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Music Review: Was (Not Was) – Pick Of The Litter 1980 – 2010

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Pick Of The Litter (sub-titled "Hey, King Kong!") is a long-overdue collection which assembles the best of Was (Not Was), the funkiest, yet artiest funk-rock-jazz — or whatever you want to call it — collective of musical miscreants to ever rise up out of the mean streets of Detroit.

Honestly, where else on earth could you find a collection which places such seemingly musical opposites as Ozzy Osbourne, Marcus Miller, Mel Tormé, Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, and the recently deceased Doug Fieger (of the Knack) under the same roof? At one point, even actress Kim Bassinger gets in on the act, dueting with Ozzy on 1983's "Shake Your Head" from the album, Born To Laugh At Tornadoes.

I mean, how wild is that? Was (Not Was) may have been primarily a studio concoction. But this was not your typical group of glossy Steely Dan styled session cats — not by a long shot.

Was (Not Was) — helmed by producer/bassist Don Was (Fagenson) and multi-instrumentalist David Was (Weiss) — was more like an ever-evolving community of musicians committed to the singular ideal of maintaining the fun in funk, even as they ever-so-subtly slipped in a bit of politically charged commentary in the process.

The David Byrnes of the world could only dream of accomplishing what these guys did in such seminal eighties dance singles as "Tell Me I'm Not Dreamin'" (with its politically incendiary Ronald Reagan samples), "Out Come The Freaks," "Walk The Dinosaur" and "Spy In The House Of Love." This was white-boy funk with a touch of MC5 radicalism, chased down with a shot of New York Dolls attitude. Funky, yes. But neither chic nor pretentious in the least.

What they accomplished in the process was to basically turn the traditional sounds of Motown completely inside out. Don Was in particular has long since gone on to become a producer of considerable renown — working with everyone from Dylan on down. What this collection does is serve as a reminder of just what got him to the big dance in the first place.

All of the aforementioned eighties dance classics are here (though I was a little disappointed they included the 7" version, rather than the full-on extended mix of "Tell Me I'm Not Dreamin'" — see video at the end of this review). I mean you just gotta' love those samples of Reagan repeating "Out Of Control" over and over again, and they are sorely missed here. My complaints with this collection, however, end there.

Latter-day singles like Was (Not Was) nineties remake of the Temptations "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and "I Feel Better Than James Brown" (is there a better lyric anywhere than "I was attending Mardi Gras with Fidel Castro") from 1990's Are You Okay? hold up particularly well today. Ditto for "Elvis' Rolls Royce," an equally unlikely collaboration with none other than a perfectly gravelly, boozy voiced Leonard Cohen.

Anyway, they are all here — gathered together under the sort of funky umbrella that only a pair of musical miscreants like Don and David Was could conjure up. Make no mistake. This is thinking mans' funk, with just enough of the sort of politically correct humor that we could use one hell of a lot more of right about now. I mean, what better way is there to celebrate the world going to shit than to dance, right?

Was (Not Was) Pick Of The Litter arrives in stores this Tuesday. So shut up and dance already.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    I’m glad you’re giving much deserved attention to Was (Not Was). I’ve been a fan since “What Up, Dog,” and really appreciate their unique brand of funk. Why there hasn’t been a compilation like this before is beyond me. Great job, Glen!