Recommended Albums #28

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Was (Not Was): What Up, Dog? (1988)

The world didn’t really know what to make of Was (Not Was). They weren’t so much ahead of their time as from another planet. Even the band’s own singers didn’t always “get it”. But one of the weirdest and most wonderful albums to come out of the 80’s was this genius rollercoaster ride of dance pop, retro soul and avant-garde beatnik poetry. Or something.

Was (Not Was) were David Was (actual name: David Weiss) and Donald Was (born Donald Fagenson) who were, of course, the “Was”, and R&B singers Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson, who accounted for the “Not Was”. Got that?

Don Was went on to become one of pop’s most sought-after producers after overseeing Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning Nick of Time LP. The list of artists Was has produced is as impressive as anyone in the biz: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, George Clinton, Roy Orbison…no room here to do it justice and, anyway, it’s not the point of this post.

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In 1988 old school pals Don and David Was set up shop very much like Steely Dan did in the previous decade. Their band was primarily a two-man songwriting partnership and brain trust that employed (in addition to Sweet Pea and Sir Harry) a revolving cast of singers and musicians to execute their grand plans. Over the course of the band’s 1980’s four-album run they used as vocalists: Mitch Ryder, Mel Tormé, Doug Fieger (of the Knack), Leonard Cohen, The Roches, Iggy Pop, Downtown Julie Brown, Ozzy Osbourne and Frank Sinatra Jr. Oh, and if I’m not mistaken, Marshall Cranshaw sang exactly one word (“feelings”). Even reading the album credits for this band is a weird revelation.

But basically two overly clever white Jewish guys (one with a name, Donald Fagenson, weirdly almost identical to Steely Dan’s Donald Fagan) wrote soul and dance music with lyrics dripping with a slick sickness, and a multiracial lineup helped give it the necessary authenticity of performance. Each singer had a specialty: Sweet Pea sang the gritty Motown-style workouts. Smooth-voiced Sir Harry took the seductive soul burners. And David Was himself performed bizarre, stream-of-altered-consciousness freakouts like “Earth to Doris” and the title track.

This album produced two top twenty hits, the #7 “Walk the Dinosaur” and #16 “Spy in the House of Love”. They were two of the “safest” songs on an otherwise fairly absurdist collection. Chuckle-worthy lyrics pop up frequently, including the following from “Shadow and Jimmy” which was co-written by Elvis Costello:

For men without women are like fish without water to swim in

With their eyes bugging out they flop on the beach/And look up at the girls who are just out of reach

An average songwriter could have written the first line. The rest is lyrical genius.

Of course, this album is too great to still be in print. Nobody likes a smart aleck. But you can find used copies for pennies. Or wait and hope that it’s reissued by the heroes of the music world, the respectful reissue labels.

Listen to: “Out Come the Freaks”

Listen to: “Earth to Doris”

Listen to: “Boy’s Gone Crazy”

Listen to: “Anything Can Happen”

Listen to: “Shadow & Jimmy”

Listen to: “Dad I’m in Jail”

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