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When people talk about quintessential Detroit bands, they usually cite proto-punk outfits like the MC5 and the Stooges or proletarian rockers like Seger or the Nuge. But perhaps no band better reflects a Detroit aesthetic than Was (Not Was).
Was (Not Was), like Detroit, is an endearing mess. Through the ’80s, the band’s records were 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. It wasn’t just “free your mind and your ass will follow” stuff. They worked both simultaneously.
And the crazy thing is: It worked. The band produced two Top 20 hits on Billboard’s pop chart (“Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love”), a couple more worldwide Top 10’s, some videos in heavy rotation on MTV and a handful of major tours.
In a way, it worked too well. As founding member Don Was saw his star rise as rock ’n’ roll’s It producer, he inadvertently became part of a system that he was actively trying to subvert. Hence, the group fizzled out in the early ’90s.
But now, Was (Not Was) brings its act back to the Motor City for a New Year’s Eve shindig. The lineup includes group initiators — the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist David Was and bassist Don Was — plus regulars Sweet Pea Atkinson (vocals), Randy Jacobs (guitar) and David McMurray (saxophone). Drummer Sergio Gonzales and keyboard player Tio Banks round out the lineup. The show is part of a nine-date nationwide swing — dubbed the “Life After Meth” tour — that is the band’s first in 11 years.
There’s a lot of action in the Was (Not Was) world these days. A greatest hits compilation and a record of new material are both due this spring. The relaunched Ze Records has begun reissuing long-out-of-print Was (Not Was) titles. And, this summer, an Eric Prydz cut called “Woz Not Woz” — which sampled the first Was (Not Was) single “Wheel Me Out” — had Euro dance floors teeming. The tune is even available as a cell phone ringtone.
“We were a mom-and-pop shop, making guerrilla dance music,” David says. “Now it occurs to me that that was our identity, our voice, our mandate, and that we should take stock of what has gone on in Europe and reclaim the throne and not have to be on the dance floors merely by virtue of somebody’s deft sampling of us. We should sample ourselves.”
The groundwork for the Was (Not Was) reunion was laid about a year ago, when Don sold his Bel Air house. As the Grammy Award-winning musician and producer was packing up the souvenirs of years spent working with such artists as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson, he found 10 years’ worth of Was (Not Was) tour posters. It got him to thinking about the mathematics of it all.
“I thought about what it takes to make a record,” he says. “It’s really a five-year cycle, and I realized that at 52, we’ve got about three things left. It was a frightening thing. I had been operating under the assumption that I’m still 18. So that day, I called David up and said, ‘Since we’ve been kids we’ve accumulated a list of about a dozen things we really want to do. And if we start now and don’t stop, maybe we can get to three of them.’”
There’s also the matter of the current political climate. With the re-election of George W. Bush in November, these purveyors of funky agitprop again have a foil for their political venom.
“It actually seems with the re-election of the king of crony capitalism and war profiteering that it is time for someone to emerge as a contrarian voice,” David says. “I do not believe that music serves to sway poll numbers or anything, but just that it seems that we live in a mute age, where the word ‘protest’ sounds quaint.”
Or, as Don succinctly puts it: “If you’re doing music of rebellion, you’ve got to have something to rebel against.”
As the band’s lyricist, David’s current political thinking shines through in a new song called “Kill, Kill, Kill.” It includes these lines: Kill the sleeper/Kill his dream/Kill the coach and kill the team/Kill for the money/Kill for your health/Kill everybody and then kill yourself/Kill until there is nothing left to kill/Kill as many as you will/But just kill, kill, kill.
“People who have read it are alternately appalled and think it is hilarious,” David says. “It sounds like this black-hearted thing, but to me it is my deepest love song. It is a love song to the world. I know I am not going to stop us killing the trees, or the whales, or the Arabs or whatever by writing it. But to me it was a way of avoiding the responsibility of addressing things in concrete terms, but to sound what I felt was the deepest note that I could about this culture of death and destruction that is being unleashed now.”
The Was (Not Was) story began in Oak Park, where Donald Fagenson and David Weiss were born seven weeks apart in the autumn of 1952. Don’s parents were high school educators, and David’s parents were entertainers. Through the ’50s, David’s father Rube Weiss played Shoutin’ Shorty Hogan, the sidekick on Soupy Sales’ late night TV show.
Fagenson and Weiss met at Oak Park’s Clinton Junior High in eighth grade when they both got in trouble in gym class. They became fast friends and partners in high jinks. They adopted wacky names — Don was Nivarden Maverse and David was Ferguson Webster. They published a newspaper, started a comedy troupe and wrote poetry. And, since the age of 12, they’ve been writing songs together.
Much of the twisted Was (Not Was) worldview was hatched in the basement of David’s parents’ home — a space they dubbed the Humor Prison. It was there that early Was (Not Was) songs like “Wheel Me Out” were concocted.
“We had some chemical intake that helped us not move, so we felt unmotivated to get out, hence the prison,” Don says. “We were not physically or mentally motivated to get up to go to school or go home or go to sleep. But unlike other prisons, we had a good time. We were high. We were laughing all the time. We were kind of stuck there, but it was a good place to be stuck.”
In the midst of all this, Don and David found themselves immersed in the electric Detroit counterculture of the time, kicking out the jams and wanting to be somebody’s dog.
“When Kick Out the Jams came out, we used to stop our cars and pound the shit out of the dashboards of our Chevys, probably losing our weed in the meantime, falling to the floor, because it really was this breakthrough moment,” David says. “It wasn’t just music. There was something in there; it was a clarion call to your political conscience, to your loins.”
One of their teachers was White Panther Party leader John Sinclair, whom both men frequently cite as an influence.
“John Sinclair was our arbiter of cool. If you were in Detroit at that time and at the right age, which we were, he was as important as John Lennon or Allen Ginsberg or any of these guys,” Don says. “In fact, he was more important because he was present. You didn’t really bump into John Lennon at the Love-In on Belle Isle. But Sinclair was there. I feel like we’re real good students of his.”
While he has long been based in Los Angeles, David says he still carries a Detroit mind-set. “I think Detroit was always this restless hotbed, whether it was those hard bop dudes of the ’50s blowing their asses off, or the punk stirrings of Wayne and Iggy and Alice, or George Clinton keeping it raw and elemental. I don’t have to sell anybody, but what a great place to grow up, and, I’ll tell you the truth, L.A. is the opposite. It is a great place to retire and forget you ever felt that primal feeling before. It’s like you wind up with a better tennis and golf game out here. But you forget that you live in the real world. And in Detroit, you are not allowed to forget it. Between the society, the culture and the weather, you are reminded that you live in a tough-ass world and the art that came out of it was armadillo-hided.”
The influence of those days remains huge for them, Don says. And it’s not merely an influence on a musical level. “It’s a major thing. Let’s just take it to the lowest political common denominator and consider it an expression of teenage rebellion. That was a pretty concrete thing. I think it’s affected everything that has subsequently happened to me. There was really something about that that said, ‘Don’t let ’em beat you. Don’t let the bastards get you down.’ It became criminal to think of yourself as giving in to that kind of work ethic that was designed to kill the human spirit. And I’m grateful to them for that.
“And that came along with an elevated political consciousness that maybe people weren’t being told the truth in this country. There’s a certain disdain and a cynicism towards anything that runs from authority figures from the White House to Fox News. It’s a pretty strong force, and I attribute that to coming out of that milieu, definitely.”
After graduating from Oak Park High School in 1970, Don and David went to the University of Michigan. Don bailed after a year, got married and began playing bass on the jazz circuit around Detroit. He also spent some time with the early Detroit punk band the Traitors and had begun producing artists like the Pigs and Mark J. Norton.
David graduated and began a career in journalism, taking a job as an investigative reporter at Sinclair’s Detroit Sun newspaper before moving to Los Angeles to a job as a jazz critic at the Herald Examiner.
Even though they were separated, David and Don continued their friendship — and songwriting — through long phone calls. David emerged as the lyricist and Don as the composer and production wizard.
“So we share duties still, you know, I am the medulla to his neocortex or something, I am more likely the amygdula, the seat of the emotions and rage and he is the cerebral, cooler-headed, finish carpenter,” David says.
As the ’70s drew to a close, things were bleak for Don. He was playing bass in a cocktail lounge and had a day job servicing copy machines.
“That’s truly when he hit the wall,” David says. “He still couldn’t make ends meet. He called me and said ‘Listen, come home and make a couple of records or I’m going to rob this dry cleaners where I picked out a particularly vulnerable teenage girl who’s working the register.”
David began shuttling between Los Angeles and Detroit. The first Was (Not Was) lineup was assembled in 1980 and featured ex-MC5 gunslinger Wayne Kramer.
Don’s production skills got a boost under the mentorship of Jack Tann, who had a relationship with a studio called Sound Suite on McNichols between Greenfield and Schaefer.
“Through Jack, I was able to get in there,” Don says. “I had a key to the studio, and from midnight on I could go in and do whatever I wanted in there.”
One night, Don was messing around, learning how to work a studio, when he first encountered the flamboyant Sweet Pea Atkinson, whose band Energy rehearsed next door.
“He was a live motherfucking wire,” Don says. “The first time I laid eyes on him, he was dressed from head to toe in orange, and not just orange, but a matching shade of orange — socks, shoes, hat, suit, everything. It was about two in the morning and I walked out of the control room, which I kept cold and dark and smoky. Just walking into the light to get a cup of coffee was a big optical readjustment. And there, standing right under the brightest light was this vision in orange.
“Sweet Pea favored these diet pills, I’m sure just amphetamines,” he continues. “I’m not sure what therapeutic excuse he came up with. He’s pretty flamboyant to begin with, but high on speed at two in the morning, he was just a trip. I’d never met a cat like that.”
Atkinson grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. In 1966, when he was 18, he couldn’t find a job and wasn’t getting along with his father. So when a friend called and told him he should move to Detroit, he came. He got a job with Chrysler, working in the Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant for 11 years.
Once he met Don, he started spending nights in the dark, cold and smoky Sound Suite studio.
“They used to call me at three in the morning and say, ‘I’ll meet you outside,’” Sweet Pea says. “I’d say, ‘My car won’t start,’ and they’d say, ‘We’ll come get you.’ I couldn’t even lie my way out of it.”
The band was signed to Ze Records after submitting a demo tape, along with a letter from David under the auspices of his job as the jazz critic of the Herald Examiner, a job he continued to hold for a couple of years after Was (Not Was) began. The first single, “Wheel Me Out,” hit on European dance floors, which is a surprise considering how bent the song is.
For the recording of the band’s self-titled debut, the lineup grew to include saxophonist David McMurray. McMurray played around Detroit with a funk group called Midnight Sky and an avant-garde unit called Griot Galaxy. He met Don after a couple of his bandmates were called in to do sessions for what became the first Was (Not Was) album.
“When I got called to do the first session, when he played me the music, he only played the drums and the bass,” McMurray says, adding that Don told him to “Just solo. Just go crazy.”
So McMurray also became part of those overnight sessions at Sound Suite.
“We’d start sessions at midnight, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” McMurray says.
Don would play funky bass lines and drum loops and tell McMurray to find his place in the mix.
“Don would say, ‘Don’t play funk. Think like Ornette Coleman, think the other side of it.’ That, for me, was like freedom, freedom to play the way I wanted to play,” McMurray says.
Because McMurray was playing to instrumental tracks, he wasn’t aware of the lyrical content until the record was done.
“I was shocked. But I loved it. [David] was making a statement,” McMurray says. “He was adding something real to the project. I felt like this is something important. The music is making a statement and the lyrics are making a statement.”
The debut record included “Out Come the Freaks,” a bent dance manifesto so important in the band’s canon that it was rerecorded for three of its four albums. “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” featured a Burroughs-inspired cut-up of one of Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union speeches. But when Sweet Pea was presented with “Out Come the Freaks,” he objected to the lyrics.
“I hated that song. I said, ‘I’m not singing that crazy shit,’” Sweet Pea says. “You know how macho you can be. They want you to sing something silly, and you say, ‘What would my friends say if I sang, “Woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks?” or “Little Michael on his motorcycle, with leather pants and a leather brain?”’
“Sometimes you wonder, ‘What the hell is that man thinking about?’”
Sweet Pea’s objection led to the recruitment of ex-O’Jays singer Sir Harry Bowens, who came for the session and stayed.
Another late-night studio encounter introduced Was (Not Was) to a young guitarist from the northwest side of Detroit named Randy Jacobs.
Jacobs — “a funk fascist” in David’s words — began playing guitar when he was 13. By the time he was 15, he began working with Detroit artists and producers such as Sylvia Moy, Barrett Strong and Don Davis. Later, he hooked up with ex-Miles Davis bassist Michael Henderson and co-wrote “Wide Receiver,” which was a Top 5 Billboard R&B hit in 1980.
“We met in the studio. [Don] knew I worked with Michael Henderson. He asked me, ‘How do you get a hit?’ and I was like, ‘Who knows?” Jacobs says. “He asked me would I come back that night and play on a track. After that, I was in.”
That track was “Christmas Time in the Motor City,” a frantic holiday number that reflected the bleak economic realities of the day in Detroit. Jacobs’ addition to the band solidified the funk.
“Before that, the guitar players they were using, like Wayne Kramer and Bruce Nazarian … none of them are what you would call funk players in that regard,” Jacobs says. “I was living and breathing anything by Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic.”
The second album, 1983’s Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, is most noteworthy for its series of guest vocalists, including Mel Torme, Ozzy Osbourne and Detroiters Mitch Ryder and Knack frontman Doug Fieger.
Label disputes would keep Was (Not Was) from releasing a new album for five years. The band’s unreleased follow-up, Lost in Prehistoric Detroit, was rejected by Geffen in 1984. That dispute continued until the label dropped the band in 1986.
Was (Not Was) returned with 1988’s What Up, Dog? on Chrysalis Records. It was the band’s greatest commercial success, with the singles “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur.” The latter was an infectious sing-along with a Flintstonesque video that probably got played on MTV way too much. But even that seemingly good-time anthem had a dark side.
“The song’s about nuclear Armageddon,” Jacobs says. “It became a dance because of the video. They connected it with the girls in the little Pebbles and Bam-Bam outfits. All the sudden it became, like, ‘do the mashed potato’ or ‘the twist.’”
Another nuclear-age meditation on What Up, Dog? is “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad,” which Don professes to be his favorite Was (Not Was) song.
“A broader part of that Cold War aesthetic from the ’50s is the World of Tomorrow, how great that was going to be, and how you’re going to have this and that,” Don says. “Of course, none of that shit materialized, but it’s how they made you willing to go fight against the reds. The lyrics to that song are ‘Realizing that the Cold War is over, and World of Tomorrow’s not coming.’ That’s my favorite lyric of David’s.”
They also reworked “Out Come the Freaks,” but this time, when the woodwork squeaks, out come alternating jazz legends and communist revolutionaries: Trotsky, Bud Powell, Che Guevara and Coltrane in a wink to the band’s White Panther roots.
“That’s a John Sinclair ethic for you,” Don says. “He was the bartender mixing that cocktail for us — jazz and revolution.”
McMurray says those were good times for the band. “That’s the first time we went overseas. That’s when everything took off in another direction.”
What Up, Dog? sold around a million copies worldwide. “Spy in the House of Love” reached No. 14 on the Billboard pop chart, and “Walk the Dinosaur” hit No. 7. The band toured extensively in support of it. Surreally, Was (Not Was) ended up on the Club MTV tour with Milli Vanilli, Paula Abdul, Lisa Lisa, Information Society and Tone-Loc.
The band’s 1990 follow-up, Are You Okay?, got some chart attention for its reworking of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which was a Top 10 hit overseas. The song “I Blew Up the United States” is ghastly prophetic, retaining some of that political fire with lyrics like: “All I did was listen to the fates/I blew up the United States/Now little bits of Texas are floating up in space.”
“I was offended [it] didn’t end up on the post-9/11 list of banned songs,” David says. “ABC once had the foresight to ban us from playing it when we were on the ill-fated Rick Dees late-night talk show. This is pre-Oklahoma City too, and they said, ‘Uh, no, network Standards and Practices said you can’t sing those lines.’ And, you know, now that you look back, I don’t want to consider myself prophetic or anything, but I am glad I wrote that in time, well before any of these events.”
Ultimately, Are You Okay? was a bit of a disappointment, artistically and commercially. As the Cold War drew to a close, Was (Not Was) found itself rudderless.
“I realize I was already kinda going to sleep on the job,” David says. “I actually saw the beginning of the end of Was (Not Was) when we went in to cut that record. Don was by now the ice cream du jour producer of the decade, and our project was one in a series of projects that he was producing. It wasn’t for art’s sake any more; it was just another project. That is where we started our divorce.
“I thought, ‘Shit, we had a good thing going, just had two worldwide Top 10 hits and now we are going to make this record in three weeks, assembly line-style,” he continues. “What happened to the old hanging out and waiting until something funny happened? We were kind of a victim of his success in a way.”
By 1993, the group was essentially defunct, although no grand pronouncement was ever made.
“I like to say we were on hiatus, i.e. we hiat-ed each other,” David says with a chuckle. “Basically it was a division of labor. It was Don riding off into the sunset with Bonnie Raitt, leaving the rest of band standing there. It was like pushing the hold button on the rest of us for about a decade.”
While the split wasn’t extremely acrimonious, David acknowledged he felt cast aside at first.
“For a while, the truth is, I thought we were like an abandoned baby, like how could he?” David says. “It broke the spell of the early romance, but there wasn’t any huge bitterness. Then, it just became a matter of working in different circles.”
Don copped to the fact that it was some of his production work that turned his attention from Was (Not Was). “One of the reasons we stopped doing it was we were discouraged,” he says. “We handed in a record [to Chrysalis Records] — it was an unfinished record, but it was pretty clear where we were going. And they all said, ‘Well, we don’t hear a “Walk the Dinosaur” on this.’ And that’s all they had to say. I thought it was some of our best songwriting on it.”
Don began comparing his band to others, which is a confidence death knell for any artist. “I was working with Willie Nelson at the time, and I just remember being knocked out by this guy. I thought, ‘Aw, fuck, man, we’ll never be able to do that. What is the fucking point?’”
Eventually, he realized that the band’s incubation in that high-energy Detroit environment is what made Was (Not Was) such a singular entity.
“It took about four or five years before I was able to realize that, whatever it is Willie Nelson does, he didn’t have the Stooges play at his high school,” Don says. “He never went to the Grande Ballroom. He never heard John Sinclair speak or cared about the Chicago Seven. He didn’t come out of this milieu, and he can’t do what we do.”
During the Was (Not Was) hiatus, A compilation album was released called Hello Dad … I’m In Jail. It featured a version of “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go To Bed)” with Kim Basinger on vocals. That song, David says, was as big a hit in Europe as “Walk the Dinosaur.”
Don continued his production work, amassing a mind-boggling resume and taking home the Producer of the Year Grammy in 1994. He frequently used Was (Not Was) members on sessions ranging from Iggy Pop to Bonnie Raitt. He also released an album under the name Orquestra Was in 1997 that featured Was (Not Was) alumni Atkinson, Bowens, McMurray, Luis Resto, Randy Jacobs and Wayne Kramer.
David turned his attention to film, working as music supervisor for An American Werewolf In Paris, The X Files and The Big Tease.
In 2001, David and Don worked together for the first time since the Was (Not Was) days, and did the music for a CBS-TV show called The Education Of Max Bickford.
McMurray remained in Detroit and has become an in-demand jazz player. He has worked with pianists Bob James and Geri Allen, and leads his own group. He played on the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, which Don produced.
Jacobs and Sweet Pea worked as session players and formed a band called the Boneshakers and recorded for Virgin Records, performing a lot of the Was (Not Was) material. One song in their act was “I Blew Up the United States.”
“We stopped playing it after 9/11,” Jacobs says. “But, of course, Don and David want to play it.”
While he had an early objection to David’s lyrics, Sweet Pea says he doesn’t care about people’s reactions anymore.
“It don’t bother me. If they don’t like ’em, fuck ’em,” he says.
Jacobs says his time with the band was a formative experience in his life. “I learned a lot from them. “Through David’s lyrics and from just knowing Don, I learned a lot about how the politics of life works.”
The band re-formed for a one-off gig at the Sundance Film Festival last January to test the waters.
“The magic was still there,” McMurray says. “Everyone was having fun and the songs were sounding good.”
For Don, the re-emergence of Was (Not Was) represents a return to his tribal roots. “I think just examining why society is so fucked-up stems from the fact that our … social evolution has far exceeded our biological evolution,” he says. “Our DNA is still basically back in tribal times when we were meant to live with a small group and stay with them for our entire lives and have an assigned job in the community and be that forever. Everyone is searching for some kind of belonging somewhere, some kind of community. This band is about as close as we come to the hearth, sitting around the hearth.
“For 15 to 20 years, we went around the world … and Randy Jacobs is always there two feet to my right, and Sweet Pea next to me and a foot in front, David just to his left and David McMurray over to David’s left,” he continues. “And no matter where we were, we stood in the same place every night playing the same songs. And that’s probably the most constant thing I can think of. So it’s really comforting to us to get back into the right position, doing the thing that I think is the thing we do best.”
Appears New Year’s Eve at the Royal Oak Music Theatre (318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980) with the Romantics, the Ramrods and Grand Nationals.
This story is the 16th part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
Brian J. Bowe is the editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.