Image via WikipediaI have always thought it a great crime that, for most people, the only thing they see in their minds' eyes when they think of Wall of Voodoo is Stan Ridgway's face emerging from a pot full of baked beans as he warbles on about being on a "Mexican Radio." This band was so much more than just a one-hit wonder!
When you talk about Wall of Voodoo, you really should talk about two bands: Wall of Voodoo with Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo without Stan Ridgway. WoV's history can be traced back to Acme Soundtracks, a mid-to-late '70s company dedicated to creating film scores, founded by Ridgway. The company did not do well, but the location of its offices - across the street from The Masque, a revered punk club in Hollywood - helped Stan drift into the New Wave scene. With a few changes in lineup from the musicians he employed at Acme, Wall of Voodoo was born.
Those film-score roots are audible in this first version of WoV: spaghetti-western guitars, moody effects, and Stan's knack for storytelling. However, herky-jerky rhythms and Stan's sing-speak vocal affectations saw to it that they were lumped into the "New Wave" category. Their songs were intelligent, witty, and oddly catchy; their sound was unique and earned them praise as "the thinking man's Devo." This version of the Wall released a fantastic self-titled debut EP in 1980, followed by two excellent albums, 1981's Dark Continent and the following year's Call of the West, from which their lone "hit" came.
Ridgway left the band in 1983 to pursue a fairly successful solo career, and it seemed that would be it for Wall of Voodoo. It wasn't.
In 1985, a revived version of the band released Seven Days in Sammystown with new lead singer Andy Prieboy. The album is incredibly good, largely because Prieboy was wise enough not to try to mimic Ridgway's style. The sharp angles in the band's music were now sanded off, although that spaghetti-western feel remained. The Devo comparisons no longer held sway; if anything, the sound now veered closer to the recently successful Athens, GA sound of bands like R.E.M., Pylon, and Love Tractor.
Sadly, this version could not keep up the quality of work of the original band. In 1987 they released Happy Planet, which had a cover of a Beach Boys' tune and not much else to offer. Two years later, a live album appeared and disappeared just as quickly, and the Wall crumbled.
For those who only ever knew "Mexican Radio," I recommend getting any of the three Ridgway-era records, as well as Sammystown. All are fascinating, challenging albums well worth your time. As a sampling, I present this week's New Wave for the New Week, a clip from each version of the band. From the Dark Continent album, "Call Box 1-2-3" features Stan Ridgway's yelping song-talk. Andy Prieboy leads the band through a dissection of assassins Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr., the excellent "Far Side of Crazy." Compare and decide: