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Was (Not Was)

Was (Not Was) is an eccentric pop group founded by David Weiss (a.k.a. David Was) and Don Fagenson (a.k.a. Don Was). They gained popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Weiss and Fagenson were childhood friends who grew up together in suburban Detroit. Partly due to Fagenson's poverty they decided to form Was (Not Was) in 1979. The name of the band was derived from Fagenson's son Zane, who enjoyed contradicting words such as "Blue" with "Not Blue". Their first recording was "Wheel Me Out", a 12-inch dance record for the avant-garde Ze Records.

Their first album Was (Not Was) (1981) was an amalgam of rock, disco, Weiss's beat poetry, Reagan-era commentary, and jazz. On vocals they recruited Harry Bowens and "Sweet Pea" Atkinson, who proved to be distinctive, soulful front men, who frequently found themselves singing absurdist and satirical songs, alongside tender ballads. The MC5's Wayne Kramer, The Knack's Doug Feiger and Mingus trumpeter Marcus Belgrave were among the guest players.

In 1982 the group played on a rare solo album for lead singer "Sweet Pea" Atkinson called Don't Walk Away.

The eclectic Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983) had even more guest musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne rapping over electro, Mitch Ryder belting out a techno-rockabilly number, Mel Tormé crooning an odd ballad about asphyxiation, and an abstract funk piece called "Man vs. the Empire Brain Building". Singer Donald Ray Mitchell joined the group as third lead vocalist.

In 1988 they found their biggest hit with the album What Up, Dog?, which featured the singles "Walk the Dinosaur" and "Spy in the House of Love". Special guests included Stevie Salas, John Patitucci, Frank Sinatra Jr., and a writing credit for Elvis Costello. Artist/animator Christoph Simon created videos to accompany some of their songs, such as "What Up Dog?", "Dad I'm in Jail", and the Tom Waits-style "Earth to Doris". These appeared on MTV's Liquid Television and in various film festivals, including the Spike & Mike festival. About this time, the Was Brothers developed separate careers as producers, film scorers, and music supervisors.

The group followed up with Are You Okay? in 1990, spearheaded by a cover of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone". Guest musicians included Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, The Roches, and Syd Straw. After a tour with Dire Straits in 1992 and a UK Top 5 single with "Shake Your Head" (vocals from Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Basinger), Weiss and Fagenson drifted apart and nothing was heard from the band but a compilation album Hello Dad... I'm in Jail. Some members, however, did appear on Don's Orquestra Was project Forever Is a Long Long Time (1997), which re-interpreted Hank Williams in a jazz/R&B vein.

In 1997, Steve Winwood released a tune which borrowed not just the title of Was (Not Was)'s single "Spy in the House of Love" but also the bass line and other elements. However, no lawsuits ensued (or were settled out of court).

In late 2004, Was (Not Was) reformed and were back on stage for a two-month club tour through the Northeast and East Coast of the US, as well as California, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois (including stops at the House of Blues in Cleveland and Chicago), Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania (in the Trocadero in Philadelphia). In October 2005, they played four gigs at the Jazz Café in London.

In 2008, they released their fifth studio album Boo!, featuring guest appearances from Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Kramer, Marcus Miller and Booker T. Jones, plus a song originally co-written with Bob Dylan nearly 20 years earlier.

Detroit's Metro Times described the band as "an endearing mess... ...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. On April 22 2008, they performed on the British show Later... with Jools Holland, and on May 2. they were the musical guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

The band kicked off its American tour on April 30, 2008, performing a well-received 2-hour set at Johnny D's in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Studio Albums
Title Release
Label U.S. albums peak U.K. albums peak
Was (Not Was)
(Expanded and reissued 2004 as Out Come the Freaks)
1981 Island Records - -
Born to Laugh at Tornadoes 1983 Geffen Records 134 -
What Up, Dog? 1988 Chrysalis Records 43 47
Are You Okay? 1990 99 35
Boo! 2008 Rykodisc - -


Title Release
Label U.S. albums peak U.K. albums peak
The Woodwork Squeaks - Remix album
(Reissued and expanded in 2004)
1984 Island Records - -
That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk
(contributed "Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are")
1984 A&M Records - -
Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films
(contributed "Baby Mine")
1988 A&M Records - -
Hello Dad... I'm in Jail 1992 Polygram Records - 61
The Collection 2004 Spectrum Music - -


Title Year Album Chart positions
U.S. Hot 100 U.S. Club Play U.S. R&B U.S. Modern Rock U.K. Singles IRE Singles
"Out Come the Freaks" 1984 Born to Laugh at Tornadoes - - - - 41 -
"Robot Girl" 1986 What Up, Dog? - - - - 95 -
"Spy in the House of Love" 1987 - - - - 51 -
"Walk the Dinosaur" 7 11 - 30 10 11
"The Boy's Gone Crazy" - - - - 84 -
"Spy in the House of Love" (re-entry) 1988 16 1 77 - 21 13
"Out Come the Freaks (Again)" (re-recording) - - - - 44 -
"Anything Can Happen" 75 19 - - 67 -
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" 1990 Are You Okay? - 10 60 - 12 11
"How the Heart Behaves" - 35 - - 53 -
"I Feel Better Than James Brown" - - - - 91 -
"Listen Like Thieves" 1992 Hello Dad...I'm in Jail - - - - 58 -
"Shake Your Head" - - - - 4 8
"Somewhere in America (There's a Street Named after My Dad)" - - - - 57 -

See also


Audio sample

External links

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