Meet the Was Brothers: Don Was is a former session player (bass) from Detroit, where he composed music when he wasn't doing studio hackwork. His real name (it says here) is Donald Fagenson. David Was is a sax player who majored in Greek and moved to California, where he wrote lyrics when he wasn't writing jazz reviews for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. His real name (happily) is not Von Becker, but Weiss. This unlikely pair collaborated, via 2,800 miles and the beneficence of Ma Bell, on what is undoubtedly the year's most eminently bizarre and intriguing debut album. Its name (like theirs) is "Was (Not Was)." One need not be a raving maniac with a terminal case of happy feet to enjoy the many weird splendors of this album, but it helps. The music combines disco and hard rock, rhythm and blues and jazz, punk and free-form poetry in a way that might be described as funk noir, but is best left uncategorized. The production is lean and mean, slick almost to the point of being slippery. The lyrics are canny, cynical and cinematic; they deal with hysterectomies and holocaust in the same cheerfully mocking tone. Like the albums of other auteur rockers, this one employs the work of a host of session players and backup singers, including guest appearances by an incredibly strong vocalist called Sweet Pea, several members of Parliament Funkadelic, some near-forgotten jazz musicians and Ronald Reagan, who gives his most get-down funky performance to date. Trust me: I'm not making this up. Side A opens with "Out Come the Freaks," a dance-your-brains-out disco number that exposes its own glittery genre for the narcissistic nerdism it is. Electronic handclaps and a metronome-smooth beat are what give this tune its bouncy, can't-sit appeal; the closeups of its desperately pathetic characters (participants) give it a cruel edge: Detroit Johnny don't wear no tie Cuz he says it hurts his neck He's got a chick from Ecuador tonight She wants to talk about the moon Says it used to be her friend But the doctors put an end to all of that A part of me is lost for good Do you really understand? I do says Johnny As he grabs her hand The woodwork squeaks And out come the freaks Although not yet an FM item, "Out Come the Freaks" is reportedly a big hit in the dwindling number of discos around the country, where silk-vested and Danskinned singles hustle the night away in blithe innocence of the lyrics. "Where Did Your Heart Go?" is more romantic. The quivering mandolin intro segues into a salsa-flavored ballad whose Boz-Scaggs-meets-Lina-Wertmiller smarminess is matched only by its Chaplinesque funkiness. "Come down sometime," invites the song's wharf-dwelling protagonist. "We'll eat a rusty can of corn." As delivered by Sweet Pea's outrageously sincere vocals, it sounds like a perfectly natural and appealing idea. Next comes the highly political "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming," constructed around the politically high musings of our current President: "Can we who man the ship of state deny that it is somewhat out of control?" The hilarious manipulation of Reagan's voice (and rhetoric) exposes the fundamental conceit inherent in most "found music" (particularly that of Brian Eno and David Byrne), while the song's P-funk sensibility softens the lyrics' near-panic confrontation with a new (old) era in which "we talked like men/and ate fish at the end of the pier": I pulled into your town Saw two signs: "West and West". . . Turned down a no-way street And saw a sign: "Drive in reverse" Or something like it. . . I tried to walk, but how? The rest of you were dancing Wi the fingernails while a chorus glibly intones, "Drink from bottle when I home alone / Spank the kids with a fork / Run the appliances high-speed all day / Switch stations every five seconds." Side B opens with "Carry Me Back to Old Morocco," a fine, drifty rocker co-written by the Knack's Douglas Fieger. The tune features a growly guitar motif reminiscent of "Bodhisattva," but it has little else to recommend it. But the Brothers Was quickly redeem themselves with "It's An Attack!" Here Sweet Pea's lead vocals and the hermetically tight rhythm section make Armageddon sound like danceable, irrisistible fun ("Peace and love -- that's a joke!" spits Sweet Pea between choruses). The dense frenzy of "Attack!" is followed by the serene despair of "The Sky's Ablaze," a poem set against a sparse, loosely played jazz backdrop. The dreamy quality of the track lulls one into forgetting about what kind of gutsiness (pretension) it took to include such artsy experimentalism on a debut LP. "Was (Not Was)" comes to an explosive end with "Go . . . Now!," again sung by Sweet Pea and played in a straightforward funk style. Its lyrics are about as uneventful as Was and Was get, but its message is upbeat and cathartic, provided one doesn't ponder at length the mean-spirited glee of the earlier tracks. Pretty weird stuff, this "Was (Not Was)." And it's all delivered with utmost professionalism and a cynicism that should make the pervo-rock prototypes of Messieurs Was shudder. One ends up not knowing quite whether to enjoy the musical precision of the Sweet Pea numbers and shrug off the rest, or laugh self-consciously along with the whole thing. Are you supposed to put the thing on the turntable, haul out the guacamole and throw a party, or simply stash it away someplace where it won't stain the furniture? Whatever the response is to their debut album, it'll certainly be fascinating to see just how far this remarkable pair can carry their strange, highly original eccentricities.
THE ALBUM -- Was (Not Was), Island ILPS 9666.