Was (Not Was)

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Was (Not Was)
OriginDetroit, Michigan, United States
GenresDance-pop, post-disco, dance-rock, college rock[1]
Years active1979–1992, 2004–present
LabelsZE Records, Geffen, Chrysalis Records, Fontana Records
Associated actsOrquestra Was
WebsiteWorld Wide Was
MembersDavid Weiss
Don Fagenson
Sweet Pea Atkinson
Harry Bowens
Carol Hall
Donald Ray Mitchell
Randy Jacobs
James Gadson
David McMurray
Jamie Muhoberac
Past membersBruce Nazarian (deceased)

Was (Not Was) is an American pop rock group founded by David Weiss and Don Fagenson, who adopted the stage names David Was and Don Was. They gained popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s.



Weiss and Fagenson were childhood friends who grew up together in suburban Detroit. Partly due to Fagenson's poverty they decided to form Was (Not Was) in 1979. The name of the band was derived from Fagenson's then-infant son Tony, who was just beginning to talk and enjoyed contradicting words such as "Blue" with "Not Blue". Their first recording was "Wheel Me Out", a 12-inch dance record for the avant-garde ZE Records. David's mother Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, an actress and radio pioneer in their native Detroit, provided the outré vocals. The track was later included on the 2000 compilation album Disco Not Disco.

Their first album Was (Not Was) (1981) was an amalgam of rock, disco, Weiss's beat poetry, Reagan-era political-social commentary, and jazz. On vocals they recruited Harry Bowens and "Sweet Pea" Atkinson, who frequently found themselves singing absurdist and satirical songs alongside tender ballads. Wayne Kramer of MC5, The Knack's Doug Fieger, and Charles Mingus trumpeter Marcus Belgrave were among the guest players.

In 1982, the group played on Don't Walk Away, a solo album for lead singer "Sweet Pea" Atkinson.


Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983) had even more guest musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne rapping over electro, Mitch Ryder singing a techno-rockabilly number, Mel Tormé performing a ballad about asphyxiation, and an abstract funk piece called "Man vs. the Empire Brain Building". Singer Donald Ray Mitchell joined the group as third lead vocalist.

In 1988, they found their biggest hit with the album What Up, Dog?, which featured the singles "Walk the Dinosaur"[2] and "Spy in the House of Love". Special guests included Stevie Salas, John Patitucci, Frank Sinatra, Jr., and a writing credit for Elvis Costello.

Film and animation work[edit]

Artist/animator Christoph Simon[3] created videos to accompany some of their stranger album tracks, such as "What Up Dog?",[4] "Dad I'm in Jail,"[5] and the Tom Waits-style "Earth to Doris."[6] The videos appeared on MTV's Liquid Television and in various film festivals, including the Spike & Mike festival. Around this time, the Was Brothers developed separate careers as producers, film scorers, and music supervisors.


The group followed up with Are You Okay? in 1990, spearheaded by a cover of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". Guest musicians included Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, The Roches, and Syd Straw. After a tour with Dire Straits in 1992 and a UK Top 5 single with "Shake Your Head", which included vocals from Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Basinger, Weiss and Fagenson drifted apart, subsequently releasing only a compilation album Hello Dad... I'm in Jail. Some members, however, did appear on Don's Orquestra Was project Forever Is a Long Long Time (1997), which re-interpreted Hank Williams in a jazz/R&B vein.


In late 2004, Was (Not Was) reformed for a two-month club tour through the US, including stops at the House of Blues in Cleveland and Chicago and the Trocadero in Philadelphia. In October 2005, they played four gigs at the Jazz Café in London.

In 2008, they released their fifth studio album, Boo!, featuring guest appearances from Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Kramer, Marcus Miller and Booker T. Jones, plus a song originally co-written with Bob Dylan nearly 20 years earlier. On April 22, they performed on the British show Later... with Jools Holland, and on May 2, they were the musical guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The band toured the US that year, beginning on April 30.

Material loss[edit]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Was (Not Was) among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[7]


Writing in Detroit's Metro Times, Brian J. Bowe described the band as "an endearing mess....a sausage factory of funk, rock, jazz and electronic dance music, all providing a boogie-down backdrop for a radical (and witty) political message of unbridled personal freedom and skepticism of authority."[8]


Was (Not Was) discography
Studio albums5
Compilation albums4

Studio albums[edit]

Year Information Chart positions
1981 Was (Not Was)
  • Released: 1981 (Expanded and reissued 2004 as Out Come the Freaks)
  • Labels: ZE/Island
1983 Born to Laugh at Tornadoes
  • Released: September 1983
  • Labels: ZE/Geffen
1988 What Up, Dog?
  • Released: April 1988
  • Labels: Chrysalis Records (US), Phonogram (Europe)
43 57 41 47
1990 Are You Okay?
  • Released: July 1990
  • Labels: Chrysalis Records (US), Fontana (Europe)
99 82 34 35
2008 Boo!
  • Released: April 8, 2008
  • Labels: Ryko

Compilation albums[edit]

Year Information
1984 The Woodwork Squeaks
  • Remixes and B-sides
  • Released: 1984 (Reissued and expanded in 2004)
  • Labels: ZE/Island
1989 New Steak Trend
  • Remixes and B-sides
  • Released: 1989
  • Label: Fontana (Japan only)
1992 Hello Dad... I'm in Jail
2004 The Collection
  • LP tracks and B-sides
  • Released: May 2004
  • Labels: Spectrum Music
2010 Hey, King Kong!!!: Pick of the Litter 1980-2010
  • Career retrospective
  • Released: February 23, 2010
  • Labels: Micro Werks


Year Title Chart positions Album
US Hot 100
US Club Play
1980 "Wheel Me Out" 34 Mutant Disco: A Subtle Discolation of the Norm
1981 "Out Come the Freaks" 16 Was (Not Was)
"Where Did Your Heart Go?" -
1982 "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming" 3 68
1983 "Smile" 106 Born to Laugh at Tornadoes
"Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like a Rubber Ball)" 109
1984 "(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks" 41
1986 "Robot Girl" 95 What Up, Dog?
1987 "Spy in the House of Love" 16 1 77 79 16 41 51
"Walk the Dinosaur" 7 11 9 11 10 16 10 10
"Boy's Gone Crazy" 84
1988 "Spy in the House of Love" (re-issue) 13 21 26
"Out Come the Freaks (Again)" 86 44
"Anything Can Happen" 75 19 67
1990 "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" 10 60 75 11 14 22 12 Are You Okay?
"How the Heart Behaves" 35 53
"I Feel Better Than James Brown" 91
1992 "Listen Like Thieves" 58 Hello Dad...I'm in Jail
"Shake Your Head" 47
8 4
"Somewhere in America (There's a Street Named after My Dad)" 57


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Allmusic - Billboard Awards – Was (Not Was)". Billboard. Retrieved 2008-12-04.
  2. ^ Was (Not Was) performance of "Walk the Dinosaur" on "Soul Train" with Don Cornelius, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQdCDcehCf8.
  3. ^ Christoph Simon animation professor, http://www.scad.edu/academics/faculty/christoph-simon
  4. ^ "What Up Dog?", YouTube
  5. ^ "Hello Dad, I'm In Jail," YouTube
  6. ^ "Earth to Doris," YouTube
  7. ^ Rosen, Jody (25 June 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
  8. ^ Bowe, Brian J. "Out Come the Freaks", Metro Times. December 29, 2004.
  9. ^ a b "Discografie Was (Not Was)". 2003-2012 Hung Medien. Retrieved 2012-12-28.
  10. ^ a b "Discography Was (Not Was)". 2003-2012 Hung Medien. Retrieved 2012-12-28.
  11. ^ a b c "The Official Charts Company - Was (Not Was)". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2008-11-09.
  12. ^ David Kent (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970 - 1992. Australian Chart Book, St Ives, N.S.W. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  13. ^ "The Irish Charts". IRMA. Retrieved 2008-10-02. Searchable database
  14. ^ http://rock.co.za/files/springbok_top_20_(W).html. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. ^ "Discography Was (Not Was)". 2003-2012 Hung Medien. Retrieved 2012-12-28.

External links[edit]