Monday, December 19, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #140

This time of year, radio station playlists seem to fill up with the usual Christmas fare.  For the past 28 (!) years, those Yuletide playlists have included The Waitresses' holiday hit, "Christmas Wrapping."  So, no surprise to have already heard it several times this year. I will admit to a chuckle, however, when I heard one DJ refer to The Waitresses as "one hit wonders," referring to their annual classic as being their one hit. While they were never a chart-topping act, they had at least three singles receive notable mainstream success - that's more hits than many acts can claim!

The Waitresses started life as an imaginary band in Akron, Ohio, circa 1978.  Chris Butler had been playing with the band Tin Huey, when he noticed that the bands that were breaking big out of the scene in Ohio (The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Devo, etc.) were doing so by heading to New York and merging into the CBGB's crowd.  Wanting to let the world know that Ohio was a happening place, he and musician/producer Liam Sternberg came up with the idea of putting together a compilation where the joke would be that none of the bands actually existed, but were really all Chris and Liam (as he explained in the liner notes to one of the many "Best Of" compilations of Waitresses material, reprinted here).

By the time the first piece of Waitresses vinyl appeared, the Short Stack 7-inch, in 1978, there still wasn't an actual band.  The record's A-side, a Devo-esque track called "Clones," was quite different from the funkier and more accessible B-side, "Slide."  Neither sound anything like what The Waitresses would eventually become; legend says that both tracks were actually Chris and Liam with Tin Huey backing them up.

Butler had a knack for writing songs from a female perspective, and soon went in search of female vocalist to bring those works to life.  Enter Patty Donahue, who would join the band in time for their next recorded output, a song called "The Comb."  Liam Sternberg had become the in-house producer for Stiff Records and had apparently never forgotten the idea for a compilation of Ohio bands; by the time The Akron Compilation hit the shelves in early 1979, there were plenty of real bands sprouting up in the second wave of the Ohio scene.  The Waitresses were represented by "The Comb" and "Slide" (while "Clones" ended up being a hidden track on the end of the comp).

By the turn of the decade, Butler had followed the path of many others to New York with Donahue in tow.  There, The Waitresses' lineup was soon rounded out by ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca, saxophonist Mars Williams, keyboardist Dan Klayman and bass player Tracy Wormworth. They became a popular live band, and in 1981 contributed "Christmas Wrapping" to Ze Records' holiday compilation A Christmas Record. A year earlier, Ze had released The Waitresses' second single, "I Know What Boys Like."  It was with these releases that The Waitresses found their signature sound - a funky New Wave vibe with horns that were far less skronky than the concurrent No Wave scene happening in the Big Apple, with Patty Donahue's unmistakeably sarcastic vocals layered over top. Trouser Press described her style quite accurately: "she doesn't sing so much as carry a simultaneous conversation and tune."

The band soon signed to Polydor Records, who in 1982 reissued the "I Know What Boys Like" single.  This time it caught on thanks to a quirky video getting airplay on MTV, and the song soon became a cult hit which is to this day a New Wave staple.  On the basis of that success, The Waitresses were tapped to sing the theme song for the TV series Square Pegs.  The wonderfully-titled I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts EP appeared soon after, containing two of their three biggies, "Christmas Wrapping" and "Square Pegs," along with three more similarly snarky tracks.  The success of that record led to a full album, Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, which made "I Know What Boys Like" available on LP, but otherwise contained new material that followed the standard Waitresses formula.  Some tracks are very good ("No Guilt", "It's My Car"), while others start to sound a bit repetitive.

When their second album arrived in 1984, the snarkiness was wisely toned down a bit.  Bruiseology showed great promise in its lead single, the perfectly wonderful "Make The Weather."  Unfortunately, the band was going through a great deal of internal strife during the recording of the album, resulting in Patty Donahue walking out of the band and several tracks needing to be finished without her.  As a result, the album is a bit shaky at points, although still recommended.

With Donahue gone, Butler called on Holly Beth Vincent to join the band as the new frontwoman.  She toured with the band for a few weeks, but it just wasn't a fit, and before long Patty was back.  It seemed The Waitresses were back on track, but it didn't click. By the end of 1984, The Waitresses were done with no more material released.

Chris Butler stayed involved in the music business, mainly doing production work and songwriting.  The most visible members of the band these days are Mars Williams, who is currently touring with The Psychedelic Furs, and Tracy Wormworth, who has been playing off and on with The B-52's for several years.  Sadly, Patty Donahue passed away in December 1996 after battling lung cancer for a year.

For this week's NW4NW, here are the clips for the classic "I Know What Boys Like" and the excellent "Make The Weather." Then, as a Christmas bonus, a fan-made video for "Christmas Wrapping." Merry Christmas!

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