There was a brief moment in the early ‘80s when the agendas of evolving college radio and emergent MTV aligned around the eclecticism that tumbled out the thrift-store coat pockets of post-punk musenicks. This pairing of interests fell apart basically in response to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” (although MTV and college radio would continue to have late dates for years via “120 Minutes”). Yet for that one moment kids would hear songs by bands like the Go-Gos, Soft Cell, and Squeeze on the radio when classes were in session and then check out the videos on their parents’ TVs during break. (I know, I was one of those kids.)
The Waitresses were front of the line in this Class of ’82 with their ubiquitous proto-new wave hit “I Know What Boys Like”, with its slanky guitar, honking and skronking saxophone, and especially the torporous female vocals recanting a post-pubescent Lucy-and-Charlie Brown sex tale. The collegiates who picked up the debut album Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? wouldn’t find a second hit on the platter, and the follow-up album, 1983’s Bruiseology (wha?) went all but unnoticed. (What I did notice: The promo copy’s weird purplish vinyl, which guaranteed zero plays.) Their non-LP theme song to the evanescent teen geek comedy Square Pegs might have helped the band more than the late-breaking non-LP seasonal classic “Christmas Wrapping”, but for the Waitresses these were too little, too late, and by 1984 the Waitresses were out of work.
Only, the band wasn’t a typical two-and-done new wave outfit: the Waitresses derived from the 70s Akron scene and in particular cultish Tin Huey, mad teen scientists who were to prog-rock what Big Star was to the Beatles. (Their one fantastic regular-release album, 1979’s sprung Contents Dislodged During Shipping, remains easily findable; the odds and sods collection of earlier material, Before Obscurity, is lower-fi hit-and-miss, and the abortive Contents follow up Disinformation reveals what might have been— a lovely broken promise.) The Waitresses were initially the version of Tin Huey that encored with local habitué Patty Donahue as a joke within a joke. When Tin Huey rusted out, Chris Butler took Donahue and the Waitresses name and whipped them into a band, a real band (not his version of the Monkees, as he fibbed) that included former Television drummer Billy Ficca and diminutive jazz saxophonist Mars Williams for extra buzzing and howling.
A real band with real songs too. Butler popified but didn’t expunge the Tin Huey prog-isms; more importantly, he road tested the lyrics he wrote for Donahue with focus groups of female friends, ending up roughly in the territory of early Shadow Morton, with few peers in between. On Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? Donahue speak-sings about sex, hijinks, bad parties, road trips, and makeup in a vocal style influenced mostly (solely?) by nursery rhymes. Dusty Springfield she is not, but Donahue inhabits Butler’s songs with a nervy nonchalance matched only by Romeo Void’s (and San Francisco’s) much more ominous Debora Iyall, the difference being that Iyall wants to aggressively fuck you while Donahue expects you to go down on her while she does her nails, an idea that Liz Phair would bring to fruition years later (cf. “Chopsticks”).
A placeholding EP pulled together the aforementioned Square Pegs theme and the Xmas song with an instructive remake of the Huey’s “I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Find the Parts”. The Hueys’ version is teenage alchemy: finding the parts is not out of the question (there must be a map) and world domination awaits! By contrast, Donahue is meh on the whole enterprise: sure she could rule the world, but boy would all that effort be a distraction. J Mascis starts here.
“I Know What Boys Like” got the band into the studio again for the bitter purple follow up Bruiseology, which tanked for all too obvious reasons—it’s hitless. Tough to build a hook around a lyric like “Everything’s wrong if my hair is wrong”. If Donahue is less engaged, which is for sure, the band compensates by playing louder than sin—this is the new wave version of King Crimson’s Red.
“Christmas Wrapping” reappears every Noel, and “I Know What Boys Like” is comped to death, but the two Waitresses LPs are among the few, the proud, the unreleased on CD. Until now. Omnivore has done a lovely job of compiling the two albums, plus the I Could Rule the World EP and a few other arcana, onto the 2-CD reissue Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses. The title of which is slightly incorrect, as there are pre-Polydor Waitresses singles on Clone Records that aren’t included. (And perhaps those tunes are really part of the Tin Huey ouevre anyway, but they belong somewhere.) What I hear now is rare music that bears scanning musically like jazz and lyrically like, well, like nothing else really. But very pop at the same time, if pop (or semi-pop) that eschews that chewy-sweet big hook that would have popularized the Waitresses and perverted them at the same time. And boy, does all this sound better than I remember. Seminal even.