20 Years Later: Was (Not Was) Still Boggle the Mind

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How Ozzy Osbourne, Kim Basinger, and Madonna wrote a strange chapter of Chicago house-music history

(Via Spin) Philip Sherburne // May 7, 2012

Welcome to a new, occasional series in which I’ll be shining a spotlight on club classics that were released 20 years ago. My first pick is one of my favorite discoveries of recent years, and surely one of the strangest collaborations in the history of house music.

Over on Buzzfeed, Katie Notopoulos reports that the Prince.org fan forum has erupted into debate over whether or not an unreleased 1989 album by Kim Basinger was produced by her then-beau, the artist who was soon to be known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. But that putative collabo pales in comparison to another project Basigner was involved with: Was (Not Was)’s 1992 hit “Shake Your Head,” which found the former Bond girl facing off against Ozzy Obsourne — remixed by Chicago house pioneer Steve “Silk” Hurley!

Founded in Oak Park, Michigan, by childhood friends David Weiss and Don Fagenson, who rechristened themselves David and Don Was, Was (Not Was) were a quirky funk-pop act armed with a sardonic wit and irreverent songwriting approach. Reviewing their 1987 single “Robot Girl,” SPIN’s John Leland wrote that their “approach to dance music was more cultist than crossover: the work of a couple of white guys who owned a lot of disco 12-inches and saw the potential for experimentation within a dance mix. Like Adrian Sherwood or George Clinton, they jam ideas around a beat.” Looking back over their career, Detroit Metro Times described Was (Not Was) in 2004 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.”

Read more: http://www.spin.com/2012/05/20-years-ago-was-not-was-still-boggle-mind/

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/11/14/recommended-albums-28/

Untangling the DNA of ‘Uptown Funk’

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Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ 2014 global megahit “Uptown Funk” has generated some otherworldly sales and streaming numbers, and at over one billion views, it ranks as the fourth most watched YouTube video of all time (in case you’re curious, “Gangnam Style” by Psy is number one).

However, in a situation akin to Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines”, it seems the song has become another lightning rod for copyright controversy and discussion of the question of authorship vs inspiration.

The song’s throwback sound echoes the early 80’s and artists such as Prince, Zapp, The Time, One Way and even Earth, Wind & Fire.

But in terms of the song’s feel, probably no song can claim greater influence than “Walk the Dinosaur” by Was (Not Was), as evidenced by this mashup of the two:

Yet, despite the mashability of “Dinosaur”, there are two songs to which “Uptown Funk” owes even greater debt–in this case, literally, since the writers of both have now been given songwriting credit on the Ronson hit. They are Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” and the Gap Band’s “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance (Oops, Upside Your Head)”.

Listen for the interpolated sections of both songs with their corresponding relevant sections of “Uptown Funk”.

So a song with four original credited writers will now have its royalties split six ways, with the songwriting teams responsible for the other two songs now receiving an equal share each.

Stay tuned; maybe attorneys representing Don and David Was of Was (Not Was) will be ringing up to argue for a piece of the pie. The increased publicity drawn to the issue of musical copyright infringement by the “Blurred Lines” judgment in favor of Marvin Gaye’s heirs, combined with the fact that contemporary artists seem unable to create retro-sounding music without actually borrowing the actual content of older music, mean this type of story–and this type of song–will begin to sound increasingly familiar.

Video of the Week: Uptown Funk vs. Walk the Dinosaur

Forget the “Blurred Lines”/”Got to Give it Up” controversy. Number one single “Uptown Funk” sounds like a 30-year renovation of “Walk the Dinosaur” by  freak-funk band Was (Not Was).

Is there another lawsuit pending? My guess is no. Not everyone is as greedy, grabby, and narrow-minded as Marvin Gaye’s surviving family and their attorneys. I’d be shocked if producer Don Was, co-writer of “Dinosaur”, turns out to be.

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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