“Let’s layer anything, including the most disparate elements over groove…the groove can handle anything.”—David Was
David Was made good on that promise. With co-conspirator Don Was, the Detroit-based duo layered seemingly random bits of sound and lyrics over deep grooves. Before Basement Jaxx and Matmos, Was (Not Was) created sound collages that seemed concocted from a whole other dimension, as if extra-terrestrials analyzed human behavior and threw a party to share their observations. Their repertoire is so far-ranging that one compilation can only hint at their particular strain of genius. However, Pick of the Litter 1980-2010 is an ideal introduction, yielding surprises even for the long-devoted fan.
Though it’s a 30-year retrospective, there’s a fluidity between the randomness and scraps of sound Was (Not Was) fused together within a given four minutes. The variety of musicians they culled from groups like The O’Jays, MC5, Brownsville Station, and Parliament-Funkadelic was essential to their unique sound. They enlisted everyone from Ozzy Osbourne (“Shake Your Head”) to Mel Tormé (“Zaz Turned Blue”) to Leonard Cohen (“Elvis’ Rolls Royce”) to illuminate the words of David Was. From a piano bar to a beat-poetry club to late-night network TV to a discotheque, Don Was and David Was could hone in on a multitude of environments and put you at the center of them.
The latter enclave, however, is where the Was (Not Was) story begins. Pick of the Litter commences with “Wheel Me Out”, the first single Was (Not Was) released on the ZE label. It prepares listeners for a characteristically unpredictable course. An older woman, a preacher, and a chorus of androids intone, “Then I was discouraged by you” and other dialogue fragments penned by David Was. It’s the equivalent to found footage, with the bass line of Don Was linking the sounds together like a click reel and frames of film. Akin to their ZE label mate Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Was (Not Was) sprinkled a touch of the exotic over their socio-political snapshots, especially on “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming”. The original version off Was (Not Was) (1981) included here is more festive than the 12” that surfaced on subsequent compilations, but it is no less arresting.
A drastic turn in tone (and from the same album no less), “The Sky’s Ablaze” is a two-minute spoken-word piece accompanied only by the sounds of traffic and trumpets. Here it seamlessly segues into “Should I Wait”, a track from the Was (Not Was)-produced Sweet Pea Atkinson solo album Don’t Walk Away (1982). Island Records founder Chis Blackwell suggested the duo produce Atkinson, who traded lead vocal lines with Sir Harry Bowens on the group’s early recordings. “Should I Wait” is an impassioned soul side that revealed how well Was (Not Was) could deliver a straight-ahead love song yet still retain an experimental bent.
Of course, What Up, Dog?(1988) gave Was (Not Was) a level of commercial success that ushered the group’s name out from hip underground clubs and onto Top 40 radio. “Spy in the House of Love” hit #16 on the pop charts while “Walk the Dinosaur”—with its memorable “boom-boom-acka-lacka” chant—faired even better, landing in the Top Ten during the winter of 1989. What Up, Dog also included “Dad I’m in Jail”, a 1:24 scene of maniacal outbursts over a warped video game-type arrangement, and a “dad” song of a different spirit—“Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad”. (Note: the third “dad” song that appears on Pick of the Litter, “Hello Operator….I Mean Dad…I Mean Police…I Can’t Even Remember Who I Am”, underscores just how well the group’s sound translated to a live setting. In this instance, the setting is a rehearsal for NBC’s Night Music with David Sanborn.)
A Was (Not Was) renaissance occurred in 2008 when Don Was and David Was regrouped for Boo. “Semi-Interesting Week” is a meal full of ear candy. Arguably the strongest cut on the album, it combines the best elements of a Was (Not Was) track—strong vocals, a chunky groove, and the singular lyrical vision of David Was. “From the Head to the Heart” offered the flip side to the funk of “Semi-Interesting Week”. The sweet yet somber production matches the poignancy of the lyrics: “Very few survive the trip from the head to the heart”.
Ultimately, as best exemplified between “Semi-Interesting Week” and “From the Head to the Heart”, Pick of the Litter provides a portrait of polarities. Very few artists or groups can successfully—and authentically—cover such a broad landscape but this long overdue compilation proves that Was (Not Was) specializes in exceptions to the rules.
// Notes from the Road
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