by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Warren Zevon is, quite honestly, one of the best debut albums of all time. If it was a debut, anyway. The renowned mastermind behind 1978 hit, ‘Werewolves of London’, released his first record, Wanted Dead or Alive, nine years earlier. Unanimously panned, Zevon would go on to collaborating on other artists’ efforts, before trying his hand at a solo gig a second time. The result, ‘76’s eponymous album, is considered by fans and critics alike to be the true starting point of his career.
And what a high it already proves to be. Rolling Stone surmised, ‘Warren Zevon is an auspicious accomplishment’. The musician’s fast, tongue-in-cheek rockers are always punchy in the right places. Look at his signature, lycanthropic number, or the title track of his sophomore release, ‘Excitable Boy’, Songs like ‘Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded’ or ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ are pure, Californian rock perfection.
But really, it’s Zevon’s ballads here that prove timelessly beautiful, and haunting. ‘Hasten Down the Wind’, ‘The French Inhaler, ‘Desperados Under the Eaves’, all are often cited as some of his most defining moments. His ability to compile the frustratingly real with the utterly zany is a trademark of his career. Even in the album’s closer, he sings that if California slides under the ocean’s waves, his hotel will still be standing until the bill is paid. Like Rolling Stone says, ‘[it is] the last and grandest surrealistic joke on the album’.
But that’s not to say Warren Zevon is all funny twists and ironic endings, either. He’s a songwriter that knows when to pull at the heartstrings. Hauntingly poetic compositions like ‘Hasten Down the Wind’ or ‘Carmelita’ are what Zevon does best, and he wields the piano with all the emotion and understated ferocity of a forty-piece orchestra.
From the flawless, gung-ho five-minute opener of the James brothers, ‘Frank and Jesse James’ to the apocalyptic ‘Desperados…’, it’s the ultimate tale of the Californian dream, a satirical bite-down at the society Zevon has witnessed up to this point. He sympathizes with convicts, talks freely about drug use and sneers at the thought of death. There are plenty of electric numbers here for fans of what would come later, and enough delicate arrangements to shake you to the core.
Zevon would go on to make his stardom with 1978’s Excitable Boy, which entered the US Top Ten and went platinum. He would write and record several more albums, flirt with chart success for several years, and ultimately pass away in 2003 from a type of cancer, leaving behind twelve releases in all, the last of which – The Wind – won him two posthumous Grammys. But, regardless of whether its his real debut or not, this album, Warren Zevon, is perhaps where he really began to thrive.
It wasn’t his first stint in the music business. After the failure of Wanted Dead or Alive, Zevon would return to session work, even touring regularly with the Everly Brothers. Themselves, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley and Jackson Browne all find their touches somewhere on his self-titled record. But those star-studded influences aren’t what makes Warren Zevon a true gem.
It’s that every verse is wrapped up in irreverent humour, and every caricature from Zevon’s life is paraded down Hollywood Boulevard in vicious, comic indifference. It’s the first real statement from one of the best observers that ever lived, and quite possibly, one of its best songwriters, too.