35 Years Ago: The Waitresses Cook Up a New Wave Gem With ‘Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?’
The Waitresses are frequently considered a one-hit wonder thanks to their song "I Know What Boys Like." However, that tag does the Akron, Ohio-formed band—and its vivacious full-length debut, Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?, which was released on Jan. 11, 1982—a disservice.
Featuring songs written by guitarist Chris Butler, who was also a member of the experimental Akron band Tin Huey, the record was a forward-thinking, groove-heavy amalgamation of sax-augmented funk ("Quit," "Wise Up," a song Tin Huey also recorded), bratty new wave pop ("It's My Car," "Pussy Strut"), jittery jazz ("Jimmy Tomorrow") and jaunty classic rock with a modern polish (the title track). Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?'s unique sound emerged because of its ace, talented instrumentalists, including saxophonist Mars Williams, one-time Television drummer Billy Ficca, bassist Tracy Wormworth and Butler's fellow Akronite, Dan Klayman, on keyboards.
The Waitresses' not-so-secret weapon, however, was vocalist Patty Donahue. The Cleveland, Ohio, native was an expressive presence who used a half-singing, half-speaking delivery to bring Butler's songs and characters to life. Her Waitresses persona didn't suffer fools gladly, which gave Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? a sharp, smart edge.
"All of my songs have so many words, and Patty was a trooper to try to wedge them in," Butler said in a 2014 Songfacts interview. "And although there are melodies to my songs, believe it or not, they had to be simple because, to be blunt, Patty was a great actress and not an R&B-style belter.
"It was more of a spoken word, 'I'm telling you a story here,' versus 'I'm going to knock you out with my vocal chops,'" he adds. "I think it was kind of endearing, it was very one-on-one. It gave me the opportunity to come up with a writing style where it's a one-sided conversation where you assume that the other person is listening and contributing. I didn't know it at the time, but we definitely came into an interesting technique that I think other singers have used."
Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? also contains "I Know What Boys Like." Originally released as a single in 1980, the song fared better when re-released in 1982: It landed at No. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its video garnered the band MTV airplay. "I Know What Boys Like" remains one of the decade's most indelible songs, thanks to Donahue's bratty, sing-song delivery ("Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah"), a saxophone solo from Ralph Carney and an irresistible, circular guitar melody.
"That [song] was basically about the power of the pickup," Butler told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in April 1982. "You go into a bar situation and a woman saying yes or no—as simple as that—and I was running into a lot of nos." During the Songfacts interview, he elaborated on the impetus for the song: a night out at an Akron bar called the Bucket Shop after Tin Huey band practice.
"Towards the end hour, it became obvious that the women were all being attracted to the lawyers, because the lawyers had money, and probably, cocaine," Butler said. "I was with Stuart [Austin], the drummer, and we were looking at each other. He says, 'Wait a minute, we got a record contract. How come no one's talking to us?' I got into this mindset, and it wasn't a pretty one. It was about women in a bar situation wheeling and dealing their wares, so to speak, for the highest bidder. And I was definitely the lowest bidder."
Although the other members of the band weren't keen on the song being a Tin Huey tune—and were even more skeptical when Butler played a fleshed-out demo of the song and said it was for a fake band he had created called "The Waitresses"—they warmed to his other idea: ending live shows with Donahue on vocals singing "I Know What Boys Like" and a few other songs, while wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Waitresses Unite."
"I had written a few other songs that were kind of Waitress-y or that were not up to Tin Huey's very high standards," Butler said. "And that's kind of how the whole thing came about. It was a joke idea to begin with, to have a non-existent band, because you could tell a big whopper of lies and you didn't actually have to do anything because it was totally a fiction. But it gradually became real, and 'Boys Like' became the keystone song of the idea."
As it turned out, this lark of an idea ended up lasting through one more album (1983's Bruiseology) and produced such enduring tunes as the theme song for the cult TV show Square Pegs and the holiday fave "Christmas Wrapping." However, new wave aficionados still appreciate the Waitresses' music; Omnivore Records even released a compilation, 2013's Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses, featuring the band's records. Despite starting off as a goof, the Waitresses have come to be respected as enduring, beloved innovators.
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