You'd be hard-pressed to unearth a more unlikely band of '80s hitmakers than Was (Not Was), the Detroit funk-soul-bebop-rock band masterminded by fake brothers Don and David Was and fronted by powerhouse R&B vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, who had both "Walk the Dinosaur" and "Spy in The House Of Love" land in the top 20 from their 1988 album
What Up, Dog?
"We were founded around the idea of putting something different over a dance groove," says Don Was (real name: Fagenson) about the band founded with his elementary school buddy David (real name: Weiss), whose first album in 18 years, the better-than-anyone-could-have-expected Boo!, brings Was (Not Was) to the World Cafe on Sunday.
"Life would have been a lot easier if we had been comfortable singing 'Let's boogie tonight!' " says Don Was, 55, whose career as producer to the stars in the 1990s included overseeing records by the Rolling Stones, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Garth Brooks.
"But we were just too self-conscious to let that be our statement," says the bass player and songwriter, talking on the phone from New York. "We were trying to stretch the boundaries of what people could dance to. Our first single, "Wheel Me Out" [in 1981] had Marcus Belgrave, who played with Charles Mingus, on a trumpet solo and Wayne Kramer from the MC5 playing screaming guitar, over these bohemian beat poet lyrics David wrote."
Was (Not Was) went on hiatus after 1990's Are You Okay?, when Don and David stopped getting along. "Ultimately, the principals in any band will turn on each other," says Was, who refereed plenty of Mick Jagger-Keith Richards squabbles while working with the Stones.
They first got back together in 2003 to play live shows and find out if "that X factor still existed," Was says. Along with new songs such as the noir recitation "Green Pills in the Dresser" featuring Kris Kristofferson and spooky life-lesson "Big Black Hole," Boo! contains tunes that date back as far as the 1991 "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." That collaboration between the Wases and Bob Dylan was originally written for Paula Abdul, who thought the song was "too barbed," Was recalls. The line about "Judy Collins blasting, Bloody Marys on the windowsill" is Dylan's.
Was says he prefers the band's new music because "for all the theorizing we did early on, the problem I have with those didactic records is you can hear the seams," says the producer, who helmed Last Days at the Lodge, the forthcoming album by Philadelphian Amos Lee, whom he calls "such a soulful guy."
"You can hear where we put those contrasting elements together. And I felt that with this album, there is actually, now, after all this time, a sound to Was (Not Was) that you can recognize. There's no theory behind this album. It's 'Here's the songs, here's how they go.' And that's how they came out."