Don Was (born Don Fagenson) and David Was (born David Weiss) grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and met in junior high school in the 1960s. It was a heady time for the Detroit music scene. The Motown assembly line was turning out non-stop hits. Revolution, as represented by the MC5 and the Stooges, was in the air. And then there was George Clinton. Elsewhere, Frank Zappa was turning the music world on its ear, and Miles Davis was reinventing music, again.
After they both attended the University of Michigan, Don Was played bass in the Detroit jazz scene, and David Was got a job as a jazz critic in L.A. The pair wrote songs over the phone, and in 1980, when they decided to form a band in an effort to escape having to get a straight job, Was (Not Was) was born. They put together a great lineup that included singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowen, ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, trumpet player Marcus Belgrave, Parliament Funkadelic percussionist Larry Fratangelo, and guitarist Randy Jacobs, among others.
The music they made, and continue to make, is a Waring blender mix of funk, soul, techno, house, and nearly anything else that can get your ass shaking. But Was (Not Was) not only wanted your booty, they wanted your mind. David Was wrote lyrics that ranged from the political, to the personal. From the bizarre to the bucolic. The band’s self-titled debut album was released in 1981, and featured the crazy-funky “Out Come the Freaks.” Born To Laugh at Tornadoes followed in 1983, and featured some rather unexpected guest stars. Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog himself, appears on “Zaz Turned Blue,” and one Ozzy Osbourne chimed in on “Shake Your Head.” The version of the latter song that is included on the new Was (Not Was) compilation Pick of the Litter: 1980-2010 (Micro Werks), is a 1992 remix that also features Kim Basinger. Yes, that Kim Basinger.
Owing to a record company dispute, it was several years before Was (Not Was) was able to record again, but when they did return in 1987, it was with their biggest commercial success, What Up, Dog? The album included two hit singles, the captivating “Spy in the House of Love,” and the funky “Walk the Dinosaur.” The soulful “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad” also appears on the album, and it’s my favorite Was (Not Was) track.
Now that they were hitmakers, more hits were expected, but the follow up, 1990′s Are You Okay? barely cracked the top 100 on the album charts. There was another cool guest vocal, this time from Leonard Cohen on “Elvis’ Rolls Royce,” and a stellar reworking of the Temptations hit “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which was nominated for a Grammy, but no hits. Was (Not Was) went on hiatus, and didn’t return until 2008, when they released their fourth album, Boo! It was like they had never been gone. The band remains a funk juggernaut, and can rock with the best of them. The delightfully spacey jam “Semi-Interesting Week” is a highlight of the album.
There is virtually nothing you want to hear that Was (Not Was) can’t do. Other than for one brief period, mainstream success has inexplicably eluded them. Pick of the Litter includes the band’s very first single, “Wheel Me Out,” which features an appearance by David Was’ mother Liz Weiss. There’s a great previously unreleased rehearsal version of “Hello Operator … I Mean Dad … I Mean Police … I Can’t Even Remember Who I Am,” and “Should I Wait” from Sweet Pea Atkinson’s 1982 solo album, Don’t Walk Away, on which he was backed by Was (Not Was). There are songs from each Was (Not Was) album. In other words, if you have somehow passed by this great American band, Pick of the Litter is the perfect place to jump in.