Crystal, managed to get everything written down but nobody really took the song seriously and they set it aside. It wasn’t long after that—in fact, one account says it was the next day—that Zevon’s friend Jackson Browne saw the lyrics and thought that the song had some potential. In fact his take on the song is that of a really well-dressed ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies. He sees the werewolf as more of a metaphor, a debauched Victorian Gentleman devoting his life to pleasure, hanging out with prostitutes in the gambling clubs, basically squandering the family fortune. And Browne distilled most of that from the one line, “I’d like to meet his tailor.” Most of that insight, incidentally, comes from an interview Browne did with Rolling Stone in 2003, which would have been the 25th anniversary of the song.
Anyway, since Jackson Browne was interested in getting Zevon’s name out there, he began performing the song at his concerts. Here’s a recording of Jackson Browne playing the song during a radio special, at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania that same year:
Later on in the song, he comments that it’d be cool to get the song on the radio. Then a moment later he realizes, oh yeah: he IS on the radio. Now, that’s technically a bootleg recording, and it had Asylum Records thinking that Browne was going to record it in the studio. No word on whether they expected to hear that kazoo, though.
Around that same time, T-Bone Burnett was known to be performing the song during Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, often with alternate or improvised lyrics. And it pains me to say that I couldn’t find audio of any of those performances. So “Werewolves of London,” and for that matter, “Excitable Boy,” were finished songs by then, but somehow managed not to make it onto Zevon’s second album, which was released in 1976. I’m not sure about “Excitable Boy,” which eventually became the title track of that third album, but Zevon still just didn’t like “Werewolves” enough to record it for himself.
Now, as quickly as the original composition came together, that’s about how difficult it was for Zevon to get the song laid down in a way that he didn’t completely hate. According to Waddy Wachtel, it was one of the hardest songs to get down in the studio that he’d ever worked on. Wachtel said that he used seven bands and innumerable combinations of musicians, finally recruiting Mick Fleetwood and John McVie from Fleetwood Mac to get the drums and bass done. For Wachtel’s part, he said he managed to get the guitar solo down in one take, and that piano line is actually a guitar lick that Marinell had kicking around unused for several years. But the fact is, they spent so much time getting the song down that it essentially ate up most of the budget for the whole Excitable Boy album.
Now, when Arista Records chose “Werewolves of London” to be the lead single from the album, both Zevon and Wachtel were pretty insulted by the choice. In fact, both of them used a phrase to describe the song that I’ll not repeat here because children are listening, and I don’t want them to have to explain it to you. But the bottom line is that they expected this track, “Tenderness on the Block,” to be the single, or maybe the opening track “Johnny Strikes Up The Band.”
But, the label won out, and “Werewolves” became the only single from the album and Zevon’s biggest hit. However, as Zevon himself once said, (quote) “I don’t think it was as big a hit as people think it was. People remember it from year to year more—it’s been in movies and it gets trotted out regularly—but it’s not as if it sold four million copies, like a Paula Abdul single.” And he’d be right, because as I noted up top, the single peaked at Number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100, and so far as I know didn’t chart anywhere else.
Before I move on, I guess I should address some of the geography in the song. If you want beef chow mein, you can in fact get it at Lee Ho Fook. It’s been through several owners, but last I heard it was still located at 15-16 Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown district, just a short walk from the Picadilly Circus station. If you take a quick look at the menu, you might have a tough time finding the beef chow mein, because it’s in the Noodles and Rice section as “Stir Fried Soft noodle with beef”.
Trader Vic’s can be found in the London Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. And, of course, if you want to run amuck in Kent, there’s frequent train service from Waterloo Station.
There have been a couple of covers, including this one by the Grateful Dead, which played it a lot around 1978 and nine, and occasionally for Halloween concerts over the years…
…and Adam Sandler recorded his version as part of the Zevon tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich. It’s…not the disaster I expected it to be.
All right. Let me get to what’s probably considered the more controversial bit. It’s not a cover of “Werewolves” but a sampling.
[ALL SUMMER LONG]
In 2007, Kid Rock sampled the piano riff from “Werewolves of London” and a bunch of bits from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to put together this track, “All Summer Long”…
Kid Rock credited all of the writers of both songs, plus himself, so that “All Summer Long” has eight credited writers: Kid Rock, plus the three writers of “Werewolves” and the four members of Lynyrd Skynyrd credited for “Sweet Home Alabama”. And love it or hate it, it was a huge hit in 2008, hitting the top of the singles charts in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland and Germany, and Top 40 nearly everywhere else, including Number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, Number Two on the Adult Contemporary chart, plus is crossed over to the US Country Singles chart, where it peaked at Number Four.
So what’s the controversy about the song? This is my theory. Did you ever play Spotify Russian Roulette? Spotify Russian Roulette is a game where you load a playlist with five instances of the Queen/David Bowie song “Under Pressure” and one instance of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, which if you don’t know, opens with a sample of the bass line from “Under Pressure.” Then you set the playback to “random” and, if you get Queen, you live. If you get Vanilla Ice, you’re out and you lose. I think it’s kind of the same thing here. While the opening to Kid Rock’s song is a little different from Zevon’s, if you miss that part and just hear the piano riff, you might think you’re getting Zevon, and instead you get Kid Rock. Personally, I don’t really care because I like both songs. But, let me give you this. It does come around a little bit because, Warren Zevon also did a little bit of a mocking of “Sweet Home Alabama” in a song from 1980 called, “Play it All Night Long”…
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the song that literally came from the sky to Johnny Cash.
[SUNDAY MORNING COMIN’ DOWN]
That would be this song, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” written by Kris Kristofferson. Johnny Cash told the story about how, one fine day in 1969, he and his wife June Carter Cash were at their home in the Nashville area, when a helicopter landed on their lawn. And out of the helicopter comes Kris Kristofferson, with a beer in his hand, telling the Cashes, “I thought this might be the best way to get a song to you.” For his part, however, Kristofferson says that his plan to hand-deliver the song by helicopter was a bit of a bust, because Johnny Cash wasn’t home when he got there. Now, Ray Stevens did record the song first, and it reached Number 55 on the Country chart, and Kristofferson himself had it on his debut album, so Cash was the third to get his hands on it. But regardless of how it got to him, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” went to Number One of the Country Chart for Cash, and it also made it to Number 46 on the Hot 100.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we meet up with another one of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie’s friends, a young lady named Rhiannon.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.