When director John Landis and his music team needed a song to score two minutes of screen time just before their film’s protagonist, American backpacker David Kessler, grows a pelt of black body hair, deadly fangs, and vicious claws, they turned to “Bad Moon Rising,” a 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song written by John Fogerty.
The movie? An American Werewolf in London, a now-canonical 1981 horror-comedy that makes darkly humorous use of popular songs throughout. Van Morrison’s “Moondance” scores a sex scene, and versions of “Blue Moon,” sung by Bobby Vinton and Sam Cooke, appear, too. But the CCR song is a high point, ushering in the famous werewolf transformation scene, and Landis would later say “Bad Moon Rising,” with its ominous lyrics joining a sprightly tempo and catchy riffs, fit the “mood” of his hybrid movie.
As it happens, a spooky Hollywood film was central to Fogerty’s inspiration. If the song’s name came from a little book of scribbled title ideas he’d been keeping since 1967, it was a movie released in 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, that got Fogerty going lyrically. Eventually called The Devil and Daniel Webster, the film was based on a short story of the same name by Stephen Vincent Benét, and published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936, during the depths of the Depression.
In Benét’s story, a New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone sells his soul to the devil for cash to overcome his debts, then enjoys a stratospheric rise to local power before the Dark Lord arrives to collect and Webster has to intervene and defend the farmer at trial.
“[His] crops were the envy of the neighbourhood,” Benét writes of Stone’s rising fortunes, “and lightning might strike all over the valley, but it wouldn’t strike his barn.” In the movie, we see dark, distant clouds, followed by destroyed fields. “But not my wheat!” shouts James Craig, who plays Stone. “I’ll have a rich harvest!”
John Fogerty saw the movie on TV when he was young. Born in 1945, Fogerty and his bandmates in Creedence Clearwater Revival were classic suburban California kids, raised in El Cerrito, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, during the early days of television. In the late sixties, after ten years hustling the band through various names and styles, they finally had the attention of radio listeners.
The singles “Suzie Q” and “Proud Mary” had sold well, and Fogerty was becoming more productive as a writer. He composed songs in near-silence while his wife and young children slept at night. In that unlikely laboratory—quiet and domestic, even while the greater American culture resembled a powder keg, with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated just months earlier—Fogerty remembered the old black-and-white movie and start putting words to chords and a melody.
In 1993, speaking to Rolling Stone, he highlighted a post-storm sequence in the movie: “Everybody’s crops [are] destroyed. Boom. Right next door is the guy’s field who made the deal with the devil, and his corn is still straight up, six feet. That image was in my mind. I went, ‘Holy mackerel!’”
And so, taking inspiration from a subdued, 15-second scene in a 1941 movie, John Fogerty wrote some of the most nightmarish lyrics to ever appear in a Top 40 radio hit: “I hear hurricanes a-blowing/ I know the end is coming soon/ I fear rivers overflowing/ I hear the voice of rage and ruin.”