“Don and I started recording in the Pleistocene Era, with Fred Flintstone producing,” says David Was in the promotional materials accompanying the release of punk-funk band Was (Not Was)’s retrospective compilation Pick of the Litter 1980 - 2010. I’ve heard Meryl Streep make jokes to the same effect, which makes the comment probably the least original thing he’s ever written. Otherwise, David Was (collaborating with producer and bassist Don Was) fashioned some of the most cracked, amusing, disturbing non sequiturs of 1980s no wave. The band’s early work straddled the dividing line between post-disco and arty punk, resulting in three propulsive smart-stupid underground dance tracks for the boho ZE Records label.
The Clash-reminiscent guitar stomp of “Out Come the Freaks” and the cluttered proto-garage of “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” brought the group’s primordial Funkadelic mind sludge to the surface, but in retrospect, it’s their psychotronic, bass-popping first single, “Wheel Me Out,” that seems like the biggest revelation today. A relentless wall of rock guitars, shimmering percussion and sci-fi dialogue snippets about a scientist who discouraged his young, female protégé and now, presumably, will live just long enough to regret it, “Wheel Me Out” seems one of the most galvanizing examples of every disparate niche genre of the moment coming together like Dr. Funkenstein’s monster. Such was the scene in Detroit, where P-funk had recently turned slop into a cosmic initiative and where very shortly A Number of Names would unleash “Sharivari” and, with it, techno.
Still, Was (Not Was) seemed adamant to avoid being pigeonholed as brainy outcasts from Boogie Wonderland, and their following few albums would prove them to be adept musical scavengers, true Warholian kitchen-sink artists. Be it recruiting Ozzy Osbourne to drone-rap “You can’t sue Buddha for libel” over a electro-pop ditty (which they’d later turn over to house producer Steve “Silk” Hurley and, um, vocalist Kim Basinger) or inviting Mel Tormé to croon an elegant piano lounge neo-standard about a boy named Zaz who nearly choked to death one night in the park, Was (Not Was) made invention its own reward.
The band reached a mainstream apex, of sorts, with their corny synth-pop hits “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love,” but even those two songs don’t do much to hide the band’s cunning, sinister edge. (Note how the time-traveling chorus of the former morphs from “I walked the dinosaur” into “I killed the dinosaur.”) Most of the tracks collected on this particular compilation make a solid case for the band’s feel-good music harboring some serious feel-bad impulses, especially when it comes to the patriarchal pull of Americana. “Dad I’m in Jail” is a tuneless first-person freak-out worthy of Ween, in which a son contemptuously uses his one phone call to say he’d rather rot in a cell than spend his dad’s birthday at home. The narrator of “I Blew Up the United States” takes extra pleasure in noting that piece of Texas he sent careening into space. And it would take a thesis to unpack the second verse of “Semi-Interesting Week,” in which a skinhead tells our “not that patriotic” storyteller he’s a “good-for-nothing dirty Jew.” To which he responds he took a shower after dismembering the skinhead’s mom: “Threw him on the tracks and sent him back to Vietnam.”
Pick of the Litter really is just a sampling from a catalogue that begs closer examination. And though Robert Christgau sort of had the band’s number when he backhandedly complimented “It’s worth five minutes on David Letterman,” you have to remember, that was when Letterman was really, really cool.