Monday, August 19, 2013

The Waitresses' "Just Desserts - The Complete Waitresses"

Best known for the perennial holiday hit "Christmas Wrapping," the timelessly topical "I Know What Boys Like," and the theme to TV's Square Pegs, the Waitresses were an '80s pop phenom with roots in the arty '70s Cleveland-Akron underground scene. Fronted by deadpan-voiced Patty Donahue, the band was the brainchild of idiosyncratic pop genius Chris Butler, who'd logged time in estimable Ohio outfits 15-60-75 (The Numbers Band) and Tin Huey and claims (in the liner notes to an earlier compilation) that the band's concept was originally a late-night breakfast spot joke.

On September 24, Omnivore, a reissue imprint to be reckoned with, will release Just Desserts - The Complete Waitresses, a double CD which includes both of the band's albums and an EP -- none of which have been released in full on American CD to date -- plus a rare B-side and a couple of alternate versions.

Donahue had a post-Waitresses career in record label A&R before dying from lung cancer, aged 40, in 1996. 

Butler lives in New Jersey and releases his own work on Future Fossil Music. He's in the Guinness Book of World Records for recording the world's longest pop song (the 69-minute "Devil Glitch"). Other Future Fossil releases include The Best of Kilopop!, on which Butler and vocalist Carla Murray masquerade as an ABBA-like Europop band; The Museum of Me, which features Butler's modern rock songs recorded on archaic media like wax cylinders, wire recorders, and the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit; and the somewhat self-explanatory I Feel A Bit Normal Today. There's also his closet masterpiece Easy Life, which Butler released as a promo CD to indifferent radio stations in 2001 and continues tinkering with obsessively to this day; I raved extravagantly about a version I heard a couple of months ago. 

He graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the new Waitresses release via email.

Q: "Just Desserts" compiles everything the Waitresses recorded for Polydor. Thirty years down the road, what do you think of when you listen to this music? 

A: Well, I don’t listen to these tracks in a daily, Norma Desmond-like way! Once through to check out the mastering is quite enough, thank you. Many thoughts and reactions though when I did do this: “Hey…this stuff is good!” “What was I thinking?” “Wow!” “Ugh!” Etc. On one hand -- interesting, risky music that seems to hold up. On the other -- imagine cleaning out the attic, and discovering a box of ancient, childish drawings that your proud parents used to stick up on the refrigerator.

Q: Your songwriting for the Waitresses was unusual in that you wrote from a woman's perspective in a way that was humorous, but still sympathetic, and dealt with real situations (besides the obvious hits, "No Guilt" is a good example). Was that your intention? 

A: I never thought the gender issue was any big deal. Plenty of men write for women, many male playwrights have created credible female characters, etc. Like any male consumed with the life-long task of figuring out women, I just looked and listened, then tried to capture/recreate in Patty and my character’s persona what I saw/heard around me. 

What I DO think is unusual was …I never wrote love songs. That territory was already well-covered by better songwriters than me. I was more interested in day-to-day psychological and sociological themes and situations, natural dialogue, the common problems of daily life which had not been served by rock song lyrics. I took the term “original song” very literally, and strove to cook up new ways of writing lyrics and music.

Q: To what do you attribute the ongoing popularity of Waitresses songs like "I Know What Boys Like" and especially "Christmas Wrapping?" 

A: No one thing, but perhaps many little things. “Boys Like” is pretty utilitarian: its empowering tone fit into the feminist mindset of the time; strippers used it; I’ve been to parties where tipsy women sang it as a kind of giggly sexual anthem. The first bootleg Waitresses t-shirt I ever saw was in a shop window in the West Village where I was living at the time. This is/was a major gay area, and the song’s title on a T-shirt was coy and flirty, and fit into the gay lifestyle. “Wrapping” was a modern urban tale, I guess – many of the people I knew/know look/ed at the holiday season as piling on more frantic on top of the already daily frantic. It's secular, and there is a magic around Xmas time whether one is religious or not. Credit to Tracy Wormworth’s exuberant bass line…that can’t go unrecognized. It’s a feel-good song without being Hallmark-y icky.

Q: In the spring of 1977, you drew attention to the Cleveland-Akron-Kent music scene by writing a letter to "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau. Why Christgau? What were you trying to accomplish? 

A: There was a book shop in Kent that would have the Village Voice a week or so later than than the NYC publishing date. I had more of an East Coast sensibility, than a West Coast sensibility, so I would read these when I could/had the dough. Christgau wrote a piece about The Clash and the scene in London. I thought (and not a little miffed), hey…we have a great, cookin’ little scene here in Kent/Akron/Clevo…why ain’t we getting recognized and written up? To my surprise, he wrote me back…his interest piqued. Eventually, he and his wife came out to Ohio, we put on a show, and they liked what they heard. 

Q: On the Tin Huey Bushflow Tapes CD, there's a version of "The Comb" with the Huey boys backing Patty. Did the Waitresses concept predate your membership in that band? 

A: Yes. I was in 15-60-75 (The Numbers Band) when I started writing songs. Being in that band required a major commitment of time and woodshedding, which left no time for an active side project. The solution – crafted with pal Liam Sternberg – was to invent imaginary bands that could record our songs. “The Comb” came out of that brief, and when I joined Tin Huey, we would don “Waitresses Unite!” T-shirts, invite Patty up and do these songs as an encore mini-set at our shows. 

Q: A couple of Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? numbers ("Wise Up," "Heat Night") had their genesis in the Tin Huey days. Can you tell us a little about the provenance of those songs? 

A: “Wise Up” captured my utter bitterness re: not having love in my life, and if I did, it would be doomed. “Heat Night” was the reverse -- the wonderful feeling of hearing a great rock band on a hot August night when the walls are sweating and the women are grooving and turned on and anything can happen. Both were very much a product of who I was (probably still am) during the Tin Huey period. At the time, I though they were the best, most interesting, most “authentic” things I’d written, and so they got repurposed as Waitresses songs. 

Q: How did the Waitresses' move to NYC come about? 

A: I moved to NYC in October of ’79 after Tin Huey had run its course, and we had been bought out of our Warner’s contract…by Warner’s, who didn’t want us around for a second record. I had “Boys Like” as an acetate, and when it got picked up by Island as a single, they asked me where my band was? And where’s the B-side? I fibbed and said…the band was back in Akron. Patty was free, so I wired her my last $50 for bus fare, and asked the musicians I’d met in NYC to record “No Guilt." When the single got some play and nice reviews, I thought I had better chase after it and form a real band, though I had just wanted to be a songwriter and had felt burned out on bands. 

Q: How did you come to write the theme song for Square Pegs

A: Ann Beatts, the show’s runner, and Judy Belushi (John’s widow) were fans, and they called me up out of the blue. I am writing an audio story about this, and so will get into that episode in depth there, but basically it came out of left field. It was a very trying, bizarre experience…I will tell you that.

Q: For Bruiseology, you got to work with a Big English Producer [Hugh Padgham]. What was that experience like? 

A: Wonderful man, great engineer. I’m a huge XTC fan, and he was a gift. But we were tired, cranky Yanks, and it was a struggle. We did end up making a good record, I thought, but as band leader, I failed to keep our combo together at the end. Perhaps if we had waited another six months to record, we might have been in better shape all around. Can’t say enough good things about Hugh. 

Q: Four tracks in the Omnivore box are previously unreleased. Tell us about them. 

A: "Hangover 1/1/83": Although we were sold over to Polygram, I believe Ze/Michael Zilkha still had some usage rights to “Christmas Wrapping.” With Polygram’s blessing, Ze wanted to do "Christmas" as a single in the UK, and so needed a B-side. I’d go back to Ohio a lot, and always tried to do something at pal Rick Dailey’s house. The impact of Rick’s recording skills on me, Devo, and the other Akron bands cannot be trumpeted enough. So…I came up with a riff at Rick’s, triple-tracked the basses, Rick played an out-of-tune guitar that I would continue to de-tune as the tape was rolling -- great fun. Took the tracks back to NYC, Mars [Williams] added some sax, and we had another in the tradition of throwaway B-sides. Except I like the groove a lot! 

"Bread and Butter" remixes: All Polygram’s doing. The dance music age was just beginning and remixes were becoming “just what you did.” So they did. 

"Bruiseology": We were hard pressed for time since Hugh Padgham was booked hard to do The Police. Big pressure, Patty rebelled, had to finish the record so Tracy did the original vocals for "Bruiseology."  Polygram wanted Patty’s voice on the tune, so it was redone at Electric Lady and that’s the version that made it to the record. But I thought Tracy’s was the keeper, personally.


Blogger Phil O. said...

Great reading. I just picked up the new compilation -- way overdue, and great listening from end-to-end.

I have my review up on

Hope a future Waitresses comp gives us the studio version of "The Comb", a great early Waitresses rarity.

9:26 AM  

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