October 1st, 2016
Todd plays "Mexican Radio" on the piano
WALL OF VOODOO - MEXICAN RADIO
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. I am still doing requests, and...yeah, they sent me a weird one today.
- Video for "Mexican Radio"
- Stan Ridgway: I'm on a Mexican radio
- I'm on a Mexican whoa-oh radio
Todd (VO): Yeah, uh...this is...this is Wall of Voodoo performing their hit New Wave song from 1983, "Mexican Radio."
Todd: And as you probably know, we are no strangers to New Wave on this show. We've...
Todd (VO): ...covered our fair share of goofy-looking early '80s MTV bands. But even among the vast cavalcades of oddball, makeup-and-hairspray synth acts...
Todd: ...this is still kind of out there.
- Stan: Wish I was in Tijuana
- Eating barbecued iguana
Todd (VO): 'Cause unlike the previous New Wave acts on One Hit Wonderland, this wasn't a big hit in the Billboard sense. It only made it to #58 on the charts. No, it was a hit in the MTV sense. [Promo clips for MTV] I've mentioned that MTV, in its early years, only had, like, a dozen videos, so they'd just throw anything on there. And late at night, it would just get exceptionally weird.
Todd: For example, here's a little tune from around the same time that got a lot of videoplay.
- Clip of Dog Police - "Dog Police"
- *Arf arf arf arf*
- Dog Police: Dog Police!
- Where are you coming from
- Dog Police!
- Nobody knows who you are
- *Arf arf arf arf*
Todd (VO): This is "Dog Police" by the band Dog Police. Very popular on MTV back in the early '80s. Yeah, I don't know either.
"Mexican Radio" is not quite a forgotten, esoteric artifact like "Dog Police" by Dog Police, but...
Todd (VO): ...I feel like it fits in roughly the same mold. Its main attraction is that it's...it's just odd.
Todd (VO): It's a New Wave, country-and-western song about listening to music south of the border. And despite not being quite ever a hit, it's had a long shelf life. This isn't the first request I've gotten for it. It's...it's in that sweet spot of being just weird enough to stick in the brain, unlike "Dog Police," which was too weird to get any traction.
- Dog Police: Nobody knows who you are!
- *Arf arf arf arf*
- Dog Police
- Where are you coming from
Todd: Can I do a video on "Dog Police"? No, they paid me money for this.
Todd (VO): All right, turn that dial to XERF and fix up some barbecued iguana.
Todd: This is "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo. [Snaps fingers] Andale!
- Stan: Bbbbbbbbbbb!
Before the hit
- Clip of "Back in Flesh" from Urgh! A Music War
Todd (VO): Okay, Wall of Voodoo started as an LA punk band in the late '70s. But before that, lead singer Stan Ridgway—full name Stanard Q. Ridgway, I swear I'm not making that up. Anyway, before the band, Stan had a little business making movie soundtracks.
Todd: And no, not like John Williams soundtracks here. We're talking like weird independent films.
- Clip of opening of Manos: The Hands of Fate
Todd (VO): Yeah, not that exactly, but think of stuff like that, that's the kind of stuff we're talking about.
Well, anyway, his little business didn't do very well or last very long, but during his, I assume, many hours of unemployment, he would visit the punk club across the street, which is where he met the rest of the band, and eventually, they started their own. They got their name because Ridgway said that he was trying to make his organ-heavy soundtrack sound like [picture of...] Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound, but one of the guys said it sounded more like a "Wall of Voodoo."
Todd: Now, I've said before, most of the major New Wave bands were British. The only big [Clip of live performance by...] American New Wave act I can think of is Devo, and on the lower tiers, yeah, I guess you have Wall of Voodoo.
- Clip of "Call Box (1-2-3)"
- Stan: They always tell me what's not is not
- I just I gotta get that 1-2-3
Todd (VO): I don't know if they've ever said outright that Devo was an influence, but their first songs are very Devo-y. But they wouldn't stay that way for very long. Soon, Ridgway's experience with movie soundtracks would creep in as he started incorporating more [opening credit of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for...] Western movie influences like Ennio Morricone into his work.
Todd: Yeah, see? You never saw Devo doing any cowboy stuff. [Brief clip of "Whip It" with woman yelling subtitled "Ride 'Em Cowboy"] Does not count.
- Clip of...
Todd (VO): So let's check out the revamped, New Wave cowboy act that Wall of Voodoo became with...
Todd: ...their first single, "Ring of Fire." Wait, the "Ring of Fire"?
- Stan: Love is a burning thing
- And it makes a fiery ring
Todd (VO): Uh, yes, that "Ring of Fire." It's...it's an interesting take.
Todd: It's certainly something new.
- Stan: I fell into a burning ring of fire
- I went down, down, down
- The flames went higher
Todd (VO): So, um...that's what Stan Ridgway sounds like as a singer. Only way I can think of to describe is that he sounds like [brief clip of Tonight Show performance by...] the guy from Cake trying and failing to do a John Wayne impression. I...I don't really know what to make of this. It's unique.
Todd: At the very least, it's a pretty effective setup to their most famous hit.
The big hit
- Video for "Mexican Radio"
Todd (VO): Now, like I said, back in the day, MTV would just throw anything on; the weirder, the better.
Todd: Wall of Voodoo benefited greatly from it.
Todd (VO): And say what you want about them, there hasn't really ever been anything else like them. They play country-western guitar; they had a drummer, but they didn't really use drums a lot of the time; they had a drum machine...
Todd: ...and the drummer was just there to play cowbell and stuff.
Todd (VO): Eventually, cowboys and New Wave wouldn't seem quite such a mismatch.
- Brief clips of Boys Don't Cry - "I Wanna Be a Cowboy"...
- Nick Richards: I wanna be a cowboy
- ...and The Escape Club - "Wild, Wild West"
- Escape Club: ...living in the wild, wild west
Todd (VO): But at the time, whoa, that's just crazy, dude.
- Stan: I feel a hot wind on my shoulder
- I dial it in from south of the border
- I hear the...
Todd (VO): But why are they singing about this? Why Mexican radio? Well, back in the day, Mexican radio stations were actually a pretty big deal, especially if you live in California, like these guys did. You see, it used to be...
Todd: ...you could get around American broadcast regulations by setting up [map of US-Mexico border] just barely over the Mexican border, which was apparently an empty, lawless wasteland.
- Stan: And the touch of a world that is older
Todd (VO): And then you'd set up this [brief clips of antenna from RKO Pictures opening...] superpowered antenna that you could hear from Mars, [...a radio antenna in the middle of nowhere...] and broadcast up to the States, a lot of the time in English. And there wasn't anything the government could do about it, [...and a mariachi band] so you could tune in and listen to a lot of really good music, along with commercials...
Todd: ...for sketchy diet pills and other things you couldn't legally advertise in the US.
- Stan: I buy the product and never use it
Todd (VO): I think, at some point, there was a plan to stop these airwaves from crossing the border by building some kind of [population density map of border] wall. Don't know if anyone...
Todd: ...is still promoting that plan, though.
Todd (VO): Anyway, that's probably what inspired this song. I don't know if that's exactly what this song's about, though. For one thing, the Mexican radio station he's listening to appears to be in Spanish.
- Stan: I hear the talking of the DJ
- Can't understand just what does he say?
Todd (VO): Matter of fact, I'm not sure what's going on in this song, exactly.
- Stan: Leave it on when in bed I slumber
Todd (VO): Okay, he's listening to a Mexican radio because it helps him sleep...
Todd: ...which is not really my experience listening to Spanish broadcasters.
- Clip of soccer game with announcers screaming "GOAL!"
Todd: No, wait.
- Stan: I'd take requests on the telephone
Todd (VO): He's the DJ on the Mexican radio station.
Todd: Or actually, you know what? I think he's trapped in a Mexican radio.
- Stan: I'm on a wavelength far from home
Todd (VO): He'd literally been sucked into the airwaves and...
Todd: ...he can't escape. [Clip of beginning of video with Todd's screen "trapped" inside] Ahh, what's going on?!
- Stan: I understand just a little
- No comprende--it's a riddle
Todd (VO): The more I think about it, the more the comparison to [brief clip of "I Will Survive" by...] Cake seems apt. Wall of Voodoo were an '80s band, but there was a distinctly '90s sense of smarmy irony to them.
- Stan: I wish I was in Tijuana
- Eating barbecued iguana
Todd (VO): Eh-heh. Mexicans don't eat iguana, you racist! [Picture of a dish of barbecued iguana] No, wait, I'm told that's a thing. That's a...that's a real thing.
Todd: Okay, jumped the gun on that one. I apologize.
Todd (VO): But yeah, it's a joke song. There's this whole sense that they're above what they're singing about, for some reason which even the goofiest '80s hits I've covered did not have.
Todd: Does he...like Mexican radio?
Todd (VO): Does he like listening to mariachi music? Is music even what he's listening to?
- Stan: I dial it in and tune the station
- They talk about the US inflation
Todd (VO): Okay, he's listening to Mexican talk radio?
Todd: I don't know why you'd listen to that in English.
Todd (VO): I think the whole song is just a joke that Mexican radio exists. Like, look at 'em.
Todd: Speaking Spanish...existing.
Todd (VO): Look, no, I don't like this song. It's novel, but beyond that, it's just kind of smug and annoying. Gee, wonder why people didn't want more of this.
Todd: Let's turn the dial.
The failed follow-up
Todd: To be honest, the information I have on Wall of Voodoo is so scanty that I'm not actually quite sure what the failed follow-up even was. From the info I have, my best guess is this.
- Live performance of "Call of the West"
- Stan: The hot Mojave and the Jericho
- He'd start his whole life anew
Todd (VO): This is "Call of the West." There was a real music video shot for it; I can't find it. But honestly, I'm betting there wasn't 'cause, even in the crazy heyday of MTV, no studio was gonna shoot a video for this.
- Stan: You'll hear the drums and the brush of steel
- You'll hear the call of the west.
Todd (VO): It's not really a pop song. It doesn't have a chorus, it barely has a melody, it's a weird, rambly story song about a guy who moves west.
- Stan: Sometimes the only thing a western savage understands
- Are whiskey and rifles...
Todd (VO): And it's...it's kinda like a cowboy song, except it takes place in the present.
- Stan: 7-11s and gas stations. Buy a condominium. Maybe you could go to plastic surgeons...
Todd: And it doesn't really go anywhere.
- Stan: Call of the west
Todd (VO): And then...
Todd: ...Stan quit the band!
Todd (VO): Right as soon as Wall of Voodoo hit it big, their frontman quit. Apparently, there was a lot of drunken rock 'n roll antics going on in there, so there was friction. Also, the label was ripping them off. And Stan Ridgway just had enough, so he quit.
Todd: And that's where the Wall of Voodoo story ends. [beat] Or does it!
- Video for "Far Side of Crazy"
Todd (VO): No, it does not. You see, in the grand tradition of Van Halen, Judas Priest, Journey, and other bigger bands, Wall of Voodoo just picked another lead singer. This guy is Andy Prieboy, and they picked him, and they just kept on keepin' on.
Todd: I mean, it's not like they were replacing Freddie Mercury here; they weren't risking that much. Stan wasn't even the main songwriter; they all wrote the music, so, you know, I can see the logic.
- Andy Prieboy: And I remain on the far side of crazy
Todd (VO): Things had already changed a lot by 1985. New Wave was no longer a novelty, it was quite mainstream. So this new guy, he's a little more photogenic.
- Andy: I shot an actor for an actress
Todd (VO): He kinda looks like a skinny Robert Smith from the Cure. And they were still pretty weird on the album, but for this single, they're a lot more commercial. You could imagine them along with INXS or Tears for Fears.
Todd: But it did not really work out as this wasn't a hit anywhere.
Todd (VO): It's not like Wall of Voodoo was a big draw before, but they did have a cult following, and this cult following just checked out when Ridgway left, and the band never really recovered.
- Clip of...
Here's another single they released. It's a cover of "Do It Again" by the Beach Boys.
- Wall of Voodoo: De-de-de, de-de-de
- De-de, de-de-de-de
- De-de-de, de-de-de
Todd (VO): Yeah, this '80s surf thing is...it's not working. You ain't no B-52s, fellas.
Todd: Their only follow-up after this was a live album called [album cover of] The Ugly Americans in Australia*, and you can note the asterisk because a couple of the songs were not in Australia. And then, having limped all the way to the end of the '80s, Wall of Voodoo called it quits.
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: See, there is an interesting story after Wall of Voodoo, and it does not involve Wall of Voodoo. The real interesting stuff is all about Stan.
- Video for "Camouflage"
- Stan: I was a PFC on a search patrol, huntin' Charlie down
Todd (VO): Stan Ridgway went on to a fairly decent solo career, believe it or not. And apparently, "Call of the West" was a harbinger of things to come because his solo career is full of these weird, rambly, songs that are, like, a cross of Leonard Cohen and Warren Zevon. And he even, get this, he even had a Top 5 hit in the UK.
- Stan: Whoa...Camouflage
- Things are never quite the way they seem
Todd (VO): This is called "Camouflage." It's like a cowboy ghost story, like the kind I remember hearing on classic country radio, like, all the time. Except it's not about cowboys, it's about Marines in the Vietnam War.
- Stan: And he said, "The boys just call me Camouflage."
Todd (VO): Like, a Marine nicknamed Camouflage saves the narrator from Charlie out in the jungle.
- Stan: 'Cause when I turned around he was pullin' a big palm tree
- Right up out of the ground
- And swattin' those Charlies with it
Todd (VO): But when he gets back, it turns out that Camouflage was actually dead the entire time.
- Stan: But this here is Camouflage
- And he's been right here since he passed away last night.
Todd: [spooky] Ooooooooohhh
- Clips of "Drive, She Said"...
- Stan: "Just drive," she said
Todd (VO): Yeah, that's basically what his career is like—long, rambly songs like that. This one is a film noir-ish thing about a girl on the run. [..."The Big Heat"...] This one is about smugglers. He even wrote one about the history of...
Todd: ...Wall of Voodoo, which was helpful for this video.
- ...and "Talkin' Wall of Voodoo Blues"
- Stan: ...and pretty soon
- It was time for me to go
- I did my best to patch it up
- But we were all just big assholes
- Clip of live performance
Todd (VO): So they reunited for a brief tour in 2006. In the meantime, Stan Ridgway still releases albums, and he went back to soundtracking [clip of trailer for Future Kick] low-budget movies, which all look pretty bad.
- Announcer: Future Kick
Did they deserve better?
Todd: I...kind of?
Todd (VO): I don't really like any of the stuff I heard from Wall of Voodoo, and I'm not sure Stan Ridgway's solo stuff I'm that into either, but you know, it's...it was original. No one else was making it. I can totally see why they have a cult following, but...no, it's not for me. But if you are an enthusiast of cowboy-influenced synth pop...
Todd: ...well, here's a band for you.
- Stan: Radio
- Closing tag song: Authority Zero - "Mexican Radio"
"Mexican Radio" is owned by I.R.S. Records
This video is owned by me
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS