❉ The slim, yet packed, canon of Wall Of Voodoo. Blimey, they were good.
Y’know the Sleaford Mods? I’d only heard bits & pieces by them until the other week, when I caught their 6 Music Festival set on the iPlayer. Listening to them for longer than just a song or two, I tumbled to their particular clicktrack absurd anger, how it gains from momentum, how it also contains self-criticism, blah blah, but felt an echo of its kinesis somewhere. An odd nag, couldn’t quite place it.
A workmate loves the Sleafords, & we were discussing the set between customers last week, particularly the odd fact of Iggy Pop introducing them. He’s a huge fan, apparently, & my colleague wondered, “Imagine if you got Iggy fronting the Sleafords?” And then it came to me: “No, that’s already been done, albeit with some Spaghetti Western guitar over the top. Ever heard of Wall Of Voodoo?”
If you’re old enough to remember the music papers, then you’ll recall that there were tribal loyalties. The NME was always somehow the school prefect, Sounds the actual fun companion, but being a wispy type, I gravitated towards the Melody Maker, the most teenage of the paps, despite being written by supposed grown-ups. There could be arrested development and overwrought metaphor in an MM review or interview, but it appealed to those of us who hung around the sides of the playground, not keen to plant a flag. Despite its apparent mimsiness, central to MM’s policy was Carol Clerk, the formidable but open-hearted news ed who was the coolest big sister to a generation of readers.
Throughout 1982, MM had persistent mention of this odd LA bunch called Wall Of Voodoo, who sounded intriguing, & Clerk was a big fan. Come the autumn, there was this thing called The Tube on yon new-fangled Channel 4, that actually let you catch such bands at teatime, before you headed out to the pub, or in my case at the time, the rollerdisco. Lo & behold, one night, here were those Wall Of Voodoo folks.
Blimey, they were good. At the time, I didn’t quite get how singer & focalist Stanard Q Ridgway (usually just Stan, mind) effortlessly essayed the third-eye querulous baritone of both Iggy & Johnny Cash to such troubling comic effect, but their rigour was remarkable. How did they appear to be cranking full-on yet creating such a skeletal sound? This grotesque jalopy with a stink-eye, winking as it went.
Their oeuvre is slim, but crammed; one EP & two LPs issued in just over two years between 1980-1982, with the near-hit of Mexican Radio giving them a spectral bubbling-under presence for the first half of 1983, before Ridgway jumped ship, broke & bitter. The band continued in variant and quite amenably comic form until 1988, but never recaptured the fury of this first body.
The original configuration arose from a sideline occupation of Ridgway’s, “ACME Soundtracks”, a cheap’n’cheerful scoring business, accompanying whatever scuzzy flick approached him. (In a 1986 TV interview – on Get Fresh! of all places – he recalled that he’d change the name of the “band” to such pseudonyms as Dead Cops or Pulsating Pudenda, depending on the gig, and Gaz Top’s face was a sight to behold). A lounge guitar player also, Ridgway met & utilised the all’italiana twang of Marc Moreland to beef up his robotic backdrops. Add Marc’s brother Bruce on bell-end bass, plus Chas Gray on apposite one-finger keyboards, & percussionist Joe Nanini engaged in a perpetual one-man war with the drum machine, et voila.
Always more Randy Newman than Joey Ramone, nevertheless Ridgway’s carny-barker takes on wage-slavery, brain magnet and the pedagogue grind fitted beautifully into the post-punk world. This is the band Rod Serling would’ve been in had he been born twenty years later, a B-movie musick to ward off darkness, fearfully alert. Their first LP, Dark Continent, is a 35 minute headlong plunge into distemper, but somehow with humour intact at the death; the interior not broached, yet.
Signed to IRS, they hovered at the boundary throughout their career; opening for The Police, The Residents and Devo, brief labelmates with the nascent R.E.M., they coulda been contenders; except, maybe, that they didn’t really want to be. If you go youtubing, you’ll find their final gig online, a spot at the jamboree US Festival 1983, where they’re the token noo-waverz and are evidently hating themselves for it. They split up backstage immediately afterwards. (Don’t bother with the whole thing, but FFW to around 20 minutes in for their great lost song Funzone, a rant suddenly finding its one and only moment).
But back when success and the spotlight still beckoned, they spent the summer of 1982 working on their curious masterpiece, the LP Call Of The West, their heart of darkness, a song cycle imagining what would happen to John Muir these days, with his “Go west, young man” gung ho. He’d be screwed, is what. A meditation upon the frontier spirit splintered into anomie and self-protectionism, the album remains an astonishing depiction of how the wide open spaces of the USA are carved, gnarled and gutted by pettiness and fear of the other. And if you think this seems abstract, I take it you’ve not been watching the news lately. Some things, sadly, never date, and the crazies are forever fast-laning alongside or over us.
Back to MM for a moment. Wall Of Voodoo came over to the UK for a promo visit, found themselves supporting Toyah of all people at the Hammersmith Odeon, did The Tube, got beaten up in a London boozer, and were accompanied through all this by (IIRC) journo Adam Sweeting (who once encapsulated the allure of Wall Of Voodoo as “nuclear wallop”, a terrifically accurate descrip.) At one point during an interview, Sweeting went to compare the title track of Call Of The West with another song of mighty dread at the state of the union, Talking Heads’ The Big Country. Fair do’s, replied Ridgway, except… that’s someone up there, whereas we’re down here. The view’s different from down here. That is, there is no view. There’s nothing on this side.
On my mp3 soma device, I have several permanent fixtures. Might only listen to them once or twice a year, but at those moments they will be precisely what I need to hear. The short, brutish, hilarious canon of Wall Of Voodoo 1980-1982 is one of those ineffables. A pugnacious soundtrack to those times when you feel the panopticon clutch at you, and want some back up. Know your enemy. Here be monsters. “Sometimes the only thing a Western savage understands are whiskey and rifles and an unarmed man – like you.”
❉ Wall Of Voodoo – Index of Masters is available in streaming or MP3 format on Amazon. Dark Continent/Call Of The West is currently out of print.