Was (Not Was)
Was (Not Was)
Was (Not Was)’s shtick is unconventionality, from the enigmatic name to the mix of dance rhythms and dada lyrics,” David Gates wrote in Newsweek. Founded by “brothers” Don and David Was (real names, Donald Fagenson and David Weiss, respectively), Was (Not Was) is an eclectic funk band that combines hard-driving soul and rock music—sung by lead vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens—with wacked-out absurdist lyrics that revel in the flip side of modern life and love. A brief sampling of Was (Not Was) songs displays such left-field scenarios as the transatlantic transport of Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce to Graceland, the selling-out of Havana by Fidel Castro in exchange for Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, and a tender ballad recounting the near strangulation of a lover. The band’s accomplished music and one-of-a-kind lyrics have been critically acclaimed since their inception in the early 1980s, though commercial success did not arrive until their 1988 album What Up, Dog?, which spawned dance chart hits in Europe and the United States. Don Was, who has also become a much-sought-after record producer,
Group formed in early 1980s; founding members include Don Was (composer, instrumentalist, and producer), born Donald Fagenson c. 1952, in Detroit, MI, and David Was (instrumentalist and lyricist), born David Weiss c. 1952, in Detroit; group also includes Sweet Pea Atkinson (vocals), born c. 1945, and Sir Harry Bowens (vocals), born c. 1951.
Don Was: son of Harriet and Bill Fagenson (both teachers); David Was: son of Elizabeth and Rubin Weiss (both entertainers); both grew up in Oak Park, MI; Don Was married in 1972 (divorced) and has one son, Anthony; David Was married in the mid-1970s and has two children, Nicholas and Phoebe. Education: Both attended the University of Michigan.
Don Was produced Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, the B52s’ Cosmic Thing, and Iggy Pop’s Brick by Buck; has also produced recordings for Dion, David Crosby, Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Paula Abdul, and Bob Seger; David Was was a jazz critic for the Herald Examiner (Los Angeles); Was and Was coproduced Sweet Pea Atkinson’s Dont Walk Away, Christina’s Sleep It Off, and Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky.
Addresses: Recording company —Chrysalis Records, 645 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
explained the intent of Was (Not Was) to Andrea Sachs in Time: “We would like to sound like the Motown revue on acid.”
The Was brothers’eclectic musical influences began in their hometown of Detroit, where they grew up among the soulful Motown sounds of the 1960s, and where such acts as funk frontrunner George Clinton and the hard-rock MC5 played concerts at their high school. Friends from childhood, Fagenson and Weiss (as they were known then), grew up in a suburban middle-class Jewish neighborhood, and their flair for the offbeat was evident at a young age. They began writing songs in Weiss’s parent’s basement, in a room they called the “Humor Prison.” “[David] wore a Colonel Sanders mask and I wore a President Kennedy mask,” Fagenson told Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone. “This was because it was tough to reject the other one’s ideas and look him in the eyes at the same time.” One of their early recordings, Goldberg reports, was “(My Oh My) I Forgot My Wallet,” in which the song’s narrator shops around town accompanied by a German shepherd dog, which growls on cue to each of the narrator’s orders to “Charge it.” The pair also published a humor magazine, led a neighborhood comedy troupe, and once staged a show at their high school entitled “You Have Just Wasted Your Money.” Weiss’s mother told Goldberg: “Everyone thought they were strange, including their parents. They were always weird. Both of those kids marched to a different drummer”
Both attended the University of Michigan, and Weiss went on to Los Angeles, where he became a jazz critic for the Herald Examiner. Fagenson stayed in Detroit, where he worked as a record producer, studio musician, and played gigs with local bands. Was (Not Was)—the name originated with a word game of Fagenson’s young son—was created when Fagenson, nearly broke, called Weiss for help, and the two decided they should make a recording. With money borrowed from Weiss’s parents, they recruited Atkinson and Bowens, two Detroit singers, and recorded Wheel Me Out in a Detroit studio (the song also featured a rap vocal supplied by Weiss’s mother). The single was released by Ze Records in New York, and gained Was (Not Was) enough positive recognition in Great Britain and the United States to spur the duo onwards. They began a long-distance songwriting collaboration between California and Michigan, with Weiss supplying lyrics to Fagenson over the phone or through the mail.
The Was brothers’debut album, Was (Not Was), was released by Ze in 1981, and displayed “a lively fusion of jokey lyrics and hard-edged white-boy funk,” according to Christopher Connelly in Rolling Stone. Two years later, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes was picked up by Geffen Records and initiated an ongoing Was (Not Was) tradition of including appearances by unlikely guest vocalists. Tornadoes featured rocker Marshall Crenshaw singing the mournful pop standard “Feelings,” heavy metal Ozzy Osbourne crooning a seductive “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed”), and jazz scat impresario Mel Torme rendering a torch, “Zaz Turns Blue,” which recounts a lover nearly being strangled. Connelly called Tornadoes “a superb example of what smart rock & roll can be: tuneful, toe tapping, refreshingly irreverent.” Critical respor e was overwhelmingly positive, yet the album found a limited listening audience and only sold 50,000 copies. Geffen Records, in what Don Was says was not a racist move but reflective of the “reality of the music business,” put pressure on the group to, as he told Sachs, “get rid of the black guys” and make the band more marketable as a one-color group. Was (Not Was) staunchly refused, and soon found themselves looking for another record company.
Their contract with Geffen was eventually purchased by an English label, Fontana, which in 1988 released the group’s next album, What Up, Dog? Two cuts off the album, “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love,” were Top Ten hits in Europe, and the album was later released in the United States under the Chrysalis label. The same two cuts became top hits on Billboard’s dance charts. Guest vocalist this time around was Frank Sinatra, Jr., singing “Wedding Vows in Las Vegas,” and, as Steve Dougherty and Jim McFarlin noted in”People, “laughs flood most of the grooves, and such titles as “Out Come the Freaks” and “Dad, I’m in Jail” extend—most often with a dance-happy beat—the Wasmological view that life is a terrifying absurdity.” Lyricist Dave Was commented on his songwriting philosophies to an interviewer in Melody Maker: [A pop song] gives people a momentary forgetfulness so they can be just like a child playing with a mobile above a crib. They can have this little pattern of rhythm and rhyme and colour and vibration to keep them mesmerized…. It’s a fundamental, primitive appeal and it’s why, maybe, so much irony infects my work as a writer, because what I believe we’re dealing with, in the end, is a trifle.”
The group’s next album, Are You OK?, continued to display their knack for the absurd, yet also displayed more serious tones. Among the cuts is a rap-infused cover of the Temptations’classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which, according to Rob Tannenbaum in Rolling Stone, “turns a tale of victimization into a statement of determination.” Larry Katz in Boston magazine, citing the power of the remake, noted that Was (Not Was) “brings out the full measure of hurt and anger in the Temptations’tale of a louse of a father.” The song also showcases the vocal talents of Atkinson and Bowens who, according to Tannenbaum, are “as vintage a pair of soul singers as still exists.” While Are You OK? shows Was (Not Was) capable of writing more straightforward songs, the variation seems to be another addition to their eclectic bag of music. Tannenbaum wrote: “From their be-bop-to-hip-hop perspective and their sarcasm to their careful musicianship … Don and David Was want nothing less than to weave together the multiple discrete strands of American culture. Not since Talking Heads’heyday has there been such a wonderfully contrary dance band.”
In recent years, Don Was has made a singular name for himself as one of the top producers in the record industry. In 1989 he produced Bonnie Raitt’s multiple Grammy Award-winning Nick of Time, and also co-produced (with Nile Rodgers), the B-52’s multi-platinum comeback album, Cosmic Thing. Other artists who have sought out Was include Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, and Paula Abdul. Was’s strength as a producer, according to Seger in Newsweek, is that “he’s very true to the music itself” and does not “put something on your record just to fit some formula.” Don Was commented to Rolling Stone on his philosophy: “I wouldn’t take a gig if I had to figure out how to embellish it. I only want to work with people who have an existing point of view and an ability to express it. I should just be there to channel it. Like in photography, turning on all the lights and pointing right in someone’s face.”
“Wheel Me Out” (single), Ze/Antilles, 1980.
Was (Not Was), Ze/island, 1981.
Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, Ze/Geffen, 1983.
What Up, Dog? (includes “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur”), Chrysalis, 1988.
Are You OK? (includes “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), Chrysalis, 1990.
Boston, October 1990.
Creem, January 1984; July 1984.
High Fidelity, April 1984.
Melody Maker, May 12, 1990.
Musician, November 1983.
Newsweek, August 20, 1990.
People, December 12, 1988.
Rolling Stone, October 13, 1983; December 18, 1983; October 6, 1988; November 17, 1988; May 17, 1990; June 14, 1990;September 6, 1990.
Stereo Review, February 1984. Time, January 30, 1989.
—Michael E. Mueller
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