WAS (NOT WAS)
SICK CITY BEAT BOYS IN WARPED MINDS
Was (Not Was) are now an avant garde punk disco group. Don and David Was are perverse producers. Wham! covered one of their songs. Ozzy Osbourne and Mel Torme sang on their last album. They wanted Richard Nixon to play piano on their next one. Was ( Not was) are a bit strange.
Roger Morton braves the muscle girls and community terrorism of Los Angeles to witness the Was-es in their natural habitat.
The yellow brick road leaves all the way from Detroit, Michigan , to Los Angeles,Calafornia. From East to West. From High school to Hollywood…….Where else would you expect to find the wizards of Was but in Hollywood!
Like millions before them, musical tricksters Don and David Was, alias Don Fagenson and David Weiss, alias Was (Not Was) ,took the sunshine and success to Calaforn-i-a.But as with pretty much everything they do, the Was (Not Was) version of the American dream came out a little jerky….A little warped.
From the very first tape that high school buddies Don and David made( a cover of Frank Zappa’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here’)right up to their new single the monstrously good disco-funkster..’Robot Girl’ they’ve been quite unable to play it straight. What we have here ,is a seriously fried dialectic of cross cultural funking…Some soul if you please , and some weirdness if you tease…..Or maybe yes Marks brothers getting into the groove(y) with Richard Nixon on piano.
Although the first Was (Not Was) single ‘Wheel me out’ didn’t appear until 1980, the ground rules had been laid down long before.. On a practical level Don (the techno-Was) had been working as an engineer/producer in Detroit., and David (the word- Was) as a jazz critic for the LA Herald Examiner,. Instinctively however the impetus had come form growing up in the musical glasshouse of the sixties and seventies Detroit.
The two bright Jewish kids were irradiated by a uniquely disparate range of styles. George Clinton played their high school. The jazz radio stations played in their bedrooms, vying for ear space with the city’s hard-ass acid rock products. Oh yes ….And then there was Motown, plenty of Motorvatin Detroit Motown.
Was (Not Was) ..’We absorbed it all , as only someone our age from that city would.
More than this the two bright sparks sat in on a generation of young Americans whose confidence in all things Uncle Sam was beaten up by Vietnam and the Nixon Years. The seeming togetherness of sixties hippydom proved to be little more than a drug induced hallucination..
Was (Not Was) ‘We grew up at time when alienation was our heartbeat’
The fallout came in ’81 with the pair’s first album. Was (Not Was) on Ze records. Working on the principle that two Was-es don’t make a Wasn’t, they took their love of soul music and their funky intellectualism ,and shoved them in a studio with 60 musicians.Identity?..Who needs it?
Was(Not Was) ‘We cut the first records completely without self-consciousness.
Identity? after the second album ‘Born to laugh at Tornado’s’ on Geffen records. Was(NotWas0 was needed it. Although the fractured monster funk of their ‘Out Come The Freaks ‘ single had proved to be hip with the wide eye young black audience, and even skirted the edge of the British top 40,the corporate sluggishness of the record industry decided that ‘avant garde punk disco’ was not marketable. Geffen records pulled out refusing to release their third album.
Two albums worth of multi vocalist, dislocating dance, peopled with the freaky debris of the great American public had indeed left people confused. Who where these idiots? What kind of a wacko lines up superior soul ballads next to cracked and crackling monologues of urban alienation?….Meet Don and David Was….born to laugh at Springsteen.
The electroucuted,Dylan sequel hair mop of Don Was meets us at LAX Airport, and we climb into the clean lines of his Honda accord..
Don ‘This cars like LA ..clean and comfortable. but it’s got no soul. That’s all you need to know about LA.
Right now , in La , threes an estimated 200 street gangs dealing in the rock cocaine trade. Cracks the word and with black, white ,Asian and Latino gangs numbering around 15,000 members, it’s a situation where, as the LA Times puts it ‘Basically, community terrorism is going on. These are bad people. They will rob you, they will kill you they will burglaries your homes.
The heart beat of alienation goes on. That’s only one side of it though. Uptown amongst the neat ,watered lawns of bijou apartments, the mind rotting California body culture fills the gyms with flash dance kids and muscle girls. The Tee shirts round these parts read ‘Life’s a beach’
The saying goes that the US got tipped on its side and anything without roots slid to the west coast. In a strange way however these rootless people are Don and David’s people.
Don.’ There’s something really sick about this city –which is great.’
The Last Was(Not Was) album featured amongst others Ozzy Osbourne and Mel Torme singing on the most inappropriate tricks imaginable.
Having failed to secure Richard Nixon on piano…Don. you can’t afford to confuse the public for too long.
After 18 months spending working their passage front Geffen to the more receptive Phonogram label by producing the likes of Helen Terry and Marilyn, the two Was’s decided it was time to create something that more or less looked like a band.
Which is where x Floy Joy vocalist DESI CAMPBELL comes in? Don and David had worked with Desi on Was (Not Was) Floy Joy productions. When Floy Joy split up last year , the ambitious CAMPBELL got straight on the phone to the Was-es. The British born singer was perfectly voiced to complete Don and David’s warped O Jay’s trio of singers. So it was that DESI skipped across the Atlantic to slot in with long standing Was (Not Was) singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Harry Bownes .
DESI ‘People don’t hold you back here, they egg you on. Whereas back in England there’s this cynical outlook to everything, which is bad for me , because I’m a young cat learning the ropes. You get more inspired here working with cats like Sweet Pea , Harry and Don and David.’
You even get inspired fashion advice in with the package.
Don; Sweet Pea took DESI down to a place called Hot Sams in downtown New York, which is basically a pimp store. He tried to get him dressed up in matching bell bottoms and a decent hat. It’s sort of like DESI’S an errant young brother to Harry and Sweet Pea.
The public face of Was (Not Was) maybe becoming more identifiable for the third album.
When you’ve managed to get George Michael singing the lines ‘Come-on down sometime/We’ll eat a rusty can of corn, on the wham cover of W(NW) ‘s Where did your Heart Go….your not going to give up easily