I saw Stan Ridgway and his new band perform a huge chunk of this album during a tour they did for its 25th anniversary. I was 21 and probably the youngest person there; unlike many of their contemporaries, there has been no real critical re-evaluation of Wall of Voodoo. That was 11 and a half years ago. The time, how it flies.
In college I used to listen to this album all the time. At some point I went through an 80’s one-hit wonder phase, scanning through all the great songs I’d heard on VH1 back in the day and grabbing the albums, mainly because the ones I’d gotten from Devo and Gary Numan were excellent. Perhaps these acts were one-hit wonders to the outside world, but if you’re a fan, you know what’s up. It occurred to me that Wall of Voodoo might be the same. Though “Mexican Radio” is a bit different from “Cars” or even “Whip It” – it’s so stylized, with spaghetti-western licks, a wild synthesizer line, clanky percussion, and a singer who sounds like a film noir actor with a lobotomy. It was like pieces from four different bands that somehow coalesced into one. If you watched the “Whip It” video with the sound off, this is the sort of music you would imagine them playing. I had no idea what a full record from these guys would sound like.
It took about ten seconds to quell all my fears; the opening track features a tremendously catchy synth riff, followed by clanging guitars and a thick, breakbeat-style rhythm. “Wake up in the morning, pull myself out of bed/Think about the night before and everything I said/I made lots of promises, I know that I can’t keep/So I’ll do it tomorrow…that seems like a pretty good idea to me”. Stan Ridgway, like Springsteen or Ray Davies, had a real knack for these slice-of-life character studies, though Ridgway’s somehow felt more real. On “Factory”, the man is not an idealist or an everyman hero, but rather an apathetic abuser whose purpose in life has been completely whittled away. Call of the West is an album about dreams going to die; dreams about a new life falling flat (the title track) or simply not getting started at all (“Lost Weekend”), procrastination (“Tomorrow”), and above all, rejection (“They Don’t Want Me”). Even “Mexican Radio” has that theme; get me anywhere else, because everywhere is more interesting than here.
That sense of alienation follows through to the music, which clicks and clanks along; everything from the Morricone-style guitar to the pots n’ pans percussion to Ridgway’s warble has this nervous twang to it. There’s a sense of cool to them but it’s easy to picture the band twitching and convulsing around as they play. Is it New Wave? Zolo? Cowpunk? Perhaps Wall of Voodoo’s origins help explain this a little; Ridgway ran a small film scoring company right across the street from a punk club, and soon enough the two worlds collided. That explains the guitar, and the fun instrumental “On Interstate 15”, the only tune on here without a brooding undercurrent to it. The whole thing sounds rooted in this world of noir; nearly every track feels like a short film.
Indeed, revisiting this after about a decade or so did bring back a lot of memories; when I listen to it I can still remember the way the halls looked, the way corridors kept turning sharply to reveal some hidden away classroom where the computer stuff was. Truly unique music will do that, especially when it’s got as many hooks as this album does. Certainly they had some elements of Devo (or vice versa?) but outside of that I don’t think there’s another band out there quite like this one. Unfortunately, with success comes drugs and vultures, and both Ridgway and drummer Joe Nanini wound up leaving less than a year later. Wall of Voodoo actually managed to continue on with a new singer named Andy Prieboy, who like a lot of replacement singers probably had a better voice, but at the cost of the personality that made the band what it was. They actually scored a minor hit (“Far Side of Crazy”) but I have yet to listen to the album.
When I saw Ridgway in 2007, he actually managed to replicate the sound of the record quite well; the guitarist was a total pro and the drummer had the same set-up that Nanini must’ve used back in the day. They only played about half of the record, along with a bunch of tunes from Ridgway’s surprisingly successful solo debut, The Big Heat. He’s been fairly active, releasing a new solo album every few years or so, and among the setlist were a lot of must-be-newer tunes that I didn’t know yet. But the theme of the night was the past, or how a bunch of young misfit weirdos did good, once upon a time. Sounds like the topic of a Wall of Voodoo song, and indeed, on Stan’s latest solo album (at the time), it was. And here we are now; yes, an 80’s one-hit wonder like so many others, but still an utterly unique record that’s so strange that it’s actually held up pretty well. Sometimes the dive really pays off.