Wall Of Voodoo - Biography
A vocalist with a fondness for Jim Thompson novels and a deadpan, Fred Schneider-on-sedatives delivery. A drummer who's not above using a drum set made of pots and pans. A keyboardist with an ability to make a synthesizer nearly as elegant as a harp. A guitarist whose love for Ennio Morricone scores occasionally trumped his scratchy punk tendencies. Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo had all of this during a three-year period in the early 80's when they released an EP and two must-have albums brimming with music that no one else was making. Vocalist Stan Ridgway (born Stanard Q. Ridgway) had a penchant for pulp stories that made his lyric-writing almost unbeatable in the band's heyday. Such was his talent that he couldn't stand to limit it to Wall of Voodoo after a while, and left to pursue a solo career. While Wall of Voodoo went on without him for two more ill-advised albums, there's no topping the band's bewildering early days, when the definition of punk had already begun to blur.
The band formed in Los Angeles in 1977, not as a band, but as a low budget film-scoring company called Acme Soundtracks. Ridgway made little progress in this company, but his creative energies were high, fueled by popular punk rock club The Masque, just across the street. Ridgway was highly influenced by the bands that played there, including the Skulls, a seminal group that included guitarist Marc Moreland. The duo started jamming and writing material in the Acme offices, ultimately realizing that they should form a complete band. Marc's brother, Bruce Moreland, was a bassist in the Skulls and also the emcee at the Masque. He joined his brother's new project along with keyboardist Chas Gray, also a Skulls member. Completing the picture was Japan-born drummer Joe Nanini, already a veteran of the LA club scene in bands such as Black Randy & the Metrosquad, and the Plugz. The band's name was happened upon while Ridgway was playing some of their songs to a friend. When Ridgway quipped that the production was similar to Phil Spector's “wall of sound,” his friend commented that it was closer to a “wall of voodoo.”
Signed to Hollywood-based indie Restless Records (started up by Enigma Records), Wall of Voodoo properly introduced themselves in 1980 with a self-titled EP. Of the six songs present, the most striking is a hissing, five-minute rendition of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire.” Aside from the ominous synthesizer that opens the track and never leaves, the first half of the song is conventional and spare. Then, a sudden lead guitar exacerbates the synthesizer's creepiness, changing the song's mood entirely and giving way to squalling feedback until the original bones of Cash's song are nowhere to be found. Wall of Voodoo was an attention-grabbing introduction to a very different band. It was good enough to get them signed by a major anyway, as the A&M-owned IRS label signed the band following its release.
The next year, they put out their first full-length, Dark Continent (IRS, 1981), which saw them in complete control of their collective aesthetic. The album contains one of their best songs, “Back in Flesh,” an often hilarious denouncement of 9-to-5 jobs. As Ridgway offers one ridiculous alternative to work after another, he is denied again and again by a disciplinary backing vocal: “Well I'd rather go bowling (the lanes are closed) /Maybe a little tennis? (Your racket's got a hole).” The album wrangled its way into the pop charts, peaking at 177. In 1992, it was reissued by A&M on compact disc, but has since gone out of print, resulting in its status as a much sought-after rarity. Bruce Moreland left the band a year after Dark Continent's release. He was not replaced, as Gray elected to take over bass duties.
Wall of Voodoo quickly ushered out their follow-up album, Call of the West (IRS), in 1982. A surprise hit single, “Mexican Radio” gave this oddest of bands a chance at mainstream attention by reaching number 41 on the charts. The rest of the album, though less radio-ready, was just as good and often better than the single. Like he did on “Mexican Radio,” Ridgway devotes the better part of his lyrics to poking fun at America idiocy, especially everyday working stiffs like the protagonist of “Factory.” Wall of Voodoo had successfully built something beautiful and unique out of all their weird parts. Ridgway's absolute refusal to sing his words is strangely affecting, while Gray's synthesizers manage to avoid ever sounding cheezy, especially on the moving “Lost Weekend.” Marc Moreland's angular guitar jabs, meanwhile, add a necessary edge to the music while the very talented Nanini makes an impact without ever attempting to steal the spotlight.
In 1983, things were clearly on the upswing for Ridgway and his band, so much so that Ridgway decided he could achieve similar results on his own. Apparently, while business was good, things had quickly gotten out of hand. The band's drug use had increased considerably, and their individual behaviors were troublesome. They also expected their record label of dishonesty in its handling of the group. Wall of Voodoo played the US Festival that year, a performance that was followed by their immediate implosion backstage. Ridgway set out to pursue his solo career, turning up on the soundtrack to Rumble Fish in a collaboration with Police drummer Stewart Copeland before the year's end. On top of Ridgway's departure, Nanini was out too. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Wall of Voodoo was no more. Instead, Bruce Moreland returned to join Gray and his brother. After finding replacements for Ridgway and Nanini in Andy Prieboy and Ned Leukhardt, respectively, a much-modified Wall of Voodoo returned in 1985 with Seven Days in Sammystown (IRS), an album that had no chance of satisfying expectations of what a Wall of Voodoo album should sound like. Two years later saw the release of their swan song, Happy Planet (1987). A live album, The Ugly Americans in Australia*, followed in 1988. The asterisk at the end of the title is there to specify that a couple of the LP's tracks were actually recorded in Arizona.
Ridgway's solo career has proven to be as captivating as his output in Wall of Voodoo. Lyrically, at least, there are few who stand alongside him. Nanini also became a solo artist, releasing an album in 1996. He passed away on December 4th, 2000, due to a brain hemorrhage. Marc Moreland, himself a solo recording artist, died of a liver failure on March 13th, 2002.