Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When Are Was (Not Was) Not Brothers?

In late ‘87 a song debuted on the Australian Charts called ‘Walk The Dinosaur’. It featured an infectious chorus full of nonsensical lyrics and was accompanied by a cool video clip. It struck the right chord with listeners who sent the song all the way to #9 in early ‘88. It reached #10 in the U.K. and #7 in the artists native U.S. But just who were Was (Not Was)?

Was (Not Was) was in fact a loosely assembled and variable R&B ensemble under the creative direction of composer/bassist Don Was and his ‘brother’ lyricist/flutist David Was. But just who were Don Was and David Was, and were they really brothers? Well, the short answer is that no they were not actually brothers in the sibling sense of the word. Don Was was born Don Fagenson, whilst David Was was also known as David Weiss. Having known each other since highschool the two started collaborating musically in 1980/1 in Detroit, setting about redefining musical genre boundaries, unafraid to mix and match styles, instruments and vocalists in search of the right sound. Incidentally the pair arrived at the name Was (Not Was) from a word game of Fagenson’s son.

Was (Not Was)’ eponymous debut album employed numerous musicians and vocalists, including members of P-Funk and Brownsville Station. Sweet Pea Atkinson performed the vocals on three tracks, and together with Sir Harry Bowens (formerly of the O’Jays) would become a regular vocalist over several Was (Not Was) albums. A fluid mix of dance, funk and rock melded together into a surprisingly coherent musical hybrid with acerbic/eccentric lyrical accompaniment, would prove over time to be their trademark. David Was characterised their music as “chocolate-covered razor blades” - sweet music containing cutting lyrics. The Was ’brothers’ were not averse to taking risks and each album proved to contain innovative and cutting edge elements. In doing so there was a certain amount of hit and miss in terms of wider commercial appeal, but it seemed to be a small price to pay to maintain the integrity of Was (Not Was).

The duo’s third album ‘What Up Dog?’ proved to be a breakthrough in chart success for Was (Not Was). In the U.S. the single ‘Spy In The House Of Love’ was the first to penetrate the fortress of the Billboard Hot 100, infiltrating all the way to #16. But that eccentric little funk number ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ was the song to breach the Oz and U.K. charts first. The album itself enjoyed limited commercial success but was a huge hit in critical terms. The third single released from ‘What Up Dog?’ was ‘Anything Can Happen’, a sweet soulful tune with a superb vocal by Sir Harry Bowens. The song only made the lower reaches of the U.S. and U.K. charts and missed the Australian chart altogether but I felt it was the finest song to come from the creative minds of Don and David Was (sadly my purchase of the vinyl 45 at the time failed to propel it into the charts).

In 1992 Was (Not Was) enjoyed one more foray into the Australia singles charts with the hit ‘Shake Your Head’ (#41), the song becoming their biggest U.K. hit (#4). It featured one of the more incongruent vocal combinations in Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Basinger. Proof once more that radical can work over rational, especially with Don and David Was at the controls.

Was (Not Was) eclectic list of guest vocalists over the years have included Frank Sinatra Jr., Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, Kim Basinger, Elvis Costello and Donald Ray Mitchell. The list of guest players would be too longer to cover in this post. Don Was also took time to become one of the most sought after music producers, working on albums by artists as diverse as Was (Not Was)’ own alumni; Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, B-52s, Willie Nelson, Paula Abdul and Edie Brickell to name a few. He won the 1994 Grammy for Producer of the Year. After a 15 year hiatus Was (Not Was) reunited to release the album ‘Boo!’ in 2008, with Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens once again contributing to their brilliant vocals to the Was (Not Was) soundscape.

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