“You’ve come a long way, I know, you got a longer drive ahead
through the bones of a buffalo, through the claims of the western dead
and just like the spokes of a wheel you’ll spin ’round with the rest,
you’ll hear the drums and the brush of steel,
you’ll hear the call of the west.”
“Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo
A wise man once said that all good things come in two parts. I may have made this man up, but nevertheless, in part one of this article, we explored the monster-movie-swamp-rock-a-rolla of The Cramps and the apocalypse-party-of-one-blues-wail of The Gun Club. In this installment, we continue on the weirder and darker human highways with one of the most underrated bands that emerged out of the post-punk swamps of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, all in the form of Wall of Voodoo.
If The Gun Club were the musical heirs to Jim Thompson, then the literary figurehead closest to Wall of Voodoo would have to be the bastard son of Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. Broken hearts and cracked American dreams barely sealed by the whimsy of travel, the bitterness of whiskey and the ghosts of desperation laced hope at the local race track are all over the criss-crossed map of their 1982 album, “Call of the West.”
“As she slowly blew her smoke out of the rear wind vent
She thought back on all the letters she’d sent
For a contest to be on a quiz game show
‘Maybe I shoulda stayed in school,’ he said.”
“Lost Weekend” by Wall of Voodoo
It is working-class darkness by way of Ennio Morricone, yet that descriptor only covers two-thirds of the whole story. Wall of Voodoo’s roots were started with a soundtrack business formed by lead singer and songwriter Stan Ridgway, who would be later joined by guitarist Marc Moreland. Creating music for no-budget horror, as well as adult films, this seedling was soon to be fleshed out into a full on band with Marc’s brother and future Nervous Gender and Ravens Moreland bassist, Bruce Moreland, percussionist from another plane of existence and former member of the seminal punk band The Bags, Joe Nanini and keyboardist Chas T. Gray. Playing on the name of groundbreaking producer and psychopath Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound,” Wall of Voodoo quickly established themselves as a band like no other.
They released a self titled EP in 1980, which contained their absolutely killer cover of the Johnny Cash chestnut, “Ring of Fire.” (If you need further proof of the high caliber of this version, just note that it was used to great effect in the surreal-adult-film classic Nightdreams from 1981.) The same year that F.X. Pope and Stephen Sayadian’s unforgettable cult-art-effort was released, Wall of Voodoo dropped their first full length album in the form of “Dark Continent.” Much like the EP before it, “Dark Continent” is a striking effort ripe with weird Americana, organic and synth noises merging together like a backwoods roads trip to Mars via Route 66. The Johnny Cash cover was a natural choice, since Ridgway, especially in his solo career that would follow the wake of his departure from the band, had elements of what I’ll call “The Barstow Cash.” But as strong as “Dark Continent” was, it served as a flickering neon sign pointing towards what would lie soon ahead.
“Been around long enough now
And they’ll be around after everyone’s gone
A mother makes love to her only son
Turn on the lights and watch them run
Look at their way”
“Look at Their Way” by Wall of Voodoo
1982’s “Call of the West” is an absolutely significant watermark for the first half of Wall of Voodoo’s history. It was the first album minus Bruce and it would be their final album with both Stan Ridgway and Joe Nanini. On top of that, it contained the closest thing the band would ever have to a commercial hit, with the bizarrely catchy “Mexican Radio,” whose video (directed by the same brilliant directorial crew behind Nightdreams) was a mainstay on MTV for a hot five minutes and would go on to be referenced in Weird Al Yankovic’s wonderful song and video for “Dare to be Stupid.”
With “Call of the West,” it was the ultimate fruition of all the ideas, vision and seeds planted from the Ridgway era. If every great album is the right side of a good road trip soundtrack, then “Call of the West” is the sonic hitchhike through the weird, fun and dark twists of the American journey. Opening with “Tomorrow,” an ode towards procrastination born from the end of the line, the tone is set. Lyrics like, “...out my window there’s nothing where a city used to be, phone line dead, the power gone, there’s nothing on TV. Can’t understand what happened to all the plans I made. I turn on the radio and hear the signal fade,” paint a richly bleak landscape that could be post-WWII ’50s or Reagan era ’80s. (Or right now.) It is also a great example of the strengths of the band themselves. There’s the otherworldly percussion of Joe Nanini, which often sounds like the rhythmic creaks and rattles of a rusty factory mixed in with the grip of the gears from an old dinosaur of a Detroit made automobile. Couple that with the striking synth work of Chas T. Gray, you have a rich template for Ridgway and Moreland to build upon.
Following that is the melancholy smokescreen of dashed hopes with “Lost Weekend.” (No relation, as far as I know, to the 1945 Ray Milland a weekend and a bender of an alcoholic tale, The Lost Weekend.) Speaking of cinema, the song plays out like a downtrodden noir where a couple have gambled away whatever “...money from the store…,” and face an uncertain future possibly paved with more rinse and repeat vice. Blue collar drudgery comes into play with “Factory,” which opens with a lonesome harmonica drenched in an ominous rhythm and synth, with crunch guitar coming in intermittently to further layer the texture. Ridgway’s narrator mumbles and tiredly noting “...I got another factory back home. Got a little backyard, pink mustang, fenders chrome. At nine o’clock I’m in my chair sat down. Just lately now when my wife talks back to me I slap her around. And then I go to/ and then I go to/ and then I go to sleep.” The only time the narrator sounds truly melodic is when he is singing about sleep, with twilight time being the only real respite for many a human who is worked (and treated) like another rusty cog in the machine.
After that, we get “Look at Their Way,” which is maybe the closest thing, sonically speaking, to the band’s earlier, punk-frayed roots, with a cynical approximation of the keeping-up-appearances-hypocrisy that riddles much of the status quo. “Turn on the lights and watch them run. Look at their way,” indeed. There’s the slightly obtuse human isolation of “Hands of Love” and what would become the band’s best known song, the quixotic-hit, “Mexican Radio.” One of the lighter songs from the album, “Mexican Radio” is the greatest tune about being a non-Spanish speaking person listening to a Spanish language radio station ever and it was marked by the aforementioned music video. The latter, frame after frame of one great image after another, remains a hallmark of fantastic music video work. Some of the best shots include the band flanked by a faux crimson red desert sky and standing next to a German Expressionist cut-out door with a TV screen, frequently on bad-reception-snow, serving as the glass panel. (It was this image, sans band, that would serve as the cover art for the “Call of the West” album.) There’s also the adorable, ominous and omnipresent bulldog statue (which was also featured on the band’s “Index Masters” compilation cover), an Iguana on a spit, spilled liquor on an office desk like a Dashiell Hammett callback and, perhaps most famously of all, is Stan’s face emerging out of a pot of baked beans. Surrealism at its finest? You betcha, toots.
After the action mag 50’s paranoia of “Spy World” and the breezy interlude of “On Interstate 15,” the album caps off with its title track and boy howdy, it is a doozy. When a song contains such passages like, “Son this ain’t no western movie matinee and you’re a long way off from yippee yi yay. ‘Cause I can tell at a glance you’re not from ’round these parts. Got a green look about ya, and that’s a gringo for starts. Sometimes the only things a western savage understands are whiskey and rifles and an unarmed man like you,” you are in for a true glimpse into the dusty, shadowy heart of Western Americana. The song plays with classical old West imagery and intermixes it with the bleached bones of what is left in modern town America, creating not only one of the absolute strongest tracks on the album, but one of the best out of the entire Wall of Voodoo catalog. The best part is towards the end as Ridgway and company start intoning “Yippie-yi-yo” and in the background, Joe Nanini starts screaming “I used to be somebody!!! I used to be somebody, do you hear me??…I used to be somebody goddamn you! I’ve been there before, don’t walk away….” It is a powerful moment full of piss, vinegar and a trailing loneliness that all add up to the quotient of unforgettable.
Mach One of Wall of Voodoo came to an end a year later, right after they had performed at Apple founder Steve Wozniak’s 2nd US Festival on May 28th, following INXS and preceding Oingo Boingo. It would be both Ridgway’s and Joe Nanini’s last appearance with the band, as well as keyboardist/trumpeter Bill Noland, who had joined right after the release of “Call of the West.” Given how much voice and presence Ridgway had contributed, not to mention the wholly one-of-a-kind percussion style of Nanini, some probably would have assumed that this was the official end. But they would be and were absolutely dead set wrong.
“I’m Pilate and Jesus
And I wept when Lennon died
Yet I envied his assailant
When I visited the shrine
I cried for all those Beatles Fans
So old so quick they grow
I follow the example to destroy
What I love most”
“Far Side of Crazy” by Wall of Voodoo
In the wake of the Stan and Joe’s departure, Marc Moreland, Chas T. Gray and a recently returned Bruce Moreland carried on the band and ended up bringing on both drummer Ned Leukhardt and vocalist/songwriter Andy Prieboy. Bringing these two powerhouses was the right trick, not only giving the once shorn band new blood, but also, in essence, creating Wall of Voodoo mach two. This new incarnation was every bit as powerful as the first, but actually possessed more sonic and tonal fluidity, while never losing the aural sturm und drang of Gray’s rich and wondrously cinematic synths and especially, the crunch and the bombora wave of guitar from Marc Moreland. (Two of the sounds that were never praised enough in the Ridgway era.)
The fruits of their labor would pay off with the supremely stellar 1985 effort, “Seven Days in Sammystown.” An appropriately prosey-style title for the never-a-bum-track of an album. Every song paints a cynical, occasionally grim but never wholesale dystopian view of the human condition. It’s the kind of strong effort that infinitely more famous bands of that era could not have even dared to dream of creating. (This means you Bon Jovi and yes, that might be a middle finger aimed right at you.) If anyone bought this album looking for “Mexican Radio” 2.0, their ill-fated hopes were crushed under the glorious weight of the album’s opening track.
“Far Side of Crazy” is one gut punch of a song, with Prieboy’s poetic and ginsu-sharp lyrics taking direct inspiration from President Reagan’s attempted assassin and number one stalker of Jodie Foster, John Hinckley Jr. While this was not the first song to use Hinckley and his words as a muse, (Nash the Slash did it to different but equally disturbing effect in his cover-of-sorts of the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” in 1984.) “Far Side of Crazy” says so much in the spate of its just under four minute run time. “And I remain on the far side of crazy. I remain the mortal enemy of man. No hundred dollar cure will save me. Can’t stay a boy in no man’s land.” In a surprising move, “Far Side of Crazy” was actually released as a single and even had a (near perfect) music video to accompany its release, featuring the band looking like stylish-rogue-rock-and-roll-western-dandies and the human embodiment of the orange-haired-Moe-Howard-bowl-cut be-haggard clown that graces the cover of “Sammystown.” (Remember kids, you can always trust a sad, drunk clown. It’s the happy, sober ones that will mess you up for life.) It was even a moderate hit in Australia, which is further proof that 8 out of 10 Aussies have better taste than most Americans.
Some of the longest lasting scars can be the ones needled into the metaphoric (and occasionally, literal) skin via a damaged relationship, something that is succinctly explored in the album’s second track, “This Business of Love.” Lines like, “I’ve been adding it up. To see where it went. The love we shared and the time we spent. Now I gotta take stock. I gotta get bent. This two bit heart is worth about ten cents” hammer this point home. Songs about cracked hearts and the broken endorphins of bad relationships are about as old as the dirt that lies beneath your very feet, but leave it to Wall of Voodoo to apply both emotional insight and the wry-wise astute poetic edge to such a topic. Musically, it has a cross of classic Voodoo tones and the barest hints of masters like Brecht at play, which may sound weird but it is a deliriously great combo. (Bizarrely, this was one of the songs that was criticized as being styled like something from the Ridgway era, because of the noir-type themes. While the song is dark, it’s not really noir, plus there is the single minded nincompoop-ness of insinuating that only one songwriter can use themes that are several decades old. I don’t think anyone ever accused Lydia Lunch or Nick Cave of aping Ridgway and nor should they. One could do a whole essay length rant on how many music critics were wrong about this band, but that’s one of the reasons why you and I are here in the first place. To get this shit right.)
In an all too brief nugget of a cover, we get Marc on vocal duties with his version of the Bob Wills country swing classic, “Faded Love.” If anything can beautifully permeate real American Gothic, it is a scratchy Bob Wills album. You know what else does that? Wall of Voodoo channeling this heart-tones and worse-for-wear American narrator, which is something all eras have done and how. From lost love to a lost soul reaching out with “Mona,” a Bruce Moreland penned song that has such evocative imagery as, “In the shadows. Beneath the bones. We lie down. Sicker than sun stricken animals. Wearing his roman gown. Yeah those crazy roman gowns. Dinosaurs making up my world and we all be T-Rex. Cars and factories digging my flesh and they did me in.” The titular Mona is a source of something special for one mired in the city wreckage of a post-industrial knowledge. The grown children who got neglected by baby boomer parents lost on their own trips of 1960’s inner city working class and suburban middle class fear. In a land of spilled oil and liquor, love might be the only glitter you see.
From the dream of the dying of “Mona,” there’s the upbeat “Room With a View,” which is one jaunty song about squalid living conditions where your “…room with a view/views a room with a view/that views my room with a view...” Also, leave it Andy Prieboy to work a Camus reference in such a song. Everyone should have a mini shrine, at least in their heart, to Andy Prieboy and this is some Matlock-happy proof.
“The worst is over hum a hymn
To her burning my faith
For such a villain I am criminally underpaid
Now my rope is tied
The gas is on
The chair is begging to be climbed
When I draw your face on blackboard sky”
“Blackboard Sky” by Wall of Voodoo
Speaking of the man, his song “Blackboard Sky” remains a stand-out from a whole album’s worth of stand-outs. The end of the line aesthetic is ripe with this one, with hope being attached to something whose life support was cut long ago. The crushing drums on this track mixed with Marc’s guitar is a thing of sheer thrust and shows that Leukhardt was a percussionist who absolutely proved his mettle. Going back to the lyrics, there’s such a smart awareness that feels quite rare in most music, then and now. Lines like, “Now I see all sides. Sense is not issue. I’ve got the eyes of the blind,” show how one can intellectually know something yet the heart tells you something that floods it. (Talk about a human trait that every one with a pulse should be able to understand.)
After that, there’s the black humor-riddled warning song to small town folks with “Big City.” (“I’m sorry old man. It’s nothing personal you understand. But I’ve just gotta run this lead pipe on someone.”) This is followed by one barn-storming, flatlands-on-fire version of the 50’s Merle Travis gem, “Dark as a Dungeon.” (A song that was previously covered by Johnny Cash, famously on his “At Folsum Prison” album.) Being a coal minor has been one of the most dangerous jobs for working poor Americans in the past several decades and if you want the real heart of darkness, just look at the man or woman laboring at a job that will almost inevitably rob them of years of their life, one way or the other. It’s a hard thing and Wall of Voodoo do the Travis song complete justice.
There’s the beautiful Marc Moreland written song, “Museums,” where one tries to rekindle a love that was once enriched by wandering “…through the bones alone. Capture the beliefs of another god’s world. In museums full of teachers on their field trips.” This is followed by the sweetly written (courtesy of Bruce Moreland) and sad-obtuseness of “Tragic Vaudeville.” (Which in addition to being a great song has one of the best song titles ever.)
“This is my body
This is my blood
Sufficient I am to the day
The Lord took my legs
Now it won’t help if you pray
So don’t spill my courage away”
“(Don’t Spill My) Courage” by Wall of Voodoo
“Seven Days in Sammystown” is concluded with the powerful “(Don’t Spill My) Courage.” The song revolves around a man who loses his legs when a mobile home runs over them after passing out from a four day bender. There are jabs at fake-Christianity, where this man is just drifting along with his wheelchair, liquor and himself while being continually preached out, judged and prayed for. It’s too easy for the well meaning and sanctimonious to write off someone they don’t know with terms like “drunk” or “homeless,” because if they really stopped to examine the whole picture, not only do they have to acknowledge some pain they may not know want to be near but also the fact that we are all just one or two steps away from the gutter ourselves. And maybe the gutter is better than being a judgmental asshole. Prieboy’s vocals here are the perfect mix of dignity, weightiness and anger, yet never ever lapsing into cliché. In fact, one of the Wall of Voodoo overall superpowers was their ability to always sidestep musical or performance cliches. It didn’t get them extra record sales (fuck you again, Bon Jovi) but when you do something the real way, it rarely pays all the bills but it does garner you the right kind of appreciation and the re-appreciation that your more successful peers will never get.
“Seven Days in Sammystown” is not only one of Wall of Voodoo’s best albums, but one of the strongest and sadly, also overlooked in the United States. It was a terrific effort that emerged in the maelstrom of gems and pap that was the 1980s musical landscape. It continued some themes that were touched upon on the equally great but different “Call of the West,” but took a step more to the personal, sardonic and emotional. This incarnation was too good for an undeserving US audience, many of whom were too busy getting lost in butt rock and MTV-I-Wanna-Dance-With-Somebody gloss. Wall of Voodoo would go on to make a follow up album, the fascinating “Happy Planet,” which contained their uber-fun cover of The Beach Boys song, “Do it Again.” (The music video, directed by Wall of Voodoo visual touchstone, Stephen Sayadian, features a cameo by Brian Wilson himself and so much visual eye candy that will delight you and creep out your less cool friends.)
Few bands truly mapped out the dark heart of post-War America, particularly the Southwest region, like Wall of Voodoo. Even fewer were able to do it with wit, prose & poet style flourish, sonic adventurousness and fun despite the dirt, dust, crime and scars. If all you know is “Mexican Radio,” then please, you owe it to yourself and this roster of uniformly great musicians to investigate further. This is not a plea or a wish, but instead a directive for the justly curious and right minded. Start a dossier and let’s rock.
This tentatively wraps up my two-part peek into the strange, heartsick and yet, endlessly fascinating world of key American post-punk bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When I first started this, there was the original intention of covering more bands that I did not get to, including such huge acts like Christian Death, The Flesheaters, Lords of the New Church (though yes, I know, three-fourths of that band is British) and so many more. One really needs a column to do this job, as well as examining other facets of music, whether we’re talking punk, exotica, novelty, heavy metal, darkwave, and so much more. Thanks to the fabulous encouragement of my editors, as well as the readers response to part one, keep on eye out for my upcoming music column, Sonic Attack!
Looks like we are just getting started.