It’s magical, it’s mysterious and, for a lot of people, it’s a guilty pleasure, but this week’s story follows in the footsteps of Last Train to Clarksville, Gimme Shelter, Born in the U.S.A. and 19 as well as many other songs written about the Vietnam War.
Stan Ridgeway was born in Barstow, California in 1954 and since his school days was always interested in folk music. In 1977, he formed the band Wall of Voodoo, a name that came from a comment made by the actor Daws Butler after Ridgeway made a remark about Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Daws replied “More like a wall of voodoo” and the name stuck. Their only hit was called Mexican Radio that petered out at number 59 on Billboard and number 64 over here in 1983. Although the band continued to make music Stan left for a solo career in 1984.
Not wasting any time, he immediately collaborated with the Police’s Stewart Copeland on a track called Don’t Box Me In which was featured in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed film Rumble Fish which starred Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper and Mickey Rourke and was all about the coming of age. He then began working on his first solo album The Big Heat which was eventually released in 1985 and the first three singles lifted from it, The Big Heat, Salesman and Drive, She Said all failed to make an impact. Then in 1986, the fourth single, Camouflage which failed in his homeland, became a bit hit all over Europe reaching number 17 in Austria, 11 in the Netherlands and Switzerland, eight in Germany, seven in Belgium, four in the UK and number two in both Poland and Ireland.
The Big Heat was like listening to many episodes of Jackanory, it was story after story all narrated to perfection by Ridgeway with Camouflage resonating with a lot of people as it told the story of a lost soldier in Vietnam on jungle patrol. It told a bleak story and the chances of the protagonist getting out of there alive were slim when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he is saved by a mammoth enigmatic Marine named Camouflage. The imagery conjured up was similar to the opening of Johnny Cash’s A Thing Called Love (six foot six he stood on the ground) or Jimmy Dean’s Big Bad John (he stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five pounds). Ridgeway, in an interview with Sounds 2 said, “When I wrote the song there were many things happening in my life. We had just marched into Grenada and I was sort of wondering what was going on, and really I was just examining my own feelings about it all”
Camouflage is a light-hearted, almost childlike look at the situation. Stan never served in the Vietnam War so is it his perspective or stories he has heard. Neither are clear but does it matter? It gives a nice feeling of security when he seems to have a ‘chat’ with a marine – ‘And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’ When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here.’ Stan replies with ‘I said well, thanks a lot, I told him my name and asked him his and he said the boys just call me Camouflage.’
It has been noted by other scribes that Camouflage was ripped off from a track by Tom Waits called Big Joe and Phantom 309 which tells a very similar story although not about the Vietnam War but Tom’s song, in part, was a cover version. Phantom 309 was written by Tommy Faile and was first recorded by Red Sovine back in 1967. The story is about a hitchhiker making his way home from the west coast of America in the pouring rain when Big Joe, driving a tractor (the Phantom 309), offers him a lift to the nearest truck stop and then disappears forever and then turns out, also, to be dead. As it tells a slightly different story it’s fair to say that Phantom 309 would have been an inspiration.
Ridgeway is married to Pietra Wexstun who is also his keyboard player and he still tours with his band which include Carol Rodriguez on guitar and Joe Berardi on drums. His last album was released in 2016 and was titled Priestess of the Promised Land and at the time of its release he reflected his future by saying, “My goals have been adjusted since I’ve grown up a little. I want to make music and work at a creative pace I feel comfortable with. World domination is not in my plans. I’m content to build my own little empire of the ants.