Mexican Radio is a song written and performed by the band Wall of Voodoo, and produced by Richard Mazda. The track was initially made commercially available on their 1982 album Call of the West, and was released as a single in early 1983.
In their native US, the song was a modest hit, peaking at # 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was a bigger hit in other parts of the world, peaking at #18 in Canada, # 21 in New Zealand and # 33 in Australia. It also reached # 64 in the UK.
Wall of Voodoo lead singer and player of organ, synthesizer and harmonica, Stan Ridgway and guitarist Marc Moreland traced the inspiration for the song to listening to high-wattage unregulated AM Mexican radio stations. ZZ Top’s Heard it on the X, and The Doors’, The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat) are also songs inspired by high-wattage AM border-blaster Mexican radio stations with signals that traveled well into America, and the occasional interjections in Spanish in the song were recorded off a real Mexican radio station.
In our 2010 interview with lead singer Stan Ridgway, he explained: “We used to go to rehearsals in my old ’67 Mustang. And I used to get on the AM radio there on the console and try to find a Mexican radio station that was wafting in from the border over at Tijuana. This was like 1980, ’81 or something. So when I would find one, I would say, ‘Oh, hey look you guys, I’m on a Mexican radio.’ And so, ‘Okay, I’m on one. I’m on a Mexican radio.’ And that was the germ of what started to develop, and then it just kind of developed, and a lot of planets were aligning at that point culturally. MTV was getting going and what they called the ‘new music’ was making some headway into people’s ears. Radio still was not playing it, but when MTV became as popular as it did, radio had to play it. And it was right about that time where the door to American culture – or actually straight radio culture – kind of opened up just a little bit, and a few people got their feet in.”
Marc Moreland was the first to begin writing the song, which he has stated, “It was basically just me singing ‘I’m on a Mexican radio’ over and over again“. Moreland stated when he played it for his Mother she hated it because of his repetitious lyrics. Stan Ridgway co-wrote with Moreland to finish the song, and added all the verse’s lyrics to Moreland’s chorus and guitar lick as well as the “mariachi” harmonica melody in the song’s middle breakdown.
When performing live with Wall Of Voodoo, Stan usually played the mariachi melody via an organ/synthesizer and Bill Noland used a synthesizer to play the melody when performing in the 1982–1983 years.
The quirky video (see above) got a lot of airplay on MTV, which launched in 1981 and didn’t have many to choose from at the time.
Regarding the video, Ridgway has stated: “We went down to Tijuana and did it in about a day and a half on very little money. The record company did not want to spend money on the video or do anything about it at that point. It was kind of a success, it was kind of like a – you know what it was? It was an MTV accidental hit is what it was. And we had to push to get that thing out there ourselves. So in spite of the record company, whatever success it had was really the band’s and mine. We were fighting quite a fight just in terms of what suddenly was expected of this electronic, avant-garde underground band. Because that’s what we were.”
Wall of Voodoo formed in Los Angeles in 1977 and released 3 albums before Ridgway left for a solo career in 1983. Stan Ridgway has a dedicated following, but for many Americans who grew up on early MTV, this is their only exposure to his work, which is an eclectic mix of narrative songs with a cinematic feel.
Ridgway has remarked: “We all dug Mexican Radio when we finished it. But we also knew that there were other things that we were doing, other things that were going to be more important, and that this was a good, fun song.
To some, it’s a one-hit wonder. To others, it’s just part of the catalog of songs. To the great wide open American world public, Mexican Radio is known in America; when I go to Europe, it was never anything there. The song over there is Camouflage. I go to Switzerland or Germany and it’s a song called Calling Out To Carol which was on Mosquitoes. So I’m not trying to overly wave my flag here, but there’s lots of songs, and every song is part of a symphony, it’s the only way you can look at it. And philosophically speaking, as an artist, first impressions are hard to beat.”
Editor’s Note: Another “radio song”, and another memory – an ex-boyfriend worked as a DJ at a local bar side of a steak house. He was a music freak like me, and he loved themes like I do. One night, on the eve of an “almost back together” moment, I sat there with a few friends, throwing back dirty named shots and laughing too loud as I tried not to see him seeing me. He put on this song as a part of an 80’s themed trivia game and no one knew the answer, well, no one but me. I sat there, silent with intent, not wanting to have to interact with him head on. More time passed, more of the song played, and still no one spoke up. He turned the volume down, audibly sighing, and saying loudly, into the speaker system, fuck, Laura, I know you know this one. Say something.”
I did. I won the damn contest, and I won a very close call with that boy with the deep set eyes. I had a boyfriend I was living with, and though I knew we were going nowhere I just couldn’t quite take that step of infidelity that night, though I was tempted. I knew how that one would go, too, and I resisted. The next day he called me out, saying the right things all the right ways. The radio played loudly in the background, his and mine, and if I had not just held a pregnancy test with a screaming plus sign moments before answering the call I would have said something like yes.
“Fuck, Laura, I know you know this one.”