Album Review: Warren Zevon “Excitable Boys” (1978)


Warren Zevon is one of the forgotten artists from the 1970s California singer-songwriter era and has tended to be overlooked in favor of many of his contemporaries. Part of the reason for this is probably because he is not your typical rock star with his very distinctive voice as well as what I would describe as his quite nerdy looks complete with Harry Potter glasses, not entirely keeping in line with the glitz and glamour of the mid-70s California pop world. However, despite this, his musical talents are undoubted and it was on his third album Excitable Boy where everything molded together in what is one of the great albums of the period.

Released in 1978, Excitable Boy was Zevon’s third album and it would also become his best selling release. It was on this release where he combined his often humorous lyrics and overall quirkiness with a California pop-rock sound complete with gorgeous harmonies, a formula which obviously worked well in appealing to a mass audience. The music on this album is a mix of up-tempo pop rockers and slightly mellower piano ballads, while it is the wonderful harmonies of the large array of backing vocalists on display including some of Los Angeles finest in the form of Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther that gives many of the tracks a laid-back California feel. Opening track “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” is a stomping guitar rocker, while title track “Excitable Boy” has a Beach Boys feel to it and features a storming sax solo and a section of female backing vocalists. Excitable Boy also notably contains Zevon’s most recognised song “Werewolves of London”, a song that went on to become a classic rock radio staple and which in recent years was sampled by Kid Rock in his smash hit “All Summer Long”. “Accidentally Like a Martyr” is a beautiful piano pop ballad in a similar style to the great singer-songwriters of the 70s period, while “Tenderness On The Block” features some of the most infectious harmonies on the album, harmonies that would give The Eagles a run for their money. This is definitely a standout track on the album and one my favorites, I guess I am just a sucker for good harmony vocals.

One of the strong features of Excitable Boy apart from Zevon’s wonderful piano playing and unique vocal style is his ability as a songwriter and in particular some of the themes he focuses on in his songs. On “Veracruz” he dramatizes the US occupation of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution, while “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is about a fictional character called Roland who gets involved in the Nigerian Civil War during the 1960s. The theme of war continues on “Lawyers, Guns and Money” which represents Zevon’s humorous take on Cold War paranoia. So not only are the melodies and harmonies infectious on this record, but the song-writing is varied, vivid and interesting, ensuring that the listeners are kept amused with characters such as Roland the gunner and lyrics talking of seeing werewolves with Chinese menus in their hand walking in Soho. This is just the quirkiness and unusual mastery of Warren Zevon, showing why he is such a good musician and how his music makes for such good listening.

Excitable Boy gave Warren Zevon a larger audience and saw him crack the top 10 on Billboard, but he would struggle to capitalize in the long term on the openings this album gave him in terms of exposure. Although he would continue to retain his cult following in music circles and would earn the praise of people such as Dylan, Young, and Springsteen, commercial success would elude him throughout the rest of his career and he eventually died prematurely in 2003, age 56. Warren Zevon is to this day still in many ways a cult figure in music and you have either heard of him or you haven’t. The 70s California singer-songwriter period and the music that came out of it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and people often view it cynically as a coked-up bland period for music where money ruled the roost. This might be the case in some instances, but this album Excitable Boy by a nerdy looking guy with a strange last name proved that there were exceptions and that in the end some of the music did sound good.


– Sam




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