Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Woodwork Squeaks: Evolution of A Song (1981 - 1990)

Speaking of Detroit dance-punk band Was (Not Was), every LP they released over the course of their recording career had some version or another of a song called Out Come The Freaks. The song became their signature piece, and the various versions offer an interesting insight into the musicians' creative process and the evolution of an idea that was pretty twisted to start with.   

I owned each one of these records when they had come out, and back in the day had always wanted to compile these versions together, but since the period of 1981 through 1990 marked transitions in music media from vinyl to cassette to CD, I never had all of these versions together in one format before, but now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, here they all are, finally together.

According to Wikipedia, despite the songs' similarities, each version was distinctive, as differing lyrics in the verses of each song told different stories about different social outcasts.  Each recording had a different contemporary sound, a thoroughly different arrangement, and reworked the melody while still retaining the chorus, "Woodwork squeaks, and out comes the freaks."


The band's debut album, Was (Not Was), came out in 1981 at the height of the new wave craze, and Out Come the Freaks was the opening song.  I had just graduated from college at the time and had moved from Boston down to Atlanta for my first professional job, and read a review of the album in the sadly now defunct Musician magazine.  After much searching, I finally found a "pre-owned" copy of the album at a used book store and bought it for, like, one dollar. This version of the song begins with the chorus chanted several times before the rhythm section kicks in. An introductory verse, not included in later versions of the song, sets up the concept of the song before the chorus is repeated and the following verses portray an odd assortment of marginalized characters.


Was (Not Was) released Born to Laugh at Tornadoes in 1983 and I bought the album in cassette format, the better to listen to as I rode around Atlanta in my little Fiat Spider, or on a boombox as I drove around the State of Georgia in a radio-less state pick-up truck (I was working for the DNR at the time).  The LP featured a second version of Out Come The Freaks that's slower and sparser than the post-disco original, and vocalist Harry Bowens sings the "woodwork squeaks" chorus as more of a refrain than a chant. The final chorus replaces the word "freaks" with a succession of song titles including Papa's Got A Brand New Bag and The Shadow of Your Smile


The third version of Out Come The Freaks was released in 1987 on the group's most successful album, What Up, Dog?.  I was living in Albany, New York at the time, having left the Georgia DNR and seeking to make a name for myself by opening a new office for a national, Atlanta-based environmental consulting company.  The song was listed as Out Come the Freaks on the album but reference to the song's reworked status was acknowledged in the inclusion of the subtitle Again on the single version, also alternatively titled (Stuck Inside of Detroit With the) Out Come the Freaks (Again). This recording was once again dominated by the vocal of Harry Bowens, but female vocalists sing the chorus refrain. The arrangement was more upbeat than the second recording and had a tighter funk and synth-pop sound, and the verses were changed to feature different characters from the earlier versions. Instead of song titles, the final chorus has the female vocalists offering the names of actual people such as Leon Trotsky and John Coltrane, with Bowens repeating the names in soulful ad libs.


A fourth song related to Out Come the Freaks called Look What's Back appeared as the final track on the group's fourth album Are You Okay? in 1990. I was still living in Albany, and Are You Okay? was the first (and only) Was (Not Was) album that I purchased in CD format.  The song is a 43-second acoustic camp-fire rendition in which the group chants the chorus, "Woodwork squeaks, and out comes the freaks."

You have my deepest admiration if you've never heard of the band Was (Not Was) before or the song Out Come The Freaks, but still listened to all four versions all the way through.

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