Was (Not Was) dropped its debut album 40 years ago, but the album holds up remarkably today with its timeless rhythm and sound.
That sound was produced and crafted by Don Was, who recalls at the time he didn’t know how to record with a whole band but he figured out a new method along the way. He would work on his own, creating loops and beats and other musicians would come in one at a time to contribute their part.
“I didn’t know how to record with the whole band,” he recalls. “I knew how to overdub and layer like people do now, except there were no Pro Tools.”
It may sound like a tedious process, but to Was, it was exciting.
“We felt that we were breaking new ground, like we were on the frontier of something, it was exciting.” —Don Was, on the making of the band’s debut album
“We were trying to push the equipment as far as we could. We felt that we were breaking new ground, like we were on the frontier of something, it was exciting,” Was says. “I’m sure other people had done it before, but we didn’t know. We discovered our own method for doing it.”
The vision was to capture the feel and sound of Detroit in the 1950s and ‘60s, Was says, “to get that jambalaya of influences that all the auto workers came from all over the world brought with them. So, there are accordions, mandolins and R&B grooves and rock ‘n’ roll guitars. It was meant to be a cartoon portrait of the city.”
In making “Out Come the Freaks,” Was recalls David Was was writing lyrics that had nothing to do with the sound of R&B and dance sounds of the time. “Subversive beat poetry is really what we were going for,” Was says, and it was difficult to get people to sing it. Sweet Pea Atkinson had gotten as far as “Like little Michael on his motorcycle with leather pants & a leather brain/He ain’t never been the same since Vietnam,” when he said “I ain’t singing this [expletive] and walked out.”
“And I’m chasing after Sweet Pea, [saying] there’s literary validity, and he wouldn’t turn around, man. He walked to his car and drove off,” Was says.
They called in Harry Bowens to sing, and Atkinson came to rue the day he walked out, Was says with a laugh.
“[The album] was really different and I think audiences picked up on that,” he says. “I still feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. We created something that doesn’t sound like anything else but it has its roots in a lot of familiar things. And I was proud of that.”
“I still feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. We created something that doesn’t sound like anything else but it has its roots in a lot of familiar things. And I was proud of that.” —Don Was
Was says some things that the band found commercial success with were records that had nothing to do with what the band was really about, like the fluke success of the 1987 smash “Walk the Dinosaur,” which was on their “What Up, Dog?”
“It wasn’t even meant to be. It was like a throwaway,” he recalls. “The lyric was deep, David wrote a great lyric for it, it’s about man who’s blown himself back to the Stone Age with nuclear weapons.”
He clearly remembers the day they recorded the video for “Walk the Dinosaur.” He and David had been producing a record for Roy Orbison and k.d. lang and they had worked all night mixing it.
Then they headed to the soundstage to film the video. The director, who had the goal of getting the video on MTV, said the music channel wanted bright colors. Dancers were clad in scant “Stone Age Flintstones costumes.”
“So bright colors, scantily clothed girls, and a boom boom aka laka laka boom, and we threw [that] in at the last second, because we couldn’t think of a melody to put in the transition between the first chorus and the second verse.”
It was also Was’ birthday. “It was so depressing … you get a little reflective on your birthday but to go from the exhilaration of Roy Orbison to shooting some crass video like that, it was, ‘What have we done?’”
It was the “boom boom aka laka laka boom and the girls dancing that caught on,” he says, and once “Walk the Dinosaur” became a hit, the record company wanted more of it. Was (Not Was) lost their direction and it wasn’t fun anymore, Was says.
“Then there was all kinds of pressure to match the success in it, instead of holding our ground. We tried to appease the powers that be. And we kind of lost the drift. We lost our train of thought,” remembers Was. “It stopped our creative momentum, which went from trying to be innovative and doing cool stuff to try and to be commercial.”
Learning the hard way that the industry can sometimes be focused on reducing everything to the lowest common denominator and making as much profit as possible were difficult lessons, but Was took those lessons forward as a producer fighting to keep artists’ visions intact and as a record company president.
“In the end I wish we’d had more spine and stuck to our guns but the first album is all spine. It’s just what came out of us growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s a really pure statement,” Was says.