Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Music Box: The Waitresses

More like Waiters and Waitresses, but who's keeping a tab?

Although Blondie and the Pretenders had already secured their places in my heart by then, no band better symbolized the changing of the musical guard for me from pop-rock (ONJ, Hall and Oates) to New Wave than the Waitresses. (The Go-Go's and Missing Persons were right in the same window.) The year was 1982 and my brother was home for the weekend from the University of Arizona when he pulled out this album that looked like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant with a black-and-white graduation photo on the center. Scribbled in the upper-left corner were the words, "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" The second he put it on my stereo and she started singing (OK, half-talking, half-snipping) "Needed new posters, so I bought 'em. I know the cost of stamps now ...," I was hooked. The she was Patty Donahue, who along with guitarist/songwriter Chris Butler (and an assortment of musicians) had recorded this insanely original album that sounded like Gloria Steinem had stepped in for Kate and Cindy in the B-52's. "I Know What Boys Like" would later become one of their best-known songs, but in many ways it really was one of the weakest on the album, because while it had the sass of the others, it lacked the cerebral touch that made Butler's lyrics so much more than throwaway '80s novelty fare. Killer Pussy records were a hoot too, but you weren't going to hear Lucy LaMode croon:

Shocked? Dismayed?
Or maybe just a little upset
Well, no this isn't pretty
And yes, my hair was longer then
It's what happens when your choices
Are narrowed to fashion or violence
Adjustments, you make adjustments


Get tough, don't be so patient
Get smart, head up, shoulders straight
Since when is it a disaster?
If the "S" on your cape is a little frayed?
What's a girl to do?
Born to shop? No! Pretty victories
What's a girl to do?
Scream &. screw? No! Pretty victories

The way I remember it, a demo tape Butler had recorded with some friends was well-received by a label in New York in '80 or '81, so Chris lied and said his band was back in Ohio, then suddenly had to get Patty to the city and then get an actual band together to start playing live.

Patty Donahue, vocals and sarcasm

Within months, the Peppermint Lounge became the Waitresses 2.0's domain and "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" was released in 1982, quickly becoming a "college hit." ("No Guilt," "Wise Up," "Quit," and "Pussy Strut" are all New Wave classics.) A stopgap EP was issued later that year. "I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts" contained five new songs, including the band's cute theme to the short-lived but much-loved television series "Square Pegs" (on which they guest starred and had their album cover prominently featured in the booth at Johnny Slash's school radio station) and what would become Butler's ultimate cash cow, the perennial holiday favorite, "Christmas Wrapping."

"No Guilt": Perhaps the most insulting post-breakup song ever, with its utter blasé attitude!

"Quit": Failure has never been more indecisive.

"Wise Up:" Only stupid people fail to see that it's a bad thing maybe in the '80s (but I doubt it)

By the time 1982 came to a finish, the band was seemingly on top of the world having been on a whirlwind ride of success and new-found fame. In '83 "Bruiseology," the much-anticipated (by me, at least) sophomore album, came out but before promotion got started in earnest, the band was pretty much done. First Patty quit. Then Holly Beth Vincent was slated to step in. Then Patty returned. Then the whole thing was over. (The album, by the way, plays like a uncompleted coulda-been gem: "A Girl's Gotta Do" and "Everything's Wrong if My Hair's Wrong" pick up nicely where the original left off, but "Make the Weather" reveals a sweet, Brian Wilson side of Butler that hadn't been seen before. The other standout tracks, "Luxury" and "Open City," show Patty's character has matured (or wised up). But then "Spin" had to be sung by bassist Tracy Wormworth when Patty went M.I.A., during exhaustive recording sessions in England (Tracy had also recorded the title track, which some people actually prefer, but then Patty did her own take and that was used.) "Pleasure" is an unnecessary instrumental (were vocals dropped when Patty vanished?) and "They're All Out of Liquor, Let's Find Another Party" is a great title, but the song is as humorless as it is tuneless, which is everything the Waitresses were not.

In 1990, Chris Butler explained in the liner notes to the band's best-of package that "it's very easy to become a victim of too much fun. but it's so embarrassing! how could a bunch of stubborn people who refused to be cliches stumble smack into a typical show biz crash and burn. maybe it's because 'that which ye be the most afraid of is guaranteed to happen' ... so you can work through it and come out the other side and not be afraid anymore. all i know is that i was trying to write three-minute Preston Sturges movies, but as it turned out, we were all really living 'All About Eve.'"

While the record industry continues to amaze me from time to time with its reissues ("Despite Straight Lines," anyone?) to date, shamefully none of the Waitresses' original releases have been released on CD. ("Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?" did, however, make it to iTunes last year and a best-of disc is available HERE.) Years ago Chris Butler, who shared a rehearsal space with a guy I work with, told me that a box set of the band's catalogue was imminent. But five years on and having already produced my own Waitresses CDs, I'm not holding my breath. What still haunts me, though, is that I never got to see them perform live. In 1982 they even came through Phoenix and my brother Bill was fortunate enough to catch them. But alas the show was at a bar and I was far too young, and then they broke up before I ever got another chance. (Even sadder, in 1996, Patty died tragically of lung cancer at 40, ending forever any hope of a reunion.)

So imagine my shock and delight when Cherry Red -- the very people who reissued the Marilyn album on CD last year -- recently released a live Waitresses concert DVD, "The Waitresses: Live at Hurrah,"which I have just added to my NetFlix queue!!! (I swore I'd never join but I wouldn't dare buy a DVD after you-know-what.) I miss ya, Patty, and I can hardly wait for it to get here. The show is just 54 minutes, but I'll call it even just to have it last that long ...

A flawless recreation of the perfect '80s New Wave album, above

The EP and album No. 2 never looked so good together, above

(Artwork by Greg Jelinek)

  • Read all Music Box posts HERE.
  • A great Waitresses Web site is HERE.

  • UPDATE: From a friend.

    He writes:
    I got "The Akron Sound" book for Christmas -- finally tells what really happened with the Waitresses. I think when Patty died Chris Butler didn't want to trash her but enough time has gone by ... 

    Holly Beth Vincent was hired as a replacement... did a few gigs and then just didn't show up to one. That was the end of that. They imploded recording "Bruiseology" -- too much partying. Patty got pissed when Chris Butler started recording vocals with Tracey Wormworth. The band split but the record company offered Patty $$ to come back and do a video at least. Then she tried to continue the band without Chris -- and the other members were offered salaries. She recorded demos with new songwriters for a third album and the record company passed. 

    Chris Butler says: "She went Hollywood on me -- bad advice from bad people." 

    They did reconcile before she died. 😇

    If ANYONE has access to those Patty demos, I will do anything to get my ears on them!


    Anonymous said...

    What a great band! RIP Patty. I have a live cd put out by King Biscuit Flower Hour from 1982 at My Father's Place on Long Island! It's a fun show!

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you very much for this article. I recently went back and added more Waitresses songs on my iphone. I am very fascinated by them for some reason-have been for awhile, but I can't seem to find that much information about them. Thank you for posting their history. I saw some clips on youtube (since taken down) of them performing on some tv show. Too bad they are no longer online... Would like to see the concert footage as well -- just saw the preview on youtube.
    Love reading your blog -- I read it everyday...

    ERIC SXE said...

    I love The Waitresses! After a long time looking, I finally found some nice clean MP3s of the entire Brusieology LP online so now I'm a happy camper. (The idiots at Polydor should have released the CD back in the late 80's!!)Burned my own CD and loaded them into my MP3 player. It's a sorely underrated LP. Great songs and I love almost all of them. Tracy in particular is on fire on bass. 26 years after they recorded this gem, it still sounds fresh!

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