Something that seems to be lacking across the internet - oddly - is places with discussions, articles and what have you on music in general and classic albums in particular. There's just no site along the lines of IMDb that movies have. I try and do my bit, then, to rectify this with an article every now and then on what i consider to be a "classic" album. This time around it's the brilliant Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon.
My assumption would be that most of my regular readers (thank you) will never have heard of the album, if even of Warren Zevon himself. People using google and that to find this probably are familiar with him and the album, and may not find all that much of interest or new here. Happy reading in either event, and if so much as one person discovers the awesome ways of this album as a consequence of this post then I have done all that I wished to!
Considering that it was the point at which he got the most attention in his life and career, the best place to start with anything to do with Warren Zevon is at the end. There are three things of interest from the end of his life; four if you wish to include his confession that he had made a “tactical error” in not consulting a doctor for 20 or so years. Firstly, whilst certainly not suicidal, Zevon seemed to be acutely aware that his lifestyle was not one which suggested a long life. It would be long enough, though, for he did say that he “got to live Jim Morrison’s life a lot longer than he ever did.”. Secondly, in his final interview with David Letterman, he was asked if he had any insights or knowledge into the matter of life and death. “Enjoy every sandwich” was his now celebrated response. Finally – and this should be seen more as legend than confirmed – there is his deathbed request to his son to dispose of his collection of, ahem, “erotic films”. His son did this, and legend has it that he was dismayed, but not at all surprised, to find that his father featured in the majority of the films.
That’s probably about as biographical as this is going to get. There are any number of works out there detailing the good and bad of his life, including the “make it the ugly, honest truth” book that Warren instructed his now widow to put together after his passing. Onwards, then, to the music.
Excitable Boy was Warren’s third album. The first, Wanted Dead Or Alive, came out to little attention in the late 60s and was more or less disowned by the artist as soon as it was released. A few years passed and then a second album, simply titled Warren Zevon, came out in the mid-70s. Great reviews did not help it sell much, but the label had enough confidence in what they heard to go ahead and release another one in 1978. And let us be very thankful that they did.
The nine tracks and thirty minutes belie the truly epic, grandiose scope and sound encapsulated in the album. It’s witty, sharp, insightful and a sheer delight to play from start to end, the only real disappointment coming from the fact that there isn’t more of it. Well, there is if you purchase the expanded edition, I suppose. Anyway, let us worry more about what actually is on the album. Here, if it is of any interest, is a track by track look at Excitable Boy
Johnny Strikes Up the Band
An infectious, catchy and indeed great album opener. The song broadly decrees that when the music starts, life pretty much starts, with worries, concerns and all else falling by the wayside. Once heard you simply cannot unheard it; you’re left humming the music and singing “when Johnny strikes up the band” to yourself for a good deal of time after you’ve finished the album.
There is, as will be clear later, a great danger in trying to hammer out the specifics and origins of Zevon’s subject matter. If it does matter, however, the conclusion most have drawn is that the Johnny mentioned in the song is in fact talk show host Johnny Carson, the band being the NBC Orchestra that played on every episode of the celebrated The Tonight Show. I have no idea if that’s true or not, and can certainly find no indication of a “Freddie” in the band to “get ready”. It could easily be a reference to John Deacon and Freddie Mercury of Queen, I guess. Don’t worry so much about it, just enjoy!
Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
Wow. Warren Zevon and David Lindell just thought this one up all by themselves? With no prior knowledge, you’d assume that this was some sort of traditional ballad updated or even perhaps some mythical ghost story that the two of them simply put to music. It’s neither.
That said, Lindell did draw on his experiences as a mercenary to create a tale of betrayal and revenge. To say much more would be to spoil listening to it, really, but it’s here that the epic and grandiose comments I made earlier come to mind somewhat. For trivia fans, this one – always a popular live track – was the last song Zevon performed before an audience.
The somewhat controversial title track, and one that has caused much debate over the years. It’s intended as a comedic piece, but of the darkest variant going. Strange, perverse, illegal and worse behaviour is described about the subject of the song, with the defence for it being that he’s just “an excitable boy”.
The debate stems from the exceptionally liberal lifestyle of Warren Zevon not quite tying in with this presumably parody in nature slant on excusing any and all bad behaviour as being down to the protagonist being “just an excitable boy”. Granted, he does go to prison in the midst of the song, but it is not like that stops the behaviour on his release. It seems for the most part to be the kind of thing the more right wing natured politician would say in dismissing sympathetic approaches to criminals, which as I said has never seemed to quite tie in with the life and times of Warren Zevon. The only thing to do, then, is enjoy it for what it is and don’t worry so much about why he wrote it!
Werewolves Of London
Ah-Wooooooooooooooooooooooo! This, beyond any debate, is the best well known song by Warren Zevon, even if one is not aware that it’s a Warren Zevon song. It’s the closest thing he ever had to a hit single which doesn’t necessarily mean it is his best song, but it is certainly one of the catchiest.
This song was my introduction to the world of Warren Zevon, via a film soundtrack. Not, as you might have thought, An American Werewolf In London (it doesn’t appear there, which suggests John Landis missed a trick), but rather The Colour Of Money. The song had instant appeal, so I bought the movie soundtrack and then the Excitable Boy album not all that long after.
What’s it about? A bit of fun, really, about how cool some hairy handed gents that rather like Chinese food are. On that note, if I ever get a pile of cash, I am certainly going to open up a restaurant called Lee Ho Fook's. It’s a simply fantastic, catchy tune, and again one that you cannot help sing, hum and indeed howl along to.
Most trivia fans will be aware of the fact that John McVie and Mick Fleetwood play bass and drums on this song; quite a coup considering this was about a year after Rumours started selling about a million copies a day. Slightly less well known is that a few years before this Warren Zevon lived with a then unknown Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham for a while. I wonder if Christine ever crossed his path, or Peter Green indeed for that matter.
Accidentally Like A Martyr
Now then, here’s one of a healthy number of songs that could well claim to be Warren Zevon’s greatest work. It gets classified as a love song presumably only out of convenience, since it describes the aftermath of the end of a relationship. And in what ways it does too – Zevon shows off his incredible skills for saying an awful lot with just a few words. Do not, however, just take my word for it :
We made mad love
And abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder
What’s that, the heights of a relationship right through to its end and bitter consequences described in vivid perfection within all of six lines? Little wonder that one of the “best of” sets out there of Warren Zevon is called ‘Genius’.
Not much else for me to say beyond this is a song you should hear and indeed own a copy of.
Nightime In the Switching Yard
Well, this is 1978 we are talking about, so the appearance of a disco tune should be assumed as a given. And what a belter of a disco tune it is too!
The song unleashes what can only be described as an uber, ultra, super deluxe “sex bass” on its audience, thrusting away with an immense funky beat. I am amazed that no one took the decision to put this out as a single, for surely a disco mix (as the 12” and the remix were known then) would have been a huge success in the clubs of the day.
The amazement might diminish somewhat when one considers the possibly sexually suggestive lyrics to the song, however. Even if one overlooks those old films that for some reason used an image of a train going into a tunnel to imply sexual congress, there’s some less than subtle comments – “switching yard” for a start, and in particular the often repeated line “the midnight train runs both ways”. The song seems to speak of a sexual preference ambivalence at the least, most likely just plain celebration of bisexuality. Whereas record labels and clubs were very happy to accept any and all money despite sexual preferences, it was not the done thing back then to be seen to do anything that advocated such a way of life.
If I’m honest, the only song on the album I tend to skip. I understand many rate this one very highly, but I know next to nothing of the American occupation of Veracruz that the song details and quite frankly I am not that particularly interested.
It also does that thing I find annoying, which is switch language during the song. About halfway through it goes all Spanish or Latin or similar. My feeling is when that someone does that then clearly I am not the intended audience for the song anyway.
Tenderness On The Block
Possibly the most straightforward, dare I say it, pop song on the whole album. It’s pretty much a straightforward ballad to a mother, pointing out that her daughter has grown up more than she is perhaps prepared to admit but, importantly, she will be fine.
Perhaps there’s some sort of hidden meaning or other interpretation of it, but as far as I can hear it’s a straightforward enough, and indeed great, song.
Lawyers, Guns And Money
You know that thing where people say “save the best until last”, yeah? Well, I am not sure where or when it was first send, but it would kind of be very excellent indeed if someone first said it in response to this song. It’s the kind of thing you wish you had written yourself, and it leaves one baffled as to why this wasn’t ever one of the biggest songs in history.
As for how the song goes and what it says, well, rather go and listen to it yourself. It’s a real treat, so go and do it soon. For those of you familiar with it, or do not mind spolier-ish comments, read on.
To the best of my knowledge, all that Warren Zevon ever confirmed was that the song was “mostly based on partially true events”. Now, whereas I suggested against speculating about meanings before, this song pretty much demands it, so fascinating is what is told. There are two widely accepted accounts of what happened. The first suggests that Warren and his manager were in a taxi in Mexico when the driver mysteriously vanished. It turned out that he was paying a ransom amount, I believe according to the legend for his kidnapped daughter. To that end, Warren and his manager had a conversation about how they felt they should make a call to get some lawyers in to protect them. And guns. And money. The second, and the one I am more inclined to accept / very much like, is that Warren and an unnamed friend were arrested, and that his friend did indeed call his Dad, asking him to send “lawyers, guns and money” to get them out of trouble.
Some speculation has gone even further and suggested that the whole thing revolves around an American diplomat, or possibly CIA operative, who got caught with his pants down. The story was then presumably buried, but somehow Warren Zevon learned of it. I suspect this one was something someone devised for themselves going on the lyrics, but who knows? Going on some of his later material, in particular The Envoy, there’s nothing to suggest that various official people didn’t let Warren Zevon know of sensitive international incidents.
There is a lovely easter egg hidden in the song, too, in the form of Warren Zevon apparently referring to himself as an “innocent bystander”. The more you read and learn of his lifestyle, the more you appreciate that this is a rather funny concept, as was naming another of his compilations ‘A Quiet Normal Life’.
Excitable Boy was easily the most successful album Warren Zevon released, but to my mind it was nowhere near as successful as it should rightly have been. It is marvelous, with it never feeling old, tired or too familiar. It is in general amazing that Warren Zevon is not more widely known nor celebrated than he is considering that Excitable Boy simply sits as the best of his albums on top of a pile of exceptionally good albums.
I am not going to give you links, but at present you can buy the "expanded edition" of Excitable Boy at HMV for £8.00, or if for some reason you would wish to pay less you can find it at Amazon for around £3.00. At any price, for 30 minutes of your life (and Ringo Starr take note of what you can do with a "short" album please) it is well worth picking up and giving a try.
Many thanks for reading!
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!