Everybody’s desperate, trying to make ends meet
Work all day, still can’t pay the price of gasoline and meat
Alas, their lives are incomplete
Don’t it make you want to rock and roll, all night long?
I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful on the radio
These are lines from Warren Zevon’s previous album, which I’ve already talked about. Today, I have been inundated with all kinds of financial worry, which is unrelated to anything I couldn’t have prevented with a bit of sense, so no real big deal. Either way, I’m stressed, so today I am going to talk about one of my very favorite albums/artists to check into therapy with:
This album is likely in the record collection of just about anyone over the age of 40. It was, up until his final recording, the most successful album Warren ever put out. The success is certainly deserved, as it is a remarkable album.
Now, I usually recommend listening to the debut, Warren Zevon, before listening to this recording, to provide a sort of context for the sound and the lyricist, but I’ve realized lately that the album really stands on its own. It’s something of an evil cousin to the previous album, all of the wonderful production and top-shelf songwriting is there, only it lacks the introspection and redemption of the debut, and is mainly concerned with partying and presenting the dark themes of the lyrics in a very unapologetic, yet accessible, way.
The album starts off innocently enough with “Johnny Strikes Up The Band”, which is perfect for people looking for a bit of party therapy, as it opens up with:
Dry your eyes, my little friend
Let me take you by the hand
Freddy get ready, rock-steady
When Johnny strikes up the band
It’s a great little song, particularly the bridge portion with its fancy piano chords.
It reminds me, really, of my favorite thing about Sgt. Pepper’s etc., the legendary Beatles album: it’s a “gateway” song, like the album is welcoming you with a song about the music you’ll be hearing, but not something as obvious as a “Theme to Album” song (something another band I like is known for).
So I bet you weren’t expecting to be floored with a haunting ballad of a Norweigan mercenary’s ghost immediately after that, were ya? Well, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is precisely that, and it is a song that floors, provided of course that you have a soul. The piano intro actually sounds a lot like “Frank And Jesse James” from Warren Zevon, but not close enough, merely in the same key. Anyway, “Roland” is a much better song. It’s got backstabbing, war, murder, revenge, and some extraordinary word-play, just about everything you could expect from a masterful ballad.
Of course, then it’s time to bring it all up to speed with another type of ballad, and that is the song’s title track. Oh, how I love this song. It’s so twisted:
Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot-roast all over his chest
Well he’s just an excitable boy
Every stanza of the 4 verses are arranged like this, with each “activity” becoming all the more sickening. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself. The fact that the tune is so pleasant against all this makes this an incredibly fun song for deviants or people with superior senses of humor.
Speaking of, the party doesn’t stop there! The next song is the one Warren is best known for: “Werewolves Of London”. I really want to say that this song isn’t worth a dime because it was written in 15 minutes and Warren was outspoken in his “hatred” of the song, and I totally relate to that (despite not being a “successful” musician, the song I play that people like the most is the one that took 15 minutes to write). However, I am not strong enough of a cynic to dismiss this song. It’s an amazing song, and just you try to listen to it in the car without howling along with the over-simplified chorus.
“Werewolves Of London”, despite the lack of time spent writing it, has some great alliterative lines and some very interesting imagery in the lyrics. It’s what one should expect from a genius, I suppose.
After that, it’s finally time to take a break for a love-lost song. Though Warren has written a couple dozen love songs, “Accidentally Like A Martyr” is one of the more raw and emotionally honest ones, and goes to show that genius can be applied to emotional issues as well as party songs about rape or werewolves:
The phone didn’t ring, no no
And the sun refused to shine
Never thought I’d have to pay so dearly
For what was already mine
For such a long, long time
We made mad love, shadow love
Random love, abandoned love
Accidentally, like a martyr
The hurt gets worse, and the heart gets harder
It’s got some crazy chord changes after the choruses too, which is always a fun separation from the 3 chord structure used in the previous couple of songs.
Next is a funky jam called “Nighttime In The Switching Yard”, which isn’t really much lyrically, but has some awesome drum and bass work throughout, and a great breakdown with a horn section in the chorus. I dig this song, it reminds me of something really familiar, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. I guess it’s just got that kind of 70′s funk feel to it that kids my age just know.
Man, hard to believe we’re already almost through the album… next is “Vera Cruz”, which is a historical ballad co-written by Jorge Calderón (who is musically Zevon’s faithful sidekick), and is written from the perspective of a rich Mexican family fleeing from “Woodrow Wilson’s guns”. I kick myself that I can’t remember anything about the particular struggle, because that would PROBABLY make this song a lot more significant to me. It features some Spanish language in the bridge, which wouldn’t be the last time Warren uses that language (legitimately, though, as he was a resident of Spain for a while before getting signed).
We then have a song that, well, I am not too crazy about. It’s called “Tenderness On The Block” and it’s a very insightful song instructing fathers to learn how to let go of their daughters when they come of age. It’s not the theme that bothers me, I guess I just find the instrumentation a little grating on this one, which is bound to happen at some point or another, I suppose. Still, I listen to this song when it comes up about half the time.
Finally, in case you forgot this album was about destroying the pressures of modern day life by singing absurd songs of excess and wrongdoing, we have the legendary “Lawyers, Guns, And Money”, which is better explained by Zevon himself than I could ever do:
“Back in the late 70′s, I was working on the album Excitable Boy, and I decided I needed a vacation, so I went to Kawai in the Hawaiian islands. I wrote this song, late one night, on wet cocktail napkins after a long day of improbable and grotesque mischief. Obviously, I survived all that, but I learned something from the experience. I never take vacations.”
There are a few songs that, even after getting clean and kicking the alcoholism that plagued Warren’s early career, that deal with unapologetic excess and the hilarious consequences that ensue. Warren is usually the victor in this regard, as he enjoyed writing himself as a victorious villian, to be redeemed whenever he feels appropriate. That redemption would come much later, so until then, Excitable Boy stands as a wonderfully mischievous album which makes for perfect listening for potential trouble-makers.
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Filed under: Albums, Classic Rock, Folk Rock | Tagged: 1978, 70's, Excitable Boy, Jackson Browne, Jorge Calderon, Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, Warren Zevon, Werewolves of London | 3 Comments »