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Fabulous Flip Sides – The Waitresses – Chris Butler Interview

“Christmas Wrapping” 40th anniversary is celebrated along with “Square Pegs”
Omnivore 2 CD 2013 compilation

Omnivore 2 CD 2013 compilation

GOLDMINE: Thank you wrapping up our 2021 coverage of Northeast Ohio music history here at Goldmine. Let’s begin with Kent State University in May 1970. Joe and Susie Vitale detailed the events so well in their book Backstage Pass. So did Cameron Crowe in his 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, where they visited Kent. David Crosby sang about it with “Ohio” and Joe Vitale played drums on that song live many times with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Like Joe, you were also there in Kent. I was north of you in Euclid hearing on the radio that President Nixon’s “secret plan to the end the war” had troops exit Vietnam, but only to go to Cambodia and that triggered the protest eruption.

CHRIS BUTLER: Yes, exactly. My high school band was called The Disciples and the original guitarist was J.C. Hoskins. After the fact, I learned that J.C. was killed in Cambodia prior to May of that year. They were already doing a secret war expansion. His helicopter was shot down. My circle of friends included Jeff Miller. I was with him the Monday of the Kent State shootings and had been with him throughout the weekend. I was with Jeff at the student union about 10:30 a.m. prior to the noon rally. The prior day, there was a betrayal by the National Guard. Someone with a bullhorn went between the guard and the students trying to negotiate a protest withdrawal. The deal was that if the students would go back to their dorms, the guard would leave them alone, but the guard charged with fixed bayonets and stabbed kids. They wounded students! It was a massive betrayal, chasing them back to their dorms. That set the stage for student anger on Monday. I walked away from where Jeff and I were, to get some water, and that is when the guard open fired. I heard people yell, “They’re blanks. They’re blanks.” I thought, maybe not, and I ducked behind a car that was in front of me and the glass got shot out. I did not know that Jeff had been killed, along with three others, until the 6 p.m. news. By then we were locked out of Kent. I went shopping with my girlfriend and visited a friend in Akron who had a trailer and that is where we heard the horrible news. I was there and as Jerry Casale of Devo has said, “It was the most Devo (de-evolution) day of all.” That kind of set the stage for any number of us who were on campus at the time, the Devo guys, Chrissie Hynde, her brother Terry Hynde, and all the other kids. It set us off in weird directions not wanting to be part of a culture that tried to kill us. What are we going to do with our lives? Most of the people were creative and went into art or music. I picked up a guitar and a song came out. I played bass with 15.60.75: The Numbers Band and drums with another band. At some point I realized that I could write songs and that saved my life.

GM: Wow! I am so sorry but glad you found your purpose with music. Going on with The Numbers Band, in 1978, I was writing for Scene in Cleveland and working at Peaches Records & Tapes while finishing college. The Numbers Band always showed up in Scene, playing in Kent and other places.

CB: Akron had a venue called The Crypt, which catered more to the punk crowd with Devo having a residency there. The Numbers Band played more in Kent and Cleveland. Kent had a strip on Water Street with multiple bars with live music. The secret was to get a residency and The Numbers Band had a residency, first at The Cove and then J.B.’s, where we would play Wednesdays through Saturdays with three one-hour sets. The Numbers Band included Terry Hynde and Bob Kidney, who was our leader. You have to imagine a mixture of blues and jazz with very original songs and players who were all really good. I played bass. I urge the Goldmine readers to check out the live album from my tenure with the band called Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town.

Waitresses numbers

GM: Moving on to 1979, during the peak of the disco era, we would insert as much non-disco music as we could at Peaches for our customers and that is when I first heard you as a member of Tin Huey. We would play your lively composition “Hump Day” and your solid cover of The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” from your Warner Bros. album Contents Dislodged During Shipment.

CB: Tin Huey was the most creative band I have ever been in. We were a collection of Akron oddballs and had some smart people in the group, where everyone wrote. We were as eclectic as eclectic could be. Robert Wyatt recorded a creative cover of “I’m a Believer” in England in the mid-1970s and Tin Huey were Robert Wyatt fans, so our cover of “I’m a Believer” was a cover of Robert Wyatt’s cover. “Hump Day” was about Akron and the rubber factory workers. I projected myself into that working class character and lifted a Stax-Volt Memphis groove from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ song “Tramp.” Everything was fair game with Tin Huey.

Waitresses tin

GM: At the end of the 1970s, I was in the audience of WEWS Channel 5’s Afternoon Exchange, promoting the Stow band The Action. At the beginning of the next decade, you were on the show with your next group The Waitresses. In your segment with hosts Fred Griffith and Wilma Smith, Patty Donohue said she was pretty new to being a performing singer.

CB: Yes. Patty had won a talent contest with some of her high school friends performing a Supremes song. That was the sum total of her stage experience prior to The Waitresses. I met her through the drummer in The Numbers Band. They were dating. I had written “I Know What Boys Like” and I needed a singer. I went to our local watering hole, Walter’s Café on Water Street at the lunch hour and I stood on a chair, tapped on my glass, and said, “I’ve got this song and I am looking for a female singer. Does anyone want to sing it?” Patty was in the back and said, “Sure. I’ll do it.” She was in and out of school and was a real waitress. Kent was on the quarter system. She would go to school for a quarter, then take off the next quarter to wait tables and earn enough money for the following quarter. I took her to a recording studio in Akron. She went over the words and sang the song. The single was initially released on the Antilles label in 1980 with “No Guilt” on its flip side.

Waitresses no guilt

GM: I love “No Guilt,” that fun post-breakup song, which eventually became the opening number on the Polydor album release two years later. I just shared it with my daughter Brianna, and she also enjoyed it and compared it to a current band The Interrupters. She enjoyed the saxophone and the harmonica solo.

CB: Oh, thank you. At that point we weren’t a real band yet and a flip side was needed in order to release “I Know What Boys Like” as a single. This was a project inspired by my friend Liam Sternberg, who went on to write “Walk Like an Egyptian” for The Bangles. By this time, he had moved from Akron to L.A., and I had gone to New York. I called Patty and she was between quarters. I asked her if she was free to come to New York and record another song. She said, “Sure” again for me. I sent her my last fifty bucks for a Greyhound bus ticket. She came and a friend had a spare room for her on St. Marks Place. By then I had met a bunch of musicians there. With “No Guilt” I tried to write a different style of mythical female character than what I did with “I Know What Boys Like,” which was more of a teasing song. On “No Guilt,” the woman is actually doing fine post-breakup, and is not crushed from the experience. That combination of characters set me and Patty down a road to play with this character who was a full blown complicated modern woman, chasing feminism and sorting out relationships. The character that Patty personified and acted became someone who listeners might identify with.

GM: When the single was reissued on Polydor two years later, “It’s My Car” became the flip side, featuring a “Valley Girl” sounding argument.

CB: That one has a bit of a ska sound. When I moved to New York, I went to clubs where English bands would play. The band Madness performed and I just had the best time. I didn’t know ska. I bought a compilation from the local record store to learn more. I thought that completely different rhythm was fantastic. So, “It’s My Car” was my attempt to write a song like Madness with a ska beat and wicked sardonic humor. It is an argument in a car with people who get lost on the way to a party.

Waitresses car flip

The Waitresses

Flip side: It’s My Car

A side: I Know What Boys Like

Billboard Top 100 debut: May 8, 1982

Peak position: No. 62

Polydor PD 2196

The Waitresses, l to r: Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Chris Butler, Tracy Wormworth, Mars Williams, Patty Donahue, 1982 publicity photo, courtesy of Chris Butler

The Waitresses, l to r: Dan Klayman, Billy Ficca, Chris Butler, Tracy Wormworth, Mars Williams, Patty Donahue, 1982 publicity photo, courtesy of Chris Butler

GM: I bought your Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful album with those songs on it, on cassette for my daily commute, and later that year your vinyl EP I Could Rule the World If I Only Had the Parts. Let’s begin with the opening song from the EP’s second side, the theme song from the television show “Square Pegs” with Sarah Jessica Parker, Tracy Nelson, and other young actors in 1982. I enjoyed that show, and to me, it was like a precursor to Freaks and Geeks from the end of the following decade. It was so exciting to hear you do the theme song to a show I was enjoying. You were on there and I saw John Densmore from The Doors on an episode as well.

CB: Anne Beates was the writer and creator of Square Pegs and was a former Saturday Night Live writer. She was the only person putting new wave music in a television series with Devo and a bunch of other bands. At the end of our tour, we were exhausted and just wanted to go home. We were in Washington D.C. and got a call from Anne from Judy Belushi’s house, her friend and widow of John Belushi and they were listening to The Waitresses. She said, “We need you on the pilot of our show and you have got to come right now. We decided to do it and flew to New York. When we arrived, the first thing Anne asked was, “Where are your instruments? How are you going to record the theme song?” We asked, “What theme song?” She replied, “The one you are going to write. I’ve got you booked at a recording studio tonight at 7 p.m. to record the theme song.” I whipped something up with the only guidance being that it had to include, “I hate to wear my glasses. I got to wear my glasses,” which referenced Sarah Jessica Parker’s character. We did our bit, and they flew us back. It was unexpected. We pulled it out of our hineys. It wound up making it in the show. Then later, the people at our label Polygram suggested that we do a full version of the theme song, which we did, recorded at Electric Lady Studios with co-producer Mike Frondelli.

CBS promotional photo

CBS promotional photo

GM: What a story. Anne sounds like she was quite a character. My wife Donna and I enjoyed the SNL characters she created, Todd and Lisa Lupner played by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. Anne is one of the over one hundred people we will be paying tribute to in our annual In Memoriam article at the end of the month. “Square Pegs” is a great opener for side two of the EP, which I bought for the opening number, the long 5:25 version of “Christmas Wrapping,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this holiday season. Every time it comes on the radio at Christmas time, I am so happy to hear it.

CB: I am floored and knocked out by how that song has stuck around. It was done upon the request of Michael Zilkha at ZE Records, our label at the time, in the early summer of 1981. Michael said, “Let’s make a Christmas record with all our artists.” He had some punk and new wave artists, who you wouldn’t normally associate with warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas sentiments. We were touring, trying to push “I Know What Boys Like,” didn’t have time for that, and hoped he would forget the idea. Come August he said, “I still want to make the Christmas record and I have booked you at Electric Lady at the end of the month and the first couple of days of next month to record a Christmas song.” Under pressure I took a little bit of this and that. At the time I was a bit of a Scrooge, because I was a freelance writer and while everyone else was having a nice break at Christmas, it would be a time that I was swamped with writing assignments while others were loafing. Fortunately, Christmas in New York is magic. There is an inspiring vibe that goes through the city. People are not their typical New York selves. I thought I would write a short story about someone who does not want to hear about Christmas. They are beat. It has been a rough year and the potential meeting up with someone never ended up in a relationship. It hit one snafu after another, and the hell with it, I am going to spend Christmas alone, end of story, where “A&P has provided me with the world’s smallest turkey,” which is one step up from a Swanson’s turkey TV dinner. Of course, it has The Gift of the Magi O. Henry twist at the end, where the secular magic of Christmas brings a couple together. It is done very tongue-in-cheek. It blindsides me, now that I am back in Ohio, where winters are crap, as you and your wife know. Now it is Christmas. I am usually involved in something that I don’t want to stop, and you have to stop for the holiday. Now when I hear “Christmas Wrapping” on my car radio, it just roars out of the speakers. It is so powerful, uplifting and fun, as if to say, “Lighten up, man! It’s Christmas.” It got to the point where people would call me and say, “Hey, I heard your song,” so I started something years ago called the Wrappie Awards, where the first person to contact me each season saying that they heard “Christmas Wrapping” in public after Noon on Black Friday will trigger a donation to a local library’s children’s department. We have a European version of this too. The money is given in the name of the people who contact me.

GM: Among your newer songs, “Better Than I Ever Was” is among my favorites with the saxophone capturing the sound of your Tin Huey/Waitresses years.

CB: I wanted a Stax-Volt Isaac Hayes-like arrangement. It is played by an old friend of mine, Marc Paige, on baritone and sopranos saxes triple tracked.

GM: I was saddened in the mid-1990s when we lost Patty to cancer. In that same era, your bassist Tracy Wormworth began appearing on B-52’s songs that Brianna and I enjoyed “Tell It Like It T-I-IS” and the ecology song “Revolution Earth” on their Good Stuff album. Then in 2008, with Funplex, she is on some of my favorite songs, which I shared with you recently, “Ultraviolet,” “Deviant Ingredient,” “Keep This Party Going,” and especially on “Pump.”

2008 Promotional poster

2008 Promotional poster

CB: You did me such a favor sharing those songs with me. Tracy, who now lives in Florida like you, is such a wonderful person and a brilliant musician. I think her bass part on “Christmas Wrapping” certainly helped to make the song successful. She ran with my little ditty, made it her own and became a star of that recording. I have loved watching her career over the years with The B-52’s, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and others. She looks like she is having such a good time and has a million watt smile. Tracy is such a treasure as a musician and as a person. Thank you and Goldmine for celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Christmas Wrapping” with me. I am grateful for this.

Back side of 1982 EP “I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts” which opens with “Christmas Wrapping”

Back side of 1982 EP “I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts” which opens with “Christmas Wrapping”

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