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The History of Was (Not Was)

Spend ‘An Evening with Don Was’ notes - April 2nd, 2012

From fellow fan Robert Silverstein:

For context, here’s a link to the concert:  Spend ‘An Evening with Don Was’

The show took place in a mostly full theater. Gary Graff gave an enthusiastic introduction to Don Was (noting that to fully describe DW’s accomplishments would take up most of the evening.) DW came out with an acoustic guitar and sang “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named after My Dad” solo, a beautiful haunted version with occasional strumming of the guitar (as he noted to Gary Graff, “I’m not a folk singer”). He then sat down in a chair at the side of a stage, next to Gary Graff, and they had a conversation about his early interest in music. Then he brought out the other 2 members of the Saturns, his high school group, and the 3 of them played “If I had a Hammer” all on acoustic guitar. It turns out that a good portion of the audience were fellow graduates of DW from Oak Park High School class of 1970 (including Steve Brown, who put his hands on Zaz’s neck that day in the park!). After more conversation he brought out Was (not was):

first set:

second set:

third set:

between the sets there was more conversation with Gary Graff which I won’t try to reproduce. A few highlights:
DW’s new post as president of Blue Note Records
Bonnie Raitt’s management would have dumped DW (“for a real producer”) from the Nick of Time project if she had signed a record deal before he finished the project.
it was Milli Vanilli that had their tape break in the middle of song during the Club MTV tour.

When Gary Graff asked him about future plans, Don mentioned that he is writing songs with David, and eventually would like to do another WNW album. If Ididn’t mention this, he was very complimentary of David Was’ lyric writing, when Graff asked him if it was difficult assembling musicians to make the first WNW album, he said that the quality of David’s lyrics made it easy to attract quality musicians to the project.

He also mentioned that they knew the 6 record stores in Detroit that reported to the dance charts, and a calculated effort was made to buy up the first record (the first 12 inch, I think) at those stores to get the record on the charts. They were then pleasantly surprised that it became a club hit in England.

It was a great evening of music and conversation, I’m happy to have been there.
BTW, Terry “Thunder” Hughley is the drummer for the Detroit jazz/rock/funk institution The Sun Messengers, and plays with DW at the Concert of Colors revue he organizes every year in Detroit.

Different Mothers, Same Rhythm - September 2nd, 2004

David Weiss and Don Fagenson are just like Leiber & Stoller, two Jewish boys who should have been black. While their music had us jigging and gyrating, their lyrics had us gasping and giggling.

David was born on October 26, 1952 in a Detroit hospital, his ‘brother’ Don was born a few weeks earlier, on 13 September 1952, in a nearby hospital. Don’s mother was a high school teacher and his father a high-school counselor. David’s parents were both entertainers. In the 1950s his father Rube Weiss played Soupy Sales’ sidekick, Shoutin’ Shorty Hogan, on the late night Soupy Sales Show, not the kids’ version. Both sets of parents were tolerant of their children’s eccentricities, which would eventually lead to Was (Not Was).

Although Don lived eight blocks away from David in Oak Park, it wasn’t until Oak Park’s Clinton Junior High-school in the 1960s that they met each other outside eighth grade gym teachers office while waiting to be punished. David had seen Don performing Midnight Special and a Dylan song in an eighth grade talent show and realized that he was different from other kids.

They would meet on the top of the high school bleachers and talk about how they were going to make a record one day. In the Humor Prison, which was the basement of David’s parents’ house, they would wear funny masks and make tapes on a reel-to-reel machine, and laugh till they couldn’t laugh any more. The tapes would bear witness to their influences when young, MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Frank Zappa, The Firesign Theater, Jazz (especially Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane) and Motown.

They called themselves Nirvarden Maverse (Don) and Ferguson Webster aka Webbo (David). At one time they published their own newspaper “The Daily Bot” full of fictitious news. The creativity didn’t stop there. They ran a comedy troupe called the Maverse Players, dropped acid and wrote Dadaist poetry, and held a mock political convention. Their politics saw them getting involved with the White Panther movement and holding their own demonstration during the Vietnam Moratorium in 1969, which got them mentioned all over the USA.

They both attended The University of Michigan Ann Arbor, but Don dropped out after the first year

After getting married in 1972 Don worked as a journeyman musician getting work where he could. There was not much money and Don was worried about how to feed his family.

David was married in 1980 and moved to LA where he worked as a jazz critic for the “LA Herald Examiner”

The geographical separation didn’t stop David and Don staying in contact. There were long phone calls where they would write songs. Some of these appeared on the first album, “Was (Not Was)”.

It was during one of these phone calls that Don told David his money problems had got so bad, that he was going to turn to crime to solve them. Don had hatched a plan to rob a dry cleaners. David decided to travel back to Detroit so that they could make a record together, rather than let his long-time friend turn to crime.

Using Don’s connections through studios he had worked at, they pulled together some local musicians and formed the first Was (Not Was) lineup in 1980.

Sweet Pea worked in the car factories of Detroit; he had moved there after being shot by the man he was a bodyguard for – a blind bookie. He was also a member in a little known Detroit group, The Ixquisites.

They called the band Was (Not Was). The name came from young Anthony Fagenson (Don’s son) who had a habit of attempting to describe opposites by adding “Not”. So you have “blue, not blue” and of course “was, not was”.

Was (Not Was) sent a tape of “Wheel Me Out” and “Hello Operator” to Ze records in New York, operated by Michael Zilkha. David wrote a letter to accompany the tape and signed it in his capacity as music critic. Zilkha admits they would have binned the tapes if they had not been endorsed by the music critic of the LA Herald. The band was signed to Ze because the record was such a good dance track.

Liz Weiss, David’s mother, an actress, was coerced into redoing the vocals, as David’s were considered too weird by Island execs. The tracks were eventually issued as a 12″ dance record on Ze/Island and in France on 7″ through Ze/Celluloid. The record did really well in New York and London.

Part of the record company’s plan was to keep the band members’ identity a secret. There were no photos on the record cover, no one knew if they were black or white. This allowed both black and white radio stations to play the song without problems.

In 1981 Was (Not Was) went into the studio to record their first album. The band was growing in size as other musicians were added to the lineup including:

Sweet Pea objected to lyrics on some tracks especially “Out Come The Freaks” so Ex O’jay’s singer (Sir) Harry Bowens was called in to do the vocals and stayed for the duration.

The album was released in June 1981 in the UK and once again anonymity reigned. There were no pictures of the band on the cover. This time it was not to last, and the band’s secret was blown by the NME writer Vivien Goldman in an interview. The record company continued to release the records without pictures until the third single in March 1982, “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” which on the 12″ had pictures of the band on back and front.

In the same year David and Don wrote songs for Sweet Pea’s album “Don’t Walk Away” and the band played as musicians. It was really a Was (Not Was) album under a different name.

Ze records sold the band to Geffen in 1982. Was (Not Was) recorded the second album, “Born To Laugh At Tornadoes”, but due to problems convincing Geffen to release the record, it didn’t see the light of day until November 1983.

In a departure from the first album, “Tornadoes” has many guest vocalists including Mel Torme, Mitch Ryder, Doug Fieger, and Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy was dragged into the studio to record the vocals for “Shake Your Head” for which the ‘brothers’ had original used Madonna as vocalist. But Don was not convinced that anyone outside of New York would ever hear of her. President Nixon was apparently asked to play piano for “(Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks”, but refused. In the USA, for some inexplicable reason the record was issued with side two as side one.

March 1984 saw the first Was (Not Was) hit record. “(Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks” went to 41 in the UK charts.

Later in the same year Geffen refused to release the band’s third album, “Lost In Prehistoric Detroit”. The company wanted David and Don to drop Harry and Sweet Pea from the band and hire white singers. The pressure was so bad that they went through the process of auditions. It was during this standoff in 1985-1986 that Don turned to producing other people’s records.

Finally in 1986 Geffen sold Was (Not Was) to Phonogram, where David Bates signed them to Fontana. “Robot Girl” was released in the UK with a new vocalist, Desy Campbell. He had previously been lead singer with Floy Joy. Don had produced two LPs for Floy Joy , and the whole Was (Not Was) entourage played on “Weak In The Presence Of Beauty”, the second LP. Desy only stayed with Was (Not Was) for a while.

In 1987 “Spy In The House Of Love” reached 51 in UK charts in July, and in September the band got the fame they deserved with the release of “Walk The Dinosaur”, which climbed to the dizzy heights of 10 in the UK charts.

“What up, Dog?” was released in March 1988. The album title coming from the way Sweet Pea would say hello. This, the third album, had been a long time coming. Some of the tracks were from the album, “Lost In Prehistoric Detroit”, that Geffen had rejected.

The band members were now:

To promote this album and let the world know that Was (Not Was) were back, the band toured extensively through UK and Europe.

During the year David and Don took time out and appeared as a band members in a scene from the film “The Freshman” with Marlon Brando, also producing several songs for Miss America emcee Bert Parks for the film.

In 1989 fans in Japan were lucky enough to see the release of “New Steak Trend”. This album was a compilation of mixes of some tracks from the back catalogue.

It wasn’t until June 1990 that album number four was issued, “Are You OK?”. David and Don had a disagreement over the production of this album. According to Don, David never turned up to sessions, and David claims it was too commercial, “Paula Abdulized” were the words he was heard to mutter. This didn’t help as Don’s wife, Gemma Corfield, was Paula Abdul’s A&R person.

In 1992 the band pulled a bit of a coup, publicity-wise, getting themselves on a tour of Europe with Dire Straits. A compilation album called “Hello Dad I’m In Jail” was released, this featured some different mixes and not-heard-before tracks like, “How The Heart Behaves” (original acoustic guitar demo 1989), “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go To Bed)” with Kim Basinger on vocals, “Somewhere In America There’s A Street Named After My Dad” (alternate mix 1987), and a hidden track “(Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks”. A bootleg CD from Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1992 was also released.

A trip back to the recording studios in the same year, saw songs recorded for “Boo!” the fifth album, still not released, that all Was (Not Was) fans eagerly await. Don also wrote the “Mad About You” TV show theme, “Final Frontier” with Paul Reiser.

The ‘brothers’ agreed that they had hit a creative block. This led to David feeling that the band was playing second fiddle to Don’s production work. Don felt that “Boo!” had nothing new on it. It had all been heard before. David wanted to keep the band going while Don wanted to give up and concentrate on his producing.

Don took the singers from Was (Not Was) and formed a new band called PhD to record a song for the “Home Alone 2” soundtrack. Was (Not Was) were originally asked to record the song. David rang the band’s management and was told that Don did not want Was (Not Was) to record yet another cover. David and Don had a falling out, resulting in David leaving the band’s management. Yet no official notice of the band’s demise was ever made.

While still producing other people’s albums, Don put his creativity to other projects. In 1993 he wrote the original music for “Backbeat” a movie about the Beatles in Hamburg. He produced and directed the documentary about Brian Wilson, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in 1995. In 1996 the credits for “Trees Lounge” gave him “special thanks”. 1997 was a busy year for Don. In that year he was music consultant for “The Rainmaker”, an actor, playing himself, in “Pop Odyssee 1 – Die Beach Boys und der Satan” – a TV show made in Germany, and he released an album called “Forever’s A Long Long Time”. The album was recorded with old Was (Not Was) stalwarts, Sweet Pea, Sir Harry, Donald Ray Mitchell, David McMurray, Luis Resto, Randy Jacobs and Wayne Kramer, among the musicians. Don named the band Orquestra Was, and it has a very Was (Not Was) sound to it. One of the features of the album is a 15 minute video film, “Forever’s A Long Long Time”, featuring Kris Kristofferson and Sweet Pea Atkinson.

1998 saw Don credited as executive soundtrack producer for the film “Hope Floats”.

David was involved in several film projects as music supervisor. In 1997 “An American Werewolf In Paris”, 1998 “The X Files”, and 1999 “The Big Tease”. He released a track called “Chow Mein St” on Wayne Kramer’s “Beyond Cyberpunk” in 2001. The same year David and Don collaborated on the music for “The Education Of Max Bickford” A TV series for CBS. Still in the world of TV, in 2002 David and Don worked on the music for the series “That Was Then”.

I would like to thank Roger for providing the information in the form of articles from:

And Rip it Up – April 1989.
Annette for proof reading and David Was for corrections.

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