Skipping around the usual channels last week, I kept landing on VH1's latest special, 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the '80s. It was yet another entertaining collection of clips recycled from previous top 100 shows. I think I've seen the bits about Billy Vera's "At This Moment" and E.U.'s "Da Butt" at least three times each over the last seven days. As I watched bespectacled "dude" host Judah Friedlander harmlessly doof his way through the list of hits, the countdown taught me a few things about my '80s experience. One clip re-inspired me.
I was in fourth grade in '80 and took snare drum lessons by fifth.
I remember when MTV first hit the screen, when Reagan was shot (and when Buckwheat was shot). I recall watching the Live Aid concerts as they happened. Catching the MTV debuts of clips for R.E.M.'s "Can't Get There from Here," Rush's "Distant Early Warning," and the inaugural weeks of 120 Minutes still come to mind, too.
I listened to rock and pop radio and paid attention to some of the synthy "mainstream" hits, if only to make fun of them — especially in comparison to the exotic indie/underground stuff on college radio.
I was surprised that I'd never heard of some of VH1's so-called "one hit wonders" on the list. Who the hell were the Information Society, Pretty Poison, and Gloria Loring & Carl Anderson? Maybe I should have paid better attention. Secondly, VH1 distorted the truth about a good many of these acts, many of which weren't actually "one hit wonders" at all. To peg (or dismiss) Devo, Madness, Quarterflash, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or Twisted Sister as such is incorrect and misleading. Australia's Midnight Oil clocked in on the list at number 95 with "Beds Are Burnin," but they scored more than six Top 20 hits between 1988 and 1993. Oh well.
In the middle of 100 Greatest (at number 44) was Wall of Voodoo's famously quirky "Mexican Radio." A clangy, oddball tune with a galloping rhythm and a nasally vocal performance from frontman Stan Ridgway, it was as weirdly noir and wonderfully "Western" as a I remembered. The glimpse of it sparked me to dig through the shelves of records and reunite with my old copies of Voodoo vinyl.
I first heard and saw Wall of Voodoo on a broadcast of the 1981 concert film Urgh: A Music War on the old Night Flight cable show when I was about 12. The scene showed the band fishing off an L.A. dock as a suspicious-looking character with a mustache walked up with a rotary telephone in his hands and announced, "Telephone call for Wall of Voodoo!" Ridgway, replied, "Thanks ... I think I have a bite," segueing into footage of the band on stage kicking off a rendition of the blue-collar gripe anthem "Back in Flesh."
About that same time, I caught numerous screenings of "Mexican Radio" on MTV. It must have been in heavy rotation for at least a year. Percussionist/drummer Joe Nanini banged on pots, triangles, and cowbells while an electronic kick/snare track droned away. Guitarist Marc Moreland's uniquely twangy, minor-key guitar work countered Ridgway's side-of-the-mouth delivery and Chas Gray' sinister keyboard lines. The unusual mix of instruments, the off-kilter rhythms, the cinematic Ennio Morricone vibes had little in common with anything happening in Top 40 or the punkish underground. I dug it.
While "Mexican Radio" may have been Voodoo's only genuine chart-topper, their earliest music holds up. It still sounds substantial and exclusive. My now-scratchy vinyl copy of Grandma's House — a compilation of their early material on Dark Continent and Call of the West — was the only Wall of Voodoo album I could find in Charleston in 1983. It's been on the home turntable for over a week now. Thanks, VH1.