A deranged painting of a snarling pit bull held back on a short leash adorns the cover of What Up, Dog?, and a more appropriate image would have been hard to find. Was (Not Was)'s 1988 breakthrough album is an untamed and snap-happy work, a demented, rhythmic blend of classic soul and crazed rock & roll with a bark every bit as ferocious as its bite. And it vindicated the struggling absurdist band from Detroit by proving it capable of commercial success.
Formed by two cynical white songwriter-musicians and fronted by the black vocal duo of Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, Was (Not Was) has always taken a smart, and occasionally smartass, approach. "If we had our druthers, we'd be living in a bizarro world where you could make ugly music and earn lots of coal for doing it," says David Weiss, who created the avant-goofball group with childhood friend Don Fagenson.
The band's first two albums had achieved critical raves but miserable sales. Things became so dismal after its second album stiffed that the band came dangerously close to permanent not-was status. With the group in complete disarray, Weiss says he was doing "lamentable" home-video scores, while Fagenson produced "sexual deviants" like transvestite singer Marilyn. Bowen worked with the O'Jays, and Atkinson was "probably watching the soaps and pimping," Weiss says jokingly.
After landing a new record deal in England, the band bounced back with What Up, Dog? — a collection of diverse songs ranging from the sentimental and heartfelt "Somewhere in America There's a Street Named After My Dad" to a track about the JFK assassination, "11 MPH." A brilliant collage of musical genres, the album manages to dovetail smooth ballads like "Anytime Lisa" and a calypso-flavored collaboration with Elvis Costello, "Shadow and Jimmy," with more experimental pieces like the primal screamfest "Dad, I'm in Jail." After several of the songs became hits in Europe, the album was picked up for U.S. release by Chrysalis Records.
With so many deliciously wicked numbers, it might seem tough to pick a single highlight, but for Weiss the album's tour de farce is "Wedding Vows in Vegas," a track included on the CD version of What Up, Dog? The song is a smoky, sardonic number crooned by cocktail-lounge icon Frank Sinatra Jr. "He came in like a hit man to sing that day," Weiss says of the hour-long session.
After the late-1988 release of What Up, Dog?, there was no question which world Was (Not Was) inhabited: "Walk the Dinosaur" climbed into the Top Ten, and "Spy in the House of Love" reached Number One on the dance charts. But however welcome success may have been, Weiss still sounds like a man with more than a few questions about the merits of pop music. "It's easy to make disgusting, unlistenable records that are just plain weird," he says. "But that's what we do on a good day."