You'd be forgiven for looking at the Billboard Hot 100 on April 1, 1989 and assuming the chartmasters were pulling some sort of April Fool's joke. There in the Top 10, amid hits like The Bangles' "Eternal Flame" and tracks by Roxette, Milli Vanilli and R.E.M., stood "Walk the Dinosaur," a butt-shaking track by Detroit art-pop group Was (Not Was). Who were these guys, and how did they sneak into the chart?
The group was the brainchild of two Detroit-based friends, Don Fagenson and David Weiss. Inspired by the sounds of their city, from Motown to early punk groups like The MC5 and The Stooges, the duo rebranded themselves as Don and David Was and named their band in honor of Don's baby son, who enjoyed repeating words he heard with "not" in front of them. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1981, featured two striking vocalists: the smooth Sir Harry Bowens, and the gritty Hillard "Sweet Pea" Atkinson. MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer even lent his talents to the record.
1983's follow-up album Born to Laugh at Tornadoes established Was (Not Was) as something of a party band for the '80s. Bowens and Atkinson shared vocal duties with a galaxy of unlikely stars: Ozzy Osbourne sang the track "Shake Your Head (Let's Go to Bed)," while singer Mel Tormé lent his distinctive vocals to "Zaz Turned Blue," the album's bizarre closer.
The group's third album, 1987's What Up Dog?, initially struggled to find an audience in America, although it was celebrated around the world. "Walk the Dinosaur" reached the U.K. Top 10 on Halloween 1987, surprising even the band. "The song’s about nuclear Armageddon,” co-writer Randy Jacobs told the Detroit Metro-Times. “It became a dance because of the video. They connected it with the girls in the little Pebbles and Bam-Bam outfits. All the sudden it became, like, ‘do the mashed potato’ or ‘the Twist.’”
As follow-up "Spy in the House of Love" - also aided by a catchy video - reached the U.S. Top 40 in the winter of 1988 (more than a year after it was first released), MTV recruited the group to be part of a package tour to promote the dance-oriented video block Club MTV in 1989. Alongside acts like Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli (whose infamous on-stage lip-sync incident occurred during this tour), Was (Not Was) truly stood out.
Was (Not Was) released a fourth album, Are You Okay?, in 1990, featuring guests like Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen and Downtown Julie Brown (the host of Club MTV). But Don Was' career as a producer was starting to take off by this point, including Bonnie Raitt's Grammy-winning Nick of Time and The B-52's smash "Love Shack." Was continued to produce acts like The Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson before reuniting Was (Not Was) for 2008's Boo!; Atkinson died in May 2020.