The pop music landscape is littered with bands whose time in the limelight was cruelly short. And let’s be honest, most of them didn’t even deserve the little success they had. Wall of Voodoo, however, is not one of those groups.
Yes, I’m talking about that “Mexican Radio” band.
Wall of Voodoo released just six records (four studio LPs, one live LP, and one EP), five of which are currently out of print. And while not every track they released is essential, they have been unfairly written off as one-hit wonders. In truth, the band has much more to offer, as we shall discover here. But first, a bit of history.
The band known as Wall of Voodoo took root in Los Angeles in 1977, where it began as a partnership between synth player/vocalist/composer Stan Ridgway and guitarist Marc Moreland. The duo formed a short-lived music production business called Acme Soundtracks, which specialized in off-kilter scores for films that were about as far away from John Williams as you could get.
Ridgway’s love of bebop and country music merged with Moreland’s affection for electronic pioneers such as Kraftwerk, and the duo’s sound quickly took shape. Before long the unsuccessful company became a band, but needed a new name. When Ridgway compared the sound of Acme Soundtracks’ music to that of Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound, Ridgway’s friend, Joe Berardi, remarked that it sounded more like a “wall of voodoo.” The name stuck, and the band — Ridgway on Farfisa organ and rhythm machine, Marc Moreland on guitar, and brother Bruce Moreland on synthesizers — began performing as Wall of Voodoo.
In 1979, Wall of Voodoo became a quintet with the addition of keyboardist Chas Gray and percussionist/drummer Joe Nanini. By this time, Ridgway had also emerged as the group’s lead singer, despite his intentions to the contrary. His skittering, staccato vocal delivery was the icing on the cake that was the band’s rather strange sound.
The group began to earn a following around the L.A. area, and was eventually discovered by Miles Copeland (brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and manager of same) at one of their shows. Copeland agreed to distribute Wall of Voodoo’s self-titled debut EP in 1980, and later signed them to his own I.R.S. Records label.
Wall of Voodoo (EP) (1980)
Wall of Voodoo’s first release is — as are most debuts — an inconsistent affair. The distinctively atonal and herky-jerky arrangements, which brought many comparisons to Devo, are present but the songwriting isn’t quite there yet. There are two standout tracks out of the six, however; the droning and sinister “Ring of Fire,” which bears precious little resemblance to the Johnny Cash original, and “The Passenger” (download), a claustrophobic and unnerving portrait of an airline passenger guarding a mysterious package.
This EP has been out of print for some time, but it resurfaced in 1991 and 2005 as part of a package entitled The Index Masters.
The group’s first full-length release, Dark Continent was a much more cohesive effort than the debut EP, and sounded like much more of a band effort. The opening strains of “Red Light” signaled a much more aggressive sound than the group had previously shown. The album’s synthesis of spartan electronics and Ennio Morricone spaghetti western score styles was more fully fleshed out, and to great effect.
While not all of the 11 songs on Dark Continent are essential, the hit-to-miss ratio is high enough to make this an album worth seeking out (it’s also out of print, so you’ll have to buy it used or find it out on the interwebs). Bleak and/or just plain disturbing narratives like “Animal Day” (download), “Back in Flesh,” and “Tse Tse Fly” crackle with an energy that keeps the album sounding firmly of its time and yet also fresh.
The musical vision Wall of Voodoo had been striving for came to beautiful fruition on 1982’s Call of the West. I.R.S. house producer Richard Mazda butted heads with the band — particularly Ridgway — but coaxed out of them an album that stands as one of the premier musical documents of the year — and of the New Wave movement.
This despite the fact that Call of the West is essentially a concept album — those concepts being failure, futility, lost dreams, and a dash of incest. Ridgway’s vivid tales shine on songs like “Lost Weekend,” “They Don’t Want Me,” and “Look at Their Way,” because even as he sings about true American outcasts, it never seems as if he’s judging them. You get the sense that he even sympathizes with them.
While some hardcore WoV devotees argue that Dark Continent represents the group’s creative zenith, I’m going with Call of the West. It’s more than a collection of really good songs; it’s an album that is much more than the sum of its parts, and it packs a punch more than 25 years after its release — try Tomorrow” (download) for a taste.
To say that this album finally launched the band into the limelight might be an overstatement, although it did seem as if they were on their way. “Mexican Radio” became a fixture on the still-new MTV, and cracked the Top 50 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart. The album peaked at #45 and brought the group into the public eye more than ever before.
The culmination of this era of the band was a performance on May 28, 1983 at the second US Festival, the largest crowd Wall of Voodoo had played in front of by far. But rather than being a celebration of what they had achieved, it was nearly the death knell for the group. Soon after the show Ridgway was gone, as were Nanini and Noland. The reason? It’s hard to pin down, although the usual stories about drug use, personality conflicts, and managerial impropriety have circulated for years.
In 1985, a very different Wall of Voodoo emerged with the band’s third full-length release, Seven Days in Sammystown. This version of the band (with veterans Gray, Marc Moreland, and brother Bruce, who had left in 1981) featured new drummer Ned Lukhardt and vocalist Andy Prieboy.
The album begins with real promise, as “Far Side of Crazy” (download) and “This Business of Love” sound like slicker and grander takes on the group’s earlier work. Prieboy is clearly a more accomplished vocalist than Ridgway, and on the songs where he’s allowed to be himself the album succeeds. But too often he apes Ridgway’s confessional-style delivery, which only serves to highlight what the band had lost.
The absence of Nanini can’t be underestimated either — his frenetic pots ‘n’ pans style laid the foundation for Wall of Voodoo’s classic sound. Lukhardt is a fine percussionist, but his more straightforward style just lacked an undefinable something.
In retrospect, Seven Days in Sammystown offers a very good approximation of what made Wall of Voodoo great, but falls short in terms of offering up a compelling new direction for the band. But considering the upheaval that preceded it, it’s a surprisingly strong effort.
The decision to open Happy Planet with a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” was certainly an interesting one, but unfortunately, Wall of Voodoo opted to play it safe and offer a relatively limp and straight-faced cover. From there, the album reveals a sound that is now almost completely removed from the band’s origins. Only the occasional twang of Marc Moreland’s guitar serves as a reminder of past glories.
Happy Planet offers up doses of tame synth pop like “Empty Room” and “Chains of Luck,” few of which are particularly memorable. The slower songs go over the best here — “Joanne” gets by on mood, while the morose “Hollywood the Second Time” (download) is easily the standout track.
If Seven Days in Sammystown is a ground-rule double, this album is a bunt single. Which is not to say that it’s bad; it’s just not all that great.
This is the first live album I’ve ever heard which features the band being greeted by a chorus of boos. That alone scores some points for The Ugly Americans in Australia* (the asterisk denotes that some tracks were recorded in Bullhead City, Arizona). “Red Light” opens the album, and is a powerful song in any setting. From there, the group unleashes two new songs — “Wrong Way to Hollywood” and “Living in the Red” (download) — that are as good as anything they produced in the Prieboy era. (These new tracks raise the possibility that latter-era Voodoo was hampered not by subpar songwriting but by underwhelming production.)
As it turns out, this album was the last hurrah for Wall of Voodoo. And it does showcase what a strong live act the band was. Fittingly, the vinyl release ends with two of the most celebrated numbers in the group’s catalog — “Ring of Fire” and “Mexican Radio.”
And that pretty much puts a wrap on the Wall of Voodoo story. Most of the group have undertaken solo careers post-Voodoo, with Ridgway’s arguably the most successful. Sadly, two of the group’s founders have passed away — Joe Nanini suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage on December 4, 2000, while Marc Moreland died of kidney and liver failure on March 13, 2002.