[13 December 2013]
Recently, on Facebook, one of my friends sent around a link to an article that went along the lines of promoting ‘80s new wave band members who had aged gracefully. I didn’t click on the link, but, if I did, I have to wonder – notwithstanding the fact that one of its key members is deceased – if someone from the early ‘80s New York skinny tie band the Waitresses would have found a place on that list. You see, having just heard the band’s discography – collected on the recent Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses – I’ve come to realize that this is a group that has not dated one iota. Sure, the band took the art rock leanings of Devo, added in a dash of Talking Heads world beat along with a few healthy dollops of ska, but listening to the band’s output is like getting a fresh breeze through your house. It’s really quite astonishing to hear music from about 30 years ago, and, let’s face it, glossy ‘80s synth pop has not really aged all that gracefully, that still works.
Part of the group’s charm is lead singer Patty Donahue’s spoke-sung vocals, which ooze and drip with a particular sort of irony at times, and you listen to this band’s output and have to feel a bit sad as there will never be a true Waitresses reunion: Donahue died in 1996 at the age of 40 from lung cancer. However, and in a move that might cause some feminists to wring their hands in disgrace, while the lyrics of the band ring true of the female experience ... they were written by a guy! That’s right, the Waitresses really was the brainchild of guitarist Chris Butler, who had actually founded the band as a concept in his mind back in the days when he was playing in ‘70s Ohio outfits such as the Numbers Band and Tin Huey. In the liner notes to Just Desserts, which collects the group’s two bona-fide albums, 1982’s Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? and 1983’s Bruiseology along with a stop-gap EP and a few odds and ends, Butler notes that he was really trying to write for an older sister. That has led to some to point out that Donahue was really just a character or a front, but that thinking really does a disservice to the band. Sitting down to just write about this group is a daunting and potentially exhausting task, because, if you listen to their material, you realize just how knotty and dense it is musically along with just how rapid-fire and astute the lyrics are, regardless if Donahue was just a poster girl for a male imagination of the feminine mystique or not. Looking back on this group, you realize that The Waitresses were a true experience and were the real deal in a world of glammy manufactured bands.
That last statement might strike some as odd, for the Waitresses were basically a footnote in new wave music history. They only had a handful of near-hits: the caustic “I Know What Boys Like”, the holiday-themed “Christmas Wrapping” and the theme song to the short-lived TV sitcom Square Pegs, which was kind of a comedic precursor to the latter Freaks and Geeks and starred Sarah Jessica Parker early on in her career. You have to scratch your head and wonder just how this band didn’t have a big hit, but part of the reason could lie squarely on “I Know What Boys Like” with its lyrics, “I make them want me / I like to tease them / They want to touch me / I never let them”. Truthfully, every guy probably knows of at least one girl in their life that is similar to the protagonist of this song, and that might have been the problem. Do you want to be reminded of a tease, especially when you can practically hear Donahue sneering during her chorus of “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah"s? Still, the song holds up quite well with its buoyant sax and angular guitars, and, to be sure, the remainder of the material from the album that song graces, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?, is quite top notch as well.
There’s a real sense of feminine liberation in the songs here: when Donahue sings “It’s my car / I’m going to do the driving” on “It’s My Car”, a song that features a back and forth argument between girlfriend and boyfriend, you feel that it’s a real statement of empowerment. Elsewhere, the album features the growing pains of a young woman coming into her own for the first time: “No Guilt” boasts the memorable and oft-quoted line, “The 31st is when I pay the phone bill / I told them I didn’t even know anybody in Toronto!” But it’s the music that’s just as equally compelling: “Heat Night” features a rollicking guitar line that rises from the murk of a series of herky-jerky stop-starts mid-song, elevating the piece from beyond pop into art. And there’s a great chorus fake-out on “Bread and Butter”, which actually comes from the later-in-1982 EP I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts that’s tacked on to the first disc of this two-CD set. Similarly, the Square Pegs theme is acutely emblematic of the high-school experience from a geeky girl’s point-of-view (“I’d be cuter without gum in my braces”). Practically everything from this era of the band is excellent.
The second disc of this collection is where things get slightly dicier, but only just slightly. It largely encompasses the thematically darker album Bruiseology, but the record as a whole marks one of a band that was slowly starting to fall apart. Butler was having trouble finishing up some of the songs on deadline, considering that the outfit only had big-name producer Hugh Padgham (XTC, The Police) for a limited time, notwithstanding the fact that Butler more or less admits in the liner notes that he may have had a substance abuse problem with a particular white powder, and Donahue actually left the band before the recording sessions were even completed, seemingly cracking under the pressure. Her absence is particularly notable in the record’s second half as there’s a quasi-filler instrumental “Pleasure” (that’s actually not too shabby, though) which is followed by the song “Spin” that features a completely different female vocalist, which is about the point where you wind up starting to miss Donahue’s jaded take on the lyrics. Still, Bruiseology winds up being a whole whack better than its troubled genesis would lead you to believe. “Thinking About Sex Again” and the title track literally stick into your head the very first time you hear both, and “Make the Weather” is an equally agreeable stab of pop rock. Again, you have to wonder why this band wasn’t bigger than they were, but, alas, thems are the breaks.
If there’s anything less than appealing about these discs, it is that they are perhaps too complete. The instrumental B-side “Hangover 1/1/83” is a dud, and the disc features a two remixes of “Bread and Butter” culled from a promotional single, which is perhaps two times too many for the appearance of the song, given that the remixes only vary from the original slightly in most respects. Still, Just Desserts is a more than welcome album that will hopefully allow people too young to appreciate the group during their original go-around to discover a great band that sounds, in many respects, even more urgent and of the times it did back in its heyday. While the Waitresses might be known for being sort of one or two hit wonders, or even something of a novelty act based on that material, Just Desserts shows that there was more gas in the tank than those familiar tunes would suggest. Just Desserts is, top to bottom, filled with songs that are memorably funny, pensive, angry and just bitterly honest. If anything, perhaps this collection might allow for a rewriting of history, and allow for a reappraisal of this wonderful group. There’s a lot to take in with the material of the Waitresses, and I’m even wondering how I got through writing about them given how many sheer ideas are packed into the roughly two hours of this compilation, and that’s what makes Just Desserts so ultimately necessary. If you thought new wave was a stodgy genre, run, don’t walk, to your nearest record store (or click over to your favourite online retailer) and pick this set up.