Posted September 4, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Waitresses Get Their Just Desserts

The Waitresses
The Waitresses

The Waitresses, a terrific new wave band that emerged from the same  Akron, Ohio scene that produced DEVO and Tin Huey, put out a couple of great albums before calling it a day. Now, Omnivore Recording is reissuing the band’s first two albums as a double-disc affair dubbed Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses. The band’s Chris Butler, who currently drums with a few garage bands, recently phoned from the porch of his friend’s house in upstate New York to discuss the reissue. “I’m trying to live the creative artist’s life, whatever that means in the 20th century,” he told us.

You’re the co-producer of this project. How involved were you?
Four or five years ago [Bill Levenson], he put this project together for Polygram/Universal but couldn’t get any traction. He’s been not sitting on it but wanting to do it. He found an eager partner in the Omnivore people. Their roster is pretty great. Maybe if it had come out as a Universal thing, it would have been buried. My participation was to try to find clearance and let everyone in the band know that this was happening. It’s Bill and Cheryl at Omnivore who really championed this.

Did you own the rights to the songs?
Good question. There’s the song itself and the publishing of the song and the recording of the song. I own the publishing and the band is the writer but the master recording is owned by whoever paid for it. That’s Polygram/Universal and Omnivore had to go to them and bother them enough to wrench the master tapes from their clutches. That’s the way it works . . . and this common for artists who are still alive now. People re-record their music so they own a master version so that they would get the rights to license a recording of the song. I know Ray Davies has done some of this. And Joe Walsh has. It would be impossible for us to do that since [singer] Patty [Donahue] died. I’m not so sure I would do that. There are work-arounds, but not in my case.

The reissue sounds great. Has it been re-mastered?
It has. I was just writing a friend. I’m not like Norma in Sunset Boulevard who watches her loops over and over. I don’t listen to this stuff. But I listened to the mastering. I agree it does sound really good. They did a good job.

Were you thinking of new wave when you made the albums?
I had moved to New York from Akron in 1979. I had been in Tin Huey. We had one record on Warner and they gave us money to go away. I moved and I had an acetate of “I Know What Boys Like.” It was a version I had done at my friend Rick Dailey’s house. Not enough praise can be heaped on him. He worked with DEVO and he worked with us. He was a great guy. New York was wonderful. There were all kinds of scenes. Latin was huge. Hip-hop was starting in the Bronx. There was still a rock scene. You could get work in New York on the club scene. I didn’t want to be in a band. That fried me. When Island Records wanted to do the single of “I Know What Boys Like,” they needed a b-side. Patty was in Akron. I wired her my last 50 bucks so she could get on a bus, and I had met some musicians who were also from the Midwest. We have a good work ethic because we wanted to go to New York. We recorded the b-side, which was “No Guilt.” That became the Waitresses first official single. It did well. They wanted an album and Patty and some of the players I had been playing with wanted to give it a shot. We were of the era. And we were skinny tie. I would like to think we stood apart and were individuals, but we were part of a scene and it was a wonderful New York scene.

We were of the era. And we were skinny tie. I would like to think we stood apart and were individuals, but we were part of a scene and it was a wonderful New York scene.

What about the song “Hangover”?
I would still go back to Akron and visit my friend. I would find time to go to Rick Dailey’s. I would come up with a kooky idea and spend time recording and having a blast. One time I went back and we were under contract with Polygram. We wanted to do a single for the UK. With Polygram’s blessing, I came up with this thing with three basses and a snare drum crashing in Rick’s basement and Rick playing his Telecaster out of tune. We had an old string clavinet keyboard and we came up with this goofy thing and I thought it was in the grand tradition of a throwaway b-side.

I thought I heard a saxophone too.
Good ear. That was the original version and then when I brought it back, we bounced it over to a 16-track and added saxophone parts. It was then turned into an official Waitresses song rather than something I screwed around with on a weekend. It’s not a great work of art, but it’s fun.

I always liked Patty’s voice. Can you describe it?
She sounded like a real person. I might have written a script for her, but it was her delivery. The things I would write were like one-sided conversations, the other person being the audience. She was a naturally talented actress and a smart and funny woman. Plus, she had some rough times. She liked the same old movies I did from the 1930s. She liked the movie stereotype of a tough but tender character. She was not a belter singer but there’s a long tradition of good talkers who tell stories and aren’t really singing. She was endearing and I was really inspired and stimulated by what she could do. She sounded like somebody’s big sister.

She sounded like a real person. I might have written a script for her, but it was her delivery. 

It often sounds like she’s ad-libbing.
She was a darn good actress. I tried to put in wisecracks. She got what I wrote and got inside the character and in an actor’s kind of way could toss a line off that was funny or wry. It was interesting. At the time, I don’t think anyone was doing that. Now, that kind of honesty is pretty common in alternative bands.

The second disc is your second record, right?
We had been recording in England. The worst in our band had started to show. Our engineer and producer Hugh Padgham had made a commitment to work with the Police. Things were not going as fast as I had hoped. We started the project kind of tired. We should have waited and rested up. When you’re a baby band, you work your ass off. We were weary.

There are a few remixes on the disc too.
I did a bitter song called “Bread and Butter” about what it felt like to be gypped economically. It had a Latin groove to it. Our A&R guy said we should stretch it out. This was beginning of what would be dance music. He knew of a remixer who had done something for Diana Ross. They gave him the tape and told him to go to town and he did. It’s an artifact, I guess. It does no harm.

You recorded during a great time. There are such great stories behind these songs.
It was a lot like making a movie. It was very collaborative. In Tin Huey, our bassist had a small inheritance and bought an eight-track machine and we were able to learn recording and do a lot of work. It was very DIY. That was a blessing. You began to get the feeling that you didn’t have to be a part of a major record company industry. You could do it in your basement. I love that era.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.