December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

It’s common knowledge in showbiz that any huge success is a tough act to top. Now comes Was (Not Was) to prove that the same can be said for enormous failure. The rock and soul band has struggled for five years to produce a follow-up to the stunning commercial disaster of its critically praised but little purchased album, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. Released in 1983, that bomb (50,000 copies were sold) created so little public stir that most of the world never even realized there was a Was (Not Was). Which was a shame, because the two Detroit shlemiels who are the band’s creative force threw everything but the kitchen shtik into Tornadoes. Featuring a strange galaxy of guest-star vocalists, including bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne and jazz scat king Mel Tormé, Tornadoes was a musical tour de farce. “That album was supposed to be brilliantly eclectic,” admits Was lyricist David Weiss, 36, “but I thought it was more wildly schizophrenic.”

Weiss and his partner, Don Fagenson, 36, spent most of the past five years in intensive musical therapy before discovering a cure within themselves—or rather, within the voices of co-lead singers Sweet Pea Atkinson, 43, and Sir Harry Bowens, 37. Stars of the Was (Not Was) live act from its 1980 inception, Atkinson and Bowens had been overshadowed on Tornadoes, but they take center stage in the new, breakthrough Was album. What Up, Dog? (the title is a greeting Sweet Pea extends to one and all) became a hit last summer in England and is now selling briskly in the U.S., where two of the album’s singles have taken off. “Walk the Dinosaur” was recently a No. 1 Dance Club hit, and “Spy in the House of Love,” fired by a hip MTVideo, has shot into Billboard’s Top 40.

While Dog—in the cassette and CD versions—features only one ironic guest vocal (Frank Sinatra Jr. singing “Wedding Vows in Vegas”), Weiss and Fagenson have not abandoned their approach as funny funksters. Laughs flood most of the grooves, and such titles as “Out Come the Freaks” and “Dad, I’m in Jail” extend—most often with a dance-happy beat—the Wasmo-logical view that life is a terrifying absurdity. Yet while the two may still laugh at tornadoes, they found little humor in obscurity. “It finally hit us,” says Fagenson, “that writing a pop song is a noble art form. It’s like a haiku—almost.”

Long before Was (Not Was) was, Weiss and Fagenson were childhood chums in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit. Weiss is the son of Elizabeth and Rubin Weiss, an actor who once worked as Soupy Sales’s TV sidekick, Shoutin’ Shorty Hogan, and Fagenson’s parents, Harriet and Bill, teach in Detroit-area high schools. The pals first put their humor to no earthly good when they staged a bent Christmas pageant that included the unusual carol “Old Men Roasting on an Open Fire.” Both attended the University of Michigan, and Weiss, after graduating, moved to L.A., where he became a jazz critic for the Herald Examiner. Fagenson stayed in Detroit, working as a record producer, session musician and lounge-band member, but all three jobs combined didn’t produce enough income to support a wife (they are now divorced) and child, Anthony, now 10. “He reached a point,” recalls Weiss, who is married and has two children, Nicholas, 8, and Phoebe, 13 months, “where it was impossible to keep playing Gilbert O’Sullivan songs.” Fagenson finally called his friend in desperation. “He said he was about to rob a dry cleaner’s,” remembers Weiss. “He had even picked one out where there was a teenage girl behind the register.” Weiss had a better idea. “I said ‘Whoa—wait a minute! We can make a record.’ ”

Having thus saved his friend from a life of crime, Weiss borrowed $400 from his father and went into a Detroit studio with Fagenson, some session musicians and two singers: Sweet Pea (né Hillard) Atkinson, a Detroit dandy who spent 11 years on the Chrysler assembly line and sang with a local do-wop group, the Exquisites; and Bowens, a pop-eyed cabaret singer. Both singers were put off at first by Weiss’s warped lyrics—love songs about weirdos with lobotomies can be daunting—but the Was Bros are hard to turn down. Just ask Tormé, who agreed to croon “Zaz Turned Blue” after Weiss gave him a rave review in the Herald Examiner. “He called and said, ‘You got a marker on me, babe,’ ” Weiss says. “So I called him on it.” That marker, of course, was not enough to save Tornadoes, and Was (Not Was) was, temporarily, gone with the wind.

Now based in L.A., Was (Not Was) is currently in the midst of a five-week club tour, and no one is happier about the revival than Bowens, who speaks of the band’s survival as if it were a miracle. “Was (Not Was) was,” he says, “then it was not—and now it is, again.”

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