Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wall of Voodoo -- "Mexican Radio" (1983)

I feel the hot wind on my shoulder
I dial it in from south of the border
I hear the talking of the DJ
Can't understand -- just what does he say?
I'm on the Mexican radio

I had some very nerdy hobbies when I was a teenager.  One of them was "DX'ing," which refers to seeking out and listening to distant radio stations and obtaining written confirmations of reception from the stations.  

A "QSL" card from WRVA in Richmond, VA

I didn't have a shortwave radio, so I was limited to broadcast-band ("BCB") DX'ing -- plain old AM radio, in other words.  There were a fair number of 50,000-watt clear-channel stations (stations that had an exclusive or near-exclusive frequency assignment, which meant they could be heard hundreds of miles from where their transmitter was located), a larger number of 5000-watt regional stations (which could often be heard from a couple of hundred miles away, and occasionally from a much greater distance), and a whole bunch of small, local 250-watt to 1000-watt stations.

1950's table radio
The local stations often signed off the air at sunset, which made them difficult to receive from very far outside their immediate area.  (AM radio signals travel much farther at night -- radiation from the sun causes interference.)

To get a confirmation -- or "QSLs" -- you would write a letter to the station and summarize its programming for a long enough time period to establish that you had actually received its broadcast.  

At 8:00 pm, there was a station identification -- "This is KNRD, 1230 on your AM dial, playing the Tri-State area's favorite hits" -- followed at 8:01 by ads for Homer's Sinclair Station and Jenny's Needle Nook.  Next, there was a news broadcast, which highlighted recent flooding in the area.  At 8:05, you played "Shotgun" by Junior Walker and the All-Stars, followed by "Abergavenny" by Shannon -- etc., etc., etc.

KNBR was the NBC affiliate in San Francisco

I was even in a BCB DX'ing club, which had a twice-a-month newsletter consisting of articles about receiving equipment or individual stations and brief notes from members talking about which new stations they had picked up.  The club had contests -- how many different stations you could confirm in a year, or how many different states you could bag.  It was good, clean fun -- a hobby whose demographic was almost 100% male and almost 100% nerdy. 

1950's radio station
Higher-frequency or "shortwave" signals usually travelled farther than AM signals.  Nearly all the stations I could pick up with the household AM radios I used were American, of course.    

But there were a couple of high-powered stations located just across the border in Mexico whose signals blanketed much of the Southwest and Midwest -- at least after the sun went down.  These stations had 250,000-watt transmitters -- 5 times as powerful as the legal maximums in the United States -- and were located in border towns like Ciudad Acuña (which was just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas), Ciudad Juarez (across the river from El Paso), and Tijuana.

WILS was a regional station in Lansing, MI

The words to this song imply that the singer is listening to a Spanish-language Mexican radio station.  But the "border blasters" were created to attract American audiences.  The bread-and-butter of most of these stations were fundamentalist radio preachers and various quack health-related products or medical clinics -- American legal standards didn't apply south of the border.

The most famous border blaster was XERB in Tijuana.  (The station still exists but uses different call letters.)  That station was the home of DJ Bob Smith -- better known as "Wolfman Jack" -- from 1966 to 1972.  With the help of the government, his Mexican partners managed to squeeze him out of the very profitable station just a few months before George Lucas would film the Wolfman for his movie American Graffiti.

Here's the scene from American Graffiti where Richard Dreyfuss meets Wolfman Jack:

Don't cry for the Wolfman, Argentina.  He edited and sold his old XERB tapes to other radio stations, and later created the first syndicated rock 'n' roll radio show, which was eventually heard on some 2000 radio stations in 53 countries.

"Mexican Radio" was Wall of Voodoo's only U.S. hit.  Click here to read more about Wall of Voodoo.

I was inspired to post about this song today when I heard a truly bizarre Gruppo Sportivo song while listening to some of the music I recorded in 1980 from the old "Mystic Eye" radio show (and which I recently managed to get copied on to CDs).

You remember Gruppo Sportivo, don't?  The Dutch group with an Italian name that recorded in English and French?  They are one of the great favorites of 2 or 3 lines.

While I was looking for more information about that truly bizarre song -- which I will save for my upcoming "Mystic Eye" series -- I came across a YouTube video of Gruppo Sportivo performing "Mexican Radio."  Which reminded me of the original version.  Which inspired me to dig out my old QSL cards and letters.  One thing leads to another, doesn't it?

Here's Gruppo Sportivo's "Mexican Radio" -- you gotta love the tiny little sombrero and the singer's Dutch accent.

Here's Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio":

Here's a link to use if you'd like to buy the song from iTunes:

Mexican Radio - Call of the West

Here's a link to use to buy it from Amazon:

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