I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bad version of June Carter and Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” (which most people know as Johnny Cash’s most famous song), but if there is one, neither of Wall of Voodoo’s versions are it. The pulsing synths and spare, spaghetti Western guitars bring out the sublimated tension that was sitting there at the heart of the song, hidden in plain sight, all along. (Cash’s decision to swathe the song in mariachi horns was an act of genius, but at odds with the song itself. I don’t miss them when they’re gone.)
There are probably songs with more famous backstories, but there can’t be many: June Carter and Johnny Cash met while they were both married to other people and Cash was a total wreck, due to various booze and pill addictions. Carter fell in love with Cash almost immediately, but was wise enough to realize he was a walking disaster area and kept her distance. She wrote the words for “Ring of Fire” during this time, and transformed what must have been awful feelings of unrequited love into a set of lyrics that are right up there with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in their clarity and urgency. They just jump right off the page. (I’ve wondered for a long time when, exactly, Johnny figured out what, and who, the song was about, and how that felt.) Eventually he got his shit together, got right with God, and married June, and they lived more happily ever after than not. The whole story is several sizes larger than life.
Wall of Voodoo must have known they were onto something when they recorded their version, because they did it twice. The first version is slow, sparse, and tense, and is the star of their debut EP. The second version, which they released on a single with a medley of Ennio Morricone themes performed live as the B-side, is considerably punchier and features one of Stan Ridgway’s best early performances. Ridgway has a terrific and uniquely American voice, and it’s in peak form here. There’s also some near-perfect post punk guitar soloing here, all feedback and atonality, which cuts against the grain of the original song but is in keeping with the sublimated urgency of the lyrics. While Wall of Voodoo wrote plenty of great songs (“Can’t Make Love”, “Lost Weekend”, “They Don’t Want Me”), this may be their best performance.
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