Unknown Pleasures Chapter 19: Dance or Die?

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Sweet Pea Atkinson – Don’t Walk Away [Ze/Island 1982]

1363262513_sweet-pea-atkinsonWhat most people don’t realize about “one hit wonders” is how much history sits behind most of them, usually undiscovered and ignored.  Almost nobody realizes that prior to achieving their respective “success” the Bangles and Katrina and the Waves released dueling [and equally great] versions of the same song [Kimberley Rew’s sublime “Going Down To Liverpool”].  Most Americans who sing along to “Come On Eileen” whenever it comes on have no idea of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ previous life as a dark-edged, hardline cult-soul band, or how the Human league lingered hitless for years in  the UK post punk scene they helped create until “Don’t You Want Me” made them megastars. The Clash were ready to split up when “Rock The Casbah” hit big…Imagine nobody getting into the Beatles until “Let it Be” came out.  

In the summer of ‘87 almost nobody dancing to the dumb-sounding dance hit “Walk The Dinosaur realized that the band behind it, Detroit’s Was [Not Was] had not only been around since ‘81, but had a pair of full-length albums, numerous disco singles, myriad side projects and a raft of indie/cult cred behind them.  Led by [not brothers] David [Weiss] and Don [Fagenson].  Was [Not Was] weren’t really a band, so much as a situationist studio project mixing punk politics, absurdist beat poetry, classic R&B values, mutant disco, Detroit metal, and jazz eclecticism wrapped up in an 80s New Wave sheen.  Imagine Mel Torme, Wayne Kramer, the Knack’s Doug Fieger and tape samples of Reagan speeches all on one side of a record.  With WNW, that’s what you got.  And you could dance to most of it too.  For two albums, critics loved it and nobody bought it.  “Walk The Dinosaur” [briefly] changed all that – it was still typical WNW, but the uptempo dance funk and the powerhouse soul vocals of Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens were just what the doctor ordered in the anything-goes, pre-grunge MTV era.  The album it came from What Up Dog? peaked at #47 in the US, which was a huge success for a pair of Motor City beatnik weirdos [and their bizzarro guestlist]. The next WNW album Are You Okay? peaked at #99 and it’s follow up Boo! didn’t chart at all, and that was that.  

Before that was that, Weiss and Fagenson had conducted the experiment that would lead to their [one] hit [wonder].  Basically a Was [Not Was] album credited to their main lead singer, Don’t Walk Away is almost a concept album about the state and potential of electronic dance music in 1982.  The Was Brothers make big use of the Linn Drum as well as the Fairlight Programmable synthesizer, instruments which seem ungainly and outdated now, but were astonishing and ground breaking in their time. The cool tools allow the Was’ to place Atkinson at the helm of one complicated sonic machine after another, with a cinematic sweep and flourish that makes every track feel like the climactic song from some summer blockbuster now playing in the Twilight zone. Atkinson is a natural Soul Man with a gruff, meaty tenor that hovers somewhere between David Ruffin and Edwin Starr [not a bad place to be].  It’s his vocals that keep Was [Not Was] from sounding like some uptown art project, often despite the Was brothers best efforts to the contrary. No matter how smart or cagey they are, their love of surrealism and machinery always betrays their true intent: Their running commentary/critique/satire of the early 80s zeitgeist.  The album opens with “Dance or Die,” it’s laser-show synths, spongy artificial bass and chattering electronic percussion setting the stage for Atkinson calling all wallflowers to move it or lose it [“Don’t read about/Some other lucky guy”].  The General Johnson-penned title track reverse engineers the best of 70s soul-man cliches into arch postmodernism that would still sound silly if not for Atkinson’s growling voice to pay it all off. “Dig Deep” with it’s radiant synths, pounding dance beat and massed backing vocals feels like the sound of every training montage in the 80s [you know, where the skinny guy does 8 pushups and 6 pull ups and suddenly beats the guy who’s been training 8 hours a day for the last six years? That one]. Was and Was take a stab at hit-making with “Girls Fall For Me,” which despite its novelty intentions, Atkinson’s manliness almost legitimizes.  Was and Was, make their strongest attempts at popcraft in their cover choices:  Doo Wop classic “So in Love” has a hazy, misremembered feel, it’s brittle electronics wilting as Atkinson muscles them aside.  The Bacharach/David classic “Anyone Who Had A Heart” is gorgeous but barren, Atkinson duetting with Carol Hall in what sounds like a nuclear winter as depicted in a 60s film.  It’s in the album’s fourth cover that Was and Was make their boldest proposal.  

Eddie Rabbitt was a soap opera-handsome crooner who was enjoying major crossover success after breaking in as a writer for Elvis Presley and Ronnie Milsap.  “Someone Could Lose A Heart Tonite” spent over three months at #1 Country and peaked at #15 Pop.  The song was more a novelty than anything:  An ersatz, Vegas-flavoured noir exercise with a mild dance beat that was supposed to sound “sexy” and “dangerous” while really being safe as milk. While this sounds crass, the early 80s was ground zero for the AIDs epidemic that closed the discos and allowed the values of Reagan/Thatcher Inc. to ossify in the public consciousness.  Really what better song for the Was Brothers to cover on their inaugural pop project?  

For Atkinson’s version, Was and Was crack open the fake danger of Rabbitt’s original and mine out all the sexual tension, fear of failure, terror of women, and yearning for connection Rabbitt [despite co-writing the song] could never have accessed..  Amidst marching Linn samples, white hot winds of fairlight and scorching, slashing guitar and squonking downtown sax breaks, Atkinson stands his ground, fearless but wary, knowing the title admonition is both a warning and a promise.  It’s a seven minute punk-disco operetta that both Chic and Duran Duran probably wish they’d been there for.

Naturally Don’t Walk Away was practically deleted on release.  NYC art-damage indie Ze records was drowning in red ink and taking its artist roster down with it.  Island probably could have saved the day commercially, but were too busy making money with the B52s, Grace Jones  and an up and coming Dublin band named after an American spy plane.  WNW would move to Geffen, sell no records and then to Chrysalis, where they’d have their lone hit, which Was and Was would use to springboard into separate careers as production gurus, the kind of guys whose names are all over your favorite records [if you have any taste at all].  Atkinson would leave the WNW orbit and form The Boneshakers, an avant-soul act along with WNW guitarist Randy Jacobs.  Don’t Walk Away, while finding few champions, is still available as a digital release although there are probably copies available in used bins from coast to coast. Years later, the Was Brothers and Atkinson would re-unite for an even more arch and arty project, but that’s a tale for another chapter.  
NEXT:  Playing With Fire


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