Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Song A Day: The Waitresses, "No Guilt"

JULY 11, 2017




During the late 70s and early 80s, the term “new wave” was used to describe any contemporary rock music that 1) wasn’t stadium rock and was 2) either too brainy or too nerdy to be considered punk.

The “new wave” tag could, and did, cast a net wide enough to cover such disparate and utterly unrelated acts as the Cars, Spandau Ballet, the Pretenders, Adam and the Ants, Squeeze, the Bus Boys, Killing Joke, Madness, PiL et al.

Into this huge hatbox fell The Waitresses, a band too new to be established, too old to be kids, too smart to be dumb, and perhaps too smart-ass to be truly adored.

Chris Butler, a guitarist and songwriter from the same experimental Akron, Ohio scene that produced Devo, was in the experimental group Tin Huey when in the late seventies he teamed up with singer Patti Donahue, a local scenester and smart-aleck, for what was intended to be a recording project.
Using the name The Waitresses, Butler played all the instruments on an indie 45 then did the same on “I Know What Boys Like,” a song he felt had greater reach. Once Tin Huey imploded, Butler and Donohue moved to New York and got a deal with Ze records, an imprint of the (somewhat) larger Antilles label. “I Know What Boys Like” garnered airplay in the bigger cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) and on college radio and even reached #62 on the Billboard chart.

After the 45’s release, Butler formed a band to tour and record. Former Television drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Dave Hofstra formed the rhythm section. Mars Williams played sax while Dan Klayman handled keyboards. Tracy Wormworth, later a well-known sessioneer and now a member of the B-52s, soon stepped in for Hofstra.

I saw them in Evanston, Illinois, in 1982 at the Orrington Hotel. This was my first real “club” show, after seeing a few big concerts. I remember the band playing “I Know What Boys Like” (which I didn’t care for) and its flip, “No Guilt” (which I loved), among a passel of originals and well-placed covers. Donohue was limited in vocal range but strong in presence, while the band was tight and clearly had a lot of fun on stage.

The band never quite “happened,” even after they enjoyed a surprise British hit single with the now-perennial “Christmas Wrapping” and somehow landed the theme song to the 1982 TV situation comedy “Square Pegs.” In 1984, they broke up, with two good albums and an EP to their credit.
“No Guilt,” the flip side of “I Know What Boys Like,” was recorded in New York with an ensemble consisting of most of the art/funk/no-wave band The Contortions. And yet it’s a perfectly conceived pop record, catchy and full of hooks and interesting sounds.

Donohue delivers, in her charming, midwestern voice, a most creative brush-off, listing to her ex all the things that she’s learned to do since their romance ended. Butler tried, in his songs, to give Donohue lyrics that reflected his focus on feminism and control. In “No Guilt,” the character has empowered herself in big ways—grad school, managing her money—and small. As the song fades, and she’s stirring something on the stove, she reassures the ex that they are never ever getting back together.

And three cheers for the instrumental blend! One-time sax player Ralph Carney laid down a nice part, as did Butler on guitar. The use of both a harp and a boxing bell to delineate transitions was a smart and funny idea, and the feminist-centric lyrics were—even in a time of female empowerment in new rock—especially interesting. It is, of course, ironic that 1) Butler wrote the words and 2) Donohue, who delivered them so effectively, constantly struggled with confidence.

Following the band’s end, Butler dealt with depression for several years, but went on to produce the dB’s, among others, and continues to write. Donohue experienced some troubles, got back on her feet, but sadly passed away in the 1996 due to lung cancer.

The Waitresses were among the bands to normalize rock and roll music’s possibilities to include regular people doing regular things. And most of their music has endured.


  1. I have this 45, but never played the B side. Alike the A side, some very cool and quirky lyrics and a nice musical "arrangement." Thanks, Stu. WLSClark

  2. yeah, I really dig this. Thanks for weighing in.