Was (Not Was)

  • Was (Not Was)
  • Was (Not Was) (ZE/Island) 1981 
  • Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (ZE/Geffen) 1983 
  • What Up, Dog? (Chrysalis) 1988 
  • Are You Okay? (Chrysalis) 1990 

Shattering the imaginary divisions between “black music” and “white music,” Detroiters David (Weiss; sax, flute, keyboards, vocals) and Don (Fagenson; bass, keyboards, guitar) Was use undated soul and funk as a flexible backdrop for their alternately serious and sarcastic commentary. The historical problem with a lot of dance music has been its rabid dissociation from intellect; more than almost any other group, Was (Not Was) obliterates that gap. The first album’s material, while drawing on such familiar sources as Grace Jones and Stevie Wonder, blends in enough humor and cleverness to make virtually every song an original gem, including the disco hits “Out Come the Freaks” and “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” (which includes mutilated found vocals by Ronald Reagan). The remarkable cast of players is a disparate mix of rock and funk: among the many contributors are Wayne Kramer (ex-MC5), Larry Fratangelo (P-Funk), Bruce Nazarian (Brownsville Station) and Frank McCullers (Wild Cherry).

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes is a conceptual tour de force, a cavalcade of incongruous guest vocalists. Among the stars on parade: Ozzy Osbourne, Mel Tormé, Mitch Ryder and Doug Fieger of the Knack. Also in attendance: Wayne Kramer, Marshall Crenshaw, Vinnie Vincent and many others. The Was Bros. originals typically mix wiseacre/devolution lyrics with muscular soul-funk-rock, making the album enjoyable on at least three levels — powerful dance music, cleverly worded smart-aleckdom and super-session bizarreness.

Kings of cross-fertilization, Was (Not Was) have worked with an eclectic variety of artists; mostly on his own, Don Was has produced Bonnie Raitt, the B-52’s, Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. In the late ’80s, they put their own group back in gear, reuniting with singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens and a stack of sympathetic sidemen to implement their imaginative vision of dance music. Beginning with “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad,” which has a relaxed Steely Dan feel, and ending with the mondo bizarro “Dad I’m in Jail,” which owes more to the Butthole Surfers, What Up, Dog? encompasses the broad stylistic palette of the pair’s past experiments and proceeds outward from there. Among the highlights: a lively overhaul of “Out Come the Freaks” with new lyrics, the hysterical “Earth to Doris,” the poshly soulful “Love Can Be Bad Luck,” an “Under the Boardwalk” rewrite co-penned by David Was and Elvis Costello and the funky paleontology of “Walk the Dinosaur.” The resequenced CD also boasts a cushy ballad sung by Frank Sinatra Jr., a crisp cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and two others.

Are You Okay? puts musical innovation on the back burner to concentrate on offbeat lyrics (“In K Mart Wardrobe,” “I Blew Up the United States,” “Elvis’ Rolls Royce”) and an endless stream of guest vocalists — Leonard Cohen, Syd Straw, Iggy Pop, the Roches and rapper G Love E, who puts his stamp on an otherwise straight (albeit updated) cover of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” David Was’ numb delivery of the spoken “I Feel Better Than James Brown” puts a bizarre twist on the sarcastic lyrics. Despite the album’s narrower stylistic focus, Are You Okay? again demonstrates how dance music can be enormous, captivating fun, even for confirmed couch potatoes.

[Steven Grant / Ira Robbins]