Picture yourself in the year 1982. You hear a song on the radio that you really like. The title is easy to remember, so you go to the record store at the shopping mall and ask the surly guy behind the counter about it. He hands you a ten-song LP which you pay seven bucks for.
You return home and place the record onto your turntable, and discover that the single you really liked is handily outdone by nine other songs.
This is what it was like discovering Wall of Voodoo’s seminal album Call of the West.
It’s a masterpiece; an econo-New Wave version of Dark Side of the Moon. Every song is perfect. There is not anything resembling a lemon in the bunch. I’ve listened to it close to a million times, and I still discover new things. No one sings like Stanard Ridgway (although Gerry V. Casale can come close), and no one plays guitar like Marc Moreland. When I introduce people to WoV, I start off with “Back In Flesh” from Dark Continent, because Moreland’s guitar is almost impossibly seductive in its angular squawk:
Call of the West kicks off with “Tomorrow”, the anthem of procrastinators like myself. Richard Mazda’s production is very clean, highlighting Joe Nanini’s excellent synth tones. Unfortunately Nanini and Moreland and no longer with us, so I implore you to do as I do and cherish the remaining Walls of Voodoo we still have. Ridgway is an incomparable singer and and all-around great fella, and on the back of the LP, there was a photo of the band where I thought he looked like me when I was 15 or so. I thought this was cool.
Track two is the somber “Lost Weekend“, probably the only downbeat song on the disc. It spins a tale of a couple traveling by car, leaving Vegas after losing everything. The percussion is deceptively comforting, while the lyrics paint a defeated picture of disappointment and loss. It’s beautiful and haunting.
Then the third track begins. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll know what it is just by the sound.
Here’s a sampling of the words. Tell me this doesn’t make the hair on your arms stand on end:
Now I know I had something to say but the problem is to say something uh, you gotta say it
And I still don’t remember a thing since the funny gas came out of that pipe next to me, guess they didn’t OK it
Now I remember, did I tell ya, cut my thumb off at the knuckle on a broken band saw, didn’t see the belt buckle or the blade slip
And I remember when the doctor did it up with a stitch, funny thing, still got a scratch that I can’t itch
Where my thumb was
It was here that I became hopelessly hooked in 1982. This is one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Nanini syncopates perfectly with Ridgway’s harmonica to build an unmistakable industrial atmosphere. I’ve always wanted to animate a tribute video to this track; thing is, it doesn’t need it. It’s gilding the lily.
And the next song tops it!
Listen to that tone! Witness the glorious melding of the band members, crafting a veritable anthem of alienation! And what is that insect-like chewing noise?!
Track five is the upbeat “Hands Of Love”, setting up disparate melodies that mingle together at the coda. You want a peerless tune to define “early 80’s college radio”, and your Pixies records are all scratched up? Say no more, fam!
And that’s just Side A!
Side B, of course, kicks off with the “money shot”; the song most commonly associated with Wall of Voodoo. Like “Whip It” is to DEVO, so is this track to Wall of Voodoo, for better or worse. This was the reason I bought the album.
Moreland was the first to begin writing the song. In a recorded interview in the 1990s, he stated, “It was basically just me singing ‘I’m on a Mexican radio’ over and over again”. Moreland added that, when he played it for his mother, she hated it because of his repetitious lyrics. Ridgway collaborated with Moreland to finish the song, adding all the verse lyrics to Moreland’s chorus and guitar lick, as well as the “mariachi” harmonica melody in the song’s middle breakdown.[Wackypedia]
Look, I’m not gonna lie to you and say this isn’t a brilliant song. Because it absolutely is.
I don’t mean to keep bringing up “tone”, but as you can clearly hear, WoV had the burnished, confident tone perfect for the material. The whole band was in their element, in top form. Gun-toting goofball Phil Spector had his “Wall of Sound”; we have Wall of Voodoo. I never went back to Talking Heads after this.
“Spy World“, the seventh song, is the closest thing you could call to inconsequential on the album. It’s short, but it functions as a safety net after the high-wire act of the previous song. Its sound is rounded out by congas and terse spy-novel stanzas. I always wanted to tell Stanard Ridgway that when I was a kid, I told my friend that the lyrics were instead “Spiral”. For no other reason than to confuse my friend did I do this. For no other reason!
“They Don’t Want Me”, the eighth track, solidifies the alienation theme that began with “Look At Their Way”. Kicking off with a cold, hissing, martial backbeat, the song unfurls into a snarling chant, rising in rancor and hatred until finally the subject is commanded “STUPID JERK, GET OUTTA HERE.”
If not for the album capper, this would be my favorite track. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)
Just as the crowd closes in, a moment of blessed relief arrives. In all sincerity, this is one of the most unabashedly gorgeous instrumentals I’ve ever heard. In under three minutes, it encompasses wide open spaces, blue skies, and endless American roadways stretching into infinity.
I’m serious. Tell me this isn’t achingly exquisite. Tell me this doesn’t make you want to jump behind the wheel of a convertible and just drive where the highway takes you.
I don’t even know exactly where Interstate 15 is or where it goes, but it can’t be as utterly splendid as implied by these sounds.
The final track is my absolute favorite. Nothing tops this. In grade school this music felt like fine opera to me. The chills it induces are unrelenting; every verse makes you more uneasy. It legitimately frightened me. It is infused with the spirits of people who foolishly threw everything away to move somewhere they didn’t belong, and could never fit in.
You know what? I’m just gonna reprint the lyrics for you here. They’re that good.
He got the high sign so he jumped a bus
Along the roads that wind on through
The hot mojave and the jericho
He’d start his whole life anew
And what he’d left behind he hadn’t valued
Half as much as some things he never knew
I’m not even reading the liner notes, I’m typing these from memory. That’s the impact this song had on me in 1982.
He got dropped off on a street in town
Where a grey old man looked him up and down, and said
“Son this ain’t no Western movie matinee
You’re a long way off from yipee-yi-yay
And 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
So you gotta keep on the move
Don’t let that fancy paint job fool you”
Then the old timer pulled him close and said,
“You’ve come a long way I know,
You got a longer drive ahead,
Through the bones of the 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”
At this point the song goes from “creepy” to “keep you up at night”. We segue into “The Conflict”, a monologue spoken by Ridgway over the bridge, as the intensity builds:
Harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle
But you can’t close off the wilderness
He heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself peering down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner
“There’s a conflict,” he said
“There’s a conflict between land and people… the people have to go, they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own CB radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell Time/Life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe… maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face”
Few times in life have I ever felt myself this immersed by a six-minute song. Ridgway closes out the album in fine form, as do his legendary bandmates, and as we imagine the track’s subject being literally run out of town on a rail, his haunting screams echo in our ears, a bizarro spaghetti-Western pastiche turned nightmare:
I USED TO BE SOMEBODY!!!