Friday, January 9, 2009

The Waitresses Serve Up A Classic 80s Dish

Aside from listening to too much music (can you ever listen to too much?), one of my guilty little entertainment pleasures is to kick back and watch an episode, or two, or more, of the animated sitcom ‘Family Guy’. For those of you uninitiated with the ‘Family Guy’ universe, the Seth McFarlane created show takes the concept of the dysfunctional family unit, ala ‘The Simpsons’, and adds an even more acerbic dose of irreverent humour to the mix. There are actually quite a few parallels between the two shows, and one of them is the use of popular culture references, with music being a much utilised vehicle to deliver some kick ass gags. In the episode ‘Boys Do Cry’ (U.S. S.5/OZ S.7), there’s a scene in which the local neighbourhood pervert Herbert (AKA - Obi Wan), the old guy who has an unhealthy interest in Chris Griffin, is auditioning to be the new church organist. He plays ‘I Know What Boys Like’ as his audition piece. As with many moments in ‘Family Guy’, I have to exercise caution if I’m eating food or drinking anything at the time, lest my fits of laughter result in my untimely demise. It’s not the first time the classic 80s hit ‘I Know What Boys Like’ has cropped up in television/film, and it almost certainly won’t be the last, as the song has taken on an almost ‘popular culture phenomenon’ status. Although it did represent the first, and last, item on the major hit menu for the artist behind the song, The Waitresses.

The mainstays of The Waitresses’ roster were vocalist Patty Donahue, and guitarist/song writer Chris Butler. The two would form a synergistic partnership, with Butler writing his often insightful ‘slice of life’ musical vignettes from a female perspective, and Donahue delivering a vibrant verisimilitude to the various characters through song. Both Butler and Donahue had been involved with the music scene in and around Akron, Ohio (also the birthplace of Devo) for several years, prior to The Waitresses serving up the cool musical morsel ‘I Know What Boys Like’ in 1982. Butler attended Kent State University in the early 70s (also attended by several members of Devo - see future post), and continued his grounding in ‘music 101’ on the local music scene during the second half of the 70s, including a stint playing bass with an outfit called the ‘Numbers Band’. In the late 70s Butler took a myriad of musical influences and used them to form and fuel an eclectic post-punk outfit by the name of Tin Huey. Butler found some like minded individuals, heavily influenced by the likes of Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and set about playing a style of art-rock infused punk-pop, with dollops of freeform jazz-fusion thrown in. Tin Huey were signed to the Warner Bros. label (mainly on the strength of an out of character cover of The Monkees’ ‘I’m A Believer’), but their album ‘Contents Dislodged During Shipment’ tanked, and so too did Tin Huey within a year. But Butler wasn’t about to let a lost shipment of Tin Huey dissuade him from forming another band - and he had already recorded a version of a song, that may just prove to be a strong selling dish on the mainstream music menu.

Chris Butler had written and recorded ‘I Know What Boys Like’ back in 1977. He’d played every instrument on the track, but had enlisted the vocal talents of friend Patty Donahue, under the name Patty Darling. During the same period Donahue also provided vocals on another Butler penned/performed track titled ‘Astronettes’. Butler had credited the song to a, then fake, band called The Waitresses. The inspiration for the band name didn’t arise just from Butler’s patronage at local restaurants, but rather a slogan on a woman’s T-shirt that read, ‘Waitresses Unite!’. Butler continued to toy with The Waitresses concept for a short period, and even released a single during 1978 on the small local label Clone, though apparently that single, ‘Short Stack’, didn’t feature Donahue’s vocals. Butler then embarked on his Tin Huey odyssey, but following the dissolution of that enterprise, he relocated to New York City, with a view of reigniting his music career. He decided to try his luck on the previously recorded version of ‘I Know What Boys Like’, and submitted it to an A&R rep he knew by the name of Mark Kamins. The strength of the off-kilter pop-rock number landed Butler a deal with Ze Records, an affiliate of the Island/Polygram label. Butler had the song, he had the record deal, he just needed to deliver an actual band called The Waitresses.

He had a ready made vocalist with Patty Donahue, but he needed the help of former Tin Huey band-mate Ralph Carney to piece together an initial line-up. Aside from Butler and Donahue, The Waitresses weren’t really an Akron based unit, but that mattered not with the addition of saxophonist Mars Williams, ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca, bassist Dave Hofstra, backing vocalist Ariel Warner, and the other member of the Akron-connection, keyboardist Dan Klayman. The Waitresses made their live debut at Little Club 57 on New Year’s Eve 1980 - kind of a back to front way of doing things, but at any rate, over the course of 1981 they built up a strong chemistry, and an even stronger fan base. Their first official release for Ze Records came via the label’s 1981 Christmas compilation ‘A Christmas Record’. ‘Christmas Wrapping’ initially sat unopened under American Christmas trees, but a year later the U.K. finally received the song in the mail, and opened it at #45 on the British charts - the song was made available on iTunes in 2008, as one of three bonus tracks on the re-release of The Waitresses’ debut album, and regularly features of festive play lists to this day.

The Waitresses started preparing their debut album during late ‘81, but backing vocalist Ariel Warner soon left the studio kitchen due to a case of ‘studio fright’. Bassist Dave Hostra stayed till the dish was done, but departed soon after to pursue his interest in jazz music, with his place taken by Tracy Wormworth. The lead out single was, naturally enough, ‘I Know What Boys Like’, featuring the playfully seductive vocals of Donahue. The cool, laid back, mischievous, track proved an instant cult hit across both the U.S. and U.K., but beyond the Billboard ‘Rock Chart’ (#23), the song could only reach #62 on the U.S. Hot 100. ‘I Know What Boys Like’ proved to be a slow burner on the Australian charts following its June ‘82 debut, and eventually ordered up a peak position of #14. Fuelled by the popularity of ‘I Know What Boys Like’, the debut album ‘Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?’ notched up solid orders for The Waitresses on the U.S. charts (#41/OZ#84) during 1982, and showcased the band as a quirky, funky, intelligent unit.

Before the end of ‘82, The Waitresses had recorded the title theme to the new teen-comedy TV show ‘Square Pegs’, the track also included on a late year EP release ‘I Could Rule The World If Only I Could Get The Parts’ (US#128). The title shared that of a previously recorded Tin Huey track, and the EP featured ‘Christmas Wrapping’ (later covered by Spice Girls). In 1983 The Waitresses began preparing their sophomore album, the aptly titled ‘Bruiseology’ (US#155), produced by Hugh Padgham. Aptly titled because tensions were on the rise during the recording of the album, and the boiling point resulted in singer Patty Donahue walking out on the sessions. Head waiter Butler (or chauffeur) opted to try and replace Donahue with Holly Beth Vincent (Holly & The Italians), but the recipe didn’t work, and after a time Donahue returned to the mix. The lack of group cohesion during the recording process, was clearly reflected in an inconsistent finished product. The track ‘Make The Weather’ was released as an EP offering, but it sat becalmed outside the charts.

Following the disappointment of ‘Bruiselogy’, combined with seemingly irreconcilable differences, The Waitresses called an end to their brief shift as pop-rock stars, before the end of ‘83. Patty Donahue had already left the group, and Butler made the decision that the group couldn’t carry on as a viable concern without her vocals. Donahue went on to become an A&R rep, whilst Butler turned his hand to production work, and indulged his more avant-garde tendencies via some of his solo releases. Sadly, Patty Donahue lost her battle with lung cancer in December 1996. The following year saw the release of The Waitresses first live album ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour’, part of series of live radio specials released on the King Biscuit label. It featured The Waitresses performing at ‘My Father’s Place’ on New York’s Long Island during 1982, and fittingly captured the raw energy of a group, fast approaching their peak performance powers.

The song ‘I Know What Boys Like’ has been covered a number of times, with British girl group Shampoo (1995), and Vitamin C (2001), two of the more notable artists to record the track. Of the other Waitresses’ alumnus, sax player Mars Williams played with Pschedelic Furs (see previous post) for several years, and more recently has focused on playing in several notable jazz style outfits, including Liquid Soul. Bassist Tracy Wormworth went on to become a much sought after session/touring player, with the likes of Sting and B-52’s.

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