The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, March 31, 2003

We first heard them on the 1980 12" single on Ze Records, "Wheel Me Out" (later made more widely available on 1981's Mutant Disco compilation, which I am pleased to say is due for imminent reissue as an upgraded 2CD 25-track compilation). Even then it was evident that David Weiss and Don Fagenson were a potential Lieber and Stoller for the post-post-atomic age. Upon the never quite settled groove were placed wildly disparate elements, all indicating a sort of benign psychosis: Liz Weiss, David's mother, sounding uncannily like Carla Bley, interacting with Weiss' own frantic yells ("You did it to him! And I'm next!"), the trumpet of Marcus Belgrave, occasional member of Mingus' larger ensembles (Mingus Revisited, Let My Children Hear Music) and future Mercury Rev collaborator, and the guitar of ex-MC5er Wayne Kramer. Unlike the test-tube experiments of Laswell's Material, this seemed entirely natural in its anti-naturalness - the elements of Leiber and Stoller's art songs like "Is That All There Is" (updated a year earlier on Ze Records by Cristina) dissembled and reconstituted as a template for pre-nuclear paranoia.

They both came from Detroit; Weiss' parents were both entertainers, Fagenson's worked in school, his mother as a teacher and his father as a counsellor. Friends since high school, they began to make comedy tapes for their own pleasure which betrayed the influences of the Firesign Theatre, Zappa, Monk and Coltrane, as well as the obvious Detroit influences of Motown, the Stooges and the MC5. Various other endeavours included their own newspaper - the "Daily Bot" - and involvement with John Sinclair's White Panthers. Eventually Fagenson became a jobbing session musician, and Weiss jazz critic for the LA Herald Examiner. The two remained in touch, however, and when Fagenson's musical career was in danger of disappearing down the plughole - finances being so bad that he was apparently ready to rob a dry cleaners - Weiss returned to Detroit to stop this happening, and together they formed Was (Not Was) in 1980. Numerous explanations have been toted for the significance of the group's name, but in fact it was inspired by Fagenson's young son who was in the habit of identifying opposites as "Not" (proto-Wayne's World), e.g. "blue - not blue." The inadvertent philosophical tenets of such a name would of course play a great part in their early impact, not to mention their extreme reluctance to allow photographs of themselves to appear on their record sleeves or in the press. The two main vocalists were Sweet Pea Atkinson, a car factory worker who had lately been shot by a blind bookmaker for whom he was supposed to be the bodyguard; and former O'Jay "Sir" Harry Bowens.

Their first, eponymously-titled - and by several continental leagues their best - album was released on Ze in June 1981. The cover was certainly in keeping with David Byrne-esque neuroticism; blood-red with the title WAS (NOT WAS) in black lettering across the top, overlying a photograph of a mass of suburban houses - all little boxes, all made abstract and forbidding. For the album the line-up was fleshed out by several Parliament/Funkadelic veterans, as well as Kramer, Belgrave and saxophonist David McMurray (never to be confused with David Murray). Paul Morley in the NME ecstatically hailed it as pop's answer to Bley's Escalator Over The Hill, which it certainly resembled in several key aspects; the disparate collection of musicians, the distended, never quite tactile xeroxes of pop, the underlying apocalyptic nervousness.

The record begins with the first version of their signature tune "Out Come The Freaks" which would appear in different formats on each subsequent album. This first version is driven, demonic pop-funk with odd backward percussive flashes. In it Bowens sings of an assortment of defeated characters such as would have been worthy of Henry Mayhew; the Vietnam veteran, Suzanne who "eats her breakfast from a pan" and would be quite happy to marry for money ("She don't even care if he ain't got no hair/She says: "long as he signs the cheques/I figure what the heck? I'll get him a toupee"), and the "chick from Ecuador" lately having undergone ECT ("Part of me is lost for good/Do you understand?/"I do" says Michael as he grabs her hand"). The sanctuary of shared pain.

As a whole, the record is as bleak, lyrically, as anything coming out of Manchester at the time, despite the brightly-coloured funk facade. "Where Did Your Heart Go?" is a stunning ballad - Atkinson's vocal sounding uncannily like Engelbert Humperdinck waking up in one of Derrida's mazes - and disgracefully had to wait until George Michael's end-of-the-party cover in 1986 to become a hit. Again, the pain of poverty is reiterated ("Come round sometime/We'll eat a rusty can of corn/And listen to the radio/I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, it says"). The song ends with the singer committing suicide ("And rock and roll can't teach me/What the river said that night/I jumped into its beauty/And drifted out of sight").

We then move into the Clinton-absorbed-into-a-Rorschach-black-hole neurofunk of "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming," with its samples of the then newly-elected President Reagan ("Can we who man the ship of state deny it is somewhat out of control?....Can...we...deny...control?") set against a Third Man character angle of a lyric ("One man liked milk/Now he owns a million cows") before Kramer's agitated guitar and McMurray's harmolodic saxes combine to usher in an apocalpytic finale. Reagan's voice in a loop ("It is somewhat out of control") set against, eerily, a descending Eastern string (synth) refrain, and, just like the finale of Escalator, voices "closer than the ear can hear." Weiss takes over vocals for "Oh! Mr Friction," and while his Fred Schneider-ish delivery is slightly too I'm-mad-me for the general tenor of the album, hear how the anti-funk of the rhythm works against the placid lament of the horn's half-tempo lament (very like Ornette's "Lonely Woman") with Belgrave's trumpet eventually having a nervous breakdown.

"Carry Me Back To Old Morocco" should have been a dancefloor smash and a number one, and why it wasn't released as a single I'll never know. It more or less invents Prince with its nagging bubblegum refrain, its terrific guitar-driven beat (though note the synthesiser nods to the Ultravox of "Passing Strangers" and "Sleepwalk") and its endlessly suggestive lyric - also how the whole thing breaks down into askew semi-freeform fragments (complete with breaking glass) at the end. "It's An Attack!" is where Atkinson joyfully welcomes World War II ("Gather all your kitchen knives!") - both satirising nuclear paranoia and foreseeing, well, what's happening now. Another fantastic dance track with its deliciously insolent lift from Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman."

The track suddenly turns a corner and we are in the Mingusian urban landscape of "The Sky's Ablaze," wherein Weiss recalls his father ranting at him "The sky's ablaze with ladies' legs, they're kicking through the clouds" over a slowed-down bebop riff and traffic noises. This lies somewhere between Anthony Braxton's Paris field recordings of '68, released on his 1969 BYG album This Time, and the musings before the frog storm in Magnolia. The record ends with another Clintonesque funk/rockout "Go! Now!" where the cast board a balloon and wave goodbye to us/the world/civilisation.

In 1982 the then ailing Ze gave the band a transfer to Geffen, and without Ze they never really recaptured the same blend of mischief and experiment. A second album, Born To Laugh At Tornadoes was recorded, but Geffen were unhappy with the results and the album did not appear until the end of 1983. Although it contains some individually strong tracks - most notably, one of Mel Torme's finest vocal performances (because done entirely straight-faced) on the barbed ballad "Zaz Turned Blue" - the record already betrays some elements of compromise. A pre-rehabilitation Ozzy Osbourne contributes a rap to "Shake Your Head (Let's Go To Bed)" - incredibly, the original version featured a pre-fame Madonna but was rejected by Fagenson as he thought no one outside of New York would ever hear of her (A further recording, with Osbourne and a then-unknown Kim Basinger on vocals, was eventually remixed by Steve Hurley and became their biggest UK hit single - #4 in 1992)! "(Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks" restyled as an overly knowing soul ballad pastiche almost gave them a Top 40 hit in 1984. A third album, Lost In Prehistoric Detroit, was rejected by Geffen, who also wanted them to get rid of Bowens and Atkinson and employ white vocalists. It was during this painful period that Don Was started to turn to producing records for others. Eventually Geffen flogged the band to Phonogram at a knockdown price, and ironically it was with Phonogram that they enjoyed their greatest commercial success with the What Up, Dog? album and its attendant hits, "Walk The Dinosaur" and "Spy In The House Of Love." But musically the record was dull, standard mid-'80s yuppie "funk," its clear highlights being "Somewhere In America There's A Street Named After My Dad" (rescued from the aborted third album) with a very touching vocal from Frank Sinatra Jr., and the Dadaist cut-ups of "Hello Dad, I'm In Jail." There was one further studio album, 1990's Are You Okay?, but this was a Don Was album in all but name, David absent from most of the sessions, claiming that the production had been "Paula Abdulised" (as Don's wife was Abdul's A&R woman, this was perhaps not the wisest of remarks to make). "I Feel Better Than James Brown" demonstrates dementia with diminishing returns (Pop Will Eat Itself's "Not Now, James, We're Busy" from the previous year was much sharper), but there's a nicely self-mocking vocal from Leonard Cohen on "Elvis' Rolls Royce." A further album, Boo!, was recorded in 1992 but never released as Don felt it was more of the same. The two inevitably fell out and the band quietly ceased to exist. Since then Don Was has continued his highly profitable and entirely anonymous production career, while David has concentrated on soundtracks. Perhaps they should have done that back in 1983.

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