Pick of the Litter

New anthology samples some of the Was bros' best

Was (Not Was) are as legitimately Detroit as Motown, the MC5, the Stooges or George Clinton — all music the Was brothers grew up loving in the nearby suburbs. The group may have started as a bicoastal collaboration between Don Was (aka Fagenson), still living here at the time, and David Was (aka Weiss), who'd relocated to California to work as a jazz critic at the L.A. Herald Examiner; the pair co-writing and recording material together via tapes sent back and forth in the mail in those pre-Internet days of yore. But no one in Detroit, especially at the time, ever heard the line "Woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks," from one of their earliest recordings, without hearing the words as "Woodward squeaks ..."

This 19-track anthology spotlights most of the major touchstones in the group's long career, both predating and following Don's turn as producer to the superstars once he'd moved to the West Coast. The concentration here (as well it should be) is on the art-funk and early disco (almost as if Zappa was fronting an electronic R&B unit). As such, it omits several personal faves that perhaps might suggest a more versatile and eclectic Was (Not Was), including the pure rock of "Bow Wow Wow Wow," featuring one of Mitch Ryder's greatest latter-day vocals, and "Smile," a power-pop masterwork spotlighting some of the late Doug Fieger's greatest vocals ever — both from the sorely underrated and commercially unsuccessful Born to Laugh at Torpedoes album.

But "Knocked Down, Made Small," the opening track from that great record, is here, along with its simply amazing showing from co-lead vocalist (with Sir Harry Bowens), Sweet Pea Atkinson, as is the group's eccentric pairing with crooner Mel Tormé on "Zaz Turned Blue," which closed that disc. And "Walk the Dinosaur," their biggest hit (and the second biggest hit to ever use the lyrics "boom lacka lacka") is here, as are the wonderful "Dad, I'm in Jail," "I Feel Better Than James Brown" and "I Blew up the United States," a trilogy that offers dandy examples of David's absurdist, politicized and psychedelicized lyrical wit and just what one would expect from a group whose "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming" was written on the eve of Reagan's election (if they'd only known then! ...). Still most striking to this day, though, is their fiery, shoulda-been-a-hit take on the Temps' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Reverential at the same time that it brought newfound power to the song, it surely stands as one of the finest Motown covers ever.

Just one more thing in which Detroit can take pride.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].

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