I grew up in the suburbs behind So-Cal’s Orange Curtain, in the most whitebread place, outside of the midwest, to be found just about anywhere. As a result, big cities fascinated me, and anything remotely urban. In the very late ’70’s Rap mutated out of funkin’ disco, along with it’s lesser known cousin, “Mutant Disco”. Was (Not Was), Material, Defunkt, James White, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, were just some of the artists in my urban fantasy sountrack. Throw in Kraftwerk, Africa Bambaata, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sandanista!, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and you get an idea what kind of mix tapes I was making my friends.
On my first adult visit to New York City, in August 1981, WAS (NOT WAS) was on my Walkman knock-off the first time I came over on the Staten Island ferry, having just bought a joint from a black kid as I was getting on the boat, and openly smoked down with the cars on the lower deck.
I got off the ferry and walked into Manhattan. I knew right then I had to live on this part of the planet.
“Out Comes The Freaks” and “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” are from WAS (NOT WAS) (1981).
They were sued by Eddie Harald, former high school acquaintance, who they name check in the first verse, when they released “(Return To The Valley Of)Out Come the Freaks” on Born To Laugh At Tornadoes (1983).
“Dad I’m In Jail” is from What Up, Dog? (1988), the phone call who hasn’t fantasized making?
Was (Not Was) is an American eclectic pop group founded by David Weiss (a.k.a. David Was) and Don Fagenson (a.k.a. Don Was). They gained popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Weiss and Fagenson were childhood friends who grew up together in suburban Detroit. Partly due to Fagenson’s poverty they decided to form Was (Not Was) in 1979. The name of the band was derived from Fagenson’s son Zane, who enjoyed contradicting words such as “Blue” with “Not Blue”. Their first recording was “Wheel Me Out”, a 12-inch dance record for the avant-garde ZE Records.
Their first album Was (Not Was) (1981) was an amalgam of rock, disco, Weiss’s beat poetry, Reagan-era political-social commentary, and jazz. On vocals they recruited Harry Bowens and “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, who proved to be distinctive, soulful front men, who frequently found themselves singing absurdist and satirical songs, alongside tender ballads. The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, The Knack’s Doug Fieger and Mingus trumpeter Marcus Belgrave were among the guest players.
In 1982 the group played on a rare solo album for lead singer “Sweet Pea” Atkinson called Don’t Walk Away.
The eclectic Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983) had even more guest musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne rapping over electro, Mitch Ryder belting out a techno-rockabilly number, Mel Tormé crooning an odd ballad about asphyxiation, and an abstract funk piece called “Man vs. the Empire Brain Building”. Singer Donald Ray Mitchell joined the group as third lead vocalist.
In 1988 they found their biggest hit with the album What Up, Dog?, which featured the singles “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love”. Special guests included Stevie Salas, John Patitucci, Frank Sinatra, Jr., and a writing credit for Elvis Costello. Artist/animator Christoph Simon created videos to accompany some of their songs, such as “What Up Dog?”, “Dad I’m in Jail”, and the Tom Waits-style “Earth to Doris”. These appeared on MTV’s Liquid Television and in various film festivals, including the Spike & Mike festival. About this time, the Was Brothers developed separate careers as producers, film scorers, and music supervisors.
The group followed up with Are You Okay? in 1990, spearheaded by a cover of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. Guest musicians included Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, The Roches, and Syd Straw. After a tour with Dire Straits in 1992 and a UK Top 5 single with “Shake Your Head” (vocals from Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Basinger), Weiss and Fagenson drifted apart and nothing was heard from the band but a compilation album Hello Dad… I’m in Jail. Some members, however, did appear on Don’s Orquestra Was project Forever Is a Long Long Time (1997), which re-interpreted Hank Williams in a jazz/R&B vein.
In 1997, Steve Winwood released a tune which borrowed not just the title of Was (Not Was)’s single “Spy in the House of Love” but also the bass line and other elements. However, no lawsuits ensued (or were settled out of court).
In late 2004, Was (Not Was) reformed and were back on stage for a two-month club tour through the Northeast and East Coast of the US, as well as California, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois (including stops at the House of Blues in Cleveland and Chicago), Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania (in the Trocadero in Philadelphia). In October 2005, they played four gigs at the Jazz Café in London.
In 2008, they released their fifth studio album Boo!, featuring guest appearances from Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Kramer, Marcus Miller and Booker T. Jones, plus a song originally co-written with Bob Dylan nearly 20 years earlier.
Detroit’s Metro Times described the band as “an endearing mess… …a sausage factory of funk, rock, jazz and electronic dance music, all providing a boogie-down backdrop for a radical (and witty) political message of unbridled personal freedom and skepticism of authority.” On April 22, 2008, they performed on the British show Later… with Jools Holland, and on May 2, they were the musical guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
The band kicked off its American tour on April 30, 2008, performing a well-received 2-hour set at Johnny D’s in Somerville, Massachusetts.