All hail the triumphant return of Was (Not Was)

Each of us has this one favorite CD/album that wasn't that big of a hit, and not many people know about, but we know--we just know!--that if we could get people to listen to it, they would love it almost as much as we do. In our hearts, we know that this CD would have been a monster hit in a more-fair world.

Instead, it was a victim of the system. Maybe it was a little ahead of its time, and by the time its time finally came, it sounded a bit dated. Or maybe the record company advance man ran out of cocaine and couldn't get it played on the radio stations. Whatever the case, it's just not right.

For me, that CD is What Up, Dog? by Was (Not Was). Released in the late 1980s, it's a dizzying mishmash of funk, jazz, silky soul, novelty tunes and out-and-out weirdness. The group was started by Don (Was) Fagenson and David (Was) Weiss, two guys who were born a few days and a couple of miles apart in the suburbs of Detroit. They've been billed as Detroit's answer to Lieber and Stoller, two Jewish kids who should have been black. They're joined by two killer singers: Sweet Pea Atkinson, who always dresses in pimp chic and whose singing growl has been described as "chocolate-covered razor blades"; and Sir Harry Bowens, a smooth alto who was once with The O'Jays.

Weiss' parents were both entertainers. His dad, Rube Weiss, played Shoutin' Shorty Hogan on the late-night (adult version) of The Soupy Sales Show. As a kid, I used to love to watch the PG version of Soupy Sales. Most of my friends would watch something called The Lloyd Thaxton Show, a Los Angeles-area knockoff of American Bandstand. I could tell when my classmates started going through puberty, because they would come to school the next day and say, "Aw man, did you see those girls from Palisades High on Lloyd Thaxton last night?"

To which I would reply, "No, but White Fang lost his comb, and Soupy was helping him find it."

(Weird fact: Soupy Sales' two sons, Hunt and Tony, were two-thirds of the band Tin Machine, along with David Bowie.)

Was (Not Was) started out weird and went from there. On their early albums, they had guest vocal appearances by Mel Torme, Mitch Ryder and Kim Basinger (?), and they once asked former President Richard Nixon to do a piano solo. He declined.

It all came together on What Up, Dog? There's the hyper-paranoid chart hit "Spy in the House of Love," with the lyrics, "I used a tiny camera, I thought I'd Japanese her ..."; a blistering live version of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose"; a funk song called "11 mph" about the JFK assassination ("The CIA, the Cubans and the underworld bosses, decided that was it--they had to cut their losses, At 11 miles an hour, such a deadly speed ..."); and an Elvis Costello song with the lyrics, "For men without women are like fish without water to swim in."

It also includes three bizarre spoken bits, including "Dad, I'm in Jail"; the light-jazzy "Wedding Vows in Vegas," with guest vocals by Frank Sinatra Jr.; their signature "Out Come the Freaks"; and the novelty tune "Walk the Dinosaur," that, unfortunately, hit the Top 10.

One of my favorites on the CD is a smooth soul ballad about a really friendly high school girl called "Anytime Lisa." The chorus goes:

Everybody took a piece o'

Anytime Lisa.

Rolling Stone had What Up, Dog? on its list of the top albums of the '80s. Their next Was (Not Was) album, Are You Okay?, didn't do as well. It had songs like "In K-Mart Wardrobe," "I Feel Better Than James Brown" and "Maria Novarro," a true tale of a woman who was brutally murdered by her ex after the Los Angeles Police Department failed to take his threats seriously.

The group drifted apart after that. Don Was produced Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time CD and stuff by the Rolling Stones and others, and I once saw Atkinson and Bowens singing backup for Lyle Lovett.

But now they're back together with a new CD, Boo! It features a funk song, "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," co-written by Bob Dylan; and a guest appearance by Kris Kristofferson, who, along with rock god Brian Wilson, joined the band at a recent Los Angeles concert, singing, among other things, Al Green's "Take Me to the River."

Boo! opens with the mega-funky "Semi-Interesting Week," with echoes of Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone. In one verse, a UFO lands on the Hollywood sign, and out "walks Father Hubbard and his boy, Tom Cruise, reeking of some science-fiction sex."

How can you not love that?

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