Weird At My School: Was (Not Was)

photo by Ellen Stone

By DJ El Toro

“When a band takes off 18 years between albums and then the members try to recapture in their 50s the magic they had in their 30s, the results are usually embarrassing.” So wrote Geoffery Himes of the Washington Post on May 2, 2008. A critique of the new B-52’s album? Nah. He was writing about much less famous, but equally weird ensemble: Was (Not Was). And, breathe easy, his review was mostly favorable.

The Detroit masters of Dada funk-rock play the Tractor here in Seattle this Sunday, May 18, in support of Boo!, the aforementioned new album following a long hiatus. Frankly, I had a bug in my craw about the Was Bros. for a long time. Since 1987, actually. That was when they scored their first and only Top Ten single with “Walk The Dinosaur.” Sure, there were more annoying songs that year — hell, 1987 began with “Walk Like An Egyptian” at the top of the charts — but none quite so… tenacious.

“Dinosaur” has a knack for sticking in your head like few other songs, right up there with “The Witch Doctor,” “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” and “My Toot Toot.” Then in 1990 came their wholly unnecessary cover of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” That was when I finally stepped off the boat. And soon after, so did Was (Not Was).

But the longer Was (Not Was) stayed away, the more I missed them. Their early work regained its luster: The mutant disco of the Ronald Reagan send-up “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming,” “Out Come the Freaks,” their cut-and-paste masterpiece “Wheel Me Out,” and the dizzying “White People Can’t Dance.” I snapped up the Ze Records expanded reissues of their 1981 self-titled debut and the 1984 remix disc The Woodwork Squeaks. When I tired of waiting for the long-postponed digital edition of their 1983 masterpiece Born To Laugh at Tornadoes, I simply snapped up a vinyl copy on the cheap. Any album that features guest vocals by Mitch Ryder (of the Detroit Wheels), Ozzy Osbourne, Mel Tormé, and that guy from the Knack — plus instrumental assistance by Marshall Crenshaw and Branford Marsalis — has got to be worth your lunch money.

At their best, Was (Not Was) reach emotional peaks by marrying the bizarre to the beautiful and/or beat-driven, typically in shotgun wedding fashion. Yet while you’re busy scratching your head over their curious lyrics, the heart and feet simply respond to less cerebral triggers. This is still the case, particularly on their current single, the gospel-inflected “Crazy Water” — sung by the inimitable Sweet Pea Atkinson. Even with a cameo from Kris Kristofferson, and a song co-written by Bob Dylan, Boo! isn’t the best album in the Was catalog, but it easily outshines the work they were doing at the end of the last lap around the track. So you can bet I’ll be in the audience at the Tractor this Sunday. And if they decide to “Walk The Dinosaur,” I can always step outside for some fresh air.

“Crazy Water”

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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  1. Posted May 12, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Was (Not Was) seemed so subversive at one point in pop music history — weirdly satirically songs adeptly played in a “Sandinista!” style community spirit of guest stars. “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” can be had for 99 cents in Jive Time bins and has two truly disturbing, incredibly well written, as dark as they are catchy songs — “Smile” and “Out Come The Freaks,” in the power pop and R&B genres, respectively. Sort of like an 80s Steely Dan with more parodic intent and a lot less gas, an obsession with perfect production seemed to stifle their juices. But the early twelve inches and “Born” — with Mel Torme crooning the E-Z listening death song, “Zaz Turned Blue” — are a great strange 80s memory, for sure. I gotta hear those two earlier LPs …

  2. Josh Barnes
    Posted May 13, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    “Somewhere In America (There’s A Street Named After My Dad)”: “No pinkie ring hustlers/No angel dust byrons/No car care police/No sabre toothed neighbors/Just good simple folks/In a rainbow of flavors.”

    Unbeatable. And from the same album that spawned the “Scanners”-like track, “Walk The Dinosaur”.

    and really, who could forget the cranked out “Hello, Dad? I’m Jail” from the same side.

    thanks for remembering these guys.

  3. Posted May 13, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Hello, dad … I’m calling you.

    From JAIL!!!

  4. teugenis
    Posted May 13, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Pretty good review – but you can blame station DJs and station programmers for blasting ‘Dinosaur” too much.

    I’ve loved these guys since they first came out and caught several of their early shows in Chicago 1981. I have got all their albums, many of the EPs, and side project work.

    The Orchestra Was album – r&b re-works of Hank Williams’ songs is sublime.

    BOO just proves that they are the best soul band today – 3 part harmonies, bottom that booms, horns, and wacky lyrics.

    I live in Portland and be catching them here as well as at the Tractor on the 18th.

  5. Manischewitz Wasberg
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Ach! Nice sentiments, all. El Toro is right: Dinosaur was annoying, and Papa was superfluous!!

    P.S., Mr Josh Barnes, the lyric goes like this: “No pinkie ring hustlers/No angel dust byrons/No bars on the windows/No sabre toothed neighbors/Just good simple folks/In a rainbow of flavors.”

    Come see us at the Tractor! We do walk that brontosaurus, Toro, but we do it N’awlins style now. It’s far less grating!!

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