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20 Years Later: Was (Not Was) Still Boggle the Mind

Don Was and David Was (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Welcome to a new, occasional series in which I’ll be shining a spotlight on club classics that were released 20 years ago. My first pick is one of my favorite discoveries of recent years, and surely one of the strangest collaborations in the history of house music.

Over on Buzzfeed, Katie Notopoulos reports that the fan forum has erupted into debate over whether or not an unreleased 1989 album by Kim Basinger was produced by her then-beau, the artist who was soon to be known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. But that putative collabo pales in comparison to another project Basigner was involved with: Was (Not Was)’s 1992 hit “Shake Your Head,” which found the former Bond girl facing off against Ozzy Obsourne — remixed by Chicago house pioneer Steve “Silk” Hurley!

Founded in Oak Park, Michigan, by childhood friends David Weiss and Don Fagenson, who rechristened themselves David and Don Was, Was (Not Was) were a quirky funk-pop act armed with a sardonic wit and irreverent songwriting approach. Reviewing their 1987 single “Robot Girl,” SPIN‘s John Leland wrote that their “approach to dance music was more cultist than crossover: the work of a couple of white guys who owned a lot of disco 12-inches and saw the potential for experimentation within a dance mix. Like Adrian Sherwood or George Clinton, they jam ideas around a beat.” Looking back over their career, Detroit Metro Times described Was (Not Was) in 2004 as “an endearing mess…a sausage factory of funk, rock, jazz, and electronic dance music, all providing a boogie-down backdrop for a radical (and witty) political message of unbridled personal freedom and skepticism of authority.”

Disciples of Detroit’s MC5 — “When ‘Kick Out the Jams’ came out, we used to stop our cars and pound the shit out of the dashboards of our Chevys, probably losing our weed in the meantime, falling to the floor, because it really was this breakthrough moment,” Weiss told Detroit Metro Times — they courted a more refined sort of chaos in their own band, pairing gallows humor with catchy funk licks and filling their studio with an unusual assortment of sidemen and guests, including the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, crooner Mel Tormé, Leonard Cohen, and even Frank Sinatra, Jr.

“Shake Your Head” originally appeared on the group’s 1983 album Born to Laugh at Tomatoes, released on the New York alt-disco label Ze Records. A jittery, new-wave funk number featuring glossy synths, slap bass, and dangerous amounts of whammy bar, it’s most notable for guest vocalist Ozzy, who rants absurdist truisms like, “You can’t sue Buddah for libel / You can’t rewrite the Bible.” But in 1992, the band revisited the song for their anthology, Hello Dad… I’m in Jail; this time, they roped in Kim Basinger, who faced off with Oz on shared vocal duties. The single ended up going to No. 4 on the British pop charts — the Was’ highest charting position by a long shot — and took off in the club scene thanks to a pumping piano-house remix from Hurley, which appeared on a European-only 12-inch single backed by two Danny Tenaglia remixes of “Listen Like Thieves,” a cover of the 1986 INXS track.

I didn’t know any of this when I chanced upon the 12-inch a couple of years ago, poring over crates of discarded DJ vinyl in a thrift shop in the Baleares. But I knew Hurley’s name from Chicago house classics like 1986’s “Jack Your Body,” which was enough to make me fork over a Euro for the platter. It was only once I got home and started freaking out over the song that I did a little research and realized that Ozzy and Basinger were involved. (Oddly, they’re not credited anywhere on my copy.)

It’s such a strange, strange record: Hurley’s production is vintage deep house through and through, featuring rubbery synth bass, chiming piano chords, high-pitched string ostinato, and chunky drum machines. But the song’s pop ambitions tip it into much odder territory, with a processed vocal refrain that sounds, to the contemporary listener, a little like Auto-Tuned kazoos (never mind that Auto-Tune was still years from being invented). Ozzy and Basinger’s he-said-she-said vocals are what really send it over the top, with Ozzy whining, “You can’t teach Shakespeare to a monkey,” and Basinger mustering as much drama as possible for lines like, “You can’t drink lava from plastic glasses.” It’s one of those songs that hits you simultaneously on two very different levels: the punchy club groove seduces, while those sing-songy, almost annoyingly catchy vocals — I don’t know if Ozzy’s ever been especially pleasant to listen to, but he’s certainly not here — repel you into a kind of guffawing disbelief. How on earth did this ever happen?

As it turns out, it almost happened quite differently. The original demo for the 1983 version of the song featured none other than a young Madonna, but Weiss and Fagenson later brought in Ozzy to re-record her part. In an entry on the band’s official website, Don Was explains: “She sang really well, but I’ve always imagined the vocalists as extensions of ourselves, and I couldn’t relate to female vocals being our voice.”

Somehow, though, Madonna’s vocals did end up on one of Hurley’s remixes of the song, which appeared as “Shake Your Head (Dub Mix)” on the 1992 single, “Somewhere in America (There’s a Street Named after My Dad)”; check out a YouTube rip of the song below, and you’ll recognize the voice right away.

So that’s the story of one of house music’s unlikeliest collaborations, complete with a “lost” cameo from Madonna. Only one thing could have made it stranger: According to the band’s biography, they also invited Richard Nixon to play piano on the song. (Unsurprisingly, he refused.) It’s all enough to make you, well, shake your head.

“Shake Your Head” (1992 version featuring Kim Basinger & Ozzy Osbourne)

“Shake Your Head (Steve “Silk” Hurley’s Dub Mix)” (featuring Madonna & Ozzy Osbourne)

“Shake Your Head” (1983 Version)