The song began as a joke by Phil Everly (of
The Everly Brothers) to Zevon in 1975, over two years before the recording sessions for Excitable Boy. Everly had watched a television broadcast of the 1935 film Werewolf of London and "suggested to Zevon that he adapt the title for a song and dance craze." Zevon, Marinell and Wachtel played with the idea and wrote the song in about 15 minutes, all contributing lyrics that were transcribed by Zevon's then-wife Crystal. However, none of them took the song seriously.
According to Wachtel, "Werewolves of London" was "the hardest song to get down in the studio I've ever worked on." However, Wachtel "laid down his solo in one take." They tried at least seven different configurations of musicians in the recording studio before being satisfied with McVie and Fleetwood's contributions.Bob Glaub and
Russ Kunkel were among the several musicians who auditioned; Zevon rejected them because he thought their playing was "too cute". Although 59 takes were recorded, Browne and Zevon selected the second take for the final mix. Wachtel recalled that the session began in the evening and went into the next morning. The protracted studio time and musicians' fees led to the song eating up most of the album's budget.
The song's lyrics "He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook's / Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein" refer to
Lee Ho Fook, a Chinese restaurant on 15
Gerrard Street in London's Chinatown, which is in the
West End of London.Egon Ronay's Dunlop Guide for 1974 discussed the restaurant and said it served
Cantonese cuisine. In concerts, Zevon would often change the line "You better stay away from him, he'll rip your lungs out, Jim / I'd like to meet his tailor", to "And he's looking for
Over Zevon's objections, Elektra Records chose "Werewolves of London" as the album's first single (he preferred "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" or "Tenderness on the Block"). The song was a quick hit, staying in the Billboard Top 40 chart for over a month.
BBC Radio 2 listeners rated it as having the best opening line in a song.
Zevon later said of the song, "I don't know why that became such a hit. We didn't think it was suitable to be played on the radio. It didn't become an
albatross. It's better that I bring something to mind than nothing. There are times when I prefer that it was "
Bridge Over Troubled Water", but I don't think bad about the song. I still think it's funny." He also described "Werewolves of London" as a
novelty song, "[but] not a novelty the way, say,
Steve Martin's "
King Tut" is a novelty."
The song had a resurgence in popularity in 1986 due to its use in a scene in The Color of Money, where
Tom Cruise dances and lip-syncs to the song in a scene in which Cruise "displayed the depths of his talents at the billiards game of
After Zevon's death in 2003, Jackson Browne stated that he interpreted the song as describing an
upper-class English womanizer: "It's about a really well-dressed, ladies' man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies. In a way it's the Victorian nightmare, the
‡ Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.
Samples and other versions
Grateful Dead covered the song in a number of live concerts in 1978, one of which was released on Red Rocks: 7/8/78. The group resurrected the song for Halloween night concerts in 1985, 1990, and 1991.
Dexy's Midnight Runners song "One of Those Things" has a riff taken from "Werewolves of London". For the 1997 re-release of the album Don't Stand Me Down,
Kevin Rowland admitted in the liner notes that he had used the riff and consequently Zevon and his co-writers, LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel, were given writing credits on the song.
In 2017, Italian comedy-rock band
Elio e le Storie Tese made an Italian version of this song, "Licantropo Vegano" ("Vegan Werewolf"); the difference with the original version is that the werewolf is vegan and the song is based in
Milan, and not in London.