Home Music Anatomy of a Tracklist: Stan Ridgway: The Big Heat

Anatomy of a Tracklist: Stan Ridgway: The Big Heat

While Stan Ridgway’s story might not be that of the characters who so memorably populate his songs, the brief flaring of celebrity before the longer turn as a journeyman musician and songwriter is not that distant from the stories that occupy him. Ridgway’s songs avoid the carnival quality of Tom Waits and skirt the working-class glorification of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. For the most past, Ridgway’s narratives are tales of suburban tract housing, cookie-cutter lives at the near bottom of the food chain. Not for nothing was Ridgway’s post-Wall of Voodoo band called Drywall.

After Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo in 1983, recounted so memorably in “Talkin’ Wall of Voodoo Blues Pt. 1” on the 2004 album Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs, he collaborated with Stewart Copeland on “Don’t Box Me In” for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Rumble Fish before releasing The Big Heat in 1986. Ridgway notes on his website that, “Music is more than just chords and notes to me, it has the ability to make pictures in the mind. My records are designed to be seen as well as heard.” Critics note that his work seem to draw on that sense of the visual, recognising that Ridgway generates acts and scenes as much as choruses. Not all of those pictures come fully together on The Big Heat, but what is there, even when unsuccessful, captures an image of a songwriter moving towards a solo voice and seeking to carve out a place within a very specific song writing tradition.

1. “The Big Heat”

White-noise winds blow across drum machines and a synthetic bassline, simple rhythms that carve out a flickering landscape, not so much cinematic but smaller, a dusty relic shown late at night on a forgotten end of the TV spectrum. The story unfolds in fits and starts, shifting narrative positions from a tale of detectives on the trail of a criminal on the lam (one suspects that no one is merely “on the run” in a Ridgway song) to the perspective of the fugitive who notes in the song’s chorus that “ … everybody wants another piece of pie today,‘ he said/ ‘You gotta watch the ones who always keep their hands clean.’/ It’s the big heat.” No one is entirely innocent, Ridgway seems to be saying, and this observation will occupy the lion’s share of the album. “The Big Heat” predates the split from Wall of Voodoo and was performed live by the band and, of all of the songs on this album, it’s the most polished, definitely the stronger for all that workshopping. As he did with Wall of Voodoo, Ridgway mixes drum machines and synthetic sounds with harmonica and guitars, the better to make the point that while the veneer of civilization might change, those old stories of human indiscretion and failure will carry right on happening. This was the first of three singles lifted from the album, charting only in the UK indie charts but making an entirely respectable 13.

2. “Pick It Up (And Put It in Your Pocket)”

The orchestration is more complex, more layered here but the sentiment is the same and, as with “The Big Heat,” it’s the chorus that explains, “Pick it up and put it in your pocket/ Or somebody else just will,” adding that “… it’s dog eat dog/ And cat eat mouse/ And mouse eat cheese/ And the cheese just smells.” This is more a protest song at a particular kind of human condition than the kind of story-song we just encountered, the complex and clattering percussion provided courtesy of Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham.

3. “Can’t Stop the Show”

Back into the world of grimy tales and soused lowlifes, this is sung from the perspective of the hardworking and care-worn strip club manager who seeks to only offer “Just good clean entertainment/ We don’t handle no tricky-business in here.” Clattering drums and percussion, with a heady dose of slap bass (courtesy of Mike Watt of The Minutemen) thud purposefully – if a little listlessly – even as the lead guitar breaks into a wailing break in the background and we’re told that, “… Betsy’s in her birthday suit/ Spinnin’ her baton/ But I think she did it better last year/ Before her boyfriend broke her arm.” “Can’t Stop the Show” is oddly and emotionally flat, mirroring exactly the kinds of exhaustion the characters seem to exhibit. There are attempts at emotional connection, as when the narrator blandly comments “Now, girls, I’m proud of every one of you/ Cass, spit out your gum, it don’t look good when you chew,” but, in the end, everyone’s going through the motions because if they stopped, they’d have to confront the vexed question of ‘what next?’

4. “Pile Driver”

After the end-of-the-evening slow dance of “Can’t Stop the Show,” this is an immediately up-tempo shift, complete with synthetic mariachi horns and an “I Walk the Line” shuffle-beat. Like many of Ridgway’s songs, the subject is both a warning about and an oddly macho celebration of industrialization. This is an itch Ridgway started scratching in Wall of Voodoo with “Two Minutes to Lunch” on 1981’s Dark Continent and “Factory” on 1982’s Call of the West, both songs exploring similar territory and both, as with “Pile Driver,” told from the point of view of those at the sharp end of the wedge. As he sings, “So look out, world, we’re buildin’ now/ When the hammer hits, the thumb says ‘ow!’/ Somewhere you know there’s progress made/ One thing’s for sure, we’ll get our asphalt laid.”

5. “Walkin’ Home Alone”

The album’s first side finishes with a soft, shuffling piece of smooth jazz-noir, a sinewy exercise in masculine self-pity as the narrator approaches, and then shies away from any kind of meaningful self-realization. We’re told that “… ain’t it funny how one afternoon/ Can make two people stop and say/ That all the time they spent together/ Really didn’t mean that much anyway …” and, just at the point where the admission of “a hole punched in a door” might lead anywhere too sensitive, the fact that “even the cat she left me with/ Is goin’ out with someone else” gives him permission to slump back into maudlin indulgence and tedium. Not that the song is tedious, though. A soft organ matches the lead guitar line into the first verse and Ridgway’s voice is similarly softened, that distinctive drawl rendered breathy and almost sensitive as the horns swell for the middle section.

6. “Drive, She Said”

Side Two kicks off in familiar Ridgway territory, with a hard bass drum and snare beat, chugging guitars, synths and a fierce harmonica leading us into another great noir story, another criminal on the lam, another poor schlub caught up in events bigger and more complex than he is. Yet while the song’s instrumentation might hark back to the more muscular moments of Wall of Voodoo, the narrator remains a fallible Ridgway proxy, dreaming of a life on a deserted beach with the bank-robbing femme fatale he’s been lucky enough to pick up in his cab, before “she reached in her purse and she pulled out a gun and said/ “Now, just shut up and keep your hands on the wheel”.” Released as the album’s second single, it fared poorly despite being one of its stronger tracks.

7. “Salesman”

More synths and electronic percussion, shuffling, driven by a nicely reverbed guitar strum, all adding to a sense of purpose and commitment to a cause long exhausted. The narrator, in a now-familiar tone of resignation, notes that, “I’ve seen the dirt and dust of a hundred towns like this/ I just work my way on through/ Sometimes it’s just hit and miss/ And got a little something here in my bag to help me burn the leaves.” The layers of rounded synth pulses and subdued guitars place the song neatly at that point in New Wave history where bands like Devo were shifting from the periphery to the center of radio-friendly consciousness and pulling groups like Martini Ranch in their slipstream.

8. “Twisted”

Digital woodwinds and carnival-like percussion and orchestration give this an upbeat feel even as Ridgway sings “You think that no one sees ya hidin’ your dirt/ And no one sees the spots and stains on your shirt.” There’s no more detail about the identity of “you,” and this tale doesn’t have the malice of something like Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building In There” where both narrator and subject emerge as off-kilter. So while there’s more of interest here than one would expect of filler, the song merely comes and goes, is diverting while happening and then is immediately forgotten.

9. “Camouflage”

The album’s third single was the surprise hit one imagines no one at IRS saw coming. On paper it shouldn’t work, a seven-minute mid-tempo, effectively spoken-word piece about a ghost marine in the Vietnam war, borrowing from such hackneyed traditions as Tex Ritter’s “Deck of Cards” or Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309.” Despite all of those factors, and some egregious lyrical sins committed just to get the rhyme scheme to work, “Camouflage” landed with listeners, peaking at four in the UK mainstream charts, two in Ireland and Poland and making top 100 in a number of other territories. The song still features in Ridgway’s live sets, and it’s amusing to consider audiences belting out the chorus “Whoa Camouflage, this was an awfully BIG marine …” with unironic gusto. The song sticks appropriately to a steady marching pace with a lead line picked out on a guitar and supported by a flute-like synth as the lyrics set the scene: “I was a PFC on a search patrol huntin’ Charlie down/ It was in the jungle wars of ’65/ My weapon jammed and I got stuck way out and all alone/ And I could hear the enemy movin’ in close outside.” The story unfolds as one might expect, with the “big marine” capable of superhuman feats like dodging bullets, all the while keeping the unnamed narrator safe from harm. After safely delivering the young PFC to base, Camouflage vanishes back into the jungle, leaving our narrator to discover that Camouflage died the night before. Luckily “… before he went he said ‘semper fi’ and said his only wish/ Was to save a young marine caught in a barrage/ “So here, take his dog tag son, I know, he’d want you to have it now/ And we both said a prayer for a big marine named Camouflage.” Should you feel so inclined, you can buy a “Camouflage” mousepad from Ridgway’s website.

The Big Heat is a fascinating document for the way it marks Ridgway’s transition out of the mess and madness of Wall of Voodoo and into a space where he could better express his vision and interests. Not all of the album hangs together, and tracks like “Twisted” and “Can’t Stop the Show” could be removed without affecting the overall impact of the album, while “The Big Heat,” “Drive She Said” and even that tale of self-indulgence “Walkin’ Home Alone” remain effective tales of exactly the demographics Ridgway maps so intimately. The album’s oddity is, of course, “Camouflage,” not quite a novelty song, not quite a one-hit-wonder, not quite a celebration of militaristic machismo. And maybe that is both the genius and curse of Stan Ridgway: the focus on those who don’t quite make it, those whose failures aren’t quite as bizarre or spectacular as the characters who feature in the songs of those he’s so often compared to. Songs that are both unsettling and unsettled, not quite at home with the South of the Border aesthetic he refers to and draws on. Always the observer, never quite at home with what’s observed. Ridgway’s follow up Mosquitos is much stronger in terms of songwriting and focus, yet did poorly, coming across as a noir-soundtrack to whatever was going on in his head at the time. Not that any of this has stopped him. Ridgway is still fabulously active, touring until recently, composing soundtrack work and an album of songs for children (recorded with partner and long-time collaborator Pietra Wexstun), all on top of work with Drywall and as a member of Wexstun’s band Hecate’s Angels. Dipping into The Big Heat remains fascinating, and the album’s title track and subsequent singles capture a unique, often overlooked, voice examining parts of an American experience that few others have or care to.

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