One of the most unique singer/songwriters in American indie music, with an unforgettable adenoidal vocal delivery that makes him sound like a low-level wise guy in one of those old Warner Bros. gangster films of the '30s and a lyrical obsession with the themes of pulp crime novels and film noir, Stan Ridgway is a true original. From his early days with quirky Los Angeles new wavers Wall of Voodoo to his even more intriguing solo career, Ridgway has created an impressive, if at times somewhat inscrutable and increasingly bleak, body of work.
Born with the euphonious name of Stanard Q. Ridgway in the desert town of Barstow, CA, on April 5, 1954, and raised in Los Angeles, Ridgway claims to have been a budding ventriloquist who spent his first night in jail at the age of 12 for stealing street signs. Ridgway also had a childhood fascination with folk music, pestering his parents until they bought him a banjo at the age of 14. Ridgway's love of folk music, though it may seem odd considering his later career directions, shows on his occasional covers of artists like Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford, but other artists ranging from Kurt Weill to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis were also big influences on the budding composer.
Ridgway formed Wall of Voodoo with guitarist Marc Moreland, bassist Bruce Moreland, keyboardist Chas T. Gray, and drummer Joe Nanini during the 1977 punk explosion; interestingly, however, the group originally formed not as a punk band but as a composers' collective that hoped to write and perform music for low-budget films. Nonetheless, the group was eventually swept up into the local post-punk new wave scene, where its combination of Ennio Morricone, Lefty Frizzell, and crime novelist Jim Thompson was loved and hated with equal passion. Following a brittle, art rock-ish self-titled EP (with a brilliant synth rock cover of Cash's "Ring of Fire" that brought the group much notoriety) in 1980, the band released two albums, 1981's Dark Continent and 1982's Call of the West, an excellent concept album about the lives of the disenfranchised in their native California. Lyrically dense, almost novelistic songs like "Factory," "Lost Weekend," and the title track revealed Ridgway to be among the most gifted lyricists of the day, while the inescapable hit "Mexican Radio" was huge on MTV and the suddenly new wave-friendly Top 40 airwaves. However, at that career peak, the band split in two backstage after a disastrous appearance at the 1983 U.S. Festival, with Ridgway and Nanini departing.
Ridgway immediately reappeared in the fall of 1983 with "Don't Box Me In," a nervous-sounding collaboration with Stewart Copeland of the Police from the film Rumble Fish. However, it wasn't until early 1986 that Ridgway's first solo album, The Big Heat, finally appeared. The lyrics of songs like "Pick It Up and Put It in Your Pocket" and "Drive She Said" are even more elliptically novelistic, like Donald Barthelme stories set to music. The seven-minute closer, a story song called "Camouflage," was a surprise Top Five hit in the U.K. Ridgway continued his slow but steady work habits after The Big Heat's release, waiting over three years before releasing the even darker-hued follow-up, Mosquitos.
Surprisingly, Ridgway's third album, Partyball, was out less than two years later; if anything even bleaker lyrically than any of Ridgway's previous efforts ("Jack Talked Like a Man on Fire" is his creepiest character study yet), Partyball is leavened by five brief instrumentals showing that his fascination with movie music has continued. In fact, Ridgway's first film score, for the low-budget indie Future Kick, was also released in 1991. (Ridgway's other film scores have included Melting Pot, Speedway Junky, Desperate But Not Serious, Error in Judgment, and The Keening; the Australia-only release Film Songs collects six of Ridgway's pieces of film music.) Ridgway left IRS Records after Partyball's release, and the label responded with the 1992 compilation Songs That Made This Country Great, which also includes Wall of Voodoo material. Ridgway self-released a companion video volume, Showbusiness Is My Life: The Video Collection 1977-1982 (titled after Ridgway's usual on-stage farewell during his Wall of Voodoo days), in 1995.
Through the latter half of the '90s, Ridgway also collaborated with his wife, Pietra Wexstun, and ex-Rain Parade drummer Ivan Knight as the noise rock experimentalists Drywall. A fourth solo album, 1996's Black Diamond, was a surprising detour into cocktail-style jazz reminiscent of Henry Mancini's '50s and '60s film scores. Even more unexpectedly, Ridgway's next album was 1998's The Way I Feel Today, a completely straight collection of 19 pop standards from the '30s and '40s with full orchestral backing. Released in 1999, Anatomy, with a cover illustration recalling the famous Saul Bass poster for the film Anatomy of a Murder, doesn't sound much like Duke Ellington's score for that film, though similar themes of justice and dishonor percolate through Ridgway's always impressive lyrics. Two closet-cleaning releases, 2001's live Poolside with Gilly: The Partyball Tour 1991 and 2002's Holiday in Dirt: New Tracks and Rarities, were self-released by Ridgway and sold through his website. An all-new collection of songs, the introspective Neon Mirage, arrived in 2010, followed by Mr. Trouble in 2012. ~ Stewart Mason