Text by Cary Baker, 1983
Epilogue by Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Images from the Internet
“L.A. is the land of borrowed culture,” says Stanard Ridgway, motormouth frontman in Wall of Voodoo, and a rare specimen of native Angelino. “I mean, you’re likely to see a Spanish roof atop Greek columns with a Turkish fountain in the yard and an Irishman living inside.”
Sorry to disillusion anyone who thought La-La Land was the Mesopotamia of the Western World. But its culture – Philly-cheesesteak-taco-dog mongrel that it is – is anything but un-American. And the call of the West still, after more than a century, lures millions away from real steak ’n’ potato cities. Like Chicago.
It’s this sorry pattern that inspired Ridgway to conceive Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West LP, from which comes the left-field radio MTV hit, “Mexican Radio.” The single spread like a brushfire on Laurel Canyon and penetrated the uncontrolled migrancy, even if ancient Mayan tribesmen could have built a bridge across the Rio Grande in half the time. Released in September of last year, the record simply refuses to roll over and play dead. Stan is particularly bemused that a record with references to barbecued iguana in Tijuana penetrated the very same airwaves that wouldn’t really wanna hurt you.
“We must have been at the right place at the right time,” he reasons, “because while I’m anything but a radio pundit, I do sound like a guy singing in the shower. And the song starts with that ‘ree-dee-dee-dee-dee.’ I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anything similar to it on the radio.”
Inspiration for this decidedly non-Salsa, non-Mariachi slice of techno-Dali struck as Woodoo (as their windy-jawed publicist calls them in a syllable-saving measure), would pile into what may as well have been a ’64 Fairlane and drive to rehearsal.
“We’d always tune to the Mexican AM stations,” he says. “It struck me as funny that all these people scour the dial in search of ‘real’ music, and there it is on the ethnic stations, bouncing off of mountains.”
KROQ-FM (not to be confused with its, ahem, Hispanic AM counterpart) gave “Mexican Radio” a running start, and album-rock radio across the nation carried the ball.
“It gave people the chance to leave the country without leaving their car,” he laughs.
But strong club and MTV video play took the record over the threshold. Again, Stan’s reaction is amusement; the kind of amusement that scratches its head all the way to the bank.
“Me, I never watch MTV,” he chides. “It’s visual pollution. And the funny thing is that we’ve only made two videos so far. However, I’ve always had visual things in mind when I write music. There was a time I would have settled for being a studio musician and playing third chair on the Baretta soundtrack. But I was always frustrated with the lack of imagery in some popular music, which always seemed to be about getting a girl or buying a new pair of shoes.”
His interest in musical / visual marriages preceded the formation of the band. It was 1977 and L.A. was punk-crazy. And Stan was mixed, at best, in his advocacy of the movement.
“It was liberating in one sense and confusing in another. In terms of aggressiveness and acting as a cleansing enema for the music industry, fine,” he says, “but I found it to be three chords, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-O Silver’.”
So he and guitarist Marc Moreland formed a film music firm called Acme Soundtracks. They opened an office on Hollywood Blvd., across from the Masque punk emporium, “and began growing our own mold.” Soon, the name of the company was changed to Wall of Voodoo.
“It started as a joke,” he recalls, “but I was serious. Everyone else was sitting around eating pancake mix, but they were still behind me. We had all the accoutrements of a business – a file, rolodex, desk light – but no one called. Born to lose, once again, out there on a long, lonely sandbar.”
They eventually did find work – the films they scored fell somewhere in the long continuum between sticky-quartered peepshows and Emmanuelle. One, entitled Night Dreams, featured a convoluted version of “Ring of Fire,” at the client’s request. The band Wall of Voodoo presently opens their show with this version. But don’t forget – this is a company, not a band. A little like PiL…
Until Wall of Voodoo Soundtracks became a band, that is.
“My only hesitancy was that I didn’t want to be the exciting vocalist with the 10-foot mike cord like Iggy Squiggy,” Stan says. “I thought we could always find someone better than me. They demoed “Ring of Fire” (which served much the same purpose as Devo’s “Satisfaction”), opened for the Cramps at the Whiskey, and IRS Records A&R man John Guinereri was singularly impressed. The following morning Woodoo’s manager found the following message on his answering machine: Hello, this is [IRS chief] Miles Copeland and I want to sign the Wall of Voodoo.” “Great,” Stan recalls of the band’s reaction: “Let’s take this guy for a ride!”
When they found out Copeland was for real, Woodoo couldn’t blow the ink dry fast enough. But all was not well. The band embarked on an extended phase of identity crisis. They knew what they were, but no one else seemed to.
“There was confusion with the Cramps because of the Voodoo thing, people coming to our gigs with bones around their necks,” he says. “But worse, they wanted us to be colder, like robot men. And this was pre-Styx, too, I’ll have you know!”
What Woodoo has actually come to represent is a quartet of heady L.A. kids who turn out high-Gothic, other-worldly imagery in a eurythmic mélange of horror, humor and more than a little mood for modernist. One guesses they’d give it all up in a minute to usurp Brian DePalma in the director’s chair.
“My childhood was dull, see,” says this Pasadena survivor, “a velvet ghetto environment – lawns, picket fences. I used to make monster models and hang them from the kitchen wall or set them aflame. My dad used to have Marty Robbins’ album, Trail Songs & Gun Fighter Ballads, on which every song was a moralistic good-guy / bad-guy story. And I love Ethel Merman – she’s first on my list of singing influences. So you could say I’ve been influenced by everything I ever got involved with for more than an hour.
“The trouble is, all my influences are either dead or not feeling very well.”
The Woodoo mandate was to do something that “wasn’t destined to go down as so much milk on a spoon. We’re thrilled that so many people don’t like us.”
Is this to infer that their self-imposed bohemianism would cause them to shun the spoils of, say, a Culture Club?
“Each of us has realized individually, at least one night every week, that we have to pay our rent and buy new socks,” he responds. “But in terms of commerciality, we’d rather break old musical behavioral patterns. Some people need five or six friends to tell them something’s okay and then embrace it.
“It is conceivable,” Stan adds, Billboard bullets momentarily eclipsing the whites of his eyes, “that if we could bamboozle the public with a song that sounded like Culture Club, maybe the public would buy an album that also contains all kinds of poisonous material. That would really be fun, wouldn’t it be?”
One more question: What became of Woodoo’s road manager – a Chicago celeb named Wazmo Nariz? And why isn’t he on the road this time out?
“When he joined us,” Stan says of the former IRS and Stiff recording artist, “it enabled him to get free and clear of some thoughts. Now he’s back in L.A., working on a comedy album, an opera, and an album of his own material. The opera’s a whole cast of characters in two ties, only styled after Wagner. He’s also grown and shaved a beard four times since Chicago saw him last.”
Wazmo was yet another Northern Industrial expatriate who left the land of broad shoulders in quest of milk, honey and traffic jams, exactly the myth Woodoo loves to prey upon.
“Y’know, I used to work for Time/Life Books, selling them: ‘Hello, Mrs. Jones, do you have any plants in your home? If so…’ And those books are every bit as sophomoric as you remember them to be – their book on the Old West is like reading the back of a cereal box. There’s always some place to go if you didn’t enjoy where you were. L.A. is the last stop – everyone out!
“You can’t go much further – you’d end up in Japan, I guess.”
But the legend of the Old West, Woodoo-style, is now larger than life. Visions of starlets walking pink poodles to take Depression victims’ minds off the breadlines, and a playful alignment with Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, that L.A. is the continent’s largest hospice, is hot stuff now. “Mexican Radio” is playing in Peoria; Wall of Voodoo is confirmed for the U.S. Festival. Thinking back on four months of touring to support the record that’s taken that long to stick to the wall of pop ephemera, Stan has come to know himself inside and out, just by doing so many interviews.
“It’s caused me to do more self-analysis that I can ever use in this lifetime,” he ruminates, and reaches for another Miller’s.
Shortly after appearing at the US Festival, “Woodoo” broke up. After a solo career, Ridgway formed the trio Drywall in 1994, who would occasionally play together live and record. Meanwhile, Ridgway has scored a number of films, including Rumble Fish and Pump Up the Volume. As for Larry Grennan, also known as double-tie wearing Wazmo Nariz… – RBF 2011